You Don’t Have to Pay for Cable TV

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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