Cutting the Cord: Say Goodbye to Your Cable Bill!
Last month, I reached my boiling point on the cable bill. Excluding high speed Internet service, my Time Warner cable bill had just passed $150 a month. An HBO / Showtime subscription, the occasional movie rental, DVR service; all the extra services add up quickly. Even the basic services, like HD channels ($5 a month) or an extra HD cable box for another TV in the house ($10 a month), were ridiculously priced. If I continued down this path, I'd be on track to spend over $1800 a year for a handful of channels that I actually watched!
The real culprits to becoming complacent with the cable experience are accessibility and usability. It's extremely easy to get cable installed at your home (aside from the insane 8 hour visitation window of the mysterious cable man). They wire up the entire home for you, get all your cable boxes running and bring as much equipment as you want. You don't have to go out to Best Buy to purchase set-top boxes, wiring or anything to get started. It's also simple to start using cable for all members of the household. Within 10 seconds of picking up the remote, you can switch to your favorite channel and be watching your favorite program.
The same isn't true for the cable alternatives and I don't mean satellite service. I'm talking about media streaming set-top boxes, Internet connected televisions and even just a simple antenna. I've had plenty of experience reviewing this type of equipment though and I was determined to go down the path of cutting the cord. Here are the steps I took:
Step 1: Study the Household
The value that people place on cable has much to do with their daily TV habits. If you have a large family, sit down with everyone to discuss what they watch on a daily basis. My girlfriend loves HGTV and shows like The Unsellables, House Hunters, My First Place, etc. I had to figure out if those could be replaced by a streaming service (they can, Hulu Plus!). Talk with your kids and find out if those Saturday Morning Cartoons can be replaced by Netflix. If you have a sports junkie in the house, investigate online streaming packages for each sport. NCAA football, for instance, can be found on ESPN3.com most of the time, if not on a major network during the season.
A good exercise is to create a giant list, by family member, of the shows that they absolutely need to have and the ones that they can live without until hitting DVD or streaming channels. Do you really need to watch a show when it airs or can you wait a single day? How many televisions will you need to outfit with a streaming device or access to over-the-air HD channels?
Step 2: Evaluate Your Options
The most important investment that you can make immediately is in a HD antenna. All of the networks are broadcast in glorious high definition these days, many of which actually look better than their cable counterparts due to signal degradation. If you have a multiple-TV household, look into the larger outdoor antennas. I bought one for my Dad years ago and he didn't even install on the roof. It's sitting up in the attic and getting perfect reception for all the TVs in the house. Radio Shack, for instance, still sells boatloads of those.
Current Deals: Check here for Radio Shack Coupons.
Check AntennaWeb.org when setting it up for the first time and you will be receiving all the major stations like NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, PBS, CW for free. In addition to HD resolution, you are also getting 5.1 surround sound for movies / TV shows. That's definitely a big step in appeasing anyone that wants to watch prime time shows like The Office or CSI as well as daytime soap operas, talk shows and the local news.
For television shows, you really can’t go wrong with the Netflix / Hulu Plus one-two-punch for a grand total of $16 a month. Netflix gives you a giant archive of older television shows to watch for those folks that are usually glued to things like Law & Order Marathons. With Netflix, you gain access to over 20K movies / TV shows that can be streamed to your PC, a set-top box or a mobile device like an iPhone / iPad (all commercial free). While $8 gets you access to all the streaming that you can handle (much of which is in HD), another $2 will bump you up to the one-DVD-at-a-time plan; a nice bonus to get access to recent movie release. Netflix is also venturing into original programming with the recent announcement of the House of Cards political drama starring Kevin Spacey.
Current Deals: Check out the 1 Free Month coupon on the NetFlix Coupons page.
Hulu Plus allows you to watch the latest episodes of your favorite TV shows, much like the On-demand feature of a cable box. While you are still forced to watch commercials, the breaks are anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds long, a vast improvement over the average 2 to 3 minutes on broadcast television. Many movies, however, do not have those commercials At the moment, Hulu Plus is a love fest of NBC, FOX and ABC shows with plenty of cable networks thrown in like Comedy Central, E! Entertainment, Food Network, HGTV, MTV and USA Network. Hulu Plus is also broadcasted in 720p for those HD lovers and they recently started streaming the Criterion collection for the cinephiles out there.
Current Deals: Hulu Plus offers 1 week free or 1 month free for Students with .edu address. You can also help your current friends that use Hulu Plus with two weeks for free by using a referral code from them.
Another option for recently aired television shows is simply paying per episode on services like iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. On iTunes, you are typically looking at about $3.00 for a HD episode and $2.00 for the standard definition version. This is ideal for television shows with small seasons like many FX programs. However, on Amazon, TV shows are typically prices at about 99 cents and you can buy entire 24 episode seasons for less than $25. Unfortunately, Amazon’s library isn’t as big as the other services.
Current Deals: Check out Apple iTunes Coupons page for current lists of free TV shows. If you sign up for Amazon Prime through our Amazon Coupons page, you will get free 2-day shipping and unlimited streaming from Amazon Instant Video.
