I’ve been a cord-cutter for the entirety of my adult life. Not the kind that swaps a pricey cable subscription for an equally pricey Apple TV, a collection of streaming subscriptions, and a slick flat-screen LED. No, I’m talking the breed of perpetually broke person who balks at the thought of an extra $100-a-month expense. Though I have been an on-and-off Hulu and Netflix subscriber over the years, the most sizable investment in my entertainment diet is the $40 a year I spend on a password manager to corral the various borrowed cable logins I rotate between on any given night.
Every relevant televised event in the past decade has taken place on my laptop. Walter White’s surprise machine gun shootout, Miley Cyrus grinding on Robin Thicke, Don Draper meditating at Esalen, Robert Durst muttering “I killed them all,” Donald Trump calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman,” the Cubs winning the World Series, the cast of La La Land accidentally accepting an Oscar, Arie breaking up with Becca. The series finale of the most important television show that has ever existed. The most insane buzzer beater of all time. I viewed all of these moments on a screen the size of a dainty cheeseboard, and loved it.
It’s not like I didn’t know there was a better way to watch. I always knew there was a better way to watch. As a teen, I was so hooked into the MTV programming slate that I could tell you when Carson Daly was donning a fresh layer of nail polish. As a normal human adult, I have also attended my fair share of viewing parties for awards shows, debates, and extremely popular television programs. I have noted how thrilling it is to see HD beads of grime drip from Jon Snow’s forehead, and how pleasant it feels to position my neck in a way that does not cause long-term spinal damage. But my avoidance of cable has never been a deliberate choice as much as it’s been a symptom of basic finances.
I suspect a large fraction of the 33 million other people who are now reportedly cord-cutters can relate. I entered college with an iPod, a dumbphone, and a laptop; the Great Recession hit; I left college with an iPod, a considerably smarter phone, and a laptop. These were perfectly acceptable portals to the outside world that I brought along with me to New York, an objectively expensive city, as I pursued a career in journalism, an objectively unprofitable industry. When it came time to furnish my first-ever Brooklyn home—an unevenly-slanted railroad apartment in South Slope— my roommate and I acquired a bulky Craigslist television and a Netflix DVD subscription. When we weren’t pulling our hair out over deadlines, we used it to watch artsy movies and Mad Men DVDs. My subsequent apartments were far too cramped for a living room couch, let alone a TV. Besides, entertainment companies were in the midst of adapting to the on-demand nature of the internet. So I gave in to the luring glow of my laptop screen.
Some lifestyle choices are best explained as a product of conditioning. You get used to rinsing out and reusing Ziploc bags as a penniless college student and, boom, nine years later, you have an epiphany as you’re hunched over the sink, turning your bags inside out to dry, that maybe you can just ... buy new ones. That’s why I never acquiesced to the aggressive Time Warner telemarketers. At first, cable was preventatively expensive. Eventually, cord-cutting was just the life I knew. But all of that changed this month, when I moved into a new apartment and my landlord casually informed me that it came with free internet and cable. Stunned at my good fortune, I relayed this information to my mother, who dug out a spare TV from her garage. All at once, I had the multimedia setup l never thought I’d have: DIRECTV! [Editor’s note: Alyssa initially misspelled DIRECTV.] HBO! Starz! Lifetime! Other great channels I would soon learn about! Hours after my landlord helped hook up the apparatus, I sat there on my couch, cradling the remote control, running my thumb over a white oval button that read “GUIDE,” overwhelmed by the galaxy of content I now commanded. I thumbed around the screen with a slow concentration, as if I were an astronaut taking her first steps on Mars. “There’s a system where I can save the shows that I miss,” I told my editor the next day at work. “You just described a DVR,” she replied.
Inadvertently, I am now a proud owner of a DIRECTV box. Faced with the task of understanding the possibilities that nondescript plastic rectangle held, I burrowed deeper into my couch groove and told myself it was time to learn. I had accidentally graduated to a new level of pop culture consumption. This was my opportunity to explore the shows I had heard so much about over the years, but had never had the time or streaming tools to watch. Here’s what I learned:
Diving into the vast, new pool of content at my fingertips, it became clear just how profoundly a decade of on-demand online entertainment had shaped my viewing habits. A lifelong cord-cutter is always taking silent notes about the latest releases, determining whether they are both (a) easily accessible, and (b) entertaining enough to be bingeable. (Try as it might, no streaming platform’s algorithm can determine this in any meaningful way.) I realized that I had been subconsciously pruning a “watch list” in my mind, made up of prestige dramas, dark comedies, and the occasional documentary series. Excluding my love for the Bachelor universe and The Great British Baking Show, that list had very little to do with most cable programming. I was far more familiar with new releases available to me on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu than I was with the DIRECTV channel directory. I had zero interest in channel surfing. I also had no instinct to keep to a schedule. That Sunday night, I sat down in earnest to watch my first piece of cable television, the latest episode of Succession, as Hollywood’s forefathers had intended. But I was two hours too late. I turned off the TV, fired up the HBO Go account of a generous former coworker, and ended the evening curled up with my good old friend, the laptop.
