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Jennifer Van Grove: Why this die-hard sports fan didn't cut the cord and is sticking with cable — for now

Jennifer Van Grove, San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

A lifelong San Diegan, Randy Ward was raised to be a Padres fan. Over the years, the 55-year-old plant operations director for an area retirement community, developed an appreciation of all sports.

Like clockwork, Randy returns home from work around 6 p.m. on weeknights and turns on his TV to catch up on the day's news. Then, he's on to some softball game, golf tournament or baseball matchup. Weekends allow for all-day sports viewing, even if just passively while working on other tasks like the day's crossword puzzle.

Pleased with his routine, Randy was as unlikely a cord-cutter as they come. But, because I knew he'd be a challenge, I went ahead and selected him to participate as one of three guinea pigs in my ongoing digital life series on cutting the cord. As expected, he proved the hardest of the bunch to switch over from his cable provider. In fact, he has yet to cut cable ties with Cox -- even though he is now far more educated on the cord-cutting subject matter and in a much better position to ditch traditional pay TV when ready.

"I'm going to do it," Randy told me. "Because it's ridiculous not to."

For now, though, we're going to settle for progress on the cost-savings front.

Today, Randy's monthly Cox bill for phone, cable and internet service is $181, compared with around $225 when we first started this process. It's not a victory as far as I'm concerned. But if Randy is happy, I'm happy, too.

RANDY'S DEMANDS

When I first met Randy via email, he told me that he was a year-round sports enthusiast who enjoyed it all: baseball, football, golf, soccer and hockey. Both college and professional varieties. Beyond wanting to enjoy live matches, he told me he required access to both live local and national news. Otherwise, Randy was flexible, willing to take or leave TV Land, depending on the kind of deal he could get.

The primary goal wasn't necessarily to ditch Cox -- but to save money, making Randy part of a broader national trend among TV viewers now exploring their options.

"Originally, a cord-cutter was someone who ... wasn't getting a lot of value out of having a ton of channels," said Paul Verna, a principal analyst at eMarketer who researches video services. "Now, a cord-cutter is someone who is still interested in watching a lot of TV."

This year, there will be more than 22 million cord-cutters in the U.S., according to the latest data from eMarketer. By 2021, that number is expected to balloon to over 40 million people.

Randy's bundle payment of $225 a month netted an abundance of channels, but he didn't like that the bill seemed to creep up on a monthly basis and he wanted to see if he could cut costs with something new. Part of the problem, Randy readily admitted, was that he would avoid calling his provider to lower his rates.

"I still have a home phone, but 'why?'" he said, semi-rhetorically. The reason? "I'm lazy. It's always been in the bundle."

TRIAL AND ERROR

"I am willing to try just about anything," Randy told me.

And try he did.

I knew that Randy's best bet would a streaming cable alternative from what's called a virtual multichannel video programming distributor (or vMVPD). These are considered skinny bundles, offering live and on-demand access over the internet to a pared-down selection of channels. There are now six solid options: Sling TV from Dish, PlayStation Vue from Sony, DirecTV Now from AT&T, Hulu with Live TV from Hulu, YouTube TV from Google and FuboTV from an independent startup.

"Whenever I look across the channel lineup and pricing (of the streaming skinny bundles), I come to the conclusion that how good or bad they are depends almost entirely on what you want as a consumer," Verna said. "It's hard to compare them on an absolute basis, and is relative to what you may want, what your budget might be and the devices in the home."

Given Randy's tastes, availability of sports programming was going to be the deal-maker or -breaker. Thankfully, each of the available vMVPD services has a solid, albeit not comprehensive, sports lineup. It wasn't always this way.

"Up until fairly recently it seemed as if cable operators and sports networks were clinging to their codependent relationship, with sports being the last bastion of linear and appointment viewing," Verna said. "In the last year, as CBS Sports and NBC and Fox, have licensed their programming to these different services, suddenly it's a different ball game."

So our guinea pig, who watches TV from a 65-inch Samsung smart TV in his living room, tested out Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, FuboTV and YouTube TV, taking advantage of free trial periods.

PlayStation Vue was just OK, Randy said. Fubo was fine, save for some streaming hiccups. Sling TV was impressive. But YouTube TV, which only arrived in San Diego in late August, checked most of Randy's boxes.

IN LIKE (BUT NOT IN LOVE) WITH YOUTUBE TV

Costing $35 a month, YouTube TV comes with streaming access to around 50 channels, including all four broadcast networks and regional sports networks like Fox Sports San Diego.

The skinny bundle's lineup is particularly stacked with sports options, including the Big Ten Network, CBS Sports Network, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, Golf Channel, NBC Sports, SEC Network and the Tennis Channel. If you're like Randy, and you like to hop from station to station, and tune into just about anything in the sports realm, there's a lot to like here.

The only glaring omission is TBS. In fact, YouTube lacks all Turner stations. TBS is primarily a seasonal need for the sports fan, but with playoff baseball and college hoops, it's a must-have for some. The workaround, at least for baseball, is an MLB.tv subscription for out-of-market games, which isn't cheap at $25 per month.

