Your Guide to Cutting the Cord to Cable TV

This week MediaShift is doing a special in-depth report on cutting the cord to cable TV — who’s doing it, why, and how. One of our most popular posts over the past 5 years has been our special guides to cutting the cord, which we first published in January 2010 and again in 2012.  Stay tuned to MediaShift for more on cutting the cord.

BACKGROUND

Anyone who gets cable TV or satellite in the U.S. has noticed a pronounced trend over the years: The monthly bill keeps going up. You can get a lot of channels and DVR functions, but that of course comes with a cost. According to research from Centris, the average cable bill was nearly $75 in 2009, and the average monthly satellite TV bill was $69. Fast-forward to 2015, and the prices are even more startling: A January Bloomberg Business report predicted the average DirecTV bill would climb to $107 by February and that dish customers would pay between $2 to $5 more per month starting that month as well. A 2014 report by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, also cited in the Bloomberg article, found that the average cost of expanded basic cable service has been increasing by about six percent a year since 1995.

Photo by  flash.pro on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

On top of that, access to more and more options doesn’t necessarily mean that people are turning on all these channels. Nielsen’s 2014 Advertising & Audiences Report found that while the average U.S. home television receives 189 TV channels, the typical consumer only watches 17 different channels. And with mobile devices like tablets and phones increasingly becoming go-to screens as well, it makes sense that some people may prefer having “cordless” viewing options, particularly young people who have grown up used to watching shows online — sometimes referred to as“cord-nevers.”

Yet a report by Leichtman Research Group found that the top pay TV providers have lost only about 0.2 percent of its customer based in the past couple of years. A study by Videorx.com that was cited in the January/February 2015 issue of Streaming Media Magazine also found that most of its respondents hadn’t completely “cut the cord.”

Instead, combining streaming services with traditional programming — in other words, creating individual viewing options according to your own preferences — is becoming much more the norm. Among the Videorx.com study’s respondents, for example, almost 60 percent subscribed to paid TV, and 66 percent had Netflix accounts and 48 percent Amazon Prime/Instant video accounts.

Amazon Prime's membership pitch. Screenshot courtesy of Amazon.com

And there are more and more services catering to the various viewing habits of the American population. HBO Now, “the network’s stand-alone premium subscription tier,” is now available in the App Store for iOS and Apple TV users as well as Optimum Online customers for $15 a month. HBO expects to add about 10 to 15 million more cord cutters to the current pool with its new service, according to a report from Quartz. Sling TV, the live TV package of 16 channels available for $20 a month, is also set to add HBO to its list of services for an additional $15 a month. CBS’ Internet TV service CBS All Access, which shows previous and current CBS content on demand, just launched on Roku for $5.99 a month. Sony Vue, a streaming service of 53 channels for $50 a month available on PlayStation, is slated to come to the iPad soon. Consumers can now also expect to watch TV over the air on XBox One.

Depending on various room setups and viewing habits, making the changeover from cable to online TV can be complex and maddening. But thanks to the rise of all these streaming services, packages, and hardware options (like the Roku box and Apple TV), cutting the cord to cable TV is much more common than before and sure to save you some money. And it might actually suit your lifestyle and viewing interests more than you realize.

“In short, you don’t need cable anymore to watch all the cool stuff that’s out there,” cord cutter Zhulmira Paredes, an attorney based in Chicago, wrote in a message.

HARDWARE AND SERVICES

The first thing to do when cutting the cord is list the shows you watch regularly and your favorite TV channels. Next, do a little research to find out whether those shows appear on the channel’s streaming sites (such as NBC.com, CBS.com, etc.), or on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube. Many shows on pay channels such as HBO don’t appear until much later and usually must be bought via a service like iTunes.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to what’s available online, check out the kinds of TVs you’re working (or not working) with. The quality of over-the-air broadcast channels has changed since the digital switch-over in 2009. Many newer TVs only require an antenna to get local broadcast channels, while older TVs need a converter box, which currently run at about $30 to $50. Plus, some of the programming includes HD content. To find out which digital channels you can get over the airwaves, input your location at the AntennaWeb site and check out Steve Belk’s advice on how to get the best reception. Many new HDTV sets now come with Internet connections built in them as well (in other words, they’re “Internet-enabled” TV), so you might not even need extra hardware such as a Roku box or Apple TV.

Below is a rundown of some of the more important options for enjoying TV content via the web. You can mix and match them to get you what you need. Most cable quitters find they can get about 95 percent of the TV content they used to watch on cable via the various services below.

Hardware

Roku
This is the box many cable quitters seem to like. It connects to your TV and computer network and let’s you watch Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, as well as offers some free and pay options for additional content. Models range from $49.99 to $99.99, depending on your needs.

Google Chromecast
This thumb-sized device plugs into the HDMI port on your TV so you can stream media. It works with a number of apps so you can transfer what you see on a small screen — as in a phone, tablet, or laptop — onto the big screen. The price is currently set at about $30.