But the more time I spent in a cable-carrying household, the more I began to understand the appeal of a system that makes programming decisions for you. One evening, as I was folding laundry, I flipped on the TV and found myself in the middle of Clueless. I love Clueless. Clueless is a formative film that launched my enduring crush on Paul Rudd and a personal obsession with fictitious smart closet software. Hell, I had even listened to The Ringer’s Rewatchables podcast episode that revisits the film. But up until that point, I had no intention of rewatching the 1995 teen classic. There were far too many recent releases on my mental “watch list”—Mindhunter, Pen15, Euphoria—to waste time on things I had already seen.
Nevertheless, convenience overrode my agenda. I sat there folding pillow cases, enraptured by the sophomores at Bronson Alcott High School, until all the clothing in my basket was organized into neat piles. I turned off the TV right as Cher and Tai were leaving that holiday party in the valley. The noncommittal nature of the encounter was deeply satisfying: a watching experience that catered to my sense of nostalgia and domestic existence. If choosing an entire series to binge over the course of a weekend was like committing to a serious relationship, what I had just experienced was a little bit more like a fling: quick and without any ultimate motive besides having fun. I had been freed from the shackles of my television to-do list.
That approach felt even better when paired with the aimless freedom of a good buzz. The following Saturday evening, my roommate and I came home from a house party and plopped down on the couch. She needed to ice her toe, which she had hurt dancing. I needed about 15 glasses of water. We retrieved two popsicles from the fridge, and turned on an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, licking our frozen goods and snickering to ourselves like Beavis and Butt-Head. Feeling drunk off of the limitless possibilities of late-night channel surfing (and also, whiskey), we then flipped over to Say Yes to the Dress. I became deeply emotionally invested in the outcome of the bride-to-be’s decision. “Her mom does not like that princess cut,” I told my roommate passionately. She concurred and offered an armchair psychoanalysis of their dysfunctional relationship. We had no sense of seasons, recurring characters, or episode order. This was television designed to exist beyond any expectations of timeline, commitment, or accountability.
That evening was what opened the cable floodgates for me. The guide button became my sherpa, and as I pressed the arrow buttons over and over again, I welcomed every new concept with an adventurer’s zeal. There was 90 Day Fiancé, a reality show about long-distance relationships that is so depraved, exploitative, and entertaining that I wondered whether it should even be on TV. (This, it later became clear to me, is TLC’s unofficial brand.) When I flipped the channel to an episode of Property Brothers, it occured to me that I had only ever experienced HGTV on mute, while on an elliptical at the gym. After watching them demolish several walls and cabinets in outdated but spacious single-family homes, I felt compelled to Google whether either brother is single. (I like to imagine that this is also what led Zooey Deschanel to Jonathan.) To be clear, I had watched my fair share of reality TV. Netflix had offered me soothing household companions like The Great British Baking Show and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. I even recall a particularly dark period when I binged the entirety of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo while stoned out of my mind. But watching these shows on a laptop sucked me in in unhealthy ways. What began as a casual way to take my mind off my day would always end, six episodes and an entire wasted day later, with me constructing a master’s thesis about mental health of cast members. Channel surfing through this type of programming felt lighter, less burdensome. I could take a quick, voyeuristic peek into an untenable relationship or a homeowner’s kitchen tiling dilemma, then move on to the next one.
Eventually I stumbled upon an episode of Naked and Afraid in which a nude survivalist stuck her hand in a hive of African bees with the hopes of scoring a meal. That then inspired me to flip to a Food Network show called The Kitchen. I started a grocery list as its gregarious hosts spoke excitedly about the “flavor bomb” ice cubes that could spice up my next cocktail hour. (Never mind that I have a hard enough time even remembering to refill my regular ice cube trays.) Whatever appetite I developed was quickly squashed when I landed on a stray episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians in which Scott Disick trims a pregnant Kourtney Kardashian’s pubic hair in a bathtub. I attempted to clear my palate with the episode of Friends where Brad Pitt guest stars, only to realize a plotline in the episode revolves around an insensitive joke about how Rachel was rumored to be a hermaphrodite in high school. It was at that point that I felt I had begun to lose my mind. Compared to the programs I handpicked for my streaming feed, cable felt whiter, more heterosexual, and obsessed with money and marriage. It occured to me that I had been spoiled by all the newly diverse casts, progressive show concepts, and high-budget production values pioneered by tech companies. Also, that a majority of paying customers still watched this other, far more retrograde version of television.
