How to Cut the Cord: Deciding When to Ditch Cable

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Get thee behind me, Cable. You are an offense to me, for you are not interested in quality service, but only the contents of my wallet!

This is the cry heard from many living rooms, where couch potatoes and binge watcher decided their bulging cable bills are just not worth it. Time to cut the cord!

What was at first a small collection of people with the technical savvy to circumvent the cable companies has grown to a full-fledged movement. Not one to rest on their laurels, the cable companies are fighting back with both a greater focus on customer service, more cooperation with the content providers, and a host of enhanced convenience features to encourage users to keep that cord intact.

Cutting the Cord?

The term “cutting the cord” is a misnomer. What we really mean by cutting the cord is to cancel your television subscription service. Most people will need to keep the cord very much intact to maintain their internet service, albeit at a much lower cost per month. The key here is that almost all content can now be streamed over the internet.

Google Chromecast is just one way to share displays and broadcast to your HDTV.

Google Chromecast is just one way to share displays and broadcast to your HDTV.

There are a couple of options for watching this online content on your TV. You can either hook your computer up to the TV directly, or use a streaming device.

Connecting your computer is as simple as connecting an HDMI cable between your PC and TV. It might require some adapters, but it just works. Think of the TV as an external monitor.

Dedicating streaming hardware like a Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, or Google Chromecast is another means. In addition, almost all new Blu-Ray players and HDTV’s are enabled with “smart” streaming features. The latest gaming consoles like Xbox One, PlayStation4, and WiiU support popular streaming service apps like Netflix and Hulu. Yet another option is a new generation of low-cost mini PC’s that can be used as dedicated media PC’s. Many of these are the size of your thumb, and plug right into an HDMI input.

The questions any would-be cord cutters have to ask are: What kind of TV do I watch? What are my alternatives without cable? And can I live with compromises?

Local Channels

This one is almost a no-brainer. It has been seven years since the FCC officially killed the old analog broadcast and mandated HDTV for over-the-air (OTA) television signals. This means that crystal clear high-definition signals of your local stations are 100% free. All you need is an HDTV antenna. Basic indoor antennas can be had for as little as $10 and more powerful amplified antennas built for roof mounting start for $35.

OTA signals aren’t as reliable as cable, however. They are subject to dead spots and interference. Before proceeding, check out www.antennaweb.org to confirm coverage. Chances are that if you live in any reasonably-sized population center, you’ll be able to snag local affiliates for NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, Fox and others.

Verdict: Cut the cord!

The Best TV Isn’t on TV

HBO Now

Cord cutters rejoice! You won’t miss Game of Thrones!

Here is where it gets complicated. In a simpler bygone era, there were TV channels (broadcast) and then there were movie channels (cable). That notion has been thoroughly trashed and discarded. If you were keeping count during the 2015 Emmy awards, the OTA broadcasters (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS) collected a total of 30 Emmy awards. The granddaddy of movie channels, HBO, collected 43 Emmys alone. A combined 65 Emmys were awarded to the movie channels. The best TV isn’t on TV anymore. Hit shows like Veep, Game of Thrones, and Silicon Valley are HBO exclusive during the season, and only Netflix users will be able to watch House of Cards before it comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Streaming Movies

For movie buffs out there, the decision to cut the cord is almost a resounding yes! Subscribing to movie channels through cable jacks up the bill by $100 per month or more. While the movie channels have upped their game with awesome original shows, that is still a lot of money especially since many of the channels now offer direct access to their content.

Three of the major movie channels (HBO, Showtime, and Starz) cater to the cord cutters by offering complete online subscriptions that do not require a TV provider. HBO Now is currently $15 a month, Showtime Streaming is $11 per month and Starz is $9 a month. Cinemax has a streaming service for $10 per month but it is only available as an add-on to Sling TV (more about that service later).

Many of the other movie channels do offer streaming and on-demand services, BUT they require that you subscribe to their channels through your cable or satellite company. This is once how HBO and the others handled streaming, so it may just be a matter of months until these channels are also available as an online-only option.

