You Don’t Have to Pay for Cable TV

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Almost a year ago I moved into a new apartment and did something revolutionary: I didn’t set up cable or satellite TV. I was frustrated by the lack of choice (only one provider), lengthy contracts, and inexplicably high price. As someone who watches a lot of television, this seemed like a truly difficult problem, but I resolved to find a way to see my favorite shows without paying a cable or satellite bill. Fortunately, it was much easier than I thought.

You might not know it, but you can watch HDTV with an antenna.

Over 99% of U.S. TV households can receive at least one local station over the air, while 89% can watch five or more. The picture is perfectly clear thanks to the switch to digital TV completed on June 12, 2009. You’ll either see a crisp, beautiful image or no image at all (static is a thing of the past). And the best part? All your favorite programming will still be in HD.

HDTV is more expensive for local stations to produce, so it’s common to see a station broadcast in regular standard definition during the day, but switch their signal to high definition for prime time. So while the local news may not be in HD, your favorite shows like Glee, America’s Got Talent, and The Bachelorette will be.

Of course, you will need an antenna to make this work, but your HDTV will also have to have an “HDTV tuner” built in. This is sometimes referred to as “integrated HDTV”. If not, you’ll need to buy a separate HDTV tuner that connects your existing HDTV to an antenna. To check, you may have to consult your HDTV’s manual, do a search online, or contact the manufacturer.

AntennaWeb, a site provided by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), will show you exactly where to point your antenna for the best reception at your address. It will also let you see which stations are broadcasting over the air in your area. There may be more than you think.

What about shows that aren’t on broadcast channels?

Two of my favorite shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, air on Comedy Central, which isn’t a channel you can receive with an antenna. Fortunately, Internet to the rescue! If you’ve got a computer and internet access (there’s no way I’d be able to live without paying for Internet), both shows can be watched in their entirety on their respective websites for free. (Full episodes of The Daily Show and full episodes of The Colbert Report). Like most online shows, you’ll have to sit through a few commercials, but less than you would see watching the same show on television and without having to pay for the privilege.

The popular website Hulu has hundreds of shows available to watch online, all free, commercial-supported, but it’s not the only option. Netflix is a great way to watch past seasons of favorite shows, which can be streamed instantly to almost 100 devices like your computer, Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, iPhone (soon), etc. You can watch as much as you want for only $9 a month; compared to the cost of a cable or satellite subscription with premium movie channels, a pittance. Plus, they’ve got almost every movie you’ve ever heard of, offer a 2 week free trial, and let you cancel whenever you want.

Where do you watch live sports online?

If you’re getting your Internet from one of these providers, you can access ESPN3, a “broadband network for live sports programming”. The site is currently in beta and not every game on TV is available online, but you can watch thousands of games and events (even World Cup soccer) live with chat, stats, scoreboards, and picture-in-picture. According to them:

Each year ESPN3 delivers thousands of live games and events like College Football and Basketball, NBA, MLB, UEFA Champions League Soccer, The Masters and US Open Golf, all 4 Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and more. Plus you get a fully interactive experience with real time in-game stats and scoreboards and live chat.

Other sites to watch sports? MLB.tv has an $80/year membership that will let you stream every regular season baseball game (with a few exceptions) right to your computer/PS3/etc, live or on-demand, and in HD when available. Given the success of these ventures, look for even more games and events to be broadcast online through sites like ESPN3 and MLB.tv. The interactive nature of the web allows for an engaging, social experience and ultimately, more enjoyable spectating.

But what about “premium” shows, like the ones on HBO, Cinemax and Starz?

Some shows can be purchased individually from sites like Amazon.com or Apple’s iTunes Store a day or two after they air. If you do the math, you’ll find that purchasing your favorite show is likely to be cheaper than paying for the channel it airs on month after month.

For everything else, you’ll have to be a little patient and wait for the inevitable DVD release of last season. The typical DVD set for one season of a television series costs between $25 and $35, so you could buy several sets each month and still save over the cost of cable or satellite. However, if it comes out on DVD, chances are it’ll show up on Netflix where that $9 a month subscription is now looking really good.

How does all this internet video get on my TV?

While streaming video to your computer sounds great, most people want to watch television on their television. Fortunately, there are tons of options to get your favorite shows on your big screen. First, check your computer for an output designed to work with either an external monitor or TV. If you’ve got one, you may be able to buy a cable and adapter that will plug your computer directly into your television. Doing so is a bit like putting together a puzzle; you want to find pieces that connect to each other. This can be a little tricky, especially with all the different possible connections on the market. So if you’re not tech savvy, you may want to get a little help from someone who is or check out this video from Howcast called “How To Connect Your Laptop To Your Television”.

