In 2015, one of the cultural trends that caught my interest was the growing move towards “cord cutting” — letting go of getting your TV through cable or satellite. Why were people opting out? What forces were bringing about this evolutionary trend? Why did I resonate with it? Finally, my interest grew to the point that I decided to try it myself. This article describes some of the reasons people are cutting the cord, some things to consider if you are thinking about it and the lessons I learned from over 6 months of letting go of cable TV.
Why Cord Cutting?
I remember when cable TV first came out. I was in high school living in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in the late 1960s. My parents’ home was in the rolling hills south of town and out of direct line of sight to the broadcasting towers. Our rooftop antenna picked up well the VHF channels (ABC, NBC and the local public station) but very poorly the UHF station which carried CBS as I recall. When sales people came though signing up residents for a new “shared TV antenna” that would come over cable, I badgered my parents to get it. As soon as it was installed, wonders of wonders, not only did we get all the local stations perfectly, we also got some independent station out of Atlanta (WTBS) and a cable channel with printed messages going by. What more could anyone want? The cable evolution had begun.
Throughout my life since then, I have received TV via cable or satellite. The numbers of channels available have risen into the hundreds. There are more choices that we could humanly watch. Pay channels offered us uncensored programming uninterrupted by commercials. These changes were huge as the cable/satellite industry changed how we watched TV.
However, recently there has been another evolution going on — video streaming combined with DVR recording. Like most Americans, I have discovered that I rarely sit down to watch a program at the time it was broadcast. Instead, I “time shift” — recording the program and fast forwarding through commercials….or watching it via an internet application such that I “streamed” it. Only sports and news were watched “live”….and even those I was recording or streaming on demand more and more. I began to realize that I did not need the hundreds of channels that cable provided me….there were only a handful that I routinely watched. This recognition started me thinking about cord cutting.
There are other reasons cited for this trend in canceling cable.
Many have become tired of the monopolistic practices of the cable companies. Most cable TV systems are local monopolies much like telephone service was years ago. Although utilities commissions generally approve their services and charges, most of us recognize that rarely are their services on the cutting edge of technology and their costs are high. The poor service of cable companies is a running joke everywhere. So is the fact that they sell us bundles of services for a reasonable rate for a period of time and then it goes up to a much higher rate forcing us back to “negotiating another package”.
Cable systems are becoming our primary providers of internet service, again at almost monopolistic levels. Although there is the appearance of competition in many areas, if you drill down a bit you find that one provider (usually your cable system) offers the fastest broadband. On top of this, studies show that we in the United States pay more for our internet service than other countries and for speeds that are slower than many other areas of the world.
Yet we read continuously about the proposed mergers of cable companies who are seeking to become larger and larger such that even AT&T is complaining! All of this seems like more evidence of certain corporations becoming too big. In fact, we sometimes forget that 6 corporations own over 90% of the US media according to reports. We sometimes wonder what we average citizens can do to push back against such corporate control. Maybe getting rid of cable is one small step?
Finally, one other reason frequently mentioned for this trend is the fact that many young people are not used to paying for TV and are used to controlling/streaming what media they consume. These people grew up on cable in their parents’ home but see the need to pay for TV as being unnecessary.
All of these reasons factored into my decision to cut the cord. Although I had stayed with Comcast and had gotten into that cycle of upgrading and locking in a new rate to try to keep my costs low, finally after my charges once again went up, I said “enough”.
Personal Considerations in Cutting the Cord
Beyond the above philosophical reasons for letting go of cable, there were two major personal considerations in this decision. One was “would I be able to watch the programs I most enjoy?” The other was “how much money would I spend to make the change and how much would I save on an ongoing basis?” I am going to walk through my process in hopes that it might help you.
To answer the question as to what programs I would be able to receive, I had to consider what could I receive via broadcast TV and what could I stream online without a cable account (there are many streaming apps for cable channels that allow you to access their programming by “registering” your cable/satellite account info). There are a number of useful online sites to help you determine which signals you could receive over the air. Here is a link to one. So I knew I could get for free all of the major networks. Beyond that, I knew that I already had both Amazon Prime streaming and Netflix. That gave me the universe of what I would have to watch without cable (although I could add on other streaming services).
