From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I previously covered Twitter, citizen journalism, and alternative models for newspapers, among other topics. This week I look at cutting the cord to cable (or satellite) TV and watching TV content online.
Anyone who gets cable TV or satellite in the U.S. has noticed a pronounced trend over the years: their monthly bill keeps going up. Sure, you can get lots of channels, plus HD channels and DVR functions, but those usually cost extra. According to research from Centris (PDF), the average digital cable bill was nearly $75 last year, and the average monthly satellite TV bill was $69.
What’s causing those bills to skyrocket? A lack of competition among cable and satellite providers, and the rising costs of programming. The most recent programming dustup happened when News Corp. demanded carriage fees from Time Warner Cable, and settled before any channels were dropped. Time Warner is planning an upcoming rate hike. Like other traditional media, TV networks (both cable and broadcast) are being squeezed by lower advertising income, and think they can just keep raising the cable bills indefinitely.
Unfortunately for the cable TV industry, they’ve picked a bad time to raise their rates. Centris found in a separate report (PDF) that due to the economic meltdown, eight percent of U.S. households were likely to cancel their pay TV in the third quarter of ’09, and nearly half of households contacted TV providers for discounts or cheaper packages.
Thanks to the rise of Netflix, Hulu and hardware like the Roku box and Apple TV, cutting the cord to cable TV doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from your favorite shows and channels. While past experiments at bringing together the web and TV (such as WebTV) have failed, the recent recession has pushed people to pursue their own convergence projects that enable them to watch web content on their TV. Depending on various living room setups and viewing habits, making the changeover from cable to online TV can be complex and maddening. But you’re sure to save a bundle of money.
Hardware and Services
The first thing to do when cutting the cord is list the shows you watch regularly, and your favorite TV channels. Next, do a little online research to find out whether those shows appear on the channel’s streaming sites (such as NBC.com, CBS.com, etc.) or on Hulu or YouTube. Many shows on pay channels such as HBO don’t appear until much later, and usually must be bought via a service such as iTunes.
In addition to what’s available online, you might be surprised at the quality of over-the-air broadcast channels since the digital switch-over last year. Many newer TVs only require an antenna to get local broadcast channels, while older TVs need a converter box, which runs from $40 to $80. Plus, some of the programming includes HD content. To find out which digital channels you can get over the airwaves, input your location at the AntennaWeb site.
(Note: Broadcasters recently announced at CES that they would be offering “mobile DTV” so that people could pick up digital broadcast TV on laptops, smartphones and tablets.)
Below is a rundown of some of the more important elements to enjoying TV content via the web. You won’t need to get all of them but you can mix and match those that will get you what you need. Most cable quitters find they can get about 95 percent of the TV content they used to watch on cable via the various services below.
This is the box most cable quitters seem to like. It connects to your TV and your computer network, let’s you watch Netflix streaming movies, and offers some free and pay options for additional content. It costs $79.99 for SD and $99.99 for an HD model.
It’s basically a front-end device to iTunes, letting you download movies and music and play them through your TV. Problem: No TV tuner or DVR functionality.
Digital converter box
If you want to get the digital over-the-air stations in your area, you’ll likely need an antenna for newer TVs or this box for older TVs. Cost: $40 to $80.
This small box connects your TV to an external hard drive, letting you play movies, TV shows, photos or music you have downloaded. The standard WD TV is about $79, while the WD TV Live that lets you watch Net content is $119.
It’s a TV tuner for a Mac, letting you watch digital over-the-air channels on your Mac, or even on your iPhone with an extra $4.99 app. Cost: $149.95.
Netflix will let you play movies through your XBox 360 or PlayStation 3. There are also a wide variety of TV tuners and other devices that can turn game consoles into home entertainment systems. UPDATE: Netflix will now send a special disc to subscribers to put in Nintendo Wii consoles to you can watch instantly through your Wii as well. (Thanks, Kara!)
Note: If you prefer simply connecting your computer directly to your TV set without any other hardware, you can do that, too. Here’s a great video explaining how:
Services and Sites
The granddaddy of the DVD-by-mail services, Netflix has also become a huge entryway for people who want to dump cable and get TV shows later when they’re available on DVD. Netflix also offers unlimited streaming of some movies and TV shows, which works well with a Roku box or other Netflix-ready devices. Cost: $8.99/month for 1 DVD plus unlimited streaming, with various higher cost plans for more DVDs.
The free U.S.-only TV show service is a joint venture between NBC Universal, Fox, and Disney. You are forced to watch commercials before and during TV shows and movies. While it has been an especially popular service for those dumping cable, there has been chatter that Hulu might charge for content at some point. Cost: Free (for now).
Apple’s poorly named digital media buying service started out selling music downloads. Then it added a podcast directory, and now sells TV shows and rents/sells movies. Downloading TV shows at $1.99 per episode can get pricey, though there are discounted “Season Passes” and some limited free TV show offers.
The most popular video site on the web also can be accessed through various devices in order to view its content on your TV. These devices include the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 and TiVo.
Amazon on Demand
Trying to compete with Netflix and iTunes, Amazon offers quick downloads of various TV shows at similar prices to iTunes. They are playable on Macs or PCs, or on devices that connect your computer to your TV.