You might also want to look at “media streaming” boxes. Like the cable box you’ll be ditching, these connect to your TV and allow you to watch programming you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. The big difference? You can watch free and paid internet content. Depending on the box, you’ll be able to stream video from Netflix, Amazon, MLB.tv, Hulu, and YouTube, audio from internet radio stations, Pandora, and Last.fm, and watch movies or look at photos that have been stored your home PC. Think of media streaming boxes as mini-computers for your TV.

The Roku Digital Video Player is $80 ($100 for the HD version), but you can get $20 off if you’re a new Netflix subscriber. It’ll stream dozens of “channels” from the web right to your TV for less than the price of one month of cable or satellite. Plus, it’s an open platform so developers are adding new channels all the time.

The Boxee Box by D-Link wont be available for purchase until later this year, but you can install their free software on your home computer right now. It’ll turn your Mac or PC into a full fledged media player, with an interface specifically designed to look great on TV. It’s much easier to navigate with a remote and provides easy access to your personal collection of movies and music, as well as every video website under the Sun.

Google will soon enter the market to pair TV and the Internet with Google TV, a software package they developed to be built in to TVs, Blu-Ray players and set-top boxes. It’s sort of a super-TiVo that will let you watch and record broadcast programming while seamlessly switching to internet streaming when what you want to watch isn’t on a channel you receive. In essence, Google created the perfect companion for anyone who wants to ditch cable or satellite without sacrificing their favorite shows. Upcoming devices with Google TV built in have been announced by Sony, Logitech and Intel, but wont be available until later this year.

Apple TV is like an iPod for your TV. It’ll let you stream videos and audio from your iTunes collection, but only if they’re in the right format, and nothing from Hulu, Netflix, etc. Of course, anything you purchase from iTunes will play perfectly, so this may be a great option for some. However, at $230 with seemingly limited capabilities, your best bet might be to wait for the Apple TV 2 (if such a thing is coming).

So there are plenty of inexpensive options. You don’t need a new computer for every TV in your house, though with the money saved by cutting out cable or satellite, you could afford several.

How much does all of this cost?

While the average cable bill is $75 a month or $900 a year, I was paying closer to $150 a month or $1800 a year to see everything I wanted. Now I pay $9 a month for my Netflix subscription and watch everything else for free online or over-the-air broadcast. I don’t need a TiVo (since you can just hit pause on a website), and I use an old, cheap computer running Boxee hooked up to my TV as my “media center”. My $1800 a year expense is now only $108 and I can watch just about everything I want, whenever I want.

Update: Hulu Plus

Just one day after writing this story (yesterday), Hulu announced their new premium membership called Hulu Plus. For $9.99 a month, it promises full and current seasons of shows like The Office, Friday Night Lights, Dancing with the Stars and Lie to Me. Shows can be watched on your computer, through an iPhone/iPad app, or on a compatible television, blu-ray player or gaming system. While you are paying money for a premium service, Hulu has said that programming will still be advertising supported, so be aware. Currently, the full Hulu Plus catalog is only open to those who request an invitation, but look for wider availability soon. Personally, I can’t wait to try it out.

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  • Anonymous

    I don’t know what’s best for everyone, but this column got us started on the road to where we are today: having dumped cable except for basic, with a DVR for recording those broadcast networks we still have while we’re out, we have bought two ROKU players, one for each tv, for a total of $135, including shipping, and they work GREAT. Right now, we get super music and all of Netflix through them, but Hulu’s coming this fall. We are VERY happy with the fact that, when we cut down from the package deal of high-speed internet plus phone plus cable (who needs a land line when you have cells anyway?) to just high speed internet plus basic cable and DVR, we cut our bill from $140/month to $61/ month. We were already paying the $9/month Netflix bill. We may not even go for the other ten for Hulu.

    So in two months, we’ll be ahead. Just watch out for companies like Time-Warner if you do this and have auto-pay on a credit card. They’ll tell you they “can’t stop” the next month’s payment–even if it’s three weeks away!–so you’ll be working off a credit for three months. Nice little loan for them, eh? Be sure to stop the autopay a coupe of months before you make the change. I wish we had. We’re very happy, nonetheless.