I then made a list of every program that was important to me to have access to watching. I researched how I could still view those shows without cable. My list included: certain programs on HBO, local news programs, movies, certain PBS programs, a couple of shows on the History channel, and sports programs (Denver Broncos and Colorado Rockies). The first time I did this analysis, I discovered that I would lose the HBO shows, the History channel shows and Colorado Rockies baseball. Luckily the NFL is on broadcast TV for the most part. I decided to hold off for a few months making the change.
Then last year HBO began offering an online streaming service “HBO Now” which was not linked to cable or satellite. I decided that this was close enough. I knew that if I wanted the History channel programs, I had the option of signing up for the “Sling TV” service (described below) or purchase the programs a la carte via services such as iTunes.
The only thing that I could not figure out how to get was Rockies baseball. They have an exclusive package with Root Sports only on cable and satellite. This is true of most MLB teams. Yes, there is a MLB package that you can purchase for streaming but their contracts require that they black out your home team games…..so even if I bought the pricey MLB package, I would still not get the Rockies. (Note to Colorado Rockies and MLB — you need to fix this!) I decided I could go without live baseball.
As far as the second question on savings, this was simply a matter of figuring out what I was currently paying for TV and compare it to what I would be paying afterwards. I needed to keep my internet costs in the mix as broadband is needed for streaming.
Here is what I was paying: $225 for Comcast (TV with HD, local channels, premium channels; internet; home phone) plus $8 for Netflix. Although I had Amazon prime video, to me this was at no additional cost as I paid the $99 per year simply to get the free shipping on purchases. The other things Amazon provided with prime (free prime video streaming, Amazon Music streaming, free monthly Kindle books) were all just a bonus.
Two interesting side notes on costs: (1) Your cable bill includes monthly rental charges for cable boxes and internet router. Even if you don’t lose cable, you can purchase these items from third parties and get rid of your rental charges. Your out of pocket costs can be recouped in under a year on each. (2) Another thing is shopping for the best internet service. In Denver, you only have two high speed options — Comcast and the phone company (Century Link). Although the phone company offers some good deals here, their fastest service is only in certain areas of town. I could not get as fast of speed with Century Link as I could with Comcast. So, unfortunately I had to keep Comcast for awhile. It ended up being cheaper to bundle the internet with the phone….so as much as I might have liked to let go of Comcast, that hasn’t happened yet. If we ever get real competition and not this current corporate monopolistic control that we currently experience, I will quickly reconsider!
Here is what I determined I would pay with cord cutting: $90 Comcast (internet and phone) plus $8 for Netflix plus $15 for HBO Now. Overall monthly savings became $120 per month.
However, there are some upfront out of pocket costs that had to be considered which are described in the next section. I did want to have a good outdoor antenna for TV reception and I opted for an over the air TV DVR — both items cost me a total of $600, so my monthly savings took 5 months to recoup my out of pocket costs to change
Again, in case you are considering making the change, I do want to give you some other major technical considerations in cord cutting — your antenna for “over the air” (OTA) TV; your menus and information onscreen for OTA TV; if you want to record OTA TV; streaming devices; and, other streaming services you may want to optionally add in.
Although there are a lot of inexpensive indoor TV antennas, my research determined that even in a large metro area like Denver with a lot of channels, you are going to have a consistently better reception by installing an outdoor antenna. There are many outdoor antennas to choose among. I won’t say that I researched this thoroughly, but I did go with the recommendation of a local antenna installer and use one by Winegard. It sits low to the roof and is unobtrusive in its appearance. It has picked up the local channels extremely well. I would check with others in your area to see what they recommend for your signals.
A note on local channels — one of the great surprises to me was just how many free TV channels are broadcast in the area. Most major channels have at least one or two “subchannels” (6.1 would be the main channel which might also broadcast different programming on 6.2 and 6.3). Overall there are more than 50 TV stations that you can pick up in Denver. But before you get too excited, if you take out the duplicates, religious broadcasts and Spanish channels, you are down to around 25 or so. Still not bad. There are probably around 10 or so that I really watch (the CW, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, independent channel, PBS (2) and a couple of the “subchannels”). Most broadcast in HD and the picture is wonderful. Did I mention they were free?
Basic information about the current program and the ones coming up shortly are also part of the signal. That allows your TV to show some basic information about the program as you tune into it. One thing missing is having an onscreen menu of the channels that you can page through easily. This leads me to a product that I cannot recommend enough — the Channel Master DVR+.
