Pulling the TV cord, yet staying plugged in


Jazz musician Bill Cunliffe loves television -- but he doesn’t watch it on a TV set.

“I can watch anything I want, any time I want,” he said, “on my bottom-of-the-line Mac PowerBook.”

Cunliffe, 53, is one of a growing number of TV viewers who get all their programs via the Internet.

For reasons that include saving money, convenience, personal choice and a hatred of commercials, these viewers are cutting the cord from cable, satellite and telephone suppliers of TV service, and even throwing away the rabbit ears and other antennas that brought in over-the-air broadcasts.


“The idea that you come home and your entertainment choices are dictated on what some entertainment channel decides is not for me,” said video game producer Chris Codding, whose Venice apartment has a 52-inch Sony television that’s used only for video games and viewing DVDs.

“I really like the concept of having something in your mind that you want to watch,” Codding said, “and then going to the computer and watching it.”

There have been no mainstream studies on just how many people have cut the cord to established TV program suppliers, and the percentage of viewers who have done it is probably small. But there’s plenty of evidence that the number of people who are watching TV shows online is growing.

According to a survey released last month by the nonprofit Conference Board, nearly 1 in 4 households in the U.S. have watched television online. Meanwhile, about 20% of responders said they were watching less TV delivered through traditional broadcast or paid cable-type providers.

A study by Frank N. Magid Associates in April found that among people who have watched video online, 25% viewed a full-length TV show in that manner. That’s up from 15% in 2007.

As for cutting out traditional means of watching TV altogether, a recent survey by the Consumer Electronics Assn. found that 15% of viewers would consider it.


This could put TV on course for a fundamental change similar to that of another industry altered by the Internet -- recorded music.

“The one reason the iPod was so successful was that it was much more than a playback device,” said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Assn., a trade group. “When Apple added iTunes as a music procurement and discovery service, then it really took off.

“Finally, this kind of sensibility is coming to the king category of consumer electronics -- television.”

Viewers who watch on their computers (or a computer hooked to TVs) have vastly more choices. According to the Fancast website, which provides links to online video, there are more than 1,000 former and current TV series with full episodes on the Web.

Common among many who have cut the cord is a sense of rebellion, not against TV but against service providers. They believe their way of watching represents the future of TV -- online and on demand.

“The No. 1 factor of why people watch online is convenience,” said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board consumer research center.


The cable industry knows it could be in for a fight.

“Clearly this is a growing trend,” said Alex Dudley, spokesman for Time Warner Cable, which has 14.6 million subscribers nationwide.

The company, like several other providers, is countering with its own on-demand services. It offers subscribers repeats of TV shows that can be accessed by pressing a few buttons on the remote.

Time Warner is also participating in a test of the TV Anywhere service that would enable subscribers to watch their channels on computers or mobile devices via the Internet.

But online TV has something going for it that cable can’t match. For the most part, it’s free, at least for now.

“We were paying about $100 for month for cable,” said Jaxon Lee, a mobile phone sales manager who lives in Atlanta. “For that we got like a billion channels. But when we were making a move, I asked my wife, ‘How many of these shows are we actually watching?’ ”

Lee, 36, who is technically savvy, cut the cord by hooking up a media-center computer to the LCD television. They now watch most of the shows they like via Hulu, the free Web service that opened to the public last year. Its owners include heavy hitters in the industry -- NBC Universal, News Corp. (which owns the Fox television channels) and Walt Disney Co. (ABC) -- giving it access to some of the most popular current shows.


The advertising-supported site also carries a backlog of shows that include nearly forgotten vintage favorites.

“I’ve been watching ‘Time Tunnel,’ ” said Cunliffe, who teaches music at Cal State Fullerton. He doesn’t watch the science fiction series, which debuted in 1966, for its corny adventures or campy set design. He tunes in, primarily, because it uses music by John Williams (listed in the show’s credits as Johnny Williams), who went on to score “Star Wars” and numerous other hit movies.

The popularity of Hulu could be severely tested if the service begins charging fees to watch. Some Hulu executives have said that could happen as early as next year.

USC freshman Karan Lyons, 17, who is majoring in theater, said that most of the students who have TVs in his dorm use them only to play video games via Xbox and other consoles.

He doesn’t have a TV, but watches a lot online.

“I watch more than I should,” Lyons said, naming “Glee,” “House” and “The Daily Show” as favorites available on Hulu.

“But I think it’s better than when I watch actual TV. When I do that, and a show ends, it’s so easy to sit there and keep watching the next show that comes on.”


Shows are also available, unauthorized, on underground sites that are the bane of the TV (as well as movie) industry.

“You can download just about anything you want right after it’s broadcast,” said one user of these sites who asked that his name not be used.

“My wife asks for a show, and I can just go on and get it for her.”

Cunliffe, who said he sticks to authorized sites, began watching online when TV went entirely digital in June. Up until then, he used rabbit ears to bring in broadcast stations.

After the switch-over, he could no longer receive some of his favorite stations, even with a digital converter box.

He was ready to give up on TV until he discovered how easy it was to get programs online.

Now he’s ready to move up from his laptop screen.

“I’m going to go out and buy the cheapest flat-screen monitor I can find and plug it in,” he said.

“I’m watching more TV than ever.”