Watching Mad Men à-la-carte

Season 5 Poster for Mad Men

Like millions of people in North America, I’m looking forward to season five of Mad Men next week. But since I don’t have cable, I won’t be watching it live alone with everyone else on Sunday night.

Instead I’ll wait a couple of days for it to be available on iTunes, and buy the episodes I want. If I find myself falling behind, I may even wait until the fifth season appears on Netflix, which is where I watched the previous four seasons.

Watching it this way, I do miss out on the water-cooler talk around the office Monday morning. I risk hearing about plot developments and spoilers to shows I haven’t caught up with (thanks for ruining the end of The Walking Dead for me internet!). But as someone who has made a deliberate choice to make deliberate choices about what I watch on TV, it’s an adjustment I’m willing to make.

Watching Mad Men this way is also a lot easier on my wallet. In fact, I’ve calculated watching Mad-Men this way can be up to 1/11th the cost of watching it through cable.

To understand why, you have to understand a few basic things about how I watch TV:

  1. I see watching TV via cable or satellite TV as the equivalent to eating all of your meals at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The choice and selection can at times be overwhelming, and it is too easy to overindulge, sit back on the couch to see “what’s on,” and lose track of time watching empty programming. I prefer to pick and choose my programming as part of a weekly media diet.
  2. I’m not anti-TV. I love TV. I work in TV. I have just found a way that work for me to get free, legal access to plenty of programs I enjoy through an over-the-air digital antenna setup. Each week, I’m able to record and watch my local newscasts, Dragon’s Den, The Simpsons, Modern Family, 30 Rock, Community, Saturday Night Live and dozens of other programs in full HDTV quality simply by plugging an antenna into my TV and DVR.
  3. I turn to iTunes to get shows that air on what are traditionally known as specialty channels. Cable and satellite providers bundle them together, so I’d normally be forced to buy dozens of channels I may not watch, in order to get the few TV shows I want (like South Park, Doctor Who, Sherlock or The Walking Dead).
  4. I know I can find the episodes I want to watch via bit-torrent, or in a newsgroup, but I’m only interested in legal options. I make a living by producing intellectual content, and I respect the rights of others to make a living doing the same. I simply choose distribution models that make more sense to my lifestyle.
  5. I don’t watch live sports on TV, so I have no need to subscribe to TSN or Sportsnet.

A couple of years ago I realized I no longer saw the value in subscribing to a full cable or satellite package each month. However, I did look into what it would cost to reconnect in order to watch Mad Men. In Toronto, to get American Movie Classics (AMC),I’d have to order a digital cable package from Rogers cable. AMC is on a its VIP pricing tier. With a PVR rental and sales tax, it would cost me $110.02 a month. Bell offers AMC on a cheaper tier: if I went with satellite or Fibe service, I’d be looking at $89.06 a month, including a PVR. It may be possible to get cheaper prices through bundling, or selecting different services, but I went with the cheapest option I could find online to get AMC.

Much of what I’d be paying for though, would be a waste. The cable or satellite package would duplicate many of the HDTV broadcast channels I’m already getting for free with my antenna and OTA compatible PVR. Even though I’d have access to hundreds of channels, I’d really only need the service to watch the specialty channel programs I was interested in. If there are four episodes of Mad Men a month, and I watch one episode every Sunday night, then each episode costs me $27.50 on Rogers, or $22.26 on Bell.

Contrast that to the $2.49 I pay on iTunes ($3.49 if I want the HD version). Even if I factor in the weekly cost of my internet connection (making the ridiculous assumption that the only thing I use it for is to download one TV episode), it would work out to $12.66 an episode.

Of course, those Rogers and Bell numbers would get more competitive if I watched more than just Mad Men. If I could find the time to watch 11 specialty channel programs each week, their per-episode cost would be less than that of an iTunes download. But I just don’t watch that much TV.

The other advantage to paying for TV on a per-episode basis is that it forces you to put a financial weight on its entertainment value. If I had cable, and I was flicking through the channels, I might be tempted to stop and watch an episode of Ice Truckers. Would I be willing to spend the equivalent of a Starbuck’s latte to download it? Not a chance. But starting Sunday, I’ll gladly pay a little each week to keep up with the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.


It turns out, buying the entire season is an even better deal. iTunes Canada is charging $1.99 an episode for the standard definition version of the series, not $2.49 as I originally thought. I just subscribed to the entire season for $22.99, which is a lot less than the cost of one episode on Rogers Cable.

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