Time Warner Cable’s new budget plan: What you get, and what you don’t

Ben Patterson

With a wary eye on the 155,000 subscribers it lost last quarter, Time Warner Cable is rolling out a new, bargain-priced TV Essentials bundle in a couple of test markets beginning Monday, with prices starting at $30 a month for access to the major broadcast networks and basic-cable staples like CNN, FX and Lifetime. But don't expect to watch "Monday Night Football," much less anything in HD.

Time Warner isn't making any bones about the fact that its new TV Essentials package -- which will cost $40 a month in New York City (starting Monday) and $30 a month in northeastern Ohio (beginning Dec. 15) -- is a reaction to cash-strapped subscribers quitting the carrier in droves.

"A lot of people are under pretty serious economic stress," carrier CEO Glenn Britt told the Wall Street Journal, adding that TV Essentials may come to more U.S. cities next year. "The public would like to have more choice and have the option of paying for less programming."

Well said. The option of a stripped-down $30- or $40-a-month plan -- which shaves about half the price off of Time Warner's "extended" basic-cable bundle -- couldn't come at a better time.

But as a Time Warner rep admits on the carrier's official blog, TV Essentials isn't for everyone. Here's a quick rundown of what you can expect if you sign up for the bargain bundle—and what you'll have to kiss goodbye.

National and local broadcast networks
ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox … all are present and accounted for in the TV Essentials plan, along with any other local broadcast stations in your market. Sure, you could get all those channels for free with an over-the-air antenna, but for those in reception-challenged areas, cable or satellite is often the only option.

Basic cable
AMC (home of Don Draper and his fellow "Mad Men"), CNN, the Cooking Channel, Bravo, TBS, HGTV, Cartoon Network, FX, Lifetime, Nickelodeon, Bloomberg, USA and VH1 are among the basic-cable networks included in the package. The common denominator of the selected networks, according to the Los Angeles Times, is that they're relatively cheap as far as carriage fees are concerned. For example, the Times says, Time Warner Cable pays just 28 cents a month per subscriber for Lifetime.

Which basic-cable channels are missing? Pricier networks like CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, Comedy Central and TNT, which (per the L.A. Times) costs Time Warner a buck a month per subscriber.

And what about ESPN? Well, that leads us to ...

If you're looking for someone to blame for the skyrocketing cost of cable service, feel free to point the finger at sports fans, including yours truly. While Time Warner pays only about a quarter a month per subscriber for Lifetime, ESPN charges a whopping $4 per subscriber, every month—and that factors directly into the cost of basic cable service.

So it should come as no surprise that if you sign up for TV Essentials, you're not going to get ESPN (our one and only source for "Monday Night Football"), nor will you get regional sports networks like MSG or the various Fox Sports networks. ESPN News will be included, and (of course) you can expect to watch your local teams on your local broadcast channels. Beyond that, however, sports fans signing up for TV Essentials should steel themselves for a long, dry season.

DVR and on-demand
Sorry, time-shifters: If you want to save money with the TV Essentials package, you'll have to sacrifice your digital video recorder—and you won't get any of those free on-demand channels, the Journal reports. Pay-per-view movies, though, are still a go.

Again, sorry—no HD channels on TV Essentials.

Premium networks
Can't live without "True Blood" or "Weeds"? Relax, you can still sign up for premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime, the L.A. Times reports—just don't expect any bargain discounts.

Broadband and digital phone
As with the premium cable networks, you'd still be eligible to sign up for broadband Internet or digital phone service with TV Essentials—but (as the Journal notes) don't count on getting one of those discounted double- or triple-play deals.

So, would you sign up for Time Warner's budget TV Essentials plan, given what you get—and what you don't? And would you like to see more carriers launching similar bare-bones plans?


— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

Follow me on Twitter!