Here’s the reality: the average American cable bill is $100 per month. That’s the average, mind you: many people pay more than that, and some pay substantially more. Such a bill adds up to well over a thousand dollars a year.
That’s a big expense, no matter how you slice it.
Not only that, the vast majority of cable programming is a wasteland. Most people watch only a handful of channels on their cable package, meaning that the rest of the content just goes to waste.
There’s got to be a better way – and there is: cord cutting.
This is a topic I’ve written about several times before on The Simple Dollar, but the reality is that as alternatives to cable television grow and change, the options for people who want to break away from the cost of cable television drastically improve.
The truth is that you can get more programming that you can ever watch, right on your television, for about $100 in initial equipment and $10-30 a month thereafter (maybe a little more if you want specific programming). Here’s exactly how you do that.
Over-the-Air Signal: Free After $20-30 in Initial Equipment
Television stations still broadcast over the air signals for free, just like they always have, but the signals these days are in a digital form, meaning that you don’t have static-y channels any more. Provided you’re reasonably close to a station (or even if you’re not all that close but have lots of open sky around you), you can get a lot of digital channels for free over the air if you have a digital antenna.
In most areas of the country, you can get twenty or thirty digital channels over the air from such an antenna, including all of the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS) and many additional channels as well. In my area, we can get a weather-only channel, a kids channel (from PBS), a movies channel that shows a lot of great older films, and some other miscellaneous things.
Currently, you can get an indoor digital antenna for as little as $20. Mounting this on your wall in a high spot and attaching it to your television will give you a lot of channels if you’re in an urban area (or even just outside of one).
For a little bit more, you can get an outdoor digital antenna for a little over $30. This has a claimed range of 120 miles; I’ve personally seen such antennas pick up crystal-clear signals even in the middle of a storm from more than 50 miles away. Installing an antenna like this will take a little bit more work as you’ll have to run the cable into your house in some fashion, but it’s great for people in rural settings.
Sure, there’s a small setup cost here, but once things are in place, there’s no monthly bill any more for the channels.
Netflix: $8-10 a Month (with Preexisting Internet Package)
Netflix is probably the best option out there for streaming in terms of the total availability of programs that they have. They have an absolute flood of original series of all kinds, including shows like House of Cards (a great political thriller) and Master of None (easily my favorite comedy that’s original to streaming services). Their catalog of full seasons of other television shows is extensive, as is their catalog of movies of all stripes. Their overall library is the best of the lot, in my opinion.
The best part about a streaming service is that all of this is on demand. You can watch an entire season of a television series all in one day if you so choose, watching them back to back to back. Most Netflix apps have an auto-play feature, too, so you can just start a series and they’ll play all day long with just a brief pause in between episodes (five seconds or so). It’s all commercial free, too.
The service costs $8 a month, but that minimal service does not include HD streaming. For that, you need to pay $10 a month. Of course, you will also need a high speed internet service of some kind of at least 2 Mbps per second or else Netflix (and other streaming services) won’t work very well.
Amazon Prime: $99 a Year (with Preexisting Internet Package) Plus Additional Benefits
Amazon Instant Video is another very strong streaming service, with a library almost comparable to Netflix and a healthy batch of their own original shows, including Transparent and The Man in the High Castle (which is excellent, by the way). They also have an extensive catalog of full seasons of television series and movies. Their offerings have significant overlap with Netflix, but there are quite a few differences and the original offerings are obviously completely different.
One advantage that Amazon’s offering has is that it comes bundled with Amazon Prime, a service that offers a bunch of additional perks such as free two day shipping on pretty much everything on Amazon, as well as a “lending library” for your Kindle that nets you a free book per month.
Again, as with Netflix, one big advantage here is that it’s all on demand. You can pick what show you want to watch and watch it immediately without commercials. You can binge-watch full seasons of television shows if you want or have a movie marathon of whatever films you want from their library. You have control.
