If you’re like 95 percent of U.S. households, you probably get your TV through a cable or satellite provider. But despite their overwhelming market share, cable companies are seeing their share of defectors too. According to an April 2012 report by Convergence Consulting Group, 2.6 percent of the U.S. public cut their cable subscriptions between 2008 and 2011 in favor of video on demand, over-the-air programming and online options. That's a number that's expected to grow as options for viewing programs online continue to expand. The argument, of course, is that many subscribers feel they're paying too much for too many channels they don’t even watch.
Have you been feeling like cutting the cord lately? Then you might consider joining the growing number of people who only watch online video.
Why Cut the Cord?
Why would anyone want to ditch their cable service? In a way, it seems like going back to the dark ages: You know, the days when there were only a couple of channels on TV. But while you may get hundreds of channels, be honest: How many of them do you actually watch? If you’re paying more than $100 a month and you mostly just watch the major broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, Fox, CW, etc., then why overpay for channels you aren’t even watching? From a purely economic perspective, you might be better off spending around $30 per month for a decent broadband connection, then paying for a couple of subscription services on top of that. If you want to watch live feeds from the networks, there’s a good old-fashioned way to do that too. I'll get into that later. (Read about TV's history in From Howdy Doody to HD: The History of TV.)
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
I'd be remiss if I said that quitting cable didn't have its drawbacks. Despite the cost savings, there are a few disadvantages to to cutting the cord. First, not everything is available over the air and on streaming services. Plus, it takes a while for the latest movies to become available over services like Netflix. For cinema junkies, those wait times might be too long. On the other hand, if you like older programs and movies like I do, it might work out fine. The offerings for online viewing also vary from country to country. There are a lot of options in the U.S., where I happen to live, but that may be less true in other countries.
Second, streaming requires a lot of bandwidth; if you don't have it, you’ll suffer playback hiccups and buffering. Netflix recommends at least a 3 Mbps connection for streaming HD content. You might also bump into bandwidth caps if you stream or download a lot of content, although most of them are fairly reasonable as long as you’re not trying to torrent every movie ever made. Streaming an episode or two or a movie an evening won’t cause any problems. Even if you stream the entire run of "Arrested Development" (not to editorialize, but it's the funniest show ever made) over the weekend, you’ll still be clear if you keep to more reasonable viewing habits during the work-week.
The Hardware You'll Need to Watch TV Online
Assuming you still want to watch something on a regular basis, cutting the cord isn't as simple as just, well, cutting the cord. So let's say you’ve decided to ditch your cable package and use streaming media as much as possible. How do you start? Here are your options:
- You can watch streaming TV on your computer
This is easy enough, but a lot of people find it uncomfortable; they'd rather kick back on the couch than be perched in front of a small computer screen. There are a few choices here, though. A lot of people swear by Roku boxes. They’re relatively cheap, starting at around $50, and work with just about every service under the sun, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, HBO Go, etc.
- You can get a digital media receiver.
If you want to watch stuff you’ve downloaded (whether legally or otherwise), you could try something like Western Digital's WD TV, which allows you to play videos, images and music from a USB drive.
- You can use iTunes.
If you’re an Apple fan, you might want to get an Apple TV, which offers access to Apple’s iTunes content.
- You can build your own home theater system.
If you’re into DIY projects, you can build a set-top box yourself using software like Boxee, XBMC, or MythTV to turn a PC into a home theater PC. It’s a great way to use an old computer, if you’ve got one lying around. You can also use it as a DVR to time-shift TV shows, but you’ll also need a TV tuner card for the computer. You even use Network Attached Storage (NAS) to create a server that can store all your content, and make it accessible from any device in the house, or even from the Internet.
- You can pull out the antenna.
Speaking of TV tuners, if you want to watch live TV from the networks, such as sports matches, you’re going to have to get reacquainted with an old friend: the TV antenna. The great thing about over-the-air programming is that it’s free and you get the best picture quality, since the cable or satellite company won’t be compressing the signal.
If you have a TV that was made in the last few years, you can pick up digital channels right away. If you have an older TV, you'll need a converter box, because analog broadcasting in the U.S. ceased in 2009. If you live in a major metro area, all you’ll need is an indoor antenna. If you live in a mountainous area, you might need an outdoor antenna.
- You can plug in a device.
Final way to plug into online content is to plug your smartphone or tablet into your TV. Many of them have HDMI output available, either on the device or with a breakout cable. Game consoles such as the Xbox 360 also offer access to streaming services like Netflix.
Once you have your hardware set up, it's time to look into streaming options. Again, you have plenty of options.
- The granddaddy of streaming services is Netflix. It has a good selection, but as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t have the absolute latest movies.
- Amazon has Instant Video. If you have a Prime membership, you can get access to a good selection of movies and TV shows, as well as season passes for shows that are still in production.
- Hulu is a popular choice for TV and movies. It’s well stocked with content from the major networks. You’ll have to sign up for Hulu Plus, a paid service, that costs $7.99 per month, the same as Netflix. You do have to watch commercials.
- HBO Go gets a mention. It’s free, but you have to subscribe to HBO to access it, which rather defeats the purpose.
- Of course, YouTube has a lot of content, both amateur and professional. You can even watch movies and TV shows, for free or for rental or purchase.
As many people know, there are also less legal means to watch TV by downloading online. Whether you use those is up to you, but many people do, so I’ll cover that in another article.
Putting It All Together
If you really want to cut the cord, it’s best to sever it slowly, rather than in one big chop. Keep your cable or satellite, but try a set-top box with one of the streaming services first. Just watching the local channels is also good practice. You’ll figure out what you can and can’t live without and if cutting the cord is right for you.
But also know that if you're fed up with cable, you’re in good company. There are plenty of communities where you can get more information and help. A good one is the /r/cord cutters subreddit. What you'll soon learn is that you don't need cable to TV to pop some popcorn, kick back and relax in front of your favorite show. The best part is that if you ditch the cable, you can do that whenever you want.