Amazon Fire TV
This is a small device you can connect to your HDTV, allowing you to access Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, games, music, and more. The current price is about $99.

amazon fire tv stick

Amazon Fire Stick
Like the Amazon Fire TV, this stick allows you to access Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, games, music, and more by connecting to your TV’s HDMI post. The current price is about $39. (Note, MediaShift contributor Kathy E. Gillcompared the streaming sticks on the market and found the Amazon Fire Stick to be the winner.)

Apple TV
It’s basically a front-end device to iTunes, and allows you to download movies and music and play them through your TV. Problem: no TV tuner or DVR functionality. However, it now connects to Apple’s iCloud service so you can view your media much easier. Apple is also reportedly working on a new, cheaper streaming service aside from iTunes. The current price is about $70.

Second generation Apple TV. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Viera Connect Panasonic TVs
From 32” to 65”, these TV sets come with Internet access built into them. All you need to do is connect them to your WiFi network, and then you can bring up extra content through the TV remote. Content and services include Netflix, Hulu, AP, Skype, YouTube, and more. Learn more about Viera Connect and its apps here. Prices range from $400 to over $3200.

Samsung Smart TVs
Samsung even has a Samsung App Store for all the services it offers for its line of Smart TVs. That includes Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, and even Facebook and Twitter.

WD TV Live box
This small box connects your TV to an external hard drive, letting you play movies, TV shows, photos, or music you have downloaded. WD TV Live comes in a regular $99 model, or a $199 model with a 1 TB hard drive included.

Game consoles
Netflix will let you play movies through your XBox 360 or PlayStation 3. There are also a wide variety of TV tuners and other devices that can turn game consoles into home entertainment systems.

Services and Sites

Netflix
The godfather of the DVD-by-mail services, Netflix has also become a huge entryway for people who want to dump cable and get TV shows later when they’re available on DVD. Netflix also offers unlimited streaming of some movies and TV shows, which works well with a Roku box or other Netflix-ready devices. Cost: $8.99/month for unlimited streaming for new members.

Hulu
The free U.S.-only TV show service is a joint venture between NBC Universal, Fox, and Disney. You are forced to watch commercials before and during TV shows and movies. There are still commercials (you can’t skip) on its Hulu Plus premium service, which costs $7.99 per month, and has no contract. Hulu Plus includes content that’s hard to find elsewhere, like “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report.”

iTunes
Apple’s digital media buying service started out selling music downloads (hence the name). Then it added a podcast directory and now sells TV shows and rents/sells movies. Downloading TV shows at $2.99 per episode is pricey compared to other options, though there are discounted “Season Passes” and some limited free TV show offers.

YouTube "play" button courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and resused here with Creative Commons license.

YouTube
The most popular video site on the web also can be accessed through various devices in order to view its content on your TV. Plus, YouTube has created helps support original content and even lets creators charge for their videos.

Amazon Instant Video
Trying to compete with Netflix and iTunes, Amazon offers quick downloads of various TV shows at similar prices to iTunes. They are playable on Macs or PCs, or on devices that connect your computer to your TV. You can rent or own content for a fee, or stream it instantly. Streaming is free for Amazon Prime members who pay $99 per year, which includes free shipping from Amazon for all online purchases.

PlayOn
Windows software that lets you play Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. from your computer on your TV via a PlayStation, Wii or XBox. Cost: $19.99 per year, $39.99 for lifetime, $49.99 for lifetime with AdSkipper technology.

HBO Go/HBO Now
HBO Go is an app that allows you to stream HBO anytime through your normal cable subscription. It’s available on both Apple and Android devices, as well as Microsoft XBox’s gaming platform. With HBO Now, however, you can access all that same content without the cable subscription. HBO Now is available at $15 a month. A good explainer on how it currently operates is here. Another list of where you can watch HBO content via different services and devices, alongside their prices, is here.

Sling TV
Sling TV streams live TV over the Internet. It offers a package of 16 cable channels at $20 a month, including ESPN, AMC and the Food Network. HBO content — both the live channel feed and a library of on-demand programming — is also available for an extra $15 a month.

The Public Library
In a comment on the previous version of this guide, Prashant Shah, said: “The missing option is the public library, where I’ve always found not-so-recent shows. Newer shows you need to wait a bit, but then I’m in no hurry.” True enough. The public library in many communities offers up free borrowing of TV shows and movies on DVD. The selection can vary from library to library, but the price is right: free, as long as you return them on time.

SAMPLE SETUPS

Here are a few sample setups of people who get TV content without subscribing to cable.

Samsung TV + Apple TV/Amazon Fire + Netflix 

RoseAnne-GT

Who: RoseAnne Gutierrez Towers, stay-at-home mom, Los Angeles, Calif.

Setup: Netflix streaming, computer/phone for mobile access to content; Netflix streaming, television, Apple TV or Amazon Fire for access to content at home

Quote: “We cut the cord for a number of reasons, but the big one was that the cost of cable no longer reflected the how we prioritized our time watching television — particularly premium shows on premium channels. We still have a television, but we use a regular antenna (which are really good nowadays) for network channels like ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, etc. [But] at the end of the day, what we can get through Netflix, Amazon or even content from the individual network websites is all that we need.”