    • Anonymous

      If you want to stop an auto pay like that, simply put a phone call in and block that credit card for the time they are going to take out the payment. If you threaten them with that, maybe they would stop the payment immediately, thinking you could easily also just get your credit card number changed. Only takes a few days to get the new number. Maybe you could tell the card company to block that purchase as you have cancelled it and supply them an e-mail where you told TW you are cancelling that purchase(bill payment) effective immediately.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YYFFC4GT6ZLBTZCTI4HIMVHUJY Steve

    We pay for the least expensive cable service in our home for a number of reasons, even though most of the programming on the 120 “stations” offered is either home shopping or jesus channels. What’s left after that crap is not very entertaining and only mildly informative.

    Don’t get me started on that.

    The more expensive cable and satellite packages offer more of the same at a higher price What a tremendous waste of money.

    Services such as Hulu and Netflix offer access to programming more to our tastes. If we’re going to have a television in the house, we should at least be able to find programming that meets our standards for quality and content rather than what the cable companies and the channels they carry have decided we should like. Now we can have that, and at a fraction of the cost of even basic cable.

  • http://twitter.com/pjrodriguez PJ Rodriguez

    You sure could use an over-the-air antenna and Netflix and Hulu. but you still wouldn’t be able to watch Mad Men when it originally airs. You could wait a long time for it to come out on DVD. A iTunes Season Pass costs $35. If you watch fewer than 25 shows a year, that’s probably a good deal, but most people watch a lot more.

    (Caution: I work for the cable industry.)

  • Anonymous

    An update to this article. Starting May 2, 2011, AT&T will be imposing download caps on their DSL service — 150GB per month (really, per billing cycle) on “regular” DSL, and 250GB/month for U-verse DSL. This is not an option. Unlike AT&T Wireless customers whose existing unlimited data plans were grandfathered, all DSL customers will be capped.

    AT&T claims the download limits will only impact 2% of their customers, and that’s probably true as far as it goes. Only a relatively few people have discovered the joys of TV and movie streaming, vs the far greater number of people who use their service for little more than email and reading on-line articles. Download caps are aimed squarely at the Nexflix and Hulu business models, long-distance video conferencing (think Skype), and up and coming services based on cloud computing. If you have a gamer in the house, you will soon need to ration high-bandwidth games like World of Warcraft.

    Interestingly enough, the on-demand movie services offered by AT&T’s U-verse will not be subject to the download cap. Now you know why AT&T is against net neutrality.

  • Anonymous

    I am going to duck as I say this, but I LOVE my TW cable, which in internet and digital expanded but no premiums. They gave me a year of about $20 or so a month off, but I loved them before that. I watch a lot of TV on my computer, which is attached to a 24″ LCD Tv, so I can watch and still surf. Once my spouse comes home, then the big TV goes on. There is a lot of music and sports, true, but there is also a lot of movies and other shows. There are no close stations near us, and if I watch Hulu the movie always freezes about 7 minutes into it, so stopped trying. For 107 and change a month I can watch TV anywhere, even outside, and still do the internet thing. They give you a high speed modem and offer a free wireless router if you want, though I bought one myself. Customer service is incredibly fast and knowledgeable. Any questions on setting anything up, even a vcr or dvd, or another TV, and they help you on the phone or send a person out to do it for you. They will give you fresh quality cable if yours gets chewed by squirrels or storm damaged, or any other reason. So for about $60 for the TV part of the bill, I can’t see any better use of my entertainment money. Try watching internet TV when your internet is out. When you have a computer with crash problems or a virus, or just getting old and cranky. Keeping the computer on to watch TV all the time keeps the hard drive hot and should burn it out earlier than necessary. Last, when you have a loved one who wants cable, and they work hard all day, you spend that money and cut other ways. I could stop eating take out so often, online shopping could be cut, gambling trips have less money taken, etc. But my cable is like the microwave, my right as an adult to have and to hold, from this day forward, until extreme weather takes out my state or city. Even then, I have movies taped onto my VCR ( hate my DVD unit) from my 58″ LCD and will just pretend I have cable as the generator runs expensively in the background.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1254164129 Robert Gapen

    we canceled our cable back in the middle of 09 and have not looked back since

    it started out when I got laid off and my wifes hours got cut we have 2 kids so it was a major struggle for us and a major life style change and we missed it at first but once I got passed the first hurdle and found a way to connect my computer to our old Mitsubishi big screen tv the hardest part was finding what we used to watch on tv to now watch on the computer at that time there was not a lot online mostly broadcast stations on there own websites like nbc.com and so on and with a wireless keyboard and mouse who needs a remote ?

