Look What the Streaming TV Revolution Did to Your Cable Box

The Wall Street Journal

By adopting voice search, mobile apps, even a new kind of TV guide, cable companies are finding ways to compete with their internet-based adversaries

By David Pierce

April 21, 2019 9:00 a.m. ET

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I really like my cable box.

I recently upgraded from one of those fusty old boxes to Comcast ’s CMCSA -1.11% Xfinity X1 box, and the difference is insane. Rather than remember hundreds of channel numbers, I just say, “the Warriors game” into the voice-enabled remote and it jumps to the right place. With one search, I can find content across live TV, on-demand and even Netflix.

I know, I know. Talking about how great cable is in 2019 sounds like bragging about my horse-drawn buggy in the age of the Model T. The future of TV looks mostly like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and other streaming services. But what we’re discovering is, in this cable-cut, streaming-dominated world, every set of shows we want to watch comes with its own app, password and ever-increasing monthly fee. Gee, it’d be great if someone could bundle all that content together in one place! And maybe consolidate all my bills down to one, and hand me a nice box to run it all. We could call it—and I’m just spitballing here—“cable.”

We don’t need to displace cable, we need to improve it. The cable companies are working to do exactly that, updating everything from their confusing and predatory pricing to their miserably outdated boxes themselves. Thanks to newfound competition from Apple and Amazon, Roku and Android, and every streaming service you can think of—not to mention Verizon, AT&T and even T-Mobile—this could be Big Cable’s last best chance to sell you TV. It’s forcing companies to finally ditch the blue TV Guide and bring the cable experience into the modern era.

Besides, cable companies do still have one ace up their sleeve: They’re still the most popular, and often most affordable, way to get fast internet, something all those streaming services require.

For many years, using your cable box meant suffering with a slow, outdated, poorly designed system. Now, thanks in part to competition from streaming, cable operators like Comcast are redesigning and improving their setups.PHOTO: COMCAST

The Walking Dead

The longstanding way of getting television—call your cable provider, rent a box, two-year contract—is hugely popular and rapidly dying. According to Nielsen, of the 5 hours and 24 minutes the average adult spends watching video daily, a full 4 hours and 13 minutes is spent on live and recorded TV. But viewing on other devices, like phones and streaming boxes, is rising fast while standard TV watching declines. Millions of people are canceling cable and finding other ways to while away the hours.

It’s not hard to see why people would flee cable, either. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer lots of content on demand, rather than forcing you to tune in to a specific channel at a specific time. They work across all your screens, not just on your living-room TV.

But streaming has its issues. You have to manage a Rolodex of usernames and passwords, and remember to pay (or cancel) all those different bills. If you subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO and Showtime, your monthly cost is around $60, and you’d still need to pay extra for broadband internet—and most any live TV you might want to watch.

As for live TV, a growing number of cable-replacement services do add in core live channels. But although I particularly like YouTube TV’s live offering, it has raised prices, along with some of its top competitors, so it’s no longer the deal it once was.

Then there’s that ever-present dilemma of streaming TV: finding something to watch. You open Netflix and browse for a while, then close it and open HBO Now only to do the same before hitting Amazon Prime and Hulu and Tubi. Before you know it, you’ve spent your movie-watching window staring at thumbnails. I don’t care what Tim Cook says: The future of TV is not apps. It’s TV.

In Living Color

All this brings me back to my handy Xfinity X1 box, with its surprisingly fast performance and usable interface. (OK, fine, the bar for “handy cable box” is pretty low.) In addition to Comcast’s live and on-demand TV, it offers content from Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and others. When I search for “The Office,” I can see everything on live TV, on Comcast’s on-demand platform and on various streaming services from a single menu.

Forget all the typing and clicking to find a show. With voice-enabled remotes like this one for Comcast's X1 cable box, you can just say the name of the show or movie you want, and it'll find it across multiple services. PHOTO: COMCAST


What makes more sense for your family, a cable subscription or a cord-cutter’s lineup of streaming services? And do you think cable is getting better in the streaming age?Join the conversation below.

Most of the time, I search by speaking into the voice-enabled remote that Comcast and other providers now offer, which takes all the work out of flipping channels. The X1 doesn’t include all my streaming services—I particularly miss Hulu—but it’s still the biggest content library I have.

For years, the most frustrating thing about cable was that it worked only in your home, only on whatever TVs you had hooked up to special boxes. Now, most cable companies offer apps that let you access all your movies and shows on your phone, tablet or PC. You can also log into many channels’ apps with your cable credentials. “Any piece of glass that can render video was something we had to build our products for, and ultimately give customers the choice,” said Matt Strauss, Comcast’s executive vice president for Xfinity.

But this part is still not good enough: Thanks to longstanding rights deals, some shows aren’t available when you’re not at home, and I can’t believe how many sports games are blacked out on my phone. Also, as someone paying a ton of money for cable, it’s shocking how many ads I have to sit through when watching TV on these apps.

For cable subscribers, the good news is that you can finally get a huge selection of content and watch it anywhere, using much nicer products than anything cable companies offered before. The operators are even working on solving cable’s single worst feature: billing. “[Users] want to understand the price, and they don’t want to be surprised by fees,” said Mr. Strauss. His company hasn’t, however, changed anything yet.

It's finally easy to access your cable content through apps on your phone, tablet and PC. But you'll still have to watch a lot of ads, and not everything is available everywhere. PHOTO: DAVID PIERCE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


In general, we’re getting the better bundle we always wanted. But it might still be too late for Big Cable. “The cable bundle is re-forming, not via cable, but from Amazon and Apple,” said Matthew Ball, an industry analyst and venture capitalist. Apple, Amazon, Roku and others are rapidly getting into the channel-bundling business, offering many of the same search and discovery features plus the same one-bill simplicity.

Apple and Amazon are not offering us home broadband service, though. Don’t be surprised to see cheaper, simpler TV bundles from cable providers purely as an incentive to keep you paying for that high-speed internet—plus all the other lucrative services they now offer, such as security and smart-home systems.

But also don’t be surprised when, in just a few years, your wireless carrier or favorite tech company tries to sell you some great bundles of its own. No strings—or at least cables—attached.