Cut the cord (or, how to cancel your cable TV and still be happy)

Cutting the cord

I know a number of people who are considering getting rid of their cable TV package, and most often it is because cable has become too expensive or they simply don’t watch much TV anymore. They want to know what it means to “cut the cord” and live without their cable box. So where does someone begin? The options listed below are listed in order, from less to more, of how much TV you really want in your life.

Live TV
mohuStart with the basics: you want to watch good, old-fashioned television shows during their regular time slots. CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and PBS are all available for free. Your TV needs to have an ATSC tuner built in. Most TVs have one, but if not you can buy one which is covered in the Hardware section below. You will also need an HD antenna. These new antennas, like the Mohu Leaf 50, are small and light enough to set on a shelf or hang on a wall inside your house, or you can buy larger ones, like the Mohu Sky 60, that get a stronger signal and mount inside your attic or on the side of your house. One thing to look for is the range. An antenna will say that it works up to 25 miles, or 35 miles, 50 miles, or more. Make sure you get an antenna with the correct range. My recommendation is to buy several different antennas from a store with a friendly return policy; test them all on the same day to see which one works the best and then return the others.

Required: HDTV antenna ($30 – $80 with no recurring fees)

Not-so-live TV
If you can wait one day to watch your shows, then Hulu is your best choice. You can watch the entire current season for almost all of your favorite shows that air on the basic channels like CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and PBS, plus access to some shows from your old cable package like A&E and F/X. While most channels only offer the current season of their shows, some offer all their past seasons as well. Hulu also offers their own exclusive shows and a limited amount of movies. The biggest drawback is that you do not have access to live sports, but that will be covered in the next section. Not all shows are included on Hulu, so my best advice is to check Hulu’s listings to see if it carries your favorite shows.

For an additional $9 per month you can add to your Hulu subscription Showtime’s current movies as well as some of their on-demand movies.

Required: Media streaming device (~$50); Hulu ($7.99 per month w/ limited ads; $9.99 w/ no ads) provides over 20 cable-only channels including ESPN.

Sports (and zombies and HBO)
The number one reason I hear from people who do not want to give up their cable TV is because they want to watch ESPN. If this is the only reason you are hanging onto cable, then you are essentially paying $60 or more per month just to watch Monday Night Football. Now there’s a solution to this dilemma. Sling TV is a service that you gives you more than 20 popular cable channels including ESPN, ESPN2, AMC (Mad Men and Walking Dead!), and the Food Network. It’s a great way to fill in the gaps between live TV and cable TV.

For an additional $15 per month you can add to your Sling TV subscription HBO’s current movies and on-demand movies.

Required: Media streaming device (~$50); Sling TV ($20 per month)

netflix youtubeNetflix by far is the largest movie streaming service, which is evident by the fact that it uses 35% of all peak-time Internet bandwidth in America, but it’s not your only option. Amazon Prime Video is similar in price to Netflix but also lets you rent movies for $2 to $5, gives access to a music library of over one million songs, and provides free two-day shipping on anything bought from Amazon. Both Netflix and Amazon also offer original programming. You might not want either one because Sling TV offers HBO for $15 per month and Hulu offers Showtime for $9 per month. Almost all of them offer a free trial of 7 to 30 days, so don’t be shy about trying them all out. YouTube also offers a great deal of programming as well, including some original shows as well as film clips and music videos. Most media streaming devices include the YouTube app.

Required: Media streaming device (~$50); plus one or more of the following services:

Hardware: Connect your TV to Hulu, Sling, Netflix, and Amazon
Soooooo… how exactly do you get this stuff on your TV? What connects to the television? Some TVs are called “smart TVs”. If you connect a smart TV to the Internet you will be able to access some of these services, but not all of them.

amazon fire stickFor those without a smart TV, including me, you need a “media streaming device” that can connect to your home WiFi. Some of the most common media streamers are the Amazon Fire Stick, Google Chromecast, and the Roku. They’re all very highly rated and cost less than $50.

There are more expensive options, and they have benefits that some will find worth the price. If you live in an “Apple house” where most of you have iPhones or use iPads, then an Apple TV might make sense for you. It connects to the songs and videos you have purchased with your iTunes account, and the new models allow you to play some iPhone and iPad apps. The one drawback is the Apple TV doesn’t include all media services, most notably Amazon’s video streaming. Cost: $150-$200

The Xbox One is a gaming console, media streamer, and can act as a TV tuner for free, local over-the-air HD television.
The Xbox One is a gaming console, media streamer, and can act as a TV tuner for free, local over-the-air HD television.

The Xbox One is a video game console, a media streamer, and much more. It has all the video streaming apps listed in this article, and with a small adapter you can also use it to view the TV listings and pause, rewind and fast forward live TV. It is anticipated that a DVR app will be added in the next year, allowing you to record all your favorite live shows and sports. I don’t recommend buying an Xbox One as a media streamer alone, but if you were trying to convince your better half that you need to get an Xbox for the house then maybe this will help your argument. Cost: $350.

Read the USA News article for one opinion on different media streaming options.

Total Cost
The total price of watching TV is going to be less than cable, but will still depend on what you like to watch. You can get live TV for free. For $28 per month you can get something pretty close to a typical cable TV package. Add HBO, Showtime and Netflix and your bill is still under $60. None of these services charge tax unlike cable, so that saves about $10 per month. See the charts below for a breakdown of the costs.

Cost of Live TV and Cable Channels

Service Initial cost Monthly cost
Live TV $50 $0
Media streaming device $50 $0
Hulu (one day delay of live TV) $0 $8
Sling TV (ESPN, AMC) $0 $20
Total $100 $28

Cost of Movie Channels

Add Ons Monthly cost
Netflix or Amazon Prime $8
HBO (needs Sling) $15
Showtime (needs Hulu) $9

If you’re still unsure of where to start, follow these steps:

  1. Buy a $35 small indoor HD antenna, connect it to your TV, and test it out to see what channels come in and which ones do not. In Chicago it is very hard (but not impossible) to get CBS because of the location of their antenna.
  2. Buy a $25 media streamer, like the Amazon Fire Stick or the Roku SE. Connect it to the Internet and connect it to your TV. Test it to see what you can watch for free.
  3. Start a free trial of Hulu. View their entire channel lineup to see if your shows are available and how many past episodes you can watch. Typically you can only watch the current season, but some have all prior seasons.
  4. Start a free trial of Netflix. View their entire movie and television show listings to see if it’s something you’d like to watch month after month.

Try this for one week. If you don’t like it, if it doesn’t work in your house, or if it’s too confusing, then cancel your subscriptions and return the antenna and media streamer if possible. It could take some getting used to, but if it works for you then you might save $50 or more per month by eliminating the cable TV bill.