Following a national trend, Alaskans are cutting the cord and dropping cable TV

About five years ago, Amy Beckett decided she no longer needed cable. Online video streaming services from Netflix, Hulu and others provided more than enough entertainment and were less expensive. And unlike cable, they were available on-demand through her laptop, phone and tablet.

Beckett, a cashier at electronics store Frigid North Co. in Spenard, is not alone. Thousands of Alaskans are canceling cable, scaling back or not signing up in the first place. The nationwide trend has spawned telecom-industry jargon for each consumer type: "cord cutters," "cord shavers" and "cord nevers."

For consumers like Beckett, the reckoning is simple: online offerings are as good as or better than cable and an internet connection tends to be a must-have, while cable is a nice-to-have. Some of Beckett's favorite shows are online, including the Marvel superhero series on Netflix, "The Mindy Project" on Hulu and "Transparent" on Amazon.

"It's like a whole other realm of entertainment," Beckett said.

A Pew Research Center report found that 15 percent of American adults are cord cutters who once had cable or satellite connections, but no longer do. Another 9 percent never had them in the first place. Of those without cable or satellite, 64 percent say their choice is based on alternative access to content through over-the-air antenna or online services.

Alaska telecom company GCI, which offers both cable and internet subscriptions, is on the front lines of the shift. To adapt, GCI is beefing up product offerings for online streaming, including Apple TV and Sling TV, although customers do not have to go through GCI to access either service. It's also been aggressively marketing packages with faster internet speeds.

In the last decade, GCI's cable subscribers peaked at 132,500 in 2008, but have declined each year since to 114,000 by 2015 — a drop of about 14 percent — according to the company's annual reports. Still, GCI's position as a data provider puts it in a good position to defend its bottom line, as long as customers don't defect to rival ACS, AT&T Streaming or direct-broadcast satellite services such as DirecTV or Dish.


"We used to have departments that focused on TV or internet, but now it's a converged group because what you just want to do is watch your favorite show," said Kate Slyker, GCI's vice president of consumer marketing. "We focus on delivering the content in the place you are and on your time frame."

Cable revenues have not tracked consistently downward because, the company says, customers sometimes select more expensive packages one year, but may cut back the next.

And programming costs cause rates to fluctuate as well. In late 2015 GCI announced it would drop AMC Networks, home of hit zombie-apocalypse series "The Walking Dead," following a 200 percent price hike. The company also dropped Spanish-language broadcaster Univision and a few other channels.

"GCI negotiates with programmers so we can get the best TV content at the lowest price for our customers," said GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside. "Unfortunately, programmers have been charging more and more for their content over the past few years."

The savings from cutting cable can amount to hundreds of dollars a year, or not much at all depending on what streaming services a consumer decides to purchase. And the vast array of streaming services can be both revelatory and daunting, bringing to mind psychologist Barry Schwartz whose tyranny of choice theory posits that while having choices is good, an overabundance of options actually harms a person's well-being.

Beckett was content with her streaming choices, having settled into the Goldilocksian state of "just right," but experienced Schwartz's paradox when cable eventually re-entered her life.

"My sister and her boyfriend moved in and brought cable with them and having that is media overload," she said.

She appreciates having easy (and free) access to the Olympics and HBO's "Game of Thrones," but would not pay for cable herself should her sister leave.

"There are limits," she said. "Like, money."

Slyker said many customers, like Beckett's household, are in hybrid mode, with subscriptions to both cable and streaming services. Live sports and news are two major reasons people feel like they need to keep cable, although even those cable staples are increasingly available online.

The flight from cable has spurred GCI to offer unlimited broadband options, but customers may be fleeing the fold. Microcom, the largest retailer of DirecTV and Dish Network in Alaska, is seeing some growth in the state, said marketing manager Ashley Wiglesworth. She said the company could not share specific numbers.

In a hallway off the main showroom in Microcom's Anchorage store was a large whiteboard with a colorful hand-drawn chart titled "Reasons why customers 'cut the cord.'" The top response: "cable too expensive."

GCI's Slyker said the company does not have solid demographic information to share. She noted that generalizing about demographics, like assuming only millennials are cable "nevers," can be misleading.

Ken Bartz, owner of Ken's Electronic Service, underscores her point. He's never had cable, but he's no millennial.

Bartz, who has been repairing televisions in Anchorage since 1980, watches mid-century shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" on the broadcast station MeTV using a hi-def antenna.

"I've never had cable at the store because we don't get GCI service in the commercial area on this side of International Airport Road," he said. "I have a Netflix account for my daughter in California, but I don't watch anything online."

Jeannette Lee Falsey

Jeannette Lee Falsey is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. She left the ADN in 2017.