It's gotten so easy to find TV shows and sports on streaming video services that you likely don't need a cable or satellite subscription to watch your favorite programs.
A few years 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 cable provider), lengthy contracts and inexplicably high prices.
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.
First, watch the video, where Money Talks News money expert Stacy Johnson explains how to cut the cable, step by step. Then read on for more details.
You might not know it, but you can watch HDTV with an antenna
The picture from on-air TV stations is perfectly clear, thanks to the switch to digital TV completed in 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, shows like “Big Brother,” “America’s Got Talent” and “The Big Bang Theory” will be.
Of course, you will need an antenna to make this work, and your HDTV will also have to have an HDTV tuner built in. This is sometimes referred to as “integrated HDTV.” If it doesn’t, you’ll need to buy a separate HDTV tuner that connects your existing HDTV to an antenna. To check, consult your HDTV’s manual, do a search online, or contact the manufacturer.
AntennaWeb, a site provided by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, 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 have 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.
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.
Popular website Hulu has a huge variety of TV shows available to watch online, though you have to pay for Hulu Plus at $8 a month for access to the full catalog. Amazon Instant Video is another option for TV shows, with many of its programs, including original programming, available without additional charge if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Memberships costs $99 a year.
Netflix is a great way to watch past seasons of favorite shows, which can be streamed instantly to many devices, such as your computer, iPhone, Android, Xbox, PlayStation and Wii. You can watch as much as you want for $8 a month (a dollar more for new members). Compared with the cost of a cable or satellite subscription with premium movie channels, that’s a pittance.
Plus, Netflix has a good selection of movies. Its original programming only sweetens the deal, with award winners like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” available only through its service.
Where do you watch live sports online?
If you’re getting your Internet from one of these providers, you already have free access to ESPN3, a “broadband network for live sports programming.” Not every game on paid TV is available online, but you can watch thousands of games and events live with chat, stats, scoreboards and picture-in-picture.
MLB.tv has an $80-a-year membership that will let you stream many regular-season baseball games right to your computer/Xbox/PS4/etc., live or on demand, and in HD when available. Paired with an antenna to watch local broadcasts, you might be able to watch every game you’re interested in for a little more than $6 a month.
NBA League Pass lets basketball fans stream regular-season, out-of-market games, similar to MLB.tv. Unlike regular cable, a membership lets you watch up to three games simultaneously in HD with live stats and “replays of select games.” Last year, the price was about $200, and there are serious limitations to the service. But die-hard fans may find it a necessary part of their cable-cutting adventure.
If you’re willing to wait until just after a game has aired to watch it, football fans can get “full replays of every regular-season NFL game on demand, online and in high definition” with NFL Game Rewind. A regular season of viewing costs only $40, but for $70 it will include the playoffs and the Super Bowl. A $30 option exists for those who care only about their favorite team’s regular-season games.
Videos are streamed without commercials or halftime shows, saving valuable hours of your life and dramatically improving the experience, in my opinion.
Hockey fans should check out NHL Gamecenter Live for streaming video of their favorite out-of-market games (price varies depending on where you live), soccer fans can get a season subscription to MLS Live for $65 a year, and NASCAR fans have RaceView Premium and RaceBuddy as options. Even fans of bowling can watch live events through the USBC’s Bowl TV.
You might be surprised at just how easy it’s gotten to watch your favorite sports over the Internet. For everything else, there are free local broadcasts or your neighborhood sports bar.
But what about “premium” shows, like the ones on HBO, Cinemax and Starz?
Some shows can be purchased individually from sites like Amazon 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.
Or you can probably rent the DVDs from Netflix, for a separate $8-a-month subscription.
Meanwhile, HBO has a deal with Amazon to stream past seasons of most HBO shows on Amazon Prime. You’ll also find past seasons of some of your favorite shows from Showtime and other premium channels via the streaming services.
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 have 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 on your home PC. Think of media streaming boxes as mini-computers for your TV.
You can buy a Roku streaming media player for as little as $40 on Amazon. It’ll stream hundreds 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.
A Google Chromecast is only $35 brand new on Amazon and offers up video and music from almost every streaming service around, but to use it effectively you’ll need to own a smartphone or tablet (either Android or iOS) to act as a remote control. Otherwise, you’ll have to use your PC to control it, and that can be cumbersome unless you’re the kind of person who always has a laptop nearby.
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. There are also apps to stream video from Hulu and Netflix among others, but no option for Amazon Instant Video. Of course, anything you purchase from iTunes will play perfectly, so this may be a great option for some. At $99, it’s a slightly more expensive option for streaming, but if you’re already committed to the Apple ecosystem and own several of its devices, it’s something you’ll want to consider.
Amazon Fire TV is the newest streaming box to hit the market and is priced identically to Apple TV at $99. But it has a slightly larger selection of streaming video services (since it includes Amazon Instant Video), and features some nifty technology, like voice control to simply tell it what you want to watch and pre-buffering so videos start instantly.
But what really sets the Fire TV apart is its graphics performance and, if you’re willing to drop an additional $40 on a gaming controller, it can double as a budget alternative to a system like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
How much does all of this cost?
While the average cable bill is $90 a month or $1,080 a year, I was paying closer to $150 a month or $1,800 a year to see everything I wanted. Now I pay less than $10 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 a Roku as my media center. My $1,800-a-year expense is now about $100, and I can watch just about everything I want, whenever I want.
If I wanted to pay for a streaming sports package, that would increase my costs, but I’d still be paying far less than the total cost of the same broadcasts with traditional cable.