For first release movies, look into Redbox (if you feel like driving) or services like Vudu / iTunes / Gaming consoles for HD quality. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have first release movies to download for about $5 to $6 for rentals. For sports fans, look into the streaming packages. These typically get sold by year or by season. MLB.tv, for instance, starts at $99.99 a year (or $19.99 a month). You get HD quality and full game archives to access on mobile or set-top box devices. For an extra $20 a year, you can also get DVR controls and multi-game view for the true baseball junkie.
Step 3: Invest in Hardware
From Blu-ray players to gaming devices, there are tons of ways to stream content from services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, CinemaNow, Pandora, etc right to your big screen television. The trick is to find the devices that work for your situation. A cost effective option for multiple TVs is to go the Roku route. The Roku is a small set-top box that ranges between $60 to $100, however you can get 720p HD quality at the $60 level. You plug it in to your TV, connect it up to your home network and simply go. It streams Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon and many other services. If you have TV’s far from the wireless router or want 1080p playback, buy the slightly more expensive model. It’s also awesome for hockey, basketball, soccer, UFC fans with access to those services (assuming you already subscribed).
Current Deals: You can check here for Roku Coupons.
I’m a huge fan of the Boxee Box as well as the Western Digital Live Hub, both great devices for those with downloaded content. The Boxee Box edges out the competition mostly due to the amount of content it can access, the clean, streamlined interface and the streaming capabilities. For instance, you can get all of Conan’s latest episodes through the TBS streaming web application or South Park’s entire library through South Park Studios. However, it doesn't have Hulu Plus access quite yet (coming soon!); but currently has Netflix, Vudu, and tons of other apps. The WD Live Hub comes with a nifty 1 TB hard drive for storing family movies, photos, music or anything you really want to stream. It also works as the media hub for the house if you want to stream your last vacation movie in Disney World on another TV in the house (provided you are also using one of the cheaper WD TV Live players). If you are in love with Apple devices (and likely an iTunes fanatic), check out the Apple TV as well. It streams Netflix and has access to all the latest flicks for rental. It’s also a great way to watch new movie trailers.
If you are planning on upgrading any of your televisions soon, the majority of the manufacturers have started to roll out Internet connectivity to their sets. Vizio, for instant, has sets with access to Hulu Plus, Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, NBA Game Time, Amazon Instany Video, Flickr, Pandora and Vudu. They also come with Wireless-N capability, so you can stream all that content without having to hook up a network cable. (However, HD content will likely require a hardwired connection unless you have replaced your router recently.)
Do you really need the DVR in your life anymore? For me, the answer was no. If I can watch The Office the next day on Hulu Plus, then why do I need to record it while I’m out of the house on the Thursday night? Of course, there are plenty of shows like American Idol that aren’t streamed the next day, thus requiring a DVR. It depends on what you watch. I’ve also grown to despise the terrible Time Warner DVR service, perhaps invented by the devil himself. However, I know many people that live and die by their TiVo. I’ve used the service before and can agree that it’s tremendously useful at times. The user interface is also incredibly easy to use. A TiVo Premiere will run you about $100 with a $20 a month charge for the TiVo service. You can also try to setup a HTPC solution for recording shows for free, but it wouldn’t even compare to using TiVo’s wonderful UI.
Current Deals: Get free shipping on any new TiVo boxes on the TiVo Coupons page.
As mentioned earlier, gaming devices are also starting to ramp up with the online streaming services. Both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 (as well as the Nintendo Wii) stream Netflix, some better than others. The Playstation 3 has had access to Hulu Plus for a while and the Xbox 360 will be getting Hulu Plus tomorrow (April 29th) in an update to the Xbox Live service. It also utilizes the Kinect motion system if you want to browse the Hulu library while waving your hands wildly in the air like a crazy person. Beyond streaming, both HD consoles offer a tremendous amount of content that can be rented, both movies and TV shows.
Step 4: Call up your Cable Company
Before you call up the cable company and crush their dream of charging you more money, do a quick calculation of the hardware / services cost per month. I outfitted the 4 TVs in the house with Roku boxes (3 $60 models and 1 $80 model) and used my Xbox 360 to power the main TV in the living room for access to Netflix and Hulu Plus. The starting costs for me:
- $260 for the four Roku boxes
- $40 for an HD antenna
- $21 for monthly subscriptions to Hulu Plus / Netflix / Xbox Live
- $15 for a few movie rentals a month
I’m probably looking at a little over 2.5 months before I start saving money (in the neighborhood of $120 a month compared to my cable bill). Obviously, I took more of a cheaper route than a sports junkie or DVR fanatic, but it would have still been cost effective for me with those extras.
Want to know where your cancellation call will be going? The Retention Department! They will throw all kinds of goodies at you to keep you in the cable cycle like free HBO / Showtime for a year or perhaps a discount on your current bill for a set number of months. These are tactics that will lull you back into their grasp, ideally to keep you after those benefits expire. You will also have to deal with claims about rising Internet costs, which are typically about $10 to $20 more a month than combining cable with Internet. Just let them know that you researched the costs of their competitors like FIOS and they will typically back off. Once you have finally cancelled, drop off those cable boxes / remotes at your nearest cable office and do the Snoopy Dance in the parking lot.
Have you have any luck cutting cable out of you life? What would be the hardest thing to give up on cable TV for you? Leave a comment below!