What eight months without cable TV has taught me

Cable TV seems like a necessity for many, but life got better once this writer cut the cord.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
March 20, 2012 – Netfilx headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif. As people cut cable, more are switching to Netflix.

Back in late March, I kissed my cable TV subscription good bye, and I have never once regretted it. 

There's plenty to read out there about how to cut the cord, or how much you can save when you do, but not a lot that talks about what happens after that. While there isn't much in here that's practical, and I can only speak to my own experience, I felt it was important to follow up my post from March with an update on how this grand experiment is going.

Life is a lot more peaceful.

One of the things I couldn't take with me when I cut the cord was the nightly national news broadcast, and at the time that upset me. I could easily still tune in to the 10pm local broadcast over the air, but frankly, meh.

Eight months after giving up cable, I'm living without the "breaking news" hype, without the urgent tone, without so many soundbites delivered by angry voices. Without the commercial breaks that barrage me with the ickiness of negative political ads, pharmaceuticals that claim to be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, and on and on and on. Even the news' theme music is carefully crafted to create dramatic tension.

And so much of that news is inane. So inane. You won't even remember it tomorrow, but you internalize that tension anyway, and it lingers. It's an edginess I never even realized was there until it suddenly wasn't.

I thought that maybe this was just in my head until I found an essay by Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly. In it, Dobelli asserts that watching the news really is actually bad for you, neuropsychologically speaking.

"It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation," he writes.

Dobelli never backs up this claim in his essay, and it probably goes a bit far in its assertion that allnews is bad, but a little more digging on the topic uncovered an enlightening article about the science behind "fight or flight" by Dr. Michael Murrell, Psy.D.

"The limbic system is so very sensitive that it only requires an image of something threatening to get a 'fight or flight' response," Dr. Murrell explains. "For example, if you are watching a movie and there is violence you may notice that your limbic system has misinterpreted the images on the screen to be categorized as a threat. When you are deeply involved in a movie, novel, television, video game, radio program, or even a conversation your limbic system is busy examining the content of the thoughts and images presented for any indication of threat."

These days, I check the headlines online and read whatever catches my eye. I'm definitely still keeping up with what's happening in the world, and my Facebook friends can confirm that I have strong, informed opinions about current events (perhaps a little too often, even). I'm consuming that news on my own terms, much less influenced by the story's packaging and the product marketing that bookends it.

But the news is still there if I need it.

While the terrorist attack in Paris was unfolding in November, I wanted to stream a live news source. CNN wasn't an option without cable, but I found CBSN on Roku. I ultimately ended up streaming France 24 on my laptop, blessedly free of American political punditry. It was the first time that I had wanted live access to breaking news since canceling my cable in March, and while it wouldn't ever work as a replacement for a daily news broadcast, it was nice to know options are out there when something important is happening.

I'm exposed to a lot less advertising.

The only place I see commercials is on Hulu Plus, and then it's rare that there are more than two or three shown during a commercial break. Best of all, I haven't seen any political ads on Hulu. I don't know how long that will last as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, but my fingers are crossed.

If I wanted to completely cut all TV commercials, Hulu Plus now offers a commercial-free option for an additional $4/month. I'm considering it. Especially if the political ads find their way over to the streaming platforms.

So what effect has this had on me? I'm less frustrated by endless commercial breaks. I'm not constantly bombarded with toxic ad messaging.

While I didn't expect it to happen, my spending is a lot less impulsive now, too. I'm happier with what I have, and maybe removing that influence played a role in making me more frugal.

There's plenty of literature to back this one up, too. Marketers and ad agencies are consumer psychology experts, and every ad you encounter is a data-driven, carefully calibrated attempt to convince you to buy something. U.S. News and World Report recently rounded up seven of the most common advertising tactics, including emotional manipulation, appealing to your desire to make people jealous, leveraging your fear of missing out, of being labeled uncool, implying you'll be instantly sexier, and the list goes on and on.

If a friend in your life acted like that, you might call them a sociopath and show them the door, but we absorb all of that messaging all day every day from the media we consume. Cut those master manipulators from your life and it makes sense that you then might be less likely to spend money on things you don't need.

My TV is never used for background noise anymore.