There is at least one other wrinkle: YouTube TV, unlike its peers, is not a TV app. By design, it's a mobile app for iPhone and Android, and shows get "cast" from the app to your TV by way of Google's Chromecast streaming stick or through Airplay on Apple TV.

Your phone, then, is your remote and your TV guide.

You're either going to like it or leave it. And Randy really, really liked this feature, describing it as "pretty darn cool."

"Once I figured out how to use it, I really enjoyed being able to audit other channels (on my phone), while I was watching the channel on my big screen," he said. "On Saturdays, when there's 18 college football games on at once ... you can actually monitor two or three at a time because you have them on your remote, just a push of a button away, while you're watching the game you're watching on your TV."

It's the ideal setup for someone who wants to bounce around between games and avoid commercials, Randy said.

The only hiccup -- and it turned out to be a big one -- was picture quality. We're not talking about buffering issues, but rather missed details at a pixel level. While YouTube TV is streamed in HD, Randy still noticed a not-quite pristine picture compared to what he's used to. And it was enough of an issue to make him hit pause on his cord-cutting plans.

"That's the big hang up," he told me. "Here's the thing, you said it very nicely in your column the other day, (people) have to make choices. What's more important to you, having a great picture or saving all that money? That's a balancing act, and I get it."

The good news is that the picture quality in streaming environments -- which depends on a number of factors including whether or not your neighbors are contributing to network overload -- is improving quickly.

"Netflix is the gold standard," Verna said. "In general ... these skinny bundles have very good quality ratings ... and it's going to get better and better."

BEWARE OF SALES TACTICS

Decidedly undecided about cutting the cord, Randy went to a Cox store earlier in the week to negotiate better rates, upgrade his internet speed -- he was bumped up from 50 Mpbs to 100 Mpbs -- and get the company's latest-and-greatest Contour cable box.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Randy's experience, it's this: When it comes to dealing with your cable provider, if you don't ask for something, you won't get it.

Otherwise -- and this is important -- beware of offers that sound too good to be true.

Cable and satellite TV providers are famous for upselling customers on packages they don't ask for, often with the temporary promise of saving money.

"While customers may believe that, having called a provider, they are driving the conversation, cable and satellite companies seek to ensure that their agents are in control," according to "Inside the Box," a 2016 Senate subcommittee report on the consumer practices of cable and satellite providers.

The report continues:

Employees were trained to "probe" their customers with questions to identify additional services that they could be persuaded to buy. Agents at Dish were discouraged from asking "purpose-less" questions like "How's your day going?" and instead were instructed to ask questions whose answers might suggest additional services to sell, such as whether they have children (and might therefore want children's programming). Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum) said, "Don't ask a question unless it will help you select and recommend the right package, unless it helps you save or sell."

Agents were even encouraged to listen to the surrounding sound at the customers home for a sales advantage; if they heard children they could suggest family programming and if they heard cheering they could suggest sports packages. Regardless of the reason that customers may have called, Comcast told its employees to "uncover 'hidden' needs" of their subscribers for additional services. Charter encouraged agents to ask "high value discovery questions" aimed at "aligning the customer's needs" with their more expensive packages.

Apparently, Randy had some hidden needs of his own.

Aside from the improvements he wanted, Randy was offered a Cox home automation package -- aka smart-home devices -- free of charge. Kind of.

The deal, he told me, includes free installation and a free starter kit, which comes with an HD video camera, one wireless door or window sensor and an internet-connected LED light bulb. All can be managed remotely from the company's app, offering Randy a push-button way to unlock his door, control the light and tune into a live video feed from his home.

The equipment usually comes with a $20-per-month service contract, but Randy said he was being gifted everything free of charge.

That's not exactly what happened.

"Because Mr. Ward was interested in using our new product, Cox Automation, he then became a four-product customer, eligible for discounts tailored to his needs. He was offered the home automation base kit at no cost for the equipment and no cost for the professional install," said Jennifer Andrews, a Cox spokeswoman. "To clarify, we do not have a 'free home automation' retention offer. However, based on this customer's situation and upgrades he selected, we were able to offer him a much more robust product suite for the same price he was previously paying -- 'a re-bundling of his services.'"

In other words, Randy walked into Cox paying $181.58 for three bundled services and walked out with roughly the same bill for four services. Without getting into the merits, or lack there of, of turning to a cable provider for internet-enabled home appliances, I worry that Randy has unwittingly committed himself to additional services that will see his bill creeping back up in time.

Plus, having become even more bundled than he already was, Randy may find it even more challenging to untether himself when -- really, if -- he wants to cut the cord.

About The Writer

Jennifer Van Grove covers e-commerce and digital lifestyle for The San Diego Union Tribune. Readers may send her email at jennifer.vangrove@utsandiego.com.

(c)2017 San Diego Union-Tribune

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