Why Legal?You may know a lot of people who download TV and movies illegally, but although prosecutions are rare, the practice isn't risk-free. Plus, many people feel they should pay something for the media they consume. However, the other main reason to avoid illegal downloading is to keep legal options available. If you subscribe to some streaming services, such as Netflix or Hulu Plus, you'll be contributing to keeping them going in the future. This could also help convince media organizations and movie studios that putting their content online makes sense.
It will also force the cable and satellite companies to stay competitive. They'll either have to offer cheaper packages or better features if they want to keep their customers. Although cord-cutters only make up five percent of the TV viewing public in the U.S., it's a very tech-savvy bunch. Nerds have this annoying tendency to do things before everybody else. Cord-cutters, as a rule, are also rather geeky, but it's getting easier all the time for non-technical people to cut out cable TV too.
HardwareAlthough you may be getting rid of your cable or satellite box, you'll need some hardware if you want to catch your favorite shows.
You can use your computer, but I find it difficult to just sit there while the mouse and the keyboard are in front of me. I must be far from the only one, or the other devices mentioned below wouldn't be so popular.
The first option is the other way to use your PC to watch your favorite shows: by setting it up as a home theater PC. MythTV is one popular home brew solution. Mythbuntu is a complete Linux distribution that turns a PC into a DVR. It's a good use for any spare PCs you have on hand, though it might be awkward to have a tower case in your living room. You'll need a tuner card to actually watch and record the shows.
There are also a number of set-top boxes available. One that a lot of cord-cutters swear by is Roku. Western Digital's WD TV is another option that can play video you've downloaded and your personal media collection in addition to offering access to streaming services. If you're an Apple fan, you can use an Apple TV.
You can also plug your tablet or smartphone into your TV if it has an HDMI output.
Streaming ServicesOnce you've chosen your hardware options, the next step is to select some streaming services.
Netflix is the best known of the streaming services, and for a low monthly fee you get access to a variety of TV shows and movies. The downside is that Netflix doesn't have the very latest movies.
Amazon also offers Instant Video, but it takes an a la carte approach to programming. You can rent or buy movies and TV shows and stream them on your devices, even seasons that haven't finished airing yet. If you have a Prime membership, you can have a selection of TV and movies available to stream (including "Doctor Who"). It's pretty good, especially if you're a science fiction-loving Anglophile like I am.
Vudu, a newcomer to the very new field, takes a similar approach, touting the latest movies.
Hulu is a service geared to network TV shows. The Hulu Plus premium service lets you watch on devices other than your PC. The only downside is that you'll have to watch commercials.
Of course, there's always YouTube. While there is a lot of unauthorized copyrighted content that somehow doesn't get taken down, there is a wealth of legal content too, from original shows made from people's bedrooms to feature films. Most are available for free, although some are offered for sale and rental.
If you're a sports fan, you're not completely out of luck. Many matches are available on broadcast TV channels, mentioned below. All of the major sports leagues, including the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and MLB have streaming services available too, although they're not exactly cheap.
DownloadingIf you must have downloads, there are legal ways to get them. Both Apple and Amazon allow you to download videos, which is handy if you're going on a trip and don't want to risk not having an Internet connection.
Over The Air TVIf you want to watch network shows right when they air or local news without a cable subscription, then you'll need an antenna to access the original streaming video service, over-the-air TV. You might think that antennas are a relic of the 1950s, but changes in the broadcasting world have made them a viable alternative to cable and satellite programming. First, analog broadcasting ceased in the U.S. in 2009; Canada soon followed suit. Second, the number of online video sources has proliferated, as I'll show below. What that all adds up to is that with some of the set-top boxes mentioned above, you can get rid of your cable subscription and never miss your favorite shows, even critically-acclaimed cable programs like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" or "Game of Thrones."
You can spend anywhere from $15 to $150, depending on what kind of antenna you get. The kind of antenna you need depends on where you live. If you live in a major metro area without a lot of hills or tall buildings, you can use a simple indoor antenna. If you live in hillier terrain, you might need a stronger attic or outdoor antenna. A good way to find out what kind of reception you can expect (and what kind of antenna you'll need) is TV Fool.
If you have an older TV, you'll also need a converter box. If your TV was made in the last few years, you'll be able to pick up digital channels without issue.
If you get weak reception with an indoor antenna, and an outdoor antenna isn't an option, you might try subscribing to a basic cable package anyway. If you already have cable Internet, it's possible to get unencrypted cable channels - usually local and public-access channels - if you have a QAM tuner. Most newer TVs have one.