Hulu Plus: $8 a Month (with Preexisting Internet Package)
Hulu Plus is a third streaming service that offers something pretty distinct from the other two. For starters, it provides streaming of many current television shows, sometimes offering new episodes of those shows almost as soon as they air elsewhere. It also provides a pretty distinct film library, including the Criterion Collection of films, which is a spectacular curated collection of films with significant artistic importance and quality. They’re also starting to dabble in original programming with things like 11.22.63 (based on the Stephen King novel of the same name).
Again, this is an on-demand service, meaning you get to choose what’s on whenever you’re watching. There are some ads on Hulu Plus during the television shows, but the commercial load is definitely lower than normal cable or over-the-air sources. This is definitely the service of choice if you want to keep up on current series.
Which Streaming Service Is Right for Me?
Here’s how I would choose them.
If you simply want the best all-around library of things to watch, Netflix is your choice. It just has the best overall library of content, which isn’t surprising because that’s their clear focus. They also have the best overall selection of original shows, too (in my opinion).
If you want other perks beyond just the streaming service, choose Amazon Prime. Their library is roughly comparable to Amazon’s library with some good original shows, plus you get the benefit of Amazon Prime shipping and the Kindle library.
If you want to keep up on current television shows, Hulu Plus is your preferred choice. Their library has the most current content of the three services.
Honestly, though, you can subscribe to all three for about $25 a month, so if you can’t decide, getting all three will still be far cheaper than a cable bill.
Honestly, most of my video viewing these days comes from Youtube. There are a number of Youtube channels that I deeply enjoy and watch faithfully. Here are a few of my favorites:
TED Talks is a selection of presentations on a wide variety of topics. These almost always consist of someone giving a brief speech on a topic to an audience, but the topics vary incredibly widely and these talks usually get right to the point. It’s almost always thought provoking.
The Great War provides week-by-week coverage of the entire history of World War I. This goes incredibly in depth, far deeper than a one hour show on The History Channel might take you. It’s both entertaining and educational to watch and listen to this war throughout all of its twists and turns.
Every Frame a Painting is a simply joyful channel about film making, using countless great examples that demonstrate how the magic on camera is made. I love watching how things are built, and this does such a beautiful job of showing that.
Laura in the Kitchen is perhaps my favorite Youtube cooking channel, though there are a ton of good ones. She just seems very joyful about what she’s doing, similar to how I feel about watching old episodes of Julia Child.
I could list dozens of these, but those four are great examples of Youtube channels.
The advantage of Youtube is that it enables you to find channels that are dedicated to very niche topics that couldn’t possibly support a full-fledged cable channel on their own. It also seems very human, in that the people on camera are also often the people doing the editing and reading the comments. There’s a very personal connection there.
Sling TV: $20 a Month (with Preexisting Internet Package)
If there is really a channel you can’t live without, like CNN or ESPN, Sling TV might be a great choice for you. Sling TV offers a small selection of cable channels for streaming, including ESPN, CNN, TBS, TNT, AMC, and several others for $20 a month. It’s just a very straightforward offering – I think of it as a streaming “mini-cable” package.
I’m mentioning this here because it’s very relevant to the next section. Sling TV is an essential tool for sports fans.
Sports Packages (Varying Prices)
For many people, the real challenge of switching to streaming is sports. How will you catch sports programming if you drop cable?
The truth is that solutions are different depending on your sport of choice. There is no one stop shop for sports streaming (yet). Instead, most sports leagues offer their own streaming service.
MLB.tv offers MLB.tv Premium for $109.99 per year. This enables you to watch all 2,430 regular season baseball games both live and on demand. For the playoffs, you should be able to catch all playoff games through a combination of your over-the-air antenna and Sling TV, which is mentioned above.
The NFL is kind of quirky in their online offerings. They don’t offer their full package online throughout the United States, but they do offer it in some areas, as described on that website. Pricing is very unclear. However, between over the air channels and Sling TV, you should be able to catch most NFL games including the playoffs.
The NBA is probably the most difficult major sport to watch online. Your best bet is probably to get a Sling TV setup, which will allow you to watch most nationally televised games.
NHL.tv offers full streaming of all out-of-market games, which can be frustrating if you just want to follow your local team. The NHL is televised on a motley crew of channels in the United States, so this might be a sport where you have to continue your cable package in order to follow it.
