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No Easy Decision: Choosing Between Pay-TV Services

Many consumers in recent years have opted to cut the cord — that is, to ditch cable or satellite TV and instead rely on over-the-top (OTT) streaming services for their viewing pleasure. Price has been one factor, but changing viewing habits has been another.

As a reporter who regularly covers pay-TV services of all varieties, I actually went the opposite direction and, for some time, have had both cable and satellite: Comcast Xfinity and Dish Network, to be specific.

It allowed me to relate to the fictional Michael Scott of TV’s The Office, who explained he had satellite TV and cable as a “backup.” Asa matter of full disclosure, this was possible in my situation, as I was on the review program for Dish while I paid a monthly bill to Comcast for service that included my home office phone and Internet access along with TV.

To say that it was the “best of both worlds” wasn’t just my quoting the proverb — it was literally true in this case. I came to appreciate everything great about both services while being largely immune to either’s downsides. However, to cite another proverb, all good things come to end. My review time with Dish is ending.

After having had two services, going to one is not exactly easy.

The simplest solution would be to revert to my Xfinity for my cable viewing, but there are simply too many things I’ve come to love about Dish. The irresponsible part could have taken the lead of the aforementioned TV doofus and kept both pay-TV services, but that would mean a bill of nearly US$400 — and that’s not including Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu OTT services, which my wife and I also subscribe to at the present time.

It probably doesn’t require my full disclosure that we watch a lot of TV. It is not something we’re ashamed of or try to hide. We have our favorite shows, and paying for these services is money well spent to us — but there is still a limit to what we’re willing to and even can afford to pay.

We had to decide which to keep.

Comcast as the Cable Provider

We’ve been regular subscribers to Comcast triple play, which includes phone, Internet, and cable, since 2010. In that time, we’ve largely accepted the issues with Comcast because there weren’t many alternative services. For a brief 24-hour period, we ditched Comcast for a Midwestern alternative service, WOW (Way Out West), but we found that service to be even more lacking and decided to return to Comcast.

It was a case of the lesser of two evils.

At this point, it seems pretty apparent that there aren’t many reasons why we would stick with Comcast. The bill is high, and the service has had its share of problems. However, the Internet is generally reliable and the phone service is excellent — and even allows for free calls to Canada.

The biggest problem with Comcast before we “upgraded” to its Xfinity program was that it was difficult to stream content on the secondary box in the den. In a three-year period, we had no fewer than a dozen visits from Comcast to resolve the problem. It never was addressed fully, and in the end, we simply opted to ditch the secondary box.

Worse still was that Comcast really allowed us to record only two programs at once while watching a third on the DVR. That might sound reasonable, but check out what is on each Sunday night! For us, it was a matter of recording programs at alternative times and juggling what we watched first. For admitted TV junkies, that simply wouldn’t do –nor should it.

Xfinity Marks the Spot

Then a couple of years ago, we made the upgrade to Comcast’s Xfinity service, hoping it would improve the situation. It actually made things worse. Recording programs was no easier, and trying to find anything on demand required going through repeated layers that made watching a program a frustrating affair.

Xfinity added voice support, but talking to the remote wasn’t much of an improvement. Whether using the voice functionality or the menus, it was anything but intuitive!

Fast-forwarding and rewinding during a program were equally annoying. When trying to skip ahead — say to avoid a commercial break — we either could go at a slightly faster pace than normal viewing or sprint so far ahead we’d end up having to rewind.

In the end, we often found it was easier to watch the commercials. Perhaps that was the point, as Comcast owns NBC Universal and its various channels. Making it easy to skip those paid segments isn’t good for the bottom line now, is it?

Xfinity also never resolved the way the channels are positioned. Standard-definition and high-definition channels are badly intermixed, while local channels and basic and premium cable channels seem randomly placed as well. Even after years of having the service, it was necessary to look up channels or programs. That isn’t ideal for channel surfing, to say the least.

Dishing on Dish

The case for Dish is much easier to make. The channels are nicely grouped. Local TV channels are placed on the same”number” as their over-the-air counterpart. Hence Fox2 is on channel 2, and NBC is on channel 4, just as it should be! The major basic channels — AMC, FX, and History, etc. — are grouped together, while the same goes for the premium paid channels.