This slim box (used with an external hard drive purchased separately) once connected wirelessly to the internet gives you “cable like” menus and information for OTA TV for the next 2 weeks. In addition, it allows you to pause live TV. You can record OTA programs with easy to understand menus. See the picture that came with this article to see what the menus look like. One other cool feature is that this box also allows you to access via the same menu system around 20 or so online streaming networks and a handful of online “apps” such as YouTube videos, Vudu movie rentals, Pandora online radio and (a recent addition) Sling TV. This is an elegant way to access a host of TV services from one menu system and they keep adding more channels all the time. It is a bit pricey but there are no monthly fees after your initial hardware purchase (unless you sign up for the optional Sling TV or rent movies through Vudu). So, if you cut the cord and these features are important to you, this is one of the best options to give you a cable or satellite menu and recording type experience.
To stream online video, you need a streaming device. There are a number of them that you can use. If you want to keep costs down to a minimum, consider this: Many smart TVs, most DVD players and many gaming consoles already have internet access and offer you the availability of connecting streaming apps such as Netflix or Amazon prime or Hulu. If you have one of these devices, you don’t need anything else.
However, there are some stand alone streaming devices that you may want to consider: Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast are the most popular. I have experience with Apple TV and Roku, both of which I use. I would recommend you do try at least one of these options, you can generally get an entry level one for around $40.
Any of these devices are going to allow you to access Hulu, Netflix, HBO Now, and most of the major network and service apps. Overall, the menu navigation is similar in each (although I do like the latest Apple TV menu options better than the others).
Here are some thoughts from my experience:
- The new Apple TV device has nicer menus, voice search capability (which works quite well searching over numerous apps to find programs), a new Apple “app store” where you can customize with a number of channels, services and games. If your home uses iTunes for your music collection, there are some advantages in playing your music collection through the Apple TV. Overall the newest Apple TV is my favorite streaming device but it has a couple of negatives — there is still no app as of this writing for Amazon Prime Video or Sling TV (although you can “Air play” and “mirror” from your phone which is not as easy or convenient) and this is the most expensive device. The older Apple TV units are less expensive but you lose the voice search, nicer menus and app store flexibility.
- The Roku unit has the largest number of TV program apps and gives you the greatest flexibility of program choices. Even beyond the hundreds of channels in the Roku app store there are also a large number of “private” channels that you can add in. Overall, this gives you the most possible programs for the money. They newest version has voice search capability but I have no experience to tell you how it works. Roku does have apps for Amazon and Sling TV.
Now that you have something that can stream online video, next up is the consideration of any premium streaming services and their value. Here are the major ones;
Netflix — I had this before I cut the cord. This is like having an online video store for a few bucks ($8) a month. You don’t get much in new movie releases but you have an overwhelming amount of content otherwise. Plus they have been adding in more and more of their own original content — a lot of which is of a very high quality. I recommend their programs “House of Cards”, “Grace and Frankie” and “Making a Murderer” (among others). They have a lot of stand up comedy programs, documentaries, older TV shows, children’s programs….bottom line is that you cannot go wrong in my opinion for the cost.
Amazon Prime Video — Again, if you pay for free shipping, this is a bonus. I am not sure I would pay the annual fee of $99 (a little over $8 per month) simply to get the video service. Between this and Netflix, I prefer the larger choice with Netflix and there is a fair amount of overlap between the two. Again, you do not get many recent movies but you do have access to a large streaming video library and a growing number of Amazon original series (such as their critically acclaimed “Transparent”). They do have a large number of older HBO series available for streaming and they are adding more choices in all the time. An interesting feature that they recently started was their offer of a number of “add on” subscriptions (such as Showtime, Starz, Comedy Central and more) for an add on cost billed through Amazon. There are a number of tempting programming options there for the specialized viewer and I think that this was a smart move by Amazon!
Hulu — I know a lot of folks love this service but I have not tried it. It starts at a reasonable price ($8 per month). It’s biggest advantage has been that you get to stream most of the broadcast network show shortly after they air. There are options to reduce commercials. They have been adding in a lot of older programs and starting to create some of their own shows. Again, if the shows here are ones that are important to you, this could be a good streaming option.
HBO Now — A bit pricier than the other services at $15 per month, but the movie and original programming options are ones that make them essential in our house. You have access to a large library of their programming inventory for streaming. If you are an HBO fan, this is a must have.