Baseball clearly offers the best streaming package among all major sports. I’ll be honest – their streaming package has been the sole thing that has kept me engaged as a fan over the last several years.
24 hour news programming is currently a bit tricky to get over streaming services, but there are a couple of options.
For starters, as I mentioned above, Sling TV offers CNN as part of their $20 a month package. That’s the only way to get a major news network in streaming format.
If you’re willing to step away from the major news networks, I do highly recommend CBS News streaming. It’s available via the web and also via an app on most devices.
Getting All of This on Your Television
The question, of course, is how exactly do you get all of this on your television? It’s actually pretty straightforward.
With an over the air antenna, you simply plug the co-ax cable into the back of your television and browse through channels using your normal television remote. It’s about as easy as can be. The only trick is actually installing the antenna itself, which can be a challenge if you’re using a roof-mounted antenna, which you’ll need if you’re in a rural area.
For all of the streaming services, the easiest single solution is to get a Roku streaming media player. It’s a small box that you attach to your television and then access by changing the input on your television, much like you would with a DVD player.
Roku boxes offer the most full-featured streaming options. It offers apps for all of the above streaming programs and has a menu that’s very easy to navigate. For a specific player for people who are primarily interested in streaming television shows, I recommend the Roku 2.
Some people may have DVD/Bluray players and televisions that already offer the ability to use these various streaming apps. If that’s the case, there’s no need for a second device. Just use the apps that already exist on your television or other devices.
What Will You Miss?
There are some things that you’ll miss if you switch to streaming.
The biggest thing that you’ll miss is first-run episodes of some programs. There are some shows that don’t show up on streaming services at first, if ever. There are some services, like Amazon and the iTunes store, that do allow you to purchase new episodes of many of those shows at a few dollars per episode right after it airs, so if there is one show in particular that is a “make or break” for you, you might be able to follow it that way and still save a lot of money over a cable package.
You’ll also miss out on commercials that people may be talking about. While the “water cooler” talk about commercials is perhaps not as prevalent as it once was, entertaining commercials still create some buzz. Most streaming services (though not all) are commercial free.
It can also be difficult sometimes to find good video coverage of live, breaking events. While you can get CNN via Sling TV for this, if you’re not willing to shell out $20 a month for that service, your options are pretty limited. I’ve found success with the CBS News service mentioned above, however.
What Will You Gain?
Along with those losses, there are some benefits to streaming that go far beyond cable.
First, you can watch almost every streaming service on your mobile device. That means if you’re at a friend’s house or if you’re traveling, you can still watch whatever streaming services you pay for on your phone or your tablet. I’ve personally taken advantage of this many times.
Second, there’s always something on that you want to watch. You simply don’t have to “channel surf” any more once you’re on the streaming bandwagon. Right now, there are a dozen shows that I’d like to watch that I could start watching within just a few seconds. That’s pretty amazing, and it changes how you watch television.
Finally, your commercial intake will go down significantly. Some streaming services still have commercials, but many do not. If you’re mostly a Netflix viewer, you’re probably not going to see any commercials any more. Instead of waiting for such a break to go to the bathroom, you just pause the show. Instead of learning more about some product you don’t need, you just watch more of the show.
Cutting the cable cord can seem kind of scary at first, particularly for people who watch a lot of television each day. However, doing so has a ton of benefits.
First, you’re going to save a lot of money. Even if you subscribe to most of the services above, you’re still saving quite a bit each month over your typical cable bill.
Second, you’re going to cut down your commercial viewing significantly. Many streaming services don’t have commercials at all, and even those that do seem to have a lower number of commercials.
Third, you’re going to have much more control over what you watch. Most streaming services offer on-demand choices, meaning that you choose what to watch when you want to watch it.
Finally, you’ll have flexibility over where to watch it, since you can stream almost all of this stuff on your phone or tablet.
Sure, there are some drawbacks. It can be hard to keep up with specific series and with some sports.
Overall, however, the benefits of cutting the cable cord and switching to streaming are tremendous. If you haven’t considered it before, take a look at the offerings above and see if they add up to enough for you to cut the cord and start saving some money.