Better still, an on-demand channel is positioned with the respective premium offerings — such as Showtime and Starz — and for some basic channels, like the aforementioned FX and History. Click on these, and you can quickly pull up their on-demand content! Now that is intuitive.

Fast-forwarding is much easier with Dish as well. Three of the major networks, including ABC, Fox, and NBC, also offer auto-hop functionality, so you don’t even need to skip the commercials –the DVR does it for you! My wife and I also fell in love with the prime time anytime feature with Dish. This automatically recorded the prime-time content on those three networks along with CBS. Sure, it would be great if CW and PBS were included, but we’re happy enough to know that the majority of the network shows record automatically.

That helped reduce the number of programs we had to remember to record each week. The only downside was that at certain times a local affiliate would preempt the network, but those occasions are far and few between, so it was worth the tradeoff. For power viewers, Dish certainly has its advantages.

Remote Viewing

Another standout feature with Dish was the ability to stream content while we traveled — and on a trip to Vienna, we actually were able to watch the programs recorded in our living rooms! It was literally the best of both worlds for a vacation — and yes, I’ll admit I’m one of those people who worry about missing my shows while I travel, even on vacation. A vacation, in my mind, should be getting away from work and stress, not the things in life I enjoy.

So thanks to the Sling technology with Dish, we could take in the culture of Europe and watch our shows before going to sleep.

Now, in fairness, Xfinity has started to offer similar features for remote viewing, and while we haven’t tested it in Europe, we have used it in the United States. In a head-to-head comparison, Dish performed better in most situations. There were a few times that Xfinity seemed to have an edge, but there are numerous factors to consider — most notably the quality of the WiFi signal in our hotels.

However, in most cases, Dish edged out Xfinity when it came to streaming our content.

Broken Dish

Now Dish isn’t perfect, and honestly, no TV service is. Dish is a satellite-based service, and we live in Michigan and get some bad snowstorms as well as bad rain squalls in the spring and summer. Satellite service has largely overcome weather issues — but there is only so much that can be done. Snow can accumulate on the dish, and that requires going out to clear it.

Fortunately, the literal dish isn’t on the roof but is on a beam in the garden in the backyard. That means I don’t have to risk life or limb to see my programs. (It would be worth the risk, btw, but it isn’t a pleasant way to start a cold morning with an ice storm!)

Another problem with Dish is that it doesn’t offer Internet or phone. The cost for the level of plan that we’d consider for our viewing habits is on par with what Comcast offers for a triple play. By picking Dish, we can expect to add $40 to $80 a month for phone and Internet. As we work from home, having both phone and fast Internet is simply a requirement.

The biggest issue with Dish, however, is its feud with HBO, which has been ongoing since the beginning of November and shows no sign of being resolved. We understand why Dish’s leadership is holding its ground, and we stand with them — but Game of Thrones is on, and that’s a huge favorite of ours!

The solution with Dish would be to get HBO Go and MAX Go, but that will only add to our bottom line, and it means those are now streaming services, not really cable channels. This means the cost of keepingDish could increase our bill for pay-TV by nearly $100. That’s not an insignificant amount of money. For a couple of freelance writers, it adds up.

And We Chose

In the end, it will be hard to stomach that extra $100. It is money that could be spent to go out to dinner, to splurge on something else or just to save for a rainy day.

However, dealing with Comcast Xfinity and its frustrations really isn’t worth the money we’d save. We could live with Comcast if it were the only option in town. Maybe we’d be happy with it… if we hadn’t experienced Dish. The simple truth is we have, and we love Dish.

So if this means I need to write another story or two each month to work a little harder, then it is a fair tradeoff. Dish has become something we truly enjoy. In fairness, it would be easier for me to ditch Netflix or Hulu instead. With those services, we have to binge shows –and truth be told, sometimes weeks go by without our engaging with either.

As someone who grew up with cable — I even know the day of the year when I was a child, and we first became connected — I’ve come to appreciate what it offers. While I’m cutting the literal cable from Comcast, I’ll be keeping the cable that delivers Dish from the satellite dish.

I’ll have to sign up for HBO Go as well, at least until Dish and HBO resolve their differences, which I do hope happens soon. However,I think we should all expect more fighting between content providers and pay-TV services… but that’s another issue.

Now the next decision is whether I bother keeping Comcast’s phone and Internet or opt to try out another service. In the end, I know this isn’t the best decision to make, but it is really the only one I can make.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.Email Peter.

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