Netflix continues to offer a solid selection of streaming movies in a three tiered subscription. Don’t bother with the base $8 plan (no HD is a drag). The $10 plan adds HD and allows streaming on two screens at a time. For the amazingly reasonable $12 plan, the amount of simultaneous screens jumps to four. The $12 plan also unlocks access to one of the largest libraries of UltraHD/4K content available anywhere. While 4K is still a nascent technology, it will increasingly become the standard, just as HD is the standard today.

Amazon Prime is another great option for movie streaming, but it is a bit of a different beast as it is bundled with a whole bunch of other services from Amazon (2-day shipping, music streaming, cloud storage for photos, and more). Many contend that no-charge 2-day shipping from Amazon is worth the $99 yearly fee on its own, so throwing a solid streaming service on top of that really makes Amazon Prime one of the go-to streaming options for cord-cutters. Amazon also supports UltraHD/4K, in addition to offline viewing on Android and iOS devices.

Amazon Prime Instant Video, Transparent

Amazon Prime Instant Video, Transparent

Last but not least, physical media is still viable. Blockbuster is gone, but the astoundingly convenient Redbox rental kiosks thrive. With Blu-Ray discs renting for $2/day and DVDs for $1.50/day, it’s by far the best value on the market for watching new movies.

Finally, don’t be afraid to check out the local library. Libraries across the country have greatly diversified in their quest to stay relevant and many now have extensive collections of movies that can be checked out for free.

Verdict: Cut the cord!

TV Series

House of Cards

House of Cards is a Netflix exclusive.

Again, some of the best shows out there are not even on cable. Netflix has given us House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Amazon has Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle. Hulu has the very funny The Mindy Project and many other quality shows.

The broadcast networks are also getting in the game. CBS All Access is now available for $6 a month, which buys access to virtually all past seasons of CBS shows and next-day access to the new shows. It even offers live streaming access in several US markets. The other networks have yet to offer their content as a completely separate subscription. Though it’s a question of when they will follow along, not if.

Cord cutters that enjoy broadcast TV, but want the flexibility of streaming have options. A DVR like a Tivo is the easiest and most direct means. Many shows on cable channels like FX or AMC are available for purchase or rent one episode at a time through Amazon or iTunes. Less appealing but no less an option, you can wait and buy/rent the whole season when it comes out on disc.

Verdict: Cut it!

Sports Fans

An antenna will provide access to games on the OTA networks. This works great for NFL fans, which will likely have access to all local-team games not subject to blackout rules. Even local-team games on Monday Night Football, which is exclusive to ESPN, should be made available on a network affiliate.

For NBA, MLB, NHL, and others, it’s much more complicated. ESPN, the previously cable-only mecca of sports, is available through Sling TV. As are TNT and TBS, which carry many high-profile NBA games. In addition, all the major sports leagues offer online subscription packages which let people watch any game, anywhere, anytime (almost). Rumor has it MLB will start offering single team subscriptions as well for those who just want to root for their hometown favorites.

Sling TV offerings

Sling TV offerings

The complicating factors here are the blackout rules. Were it not for this arcane and overly complex rule system, cutting the cord would be a straight out yes. The problem is all these online packages still have to obey the local blackout rules that could prevent broadcasts. These packages are not cheap so it seems crazy to pony up all this cash and have to miss a large chunk of the home team’s games.  

Now you didn’t hear it from us, but cord-cutting sports fans might want to look into getting a VPN service. VPN services offer a whole bunch of cool security benefits, but that’s not the point here. In terms of watching games, some VPN services allow you to choose the physical location of your remote server, which could be anywhere in the country. When using these VPN services, websites register the server location as your location, and NOT the location of your actual computer.

For example, a user in Seattle can circumvent blackout rules and watch a Mariners game by connecting to a VPN in Dallas, as the subscription service will think the user is watching in Dallas and not subject to the limitations. Keep in mind, this is very likely in violation of any user agreements, and you could lose access if caught.