As I channel surfed, I was surprised by just how many of the shows I knew, simply because I had watched short clips of them on YouTube. My first cable TV viewing of Ellen made it clear why the internet had made certain midday programming irrelevant. Was I willing to watch a four-minute clip of Chrissy Teigen discussing her Twitter fight with the president? Depending on the time of day the link came across my Twitter feed, sure. But did I have the patience to watch Ellen Degeneres throw a mini baby shower for Chance the Rapper’s new son in the same episode, at 12:30 p.m.? Absolutely not. YouTube, it dawned on me, was SportsCenter for daytime television: All the highlights, sans Degeneres paying lip service to her celebrity guests, or Rob Kardashian advertising his new line of socks. (The internet, it turns out, is also SportsCenter for SportsCenter, a cable program I did not watch once during my experiment; any clips I need to see are already available on Twitter.)
Conversely, a decade’s worth of YouTube consumption and “trailer premieres” had also conditioned me to treat commercial breaks as content (instead of an attempt to take more of my money). During a brief flirtation with the reality series Married at First Sight, I came across a teaser for The College Admission Scandals, an original Lifetime TV movie based on a real-life FBI investigation that revealed 33 high-profile parents had bribed people to get their children into college. Later that day, a colleague of mine shared the YouTube clip of the trailer in Slack to express her excitement. This reversed discovery process made me reconsider my blurred concept of entertainment and advertising. In the content-hungry confines of social media, a commercial was an event to be celebrated, memed, critically analyzed. Amid the bountiful oasis of programming on cable, a commercial was simply filler.
It was only once I figured out how to use my DVR that I began to fully appreciate the value of a cable subscription. The second I toggled past a movie I loved, it went into my “List” for later use. The Favourite, Forrest Gump, Stepmom, A Star Is Born—I threw these all into my personal collection like an indiscriminate shopper on Supermarket Sweep. I have yet to watch any of these programs, but the act of acquiring them felt healthy, like I was investing in my future as a viewer. Netflix’s endless stream of content felt like an embarrassment of riches, so many choices that you get bored with choosing at all. Encountering a movie I liked and saving it for later kept me invested. I wasn’t surrounded by an endlessly replenished oasis of content. Rather, I was out in the Wild West of broadcast programming, lassoing the shows I saw fit.
This magical tool lent itself especially well to filling temporary dead zones in my weekly lineup. When I accidentally made dinner plans during the Democratic presidential primary debate last week, I DVRed it, then came home and fast-forwarded through the highlights. I may have been spending more time in front of the television, but as I sped through those commercials I felt powerful and efficient, like a Mario Kart character who’d just driven through a star. Most crucially, if I missed the live airing of Bachelor in Paradise on Monday night, I no longer had to wait until the following morning to catch it on Hulu. How was it that I had put up with my previous system for so long? It occured to me that my cord-cutter lifestyle had been disorganized and overwhelming, a series of makeshift pathways that required far too much contortion. Internet companies may have made major strides in the areas of original programming, but their independence from any sort of cohesive system has passed on a series of user experience headaches to their customers, who in turn must invest their own money into supplemental products like Apple TV, Roku, or Fire TV. Cable smoothed out those creases for me. Everything was a little bit simpler.
By the time Sunday night rolled around again, I had already DVRed my beloved Succession, but the act of doing so had inadvertently made me aware of its air time. And so I arranged a deeply domestic day spent exercising, furniture shopping, running errands, and buying groceries, to come to a deeply domestic conclusion. Alongside hundreds of thousands of other cable subscribers, I sat down at 6 p.m. to watch my favorite TV show. It felt good not to have to wrangle a login or fumble with an HDMI cable. It felt good to have my life together enough to stick to a schedule. It occurred to me that maybe I was getting older—that having a cable subscription was in many ways a fitting summary of adulthood: protecting your neck, paying more money to have fewer inconveniences, sticking to a schedule, and feeling unambitious enough to let the system do some of the decision-making for you.
The alluring simplicity of the cord-cutter lifestyle is built into its name. No messy wires, just you and the content you crave. But the escalation of the streaming wars between powerful tech companies has complicated that relationship, both logistically and in terms of how many original shows one civilized society can swallow. The on-demand nature of these platforms has fundamentally changed the way we watch. That might be advertised as “getting lost” in a magical, make-believe universe. But, in practice, it means spending far too many consecutive hours of your life psychoanalyzing the unhealthy mother-daughter relationship of a young Southern pageant contestant. Astoundingly, cable may still be the best way to watch television today. At least, it is if someone else is paying for it.
This piece originally misstated the high school of Cher Horowitz and Tai Frasier of Clueless. They attend Bronson Alcott High School, not Beverley Hills High School.