If you have cable, think for a second about the cost of your monthly bill. Then, write down the shows you watch on a regular basis. Are any of those shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, or FOX? Remove them from the list. Are any available online easily? Remove those as well. What remains is all that you’re paying the cable company for. However high your bill is, whether it’s $40, $80 or more, you are probably paying too much for watching television.
What follows is a basic guide to cutting the cord. If you’re willing to spend some time getting your set-up right, you can save hundreds of dollars a month by saying NO to cable subscriptions and taking your media consumption into your own hands. Sure, it might not be as effortless as cable and there will be a few things some will miss that aren’t available streaming, but for a lot of people the money saved is more than worth it. Let’s begin:
1. The Trusty Antenna
Rabbit ears were a thing of the past until digital TV brought them roaring back. Before digital television, TV signals through an antenna were fuzzy, looked terrible, and were prone to interference. With the digital switchover, however, all of that changed. Now every local station is broadcasting over the air in glorious uncompressed HD, and in most cases it looks even better than HD from your cable provider. Sound comes in 5.1 surround sound, and any HDTV with a TV tuner can pull in the basic broadcast channels for free.
The tricky part with an antenna is buying the right one and putting it in the right place. AntennaWeb is an excellent resource that can help you out. Enter your address and you can see how far and in which directions the broadcast towers are away from you, and how powerful of an antenna you’ll need to pull them in. For people living close to the towers, a basic $10 RCA antenna should do the trick. If you live further away and need a little bit more power, an amplified antenna like this Terk model might be better.
Plug the antenna into your TV and do a channel scan and see what you get. In most cases, you’ll be able to get ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and FOX. You might need to mess with the positioning and direction of your antenna to get everything, but with a little bit of work and tinkering, you’ll be watching your favorite broadcast shows in HD without a monthly fee.
2. Streaming and Downloaded Media
For shows that aren’t available on broadcast television, there’s also plenty of streaming options. From standalone boxes like the Roku and Apple TV to full blown Home Theater PC’s and the Mac Mini, there are options for everyone on any end of the technological spectrum.
For the best access to streaming media, your best option is a full-blown PC or Mac hooked up to your TV. This will allow for streaming from individual TV show websites as well as sites like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. You can also play downloaded movies and TV shows, which is a feature that most standalone boxes are lacking. The Mac Mini is the most integrated and compact solution, but hardware geeks like myself can build their own HTPC for less money. If you’re not concerned about looks, really any tower with enough power will fit the bill. The easiest way to hook up a Home Theater PC to your TV is through an HDMI video card, highly recommended for anyone building their own.
Media software for HTPC’s is plentiful, some use Windows Media Center which is installed by default on Windows 7, others like XBMC, MediaPortal, or Plex for Mac. The best part about these apps is that they are all free, so you can try them out and decide which one you like best.
If you’re not wanting to go the route of a theater PC, the Roku box is another solid choice. With Amazon, Hulu Plus and Netflix streaming, you’ll be able to get a significant chunk of the content you’ll be able to get on a HTPC, but not all. Once you have your setup ready to go, Moki.TV is an excellent directory of what is streaming where, so you can find out how to get your favorite shows.
While cord-cutting can be great for most TV watchers, the one area that hasn’t totally caught up is live sports. Of course, the biggest events are on broadcast TV and if your ISP supports ESPN3, that can be a great option, but it doesn’t cover everything.
ESPN3 does not carry ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, for example, and if you’re a fan of a team that isn’t regularly on broadcast television the lower-tier sports channels like FSN and Versus rarely have official streaming options. College Football and College Basketball junkies might want to think this one through before canceling their cable, as you might miss more games than you want and be forced to find bootleg streams of questionable quality.
The other place where streaming hasn’t quite caught up is with children’s programming. It’s hard to find streams of full shows on networks like Nick, Cartoon Network, and the Disney Channel. If you cut the cord with a kid around, it will be hard to find age-appropriate material on many streaming sites, and DVDs will be your only option.
The age of insane cable bills seems to be behind us. With over the air HD and streaming solutions up the wazoo, there is less and and less need for a cable box piping pre-selected programming into your tube. Netflix, ESPN3, and Hulu put the content at your fingertips when you want it, and the empowerment feels great for most people. So go, cut the cord, and make sure to let us know how it goes for you.