Verdict: Get VPN (for the security benefits, wink wink), then cut it!

Kids Shows

Easy decision for parents here. Cut the cord. Period. Netflix has a huge selection of kids programming and PBS puts a lot of their content online for free. HBO also has first dibs on new Sesame Street episodes. When it comes to kid’s movies, even purchasing a physical copy is a decent option as parents know kids will readily watch them 100 times or more.

Verdict: Cut the cord!

Cable Replacement Services

With cable companies offering hundreds of channels, there are many programs cord cutters would definitely miss. Mythbusters reruns, the Food Network’s Chopped, and the Lifetime Movie Network’s scores of cheesy movies, are but a few of the entertainment options we regularly enjoy, to make no mention of cable news.

This has given rise to a few companies looking to duplicate some of the cable company’s services in an online format.

Dish Network now offers a service called SlingTV.  For $20/month it provides online access to the live broadcasts of 27 of the most popular cable-only channels, most notably ESPN, but also favorites like Food Network, Comedy Central, CNN, AMC, and Disney Channel. They also offer add-ons for premium channels such as HBO (same $15/month as HBO Now) and Cinemax ($10/month, and a SlingTV exclusive for now).

Sony offers the PlayStation Vue service which can be accessed through a PlayStation 3 or 4, or through a Google Chromecast and smartphone, Amazon Fire TV, and new Roku boxes. They offer three plans at $30, $35, and $45 per month. However, these plans are reminiscent of the dreaded channel bundles offered up by cable companies with a handful of popular channels, but a whole bunch of obscure channels one may never watch.

PlayStation Vue is a cable alternative that walks the line between cable and streaming.

PlayStation Vue is a cable alternative that walks the line between cable and streaming.

Finally Comcast, the big bad cable company, is starting to get into the game of replacing itself. Currently available in five states (Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Hampshire), Comcast offers an online-only service named Stream. Priced at $15 per month it provides the same channels that would come in their Limited Basic package. These channel lineups vary by region but all of them include the OTA channels of ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, PBS, Univision and Telemundo. The value-add here is that Comcast also includes HBO and all the HBO Go content in the package and up to 20 hours of recordings to Cloud DVR which can record up to two shows simultaneously.

While all this sounds great, it has one major drawback. Stream is only available to subscribers of Comcast’s internet service, and only when connected to the in-home network. Got a friend with Comcast internet? Stream won’t work there. Connected to a public Xfinity Wi-Fi spot? Stream won’t work there. At work? Stream won’t work there. The only content that can be accessed outside the in-home network is from channels that provide separate TV Everywhere apps, which are currently HBO Go, WatchABC, NBC, FOXNow, PBS, Telemundo, and Univision.

Verdict: Cut the Cord already!

Surf No More

Cut the cord, and you won't get the bundled services discount.

Cut the cord, and you won’t get the bundled services discount.

If financial savings are the primary motive, then cutting the cord might not save as much money as expected. With more and more streaming companies having good original content, avid TV fans may have to subscribe to multiple services to stay on top of the latest shows. Cord-cutters also take on the financial responsibility of obtaining and maintaining their own hardware. Households that regularly stream content to several users at a time will want to explore the next higher tier of internet service that comes with more bandwidth and a bigger price tag. Lastly, any bundled discounts on internet service will also evaporate.

Aside from minimal financial savings, there’s also a lifestyle change that comes with cutting the cord. Watching TV will no longer be as effortless as before. It will be much more complex and will require a little bit of work as you remember which channel is on what service and learn how to navigate the interface of the different services.

Watching TV becomes a conscious decision and the dreaded time suck of channel surfing will become a thing of the past. In general, cord cutters can expect to spend less time watching television, but will see a greater variety of shows. To paraphrase the work cliché, cord cutters watch smarter, not harder.


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  1. JonBerezinski

    How about addressing / recommending alternatives for ~recording~ OTA shows? One of the obstacles for my wife is losing the whole DVR side of it.