Sling TV — This is a bit different option from the ones mentioned in that it is more like “live TV” rather than playing everything on demand. For a base price of $20 per month, you get the best of a selection of a bit more than 20 popular cable networks streamed via the internet. Channels include: ESPN, ESPN2, CNN, TBS, History, History 2, Food Network, Disney, HGTV, TNT, A&E, AMC, Travel channel and more). There are some optional add on packages for a few more dollars more each month. There are no contracts and you can cancel at any time. If any of these channels are important to you, this is a good option. After a couple of months with out cable, I added in Sling TV to see what I thought….I have kept it even though there are some down sides—-the biggest are the menus….they are slow and sometimes unresponsive. And another negative is that sometimes you can “freeze up” or get bumped off the service forcing you to restart the app. Some channels you can only watch what is currently being broadcast live (such as ESPN) whereas on others (such as History, HGTV, Food Network) you can watch “on demand” certain programs that have aired over the past 3 days. Not quite as good as true streaming “on demand” but is an added feature. There is no way to record programs unfortunately. There is no Sling TV app for Apple TV yet while the other devices (such as Roku) do have one. As mentioned, the Channel Master DVR+ added this into their channel menu (however, it is listed simply as one channel option which when you choose, you “open the app” and get the Sling TV usual menu). I give Sling TV a mixed review. I hope that they fix the reliability and continue to tweak the menus…plus would love to see an Apple TV app….but for the moment, I am keeping it seeing that I am getting my $20 per month of entertainment from it. (One nice thing to mention—you can use your Sling TV credentials to use the ESPN app on the Apple TV —the only such app that this service allows this.)
Vudu or iTunes (really accessible via Apple TV or iTunes program on computer)— These are the major ones and there are other options here too, but you do want access to one of these services which allows you to purchase or rent new movies and TV shows that you cannot otherwise get. Your credit card is on file, you sign in browse and order movies and then have a limited time to view (assuming you rented). No more trips to the video store. Works just like buying on demand movies on cable.
YouTube — technically this is not a “premium” streaming service as it is free but it is worth a mention as there is a lot of stuff out on YouTube to watch. I recommend that you sign in to your YouTube account on a computer and set up a list of things to “watch later” or “subscribe” to them. it is much easier to search and create these lists there than on your streaming device. Doing this allows them to show up in your menus on your streaming device and easily choose them to watch.
Note — there are many many other streaming services available, I am only highlighting some of the ones that are most popular or which I am familiar with. An online search will find you others which may be of interest to you.
OK, so here I am over 6 months later and what have I learned and discovered through this process. Here a number of “take aways” for me from this experience:
I have not missed cable at all. I have a lot of TV choices….in fact, going through this process has made me realize just how much quality programming that I have available. The real trick is not to become a couch potato and to spend too much time binge watching some TV series. I love watching the major broadcast stations and thinking that I am getting them for free.
Sometimes you want to watch something specifically and you have to think “where can I find that among my choices?” Fortunately, there are services that have jumped in to help here. One I like is called “Fan TV” — you can search for a movie or TV show and it tells you which service carries it (for free or at per view cost). You can also sign up for alerts to tell you when a program you are interested in is becoming available to stream somewhere.
There are moments when you do just sometimes want to “channel surf” even though you rarely stop on one thing to truly watch it. That said, you still have enough broadcast programs to surf….also a new free app called Pluto TV allows you to surf through a large list of free streaming channels (available on Apple TV, Roku, etc.) If you have Sling TV, it too can give you that experience of “nothing is on”.
I remain disappointed by the short sighted thinking of MLB and limiting access to games via the blackout for your local team. When the season starts, I may voice my concerns to the team and the league.
But, overall, I am happy with my decision. I hope that enough people say “enough” to the cable and satellite systems and that their cutting the cord continues to lead to more and more truly competitive options for our media. If this reason resonates with you, I hope that this article gives you the knowledge to take the next step.
We can evolve our systems and each of us plays a role in that evolution.
Update since original article: The new Apple TV unit now has an app for Sling TV. The Sling TV app on both Apple and Roku works much better and rarely gets frozen. Sling now offers different packages (orange, blue or both) which carry different channels. Also there is a great getting started resource guide on Reddit at this page.