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How I Cut The Cable (And How You Can Too!)

2015 July 15
by Greg Satell

I love TV.  Unlike most people, who see it as a distraction, I consider watching TV critical to maintaining my productivity by providing me with crucial downtime (and the new book, How We Learn, by NY Times science writer Benedict Carey provides some evidence for that).  TV is something I simply wouldn’t want to live without.

Still, a little over a month ago I cut the cable and haven’t looked back.  I estimate that I’ll save $500-$600 per year without sacrificing much, if anything, in the way of programming.  It’s also surprisingly easy.  If you can set up a DVD player, you can go cable free without undue effort.

As I pointed out in a previous article, there is no real reason we need a cable box anymore. Programming, bundling and other functions that a cable box performs can now be done more efficiently in the cloud.  So, as the cable business model begins to unravel, options for going cable free are expanding.  Here’s how you can cut the cable and never look back too.

What You Need To Buy

Cutting the cable is not exactly seamless, but it is manageable.  The first thing you need to do is buy a digital antenna so that you can watch local network channels.  I bought a  refurbished Mohu Leaf, which I’m happy with, but there are plenty of options.  Check out AntennaWeb.org to see the strength of TV signals in your area to choose the one that’s right for you.

The next thing you are going to want to do is to buy a streaming device.  Again, there is no shortage of options, ranging from a $30 Google Chromecast to a Roku 3 .  Apple TV ($69) and Amazon Fire ($99) are also viable options.  I’ve tried all of these and the best one is the Roku 3, followed by Amazon Fire.

The fact that Apple isn’t at the premium price point in the category should give you an idea about how confident it feels in its product and Chromecast, which you operate from your smartphone or tablet, is a bit glitchy.  Both are somewhat limited in the apps they support as well.  With that said, they’ll both work and Chromecast is great for traveling.

For me at least, there isn’t much difference in price so it’s worth getting something on the high end.  The Roku 3 and Amazon Fire both offer voice search, which is surprisingly useful (although limited to just a few apps in Amazon’s case).  Roku also lets you customize your interface, which makes it easier to find what you want.

Whichever options you choose, they are relatively easy to set up and, except in the case of Chromecast, give you more access programming than you would get from a cable box.

Programming Options

The thing that’s really changing the TV playing field is the recent emergence of OTT (over-the-top) services that allow you to view channels without a cable subscription through the cloud.  This, more than anything else, is why you don’t really need a cable box anymore.

In January, Dish Network announced the launch of its Sling TV service, which gives you a basic package including ESPN and Turner channels for $20 per month.  It also offers expansion packages (e.g. news, sports, etc.) for $5 per month.  This spring, Time Warner launched its own OTT service, HBO Now and Showtime’s OTT app will launch this month.

There are also more traditional streaming apps, such as Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime. Netflix has outstanding original programming such as House of Cards and Orange In The New Black.  Hulu offers programming from other networks.  Amazon Prime also has strong original programming, but a fairly small library as a whole.

One thing I’ve noticed is how much better the streaming services are than the Video on Demand service you get from cable providers.  They remember where you left off if your viewing was interrupted and you can also fast forward.  With Video on Demand, it always annoyed me when I’d have to rewatch half of an episode to see the part that I missed.

My favorite streaming services are Netflix and HBO Now, but I really think it comes down to personal preference.  All of them allow a free trial period, so it’s worth trying them out. Amazon’s TV service comes free with a Prime account, so if you already subscribe to get free shipping, it’s a great bonus.  If not, I would probably pass.

Comparing The Costs And Benefits

How much you’ll save from cutting the cable depends on your viewing habits and your present cable bill.  You can get a good idea of the economic factors by using one of the calculators on Slate or The Verge, although be sure not to add in services you already subscribe to (e.g. if you already get Netflix, don’t include it in the calculation).  Most people will see significant savings.

Yet besides the monetary costs, there are other things you need to keep in mind.  Watching TV through a streaming service is somewhat different than the channel surfing you’ve become used to and there is a learning curve involved.  I’ve actually enjoyed that aspect of it, but others may not.

My sister has also discovered a way to benefit from streaming services without making much of a transition at all.  She simply calls her cable provider every few months and asks for a promotion.  Cable companies, probably better than anybody else, understand the new economics TV and give her a competitive price.

Still, perhaps the most salient aspect of my cable cutting experience is how I’ve seen my viewing options expand, rather than contract.  I not only get most of what I wanted from cable, I also get original programming, as well as a whole slew of classic TV shows, that my cable box couldn’t access.

What Is The Future Of Cable?

In my previous article I wrote that “the cable business, as we have come to know it, will soon be a thing of the past,” which raised a lot of eyebrows.  So I think I should clarify.  My point was not that there is going to be some mass exodus and cable providers will collapse overnight, but they need to innovate their business models.

For their part, the cable companies seem to realize this and have begun to adapt.  Comcast has invested in programming by acquiring NBC and has leveraged its service organization to enter the home security business.  Verizon has started to offer a la carte service and Charter Communications has already begun to replace its cable box with a cloud service.

In a sense, cable companies are facing similar challenges that other technology companies are grappling with—the shift from installed to cloud-based solutions.  When you think about it, if billion dollar companies can trust mission critical systems to the cloud, it should be able to handle our channel surfing.

We’ve hit a tipping point.  Until recently, cable companies have enjoyed a near monopoly in most markets in which they compete.  Those days are over and TV will never be the same.

– Greg

4 Responses
  1. Mike permalink
    August 7, 2015

    So, where do you get your broadband connection from?

    Greg Reply:

    Comcast. How is that relevant.

    Mike Reply:

    Just as I suspected. You didn’t really “cut the cable”, rather, you opted out of the cable operator’s video content offerings- big deal.

    “Cord cutting” is frequently defined as “canceling or forgoing a cable television subscription or landline telephone connection in favor of an alternative Internet-based or wireless service”. That’s the entire subscription- access and content. Arguably, there aren’t that many options (telco, wireless, satellite, Google Fiber), if you truly decided to “cut the cord”.

    As you point out, “the cable business, as we have come to know it, will soon be a thing of the past,” and I have to agree, but that is “as we have come to know it”. Now, Cable operators are seemingly more comfortable with the roll of being a broadband provider upon which users can layer services (voice, data, video, etc.).

    So, I’d argue that it’s less of “cord cutting” and more that you’ve moved into the new strategy of the cable co’s of owning the access and monitizing the content, advertizing, etc.

    Mike

    Greg Reply:

    Well, I guess it’s a matter of semantics. However, to the best of my knowledge, the most common use of the term “cut the cable” refers to choosing to opt out of the cable TV bundle, not eschewing internet service (which is usually referred to as “going offline”).

    In any case, as you noted, the general point about the cable TV business model blowing up still stands and, as I explained in the post, they will have to find other revenue streams, such as providing infrastructure (as you noted), but also providing programing, home security service and so on.

    The really interesting thing, by the way, is how all this is starting to affect programming. I’ll address that in an upcoming post.

    – Greg

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