TV + Apple TV + Netflix + Hulu + HBO Now

lisbeth

Who: Lisbeth Ortega, community manager at EyeEm photo app, San Francisco, Calif.

Setup: TV, Apple TV, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now

Quote:  “I really love not feeling tethered to a cable service. It’s one part not having to be contractually/monetarily obliged to something that feels like a luxury and one part being able to choose what programming actually matters to me. Less choices means I’ll more likely get what I want out of it. I know what I want out of Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now. That’s why I pay for them individually.”

Roku + Netflix + Hulu + HBO Go

Who: Bernice P. Ines, assistant director of Experiential Education, Georgetown Law, Washington, DC

Setup: Roku, streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go.

Quote: “So the pro of cutting cable is cost, but the con is…when I lived by myself, I used to just have the TV on in the background — mainly the cooking channel, and now I can’t do that. I have to (maybe not have to, but I do) make conscious decisions about what show I’m going to watch. In that sense probably also a pro for cutting cable is that, I deliberately figure out what I watch and take time to watch it, versus just having something on and only being mildly interested.”

Apple TV/XBOX + Hulu Plus + Amazon Prime/Netflix

Paredes switches between using the XBOX (white, below) and the Apple TV (the small black box to the left of the TV) to stream content. Picture courtesy of Paredes.

Who: Zhulmira Paredes, attorney at law, Paredes Law Office, P.C., Chicago, IL.

Setup: Apple TV or XBox, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime/Netflix

Quote: “We decided to get rid of our cable service to 1) Save money; and 2) Because we realized we didn’t really need it to meet our TV-watching needs … Apple TV allows us to watch networks like ESPN and HBO. Hulu Plus is great because it works basically like a DVR, allowing us to watch most programs we miss the very next day. Pros are definitely the money we’re saving and also just coming to the realization that we don’t need all of the options that come with cable…Cons: Not being able to watch certain programs the day of and having to avoid spoilers for about 24 hours.”

WHAT’S MISSING

For many people, the biggest barrier to canceling cable is the loss of live sports and the loss of live events in general. “Mainly, live TV content is impossible,” said Leo Prieto, who gave up cable in 2005. “And most of that live TV content isn’t available to download on iTunes later — for example, the Oscars or some sports event. In that case I have to go to BitTorrent and get the show afterwards. I would love iTunes or YouTube to offer live content.”

YouTube this year experimented with offering its own halftime show online during the SuperBowl, and CBS All Access now offers sports content on demand. Sling TV too offered its subscribers the chance to stream college basketball’s Final Four game in the beginning of this April, but the traffic spike proved too much to handle, and an outage occurred. As AdAge wrote, “The brief weekend outage that prevented some Sling TV subscribers from watching college basketball’s Final Four highlighted the Achilles heel of cable cord-cutting: reliability.”

Buffering and crashing issues aside, being behind on a show, sports, or awards event that’s become part of the national conversation can be frustrating for some people.

“We’re also just not the type to ‘have to watch’ the next big show,” Gutierrez Towers wrote in a message when explaining how cutting the cord has worked for her and her husband. She estimates that about 70 percent of people she knows still have traditional cable subscriptions. “A lot of people I know still are caught in the ‘FOMO’ of television,” she wrote. “Fear Of Missing Out.”

Chris Turillo, co-founder of the NGO Medha, based in Lucknow, India, also pointed out that streaming options can be difficult for expats or people who must travel frequently for work, even if it is becoming easier and easier to primarily rely on streaming services.

“There are geographic restrictions if you’re outside the country, because most of the streaming services are for U.S.-based accounts,” he said.

Screenshot courtesy of Hulu.com

Ortega, the community manager at EyeEm, also wrote in a message that she misses not having access to national news channels without a cable subscription, even though she is still able to get local channels. “Instead, I’ve found other ways to keep up with news (Twitter, news sites, local news), but I do miss having it all in one place,” she wrote. “Then again, it’s nice to not have a monopolized new source.”

MORE READING

If you want to read more about cutting the cable TV cord, check out these sites and stories:

Diary of a Cord Cutter in 2015, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, TechCrunch

Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV: Which streamer should you buy?, CNET

HBO Now hands-on: it’s HBO Go without cable. What else do you need?, The Verge

CutCableToday.com website

Should You Cut the Cord?, Slate

Streaming TV Is Bigger Than Ever — But Pause Before Cutting the Cord, Huffington Post

The Internet’s Clearly Not Ready to Stream Big TV Events, Wired

What Is an Internet-Enabled TV?, About.com

TV Breaks Rules To Take Ads From Streaming-Video Rivals, Variety

Cord Cutting and Hollywood: The Sequel, BloombergView

2015 Best Internet and TV Comparisons and Reviews, TopTenReviews

Un-Bundling Pay TV Brings New Questions, WSJ

HBO to Netflix: Bring It On, FastCompany

*****

Do you have thoughts on important elements to cutting the cord, or different setup options that have worked for you? Share in the comments below, and I’ll update my story with any gear or services I missed.

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in India, and is the editorial assistant at PBS MediaShift. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece originally published on April 13, 2015, on PBS MediaShift. 

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