    now in 2011 there have been massive advances in the area hulu is a house hold name as well as netflix and almost every thing is on both of those websites netflix for older things and hulu for the new broadcast and we have grown accustomed to watching 2-3 days later then the air date with our queue and subscriptions it just lets us know through an email when new shows are available we have over 200 new shows available every day way more then we can watch and with our hulu plus subscription every thing but a very few never expire and we get to them when we get to them

    we plan on this year buying a roku box for the bedroom so we can have more then over the air in there at night when the kids are asleep and now we have a 42″ flat screen that we got with just a few months saving of not having cable tv I think as more people realize that its getting easier to make the switch more people will do it and once they do and they realize how easy it is to live without and how much money they save they tell there friends and it gets them thinking

    the cable companies have to take notice that there model wont work with this generation we are a generation of people who were raised on napster high speed internet and facebook and unless they do some drastic changes they wont survive they could buy out hulu.com tomorrow and people would cancel and find another way to watch what they want how they want were they want and i think they are finally starting to realize that come 2013 I see some big changes in the way tv is watched and viewed

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U5NBNGLULRVIVU6Z4P6CNFVVPQ Daniel

    Now Netflix is raising their rates by 60% because they “made a mistake by offering it to customers for too low” back in 2004 or 5?  I use netflix more than I watch TV, so I can see the value, for me.  However, if I didn’t hate commercials so much I would cancel my Netflix.  Nobody is going to pigeonhole me into going completely digital with my service.  I like the DVD’s/New releases.  Your selection is too OLD, try offering new releases Instantly online, then ppl have no reason to complain.

  • Anonymous

    wait a minute–if u stop cable or Dish –can u still get major sports? like Monday Night Football?

  • Anonymous

    wait –can u still get major sports like Monday Night Football if u don’t have cable or Dish?

    • Anonymous

      MNF is the exception, but lots of other NFL games, and all majors sports you can get.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6X2PA6LX4F3OMNWTCIYJYRP6NI Ted C

    There is never any mention in these articles on how to watch cable news.

  • Anonymous

    The only problem with ESPN3.com is you HAVE to subscribe to a cable package that gets that station to be able to watch it online which completely defeats the purpose…… UGH!

    • brian cavanaugh

      actually that isn’t true, only in some areas…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GBWYRDDFBSA3WBO23OJWRQPGHQ trisha

    I did all this – I was broke then. Now I have a little more. I like cable, I like being able to sit with a remote and flip through the channels and not wait for things to load, or find that apparently no one likes the stuff I like, OR that I have already watched the full selection of the stuff I do like. Sorry if I need to make cut backs again I would probably try this, but for now cable wins.

  • Eddie Appell

    We cut the cable (satellite, in our case) cord about 2 years ago.  I built a media center PC, with 2 dual-tuner cards (4 HD tuners total) and connected it up to the rooftop antenna.  We record most of the shows we like right off the broadcast channel’s HD signal, which is now rock solid.  We even get PBS in HD, which I did not get with DirecTV, so I can record shows like NOVA and Nature in HD.  That all works great, although occasionally things crash, and then I need to get out the wireless keyboard and restart things, which definitely doesn’t make the wife happy.  But for the money we’re saving it’s well worth it.

    For the few shows we like to watch that are only on cable or premium channels, we just wait until they come out on iTunes or Netflix.  My son uses Netflix streaming almost exclusively now.  

    The one thing I haven’t been able to figure out yet is NFL games on cable networks, specifically ESPN and NFL Network.  I love football, and record all the games every Sunday, but there’s still no way to watch MNF, or the Thursday night games on the NFL Network without cable or satellite.  For now, I just go to a friend’s house when my team is playing on one of those nights, but I think next year I might actually do a non-commitment cable plan just for that purpose during football season.  The day after the Super Bowl I’ll cancel the plan until next season.  I’m hoping to figure out a better solution, but so far haven’t…

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AKZE62HZDMVCRI5WUQYP47M6L4 Ms. Candelicious

      Not sure of your cell phone provider but Verizon mobile is the NFL exclusive for mnf, snf etc. This year is was free for all smart phone users but next year likely to be 9.99 a month or less..There is a cable to connect phone to tv…

  • Scott Helm

    Cable is a ripoff bottom line…I only watch Netflix and Hulu Plus and have my internet connection for about 55 bucks a month and not this 200 dollar crap anymore