Windows software that lets you play Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. from your computer on your TV via a PlayStation 3, Wii or XBox 360. Cost: $39.99 after 14-day free trial.
Popular free file-sharing software for people who trade TV show and movie files. You’ll need to search your own conscience to decide whether to download copyrighted material from sites that utilize the torrent system.
Here are a few sample setups of people who get TV content without subscribing to cable.
Roku + Netflix and Amazon
Who: CancelCable.com bloggers
Setup: Roku box that plays Netflix and Amazon content; digital TV converter box.
Quote: “Since we need to be more proactive and select shows from Netflix or Hulu, we read a lot more reviews and tend to sit down and watch complete movies rather than just switching around hundreds of channels.”
eyeTV + Mac Mini
Who: Dan Milbrath, product manager, San Francisco
Setup: eyeTV hybrid to get broadcast channels on a Mac Mini; projector for movies; Netflix.
Quote: “I’m intrigued by on-demand, online TV options like those being offered by Amazon and iTunes but I think the pricing is still a bit too steep. $1.99 for a one hour episode of ‘Mad Men’ is about double what I think they should charge.”
AppleTV + PlayStation 3
Who: Leo Prieto, founder of online community Betazeta.com, Santiago, Chile
Setup: AppleTV with iTunes and Boxee; PlayStation 3 playing BitTorrent content, podcasts.
Quote: “I spend less than $30 a month on content, and it’s all stuff I decided to watch (and not just ‘what was on’ or ‘what I remembered to record on my DVR’). I also have Boxee on the Apple TV installed, which lets me access lots of public and free podcasts or web shows that aren’t available on Apple TV (all free and legal).”
Hulu + laptop
Who: Carla King, author and tech editor, Pt. Richmond, Calif.
Setup: Laptop watching Hulu; uses projector for some movies on Netflix or iTunes.
Quote: “The availability of content of all kinds on the Internet is a terrible distraction for me from tasks at hand and health in general. Whereas before I could cancel my magazine subscriptions and choose not to buy cable TV to keep myself on task with personal and professional goals, I find that today I need to develop my willpower to the utmost.”
For many people, the biggest barrier to canceling cable is the loss of live sports. While MLB.com has a package of games you can stream online, and CBS has offered a popular March Madness on Demand stream, many other leagues have been slow on the uptake. Plus, there are often restrictions and blackouts with some online season pass deals. For example, the NBA League Pass Broadband does not include nationally or locally televised games. So if you’re living in Boston, you won’t be able to see Celtics games online if they are also on TV at the same time (whether they are home or away).
The same goes for other live events, such as awards shows. “Mainly, live TV content is impossible,” said Leo Prieto, who gave up cable in 2005. “And most of that live TV content isn’t available to download on iTunes later. For example, the Oscars or some sports event. In that case I have to go to BitTorrent and get the show afterwards. I would love iTunes or YouTube to offer live content.”
Multimedia reporter Sean Mussenden is also living the cable-free life, and says he believes TVs will eventually come with direct Internet capabilities. He had an interesting take on how his discovery of programs changed without cable.
“When you rely on cable, the easy access to thousands of shows tends to limit your willingness to explore further,” he said. “But there are far more options for informative and/or entertaining content beyond cable. Not having having cable has made me more willing to explore. For example, at the moment I’m really enjoying watching talks on Ted.com and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. I don’t think I’d have discovered either of them if I still had cable.”
In many cases, people who have canceled cable still get to see their favorite TV shows, but often much later than those with cable. If they can deal with being a bit behind, and don’t mind the tech hassle of setting up a Net-to-TV connection with gear, they’re often happy to save money and watch what they want.
If you want to read more about cutting the cable TV cord, check out these sites and stories:
Cable Freedom Is a Click Away at NY Times
You Don’t Need Satellite TV When Times Get Tough at News.com
Cancel Cable and Save with Free Internet TV at Digital Trends
Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite at Bible Money Matters
Turn On, Tune Out, Click Here at WSJ (paid subscription required)
Cancel Cable TV by Paul Kedrosky
Cable TV’s Big Worry: Taming the Web at NY Times
Broadcast TV Networks Want Your Money at The Atlantic
Have I missed any important elements to cutting the cord? Have you cut the cord and if so, what’s your setup? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll update my story with any gear or services I missed.
UPDATE: There has been a lot of commentary on this story when it was linked on the PBS Facebook page. I thought it was worth addressing a few of those comments here:
> Michael Lindemann said, “Interesting that no one mentions cable Internet access as being an upshot to cable access. Interesting article, but it misses at least one key point: The fastest and most reliable way to get home Internet access is through the cable company! In my area, the cable Internet subscription is bundled with the cable service at a discount.” That’s true. For many people who cut the cord to cable TV, they still are likely to end up paying for Internet service from the cable company.
> Prashant Shah said, “The missing option in the article is the public library, where I’ve always found not-so-recent shows. Newer shows you need to wait a bit, but then I’m in no hurry.” True enough. The public library in many communities offers up free borrowing of TV shows and movies on DVD. The selection can vary from library to library, but the price is right: free, as long as you return them on time.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.