With streaming media, it's a lot harder to turn the TV on just to have some noise in the house. Every movie or TV show I watch is a deliberate choice. If I need something in the background, I usually put on some music. I've really been digging on my Mom's old vinyl collection this year. I'm also a big fan of custom Pandora channels.

Is it possible to use streaming TV for background noise? Sure. Just pick a series and let it autoplay. (I admit doing this with Firefly occasionally.) Or let Hulu do its thing where it cycles through a bunch of related programming. Or turn on CBSN. Or if it's summer and you have MLB.tv, pick any random baseball game that happens to be on. Whatever you settle on, you'll probably have to think about it more than when you we're just flipping over to HGTV again.

But dancing around the house to some tunes while I'm cleaning is so much more fun.

I read a lot more books.

With the way things are set up now, I usually run through my Hulu queue by 9pm. Lately, this is the point where I shut everything down, make myself a pot of tea, and wind down with a book. Some experts recommend turning off all screens for at least an hour before bedtime, but I make an exception for ebooks from the public library. Seriously, whoever figured out how to make that happen deserves a Nobel Prize.

I honestly love this ritual. I love my little Bee House teapot. I love curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. It's quiet, cozy, and I'm reading some really great stuff that I've put off for years because I "couldn't find the time."

I watch my favorite shows from wherever I happen to be.

If I'm traveling, because my services are all online and I always have my laptop and/or iPad with me, I don't have to wait until I get home and a DVR full of everything I missed when I was away.

Over Thanksgiving, once my family had turned in for the night, I loaded up the latest episode of Doctor Who on my laptop. I logged in to MLB.tv to watch Cardinals baseball on an oceanfront patio during a trip to the Virgin Islands. While in Paris, upon learning that my travel buddy had never seen Amélie, we pulled it up on Netflix for a night in watching a movie that takes place in Montmartre while staying in Montmartre. (It was very meta.)

Lack of access to cable-locked content is sometimes frustrating.

For those who are keeping up with presidential debates, unless you're a cable subscriber, you are plain out of luck. When a debate is broadcast only on a cable channel, with no simultaneous live stream online, those without cable are at least partially shut out of the political discourse.

Or, when the Cubs play the Cardinals, triggering an MLB.tv territory blackout for the city of Chicago, but the game is only being aired locally on cable. Hell hath no fury like a baseball fan who must trick MLB's servers into thinking she's in the UK so she can watch a game that's being played 2 miles from her apartment. (And they wonder why MLB viewership is down every year.)

I really am happier without it.

Traveling in a country where I don't speak the language, there's an incredible sense of quiet, even in the noisiest of places. Advertising has no effect on me since I can't read it. I'm not drifting in and out of overheard conversations. Stepping off the plane in a foreign country, all of the media that bombards us every day, that we don't even realize that we are tuned into and absorbing - all of that is stripped away, and we're left only with ourselves, totally inside the moment.

Maybe for some people it would be unbearable, but for me, that sort of total quiet is my very favorite thing about traveling solo, a sensation that I actively chase after.  It's my happy place.

I'm describing it here, in a post about quitting cable TV, because doing so has allowed me to carve out similar quiet spaces in my life at home. It's amazing how much time and energy is sucked away by TV, even when we're not really watching it. Exercising the kind of control over my media consumption that I've described above, my life isn't just less angsty, it's also easier to disconnect from the outside world entirely when I need it.

But quiet doesn't mean empty, and it doesn't mean not noisy in this context, either. Others might call this boredom, but I'm honestly never bored. Maybe I fill that space with a leisurely bike ride along the lakefront. Baking a treat while listening to a crackly old Edith Piaf record. Learning a guitar chord. Plotting a roadtrip to Montreal. Practicing my Portuguese on Duolingo. There's always something interesting to do that's 100x better when TV isn't there as a distraction.

The moral of the story?

I like that I'm saving money every month, the transition has been smooth, and I'm even finding that I'm happier without it, less stressed out, and I'm reconnecting with things in my life that I love.

It's not going to be right for everyone, of course. Many people won't have access to internet fast enough for streaming video. Others will be unwilling to give up their NFL Sunday Ticket. And many won't find what I have in the experience.

What I can say, definitively, is that there is life after cable, and it can be wonderful.

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

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