You Don’t Have to Pay for Cable TV

By on

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.

Sign up for our free newsletter

Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash. It doesn't cost a dime, so why wait? Click here to sign up now.

Check out our hottest deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,154 more deals!

Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Bigbrad

    No such thing as a “HDTV” antenna. A TV antenna is an antenna period. Sure it's antenna elements are cut to exact dimensions that receives the corresponding transmitted frequencies (channels), but don't be fooled into believing you must buy a “special” antenna.

  • Guest

    There IS such a thing as digital static — the picture becomes pixelated, and sound can drop out (or, even more annoyingly, loud distortion sounds occur). The digital reception in my area is terrible — we get one channel somewhat reliably, with the aforementioned “static”, and frequent loss of signal intermittently throughout whatever show we're watching. Though this would probably be a lot better with an outdoor antenna, which I unfortunately don't have.

  • unknowing

    While I remain very interested in these new options, noone has addressed what internet speeds, companies, plans, etc. you must get for these things to work. Please write another story (almost a part 2 of this one) detailing who best to get the broadband from. Some examples of sub topics — what are the recommended minimum speeds for these different systems (netflix, hulu, etc.)? Do you have to have unlimited internet plans to receive these shows? Who is best — cable, dsl, wifi? What hidden charges should you look for?

    • http://profiles.google.com/casstevensclyde clyde casstevens

      I have clear internet service for about three months now and I have trieded about all of them and it is the best I,ve ever had.it a little box that you plug in to the wall to box from box to computer and go to clear on computer and set up.box is on 24 hour aday and any time you choice to get on computer you can.and its less then $60.00 a month here.never had one bit of trouble with it.comcast or anyone else has ever gave me the service I get now.if you go on your computer and pull it up and get it ,you will agree with me on this.clyde-7-9-2011

  • Felix

    Your title is deceiving: you're arguing that you don't need cable tv, which is different from your title of you don't need to pay for cable tv. If you want cable tv, you still have to pay for it.

  • Meteorman

    Get ready for metered Internet access. It's coming.

    • http://profiles.google.com/casstevensclyde clyde casstevens

      yes it is,there is always someone thats going to screw you as long as you live.i am almost 74 years old and I get screw more ofter now then i did,when i could.

  • Meteorman

    Did you get the message?

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/7GAW5FOKZTUDXORYC24DKBVCLE Charlie

    ya say ipods to work this cable free tv but what about desk top with dsl . so far i see no help

  • ginko

    Now, if we could only get Cable-Free Cable! Now, that would be deliciously delightful! I am right.

  • http://www.moneytalksnews.com/ Dan Schointuch

    I talk about hooking a computer up to your TV just after the heading “How does all this internet video get on my TV?”

    Since it's different for every computer/tv and can be fairly complicated if you don't know what you're doing, I recommended getting some help from someone who knows computers, or watching this video from Howcast: http://www.howcast.com/videos/185705-How-To-Con… (Note: the instructions also apply to desktops).

  • Muggsta22

    In addition to your reply, unfortunately some/most providers offer the bundle strategy. You know… the one designed to save the customer money! Well… try eliminating one of the three (internet, cable, or phone) and the total price is minimally affected. In fact, the average cost per service increases. And don't forget about the hefty early termination fees.

    • http://profiles.google.com/casstevensclyde clyde casstevens

      i tried to tell some of you what was the best internet service got flaged.maybe someones got an interest help screw you as long as they can.make you wonder?

  • Annieminga

    it is here already. for those of out in the boondocks or just 20 feet to far for service (like us- they service across the street but not ours cause we are the only ones on this side of the street) we are stuck with internet providers that charge you by the amount you upload/download. Internet nazi's are already here. I have to drive into town (4miles) to the library to down load my college lectures because it is more than I am allowed per month with out getting shut off. yea………Wild Blue YOU SUCK!

  • Texaslonghorns1950

    This is not possible for a lot for people. We can't get DSL where we live, we can't get cable and we can't pick up anything with an antenna, we are just too far out. Our only option is Dish Network or Direct TV and wireless internet or dial up, you can't watch TV with either of those. Dial up is too slow and wireless is very limited

    • http://profiles.google.com/casstevensclyde clyde casstevens

      that sound like my childhood.40 miles from nowhere.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/4QPUC6MOIF2B5JWHKB3WVD7IUA Nightryder

    I can't believe how lazy or stupid or a combination of both that people fall into!!!
    All this stuff is so easy to find out about. Just get off your asses and start using the Internet to understand how all this stuff is possible.
    Once you do your homework and read a little bit here and a little bit there……………….all the pieces come together and a light goes off in your thick heads and you say to yourself: “Well, DUH……..I finally understand how this all comes together!”
    First off, you people are getting screwed doing a 'package deal' with your phone provider.
    You want an Internet speed of at least 5 megs or better or you'll be unhappy.
    Go to the Netflix site and look at that first splash page and look at the bottom of the page to see the many ways you can get to the point of streaming.
    And for the person that is talking about pixelation…………I get a better picture than I get with DISH and that little puppy will be cut off next week and good riddance!!!
    Ask and ye shall learn!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • oldfolksathome

    aaaarrggghhh

  • oldfolksathome

    aaaarrrggghhhhh……..

  • Darrynl

    How does he get internet access? If he's paying for it, it needs to be included in the cost. If he's not paying for it, where's he getting it for free?

  • Darrynl

    You can get internet through the phone company without paying for phone usage (not sure about getting it without cable). The cost through Qwest is $35/mth for 1.5Mbs, and it goes up from there. The thing is, you'll need speeds of over 10Mbs for good video streaming. Then there are caps to how much info you could download before they would want to jack up the price on you. On Comcast, it's 250GB/mth, meaning you could average downloading 8GB/day without them flagging you as an “abusive user”.

    For “free” internet, the only thing I can think of is you would need to live very close to a public library or a public “hot spot”. There you would be limited to the content you can view.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/4QPUC6MOIF2B5JWHKB3WVD7IUA Nightryder

    To Darrynl:
    “How does he get internet access? If he's paying for it, it needs to be included in the cost. If he's not paying for it, where's he getting it for free? “………………………………………………….

    Ya just can't fix STUPID, can ya? Keep on “thinking” and just maybe you'll “get it”

    (one sandwich short of a box lunch)

  • Darrynl

    Nightryder, if that's all you can think of, you are STUPID. You want to ramble off on how stupid and lazy people are, but you have the internet from somewhere. Why don't YOU in all your brilliance do your own blog about this.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/4QPUC6MOIF2B5JWHKB3WVD7IUA Nightryder

    Darrynl, if you are having a hard time figuring out where in hell your Internet connection is coming from or who your provider is(ISP), I think it would be wise that you don't even attempt moving up to STREAMING.