Technology’s evolved to the point where you can go right around the cable company to get your favorite programs. Depending on where you live, you might have to stick with them for Internet access — but there’s definitely no need to pay for big packages that include channels you don’t watch. Here’s how you can keep the good stuff…
Step 1: Take Note of What You Watch and See What’s Available.
Before you buy or cut anything, figure out what channels and programs are important to you. Then see where else you can get them. There are a lot of options:
Broadcast. You can still snatch many stations out of the air with an antenna. But before you go buy one, use AntennaWeb to get an idea of the channels available at your address and the best place to put an antenna. Thanks to the switch to all-digital in 2009, there won’t be any fuzzy pictures or static — you either get a channel or you don’t. And if you do, it might even be in HD. If that’s the case, your TV needs an “HDTV tuner” to take advantage of the HD signal. Many but not all newer TVs have them built-in. Check your manual.
Program sites. Some shows host episodes on their own websites — for example, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If the program doesn’t have its own site, check the network’s. ABC posts episodes of many of its popular programs, including Desperate Housewives and Dancing With the Stars. You’ll still face advertisements no matter what, but at least you aren’t spending money to watch ads.
Video services. Sites like Hulu and Netflix carry a wide variety of current and past programs. Some shows on Hulu are free to watch from your computer, while newer shows and streaming to your TV will require an $8/month “Hulu Plus” subscription. Netflix has a streaming subscription rate of $8/month too. (You can also get DVDs mailed to you for an additional fee, but Netflix recently killed the popular combo rate of $10/month for both services when it separated the DVD side into Qwikster.) If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber for the shipping benefits, maybe you didn’t realize you already have access to a large library of movies and TV shows too, at no extra cost.
Sports. If you get internet from one of these companies, you get ESPN3 for free. This broadband network doesn’t stream everything, but does offer “thousands of live games and events” every year including college sports and major tournaments, with real-time stats and scoreboards. There’s also subscriptions like MLB.tv, but you might be better off at the local sports bar — membership for a season runs about $80.
Step 2: Get the Hook-Up.
If you want to watch shows on your big-screen TV instead of your 14-inch laptop, you’ll need some equipment — but it’s cheaper than a couple of months of cable, and not hard to set up.
If you have a gamer in the family, you may not need to buy anything else: A PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii has streaming capabilities for services like Hulu and Netflix. An Xbox 360 requires a Live Gold subscription ($8 to $10/month), while PlayStation and Wii charge no extra fees.
If you don’t have a current gaming console, you can buy a Roku ($60 to $90) or a Boxee Box ($180), neither of which charges monthly fees.
There are other ways to connect a PC or laptop to a TV, but they require a little more technical know-how and won’t duplicate your experience with cable (no remote or channel listings, for instance). There’s a wide variety of plug-ins on different models of TVs and computers, so you’ll have to figure out which ones to use.
Step 3: Check and Cancel.
Make sure you’ve got everything set up to your liking before you call the cable company. Inevitably, there will be some shows you can’t instantly get this way, but you have to ask yourself: Are they worth the monthly cable rate? Or: Can the savings from cutting cable more than pay to fill in the blanks?
You can usually get episodes of shows from premium movie channels like HBO a couple of days after they air for a buck or two each on Amazon and iTunes. But you can save a lot more by waiting for the season to come out on DVD or Blu-ray, when you can probably stream it on Netflix (on that $8/month subscription you’re already paying) or buy the discs. Everything else you can hopefully live without.
Look at the math: That nearly $1,000/year figure for cable we started with breaks down to about $80 per month. Invest in one of the consoles or devices mentioned above and you’re out between $60 and $200, which pays for itself in less than three months, tops. Add on a streaming subscription fee for Netflix at $8/month and your new setup is costing 10 percent of what it did, and still getting you pretty much everything you care about — even if you toss in $30 for a show season on DVD here and there.