Bundles are killing the cord-cutting dream

This will be upsetting to learn if you, like me, spent the better part of two decades cutting cords to escape paying for a bunch of sports channels you never watch. But… the bundle is back.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Walmart is partnering with Paramount Plus to include the streaming service as part of Walmart Plus to better rival Amazon Prime. And last week, Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus got hit with price hikes, and their parent company, Disney, showed off two new bundles that felt like a helluva deal. For $14.99, you can get the ad-serving version of Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus. For $19.99, you get Disney Plus and Hulu ad-free. (The ad-serving version of ESPN Plus is also included.) That’s the same price you’d pay for the best tier of Netflix with UHD support and up to four concurrent streams, and it’s way cheaper than any of those services would be on their own.

Some of the biggest companies operating today have figured out what Comcast and Charter have known for years. Bundles are good.

Take the Disney bundle for example. If you actually use all three services, the ad-free bundle maths out to $6.66 per service (evil!). Given ESPN Plus with ads costs $9.99, Disney Plus with no ads costs $10.99, and Hulu with no ads costs $14.99, that’s an extremely good deal. You have to wonder why anyone would even want to get the services à la carte when the bundle is so cheap.

Which is the point of a bundle. They’re meant to entice you with a whole smorgasbord of choices and get you hooked so you can never leave the bundle — even as it goes up in price.

And in a world where everyone has a streaming service, a bundle also helps differentiate one service from another. $19.99 paid to Netflix gets you one service you’ve been steadily paying more for for years, and specifically, it gets you the UHD version. The Disney bundle doesn’t nickel and dime you on streaming quality; it just gives you three services for the price of one.

And those services include nearly everything Marvel and Star Wars, the majority of the stuff Disney and Fox have produced, and apparently the highlight reels sports people (and Nilay) love.

Showtime and Paramount Plus have a similar bundle. For $11.99 a month you get both (with ads) for just a dollar more than you’d pay for Showtime by itself. Warner Bros. Discovery has offered some HBO Max users Discovery Plus for $0.99 a month, and if you subscribe to Verizon’s Unlimited plan, you get Discovery Plus for free.

Just last week, reports emerged that Walmart was eyeing partnerships with Comcast, Disney, and Paramount to make its Walmart Plus subscription more appealing and better compete with Amazon. Today, there’s a report it’s inked a deal with Paramount Plus. Pay for Walmart Plus and get the streaming service, home to Halo and Star Trek, for free. That’s a reaction not to Disney or Netflix but to Amazon, which currently bundles its Prime streaming service with its expedited shipping perk. Amazon also offered bundles with streaming services including Starz and AMC Plus.

While I appreciate the bundles making some services cheaper — nice little add-ons I would have otherwise skipped — they also give me flashbacks to every negotiation I’ve ever had with an internet service provider to reduce my rates.

Cable companies are the original bundle lovers. They can force you to spend on sports packages with your cable or phone service with your internet. As with Disney and the rest, the logic is the same: offer a bundle just cheap enough that it makes more financial sense than the services à la carte. Cable companies then try to keep you locked in forever. You have to keep the phone service you never use (which probably provides your ISP with subsidies) because removing it from the internet bundle cranks up the price of your monthly bill. Or, someone in your family gets hooked on the free HBO in your current bundle — forcing you to pay for it when the bundle deal ends.

It’s not shocking that the companies meant to disrupt the cable company are just gladly aping their playbook; it’s just a big bummer. In the early days of cord cutting — when Hulu was still an upstart and hadn’t yet been purchased by the many TV networks it threatened and torrents and Usenet were the easiest and best way to get TV shows online — the dream for cord cutting was simple. People were tired of paying for all the channels bundled into their cable subscriptions. They wanted to choose the channels they wanted and save some money. And many of us were tired of paying for sports channels we never watched.

Once or twice in the last 15 years, we’ve gotten tantalizingly close to achieving that dream. But we’re in a new streaming era now, and the bundle, instead of being the thing we want to escape, may be consumers’ best chance of keeping streaming costs down.

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