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Until Live Streaming TV Is Truly Live, Cord Cutters Will Be Second-Class Viewers

Streaming Stephen Colbert's 'Late Show' debut left me a minute behind those who watched it on TV.

by Jason Koebler
Sep 9 2015, 1:01pm

Image: CBS All Access

In college, when my school's football tickets were moderately difficult to get, I used to watch the games on TV in my dorm room. And every time the Terps scored, I knew it before I ever saw it on TV, thanks to a few-second delay and a very loud cannon that would go off anytime the team scored a touchdown. That was a localized problem—online streaming of "live" TV is anything but, which isn't great news for cord cutters who want to watch must-see, event television.

Last night, I started a free trial of CBS All Access, exclusively because I wanted to watch Stephen Colbert's debut on The Late Show and because my roommate was watching something else on our TV. One of the few reasons to watch live television at this point is to participate in or at least laugh along with the social media commentary that goes along with it—did last month's VMAs feel like Twitter's Super Bowl to anyone else?

Dozens of times this year, an excited or dejected text message has ruined the thrill of 'live' sports as some well-meaning friend had just told me the very near future

This is what the networks want, of course. The advent of the embeddable YouTube clip has made it all but pointless to watch a late night comedy show as it airs, but if they can tap into that sweet, sweet, second screen phenomenon that live social media commentary provides, it's possible to both create buzz and an online community of TV watchers. And television Twitter is fun, if you can both a) stomach a bunch of thirsty people trying very hard to create viral tweets and b) watch the show really, truly live.

This second point is where online streaming leaves much to be desired. CBS All Access worked more or less as it was supposed to—the video was clear, the player was basic but fine. Except the live streaming wasn't live. And there was no button (as some services have) that allowed me to jump to "live."

I was at least a minute behind those who were watching the show on their actual TVs, and so I knew that Colbert was going to plug Oreos for far too long, I knew Jeb! was going to say that the exclamation point "connotes excitement" and I knew that George Clooney's fake action movie was going to be pretty dumb. For the record, Twitter was pretty disappointed with his debut, though it's clear to most that once Colbert gets past the hey-this-is-a-new-show thing he's going to be totally fine.

None of this is a huge deal, but if we're going to switch to an a-la carte, streaming system for our television, as many people want to, it's a point worth making. My MLB.tv package streams Orioles games slower than they actually happen—dozens of times this year, an excited or dejected text message, tweet, or Facebook post has ruined the thrill of "live" sports as some well-meaning friend or beat reporter had just told me the very near future. Differing internet speeds, web browsers, and plugin versions add to the streaming experience's fickleness.

Also, yes, I know in this case I could have used a USB TV tuner; others will say it makes no sense to pay $7 a month to watch network TV when a regular ol' antenna will suffice. These are valid points!

It's getting easier to cut the cord without sacrificing much, and we're going to see a lot more services like CBS All Access moving forward. As more average Americans move away from cable, however, we're going to be creating a second class of television viewers who live a couple seconds behind the times—streaming is going to have to become a truly equal experience to live TV if cable cutting is going to become a nationwide phenomenon.