Who doesn’t hate the cable company? Well, the people who run it. For them, it’s amazing! You get to attach a hose to people’s houses that pumps in video and pumps out money. As for the rest of us, who write fat checks to monopolies for channels we never watch, if someone put them out of business, we’d send our deepest regrets sometime between the hours of 8 and 6 on a weekday.
Payback time may be here. Sony’s PlayStation and Dish Network’s Sling TV recently started offering TV bundles over the Internet. Apple reportedly will join them with its own package this fall. Streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu offer a lifetime’s worth of new and old TV. The online-only HBO Now–$14.99 a month, no cable required–launches in April, just in time for Game of Thrones. Fittingly, weary consumers are greeting the news the way the slaves of Meereen greeted Daenerys Targaryen. May the Internet’s dragons burn away the coaxial cables that bind us!
But if there’s one thing Game of Thrones has taught us, it’s that being liberated sometimes means trading one master for another. Almost anything is better than no choices and high prices. What replaces the cable bundle, though, may be complicated choices and different high prices.
Let’s start with the term cord cutting. If you drop your cable, you’ll still need a cord, for Internet service. From whom? Often the same conglomerate or one just as interested in soaking you. Your broadband might now be cheaper than cable (anywhere from $30 a month to $90 and up, depending on speed), but it doesn’t need to stay that way. Once millions more people are streaming data-heavy video over those lines, the fees could shoot up the same way cable’s did.
Then there’s unbundling. What we’re seeing is more like rebundling–not personalized channel lineups but slimmer packages. Sony’s basic PlayStation Vue bundle, at about $50 a month, offers more than 50 channels–but sorry, sports fans, no ESPN. Sling, at $20, has about 20 channels, including ESPN, but no broadcast TV. Apple’s planned package, according to a Wall Street Journal report, does not (yet) have any NBC Universal networks, like Bravo or USA, and will be $30 to $40 for about 25 channels. (If you expect any Apple venture to be aimed at bargain hunters, I have a $17,000 gold smart watch to sell you.)
But let’s assume this is a step toward a future when you can buy channels à la carte. Don’t expect them to be as cheap as you imagine, not for the channels you want the most. Think of your cable bundle as a $20 plate of steak frites. The steak takes up half the plate, but the restaurant isn’t going to unbundle it from the frites and let you have it for $10. Just so, a theoretical stand-alone ESPN would run far more than the DIY channel, because sports contracts cost billions of dollars. Assemble your own menu–throw in Netflix, Amazon or HBO too–and soon the bill could be as high as for a cable combo platter.
And what would you be buying? A lot of today’s great TV was made possible by the current cable model, a kind of corporate socialism in which I pay for channels you watch and you pay for channels I do. That made it possible for, say, Breaking Bad to launch as a cult show on little-watched AMC before it became a massive hit in its last season. New outlets may arise, but we might lose some of the ones that put the shine on TV’s golden age.
That said, there’s potentially good news in the Great Unbundling. More competition could mean pressures on price. You could save money by cord cutting if you really cut–if you’re willing to wait months to see some shows, if you forgo some channels you currently watch. You might optimize your TV bill through a patchwork of options: a small streaming bundle, iTunes for some shows, Netflix for others, an HD antenna for broadcast TV (if you have reception), watching the big game at your neighbor’s. (It will really help if you don’t like sports.)
Then again, you may someday find yourself switching from this box to that interface, wishing that somebody would invent a way to supply a single bunch of hundreds of channels, all deliverable on the same box, for one price, on one bill. Who wouldn’t love that company?
This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.