Cut the cord: A guide to free TV

How you can use gadgets and the Internet to watch your favorite shows without paying any bills

Published August 26, 2010 2:30PM (EDT)

With the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal progressing apace toward the approval of the restraint-averse FCC, the cost of TV is sure to keep rising. Media conglomerates may have lost their grip on music profits and, to a lesser extent, movie grosses, but where television is concerned, they can count on having most Americans over a barrel. More than 100 million households get their TV from cable and satellite, and while (relatively) low-cost analog packages are still available, there’s not much point in shelling out for a flat-screen if you’re not going to feed it digital high-definition programming.

HD, of course, costs extra, as does everything else. Before I cut the cord early last year, my family was paying Comcast upward of $100 a month for a spectrum of mostly unwanted channels, plus add-ons for digital cable, high-definition and the monthly rental on a DVR. We’re not browsers — Dad has too much appointment TV and too many DVDs stacked by the set for that — which means we were forking over more than $1,000 a year to watch a handful of regular shows. Sure, "Lost" looked pretty in HD, and "24" wouldn’t be the same without hearing that post-credits “whoosh” in 5.1 stereo, but simple arithmetic revealed it was costing us something like $5 for each episode of "30 Rock," which is a lot to ask for 22 minutes of laughs. Paring back wasn’t really an option — Comcast’s unadvertised network-only plan would have deprived us of "Mad Men" and "The Daily Show," and we’d still have been paying through the nose — and satellite wasn’t much of an improvement. As for other cable providers, no such luck. We live in Philadelphia, Comcast’s company town. No competition here. (Tina Fey, who grew up just beyond the city’s borders, has had a field day taking potshots at the monopolistic practices of the barely disguised "Kabletown.")

Inertia kept us hooked to our television IV, but when we moved, the specter of a cable company drilling holes in our nice new walls was more than we could stomach. So we set out to discover whether it was possible to cut the fabled cord and pay only for the TV you actually want to watch.

Step 1: Adjust your expectations.
When it comes to disconnecting yourself from pay TV, the umbilical metaphor holds true down the line. Cutting the cord isn’t just a matter of liberation, but weaning. If you need to Facebook your friends the second "True Blood’s" credits roll or you can’t live without the morning-after water cooler discussion of last night’s "Breaking Bad," then you’ll have to pay the Man for the privilege. (That goes double for televised sports and 24-hour news.) But allow us to make a heretical, even treasonous suggestion:


Whether you’re downloading, streaming or watching the DVD, getting to your favorite shows is going to take some time. It may take several hours or several months, but some sort of delay is inevitable, and deliberate. (This doesn’t have to apply to the traditional broadcast networks, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) The networks may be blinkered, fighting a rear-guard action against the march to an on-demand world, but they aren’t stupid. They know that if you could download "Glee" simultaneous to its network airing, their advertising revenues would plummet. By holding off until at least the next day to offer episodes for sale, they preserve their first-run ratings while reaping the benefits of individual purchases.

So before you walk down this road, ask yourself: How important is morning-after chatter? Is it worth $100 or more to avoid having to screen your Twitter feed for spoilers? If it is, then you’re already right where you belong.

Step 2: Go to the source.
In a good number of instances, individual episodes and even whole seasons are available to watch on the show’s own website. Watching "The Daily Show’s" previous three weeks is as simple as going to, and the entire season of Louis C.K.’s scabrous sitcom "Louie" is available via FX’s website, along with more limited samplings of "Rescue Me" and "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Needless to say, both sites and many more like them offer plenty of non-broadcast content, from extended "Daily Show "interviews (more Blago!) to deleted scenes. Most networks offer similar online programming, though availability is unpredictable and can vary without warning.

Step 3: Drink from the stream, or jump through Hulu’s hoops.
Speaking of capricious and unpredictable, there’s no telling what might end up on Hulu, especially now that the NBC-owned site has gone to a two-tiered subscription model. As content providers fiddle with their business plans and contracts are renegotiated or simply fall apart, what is and isn’t available can change without warning, which is not the kind of thing you want to happen when you’re halfway through a season of "Party Down." In most cases, the streaming versions are made available as promotional tools, which means they provide enough to get you hooked but not enough to sate your appetite. If you’re a fan of, say, "Bones," you can watch the first season’s pilot and its final four episodes, but not the 18 in between. Feel like watching half a dozen "House" episodes chosen apparently at random? Hulu’s the place for you.

Surf the Channel acts as a handy portal to shows online, although some, like the streaming episodes of "True Blood," may reside in a legal gray area. (Needless to say, if copyright infringement and fear of legal action is of no concern, the sky’s the limit as far as finding shows online goes. But we at Salon would never advise you to flout the law of the land.)

Step 4: Pay up.
If you don’t mind paying for TV as long as it’s only the TV you want, then matters become much simpler. With the exception of live shows like "American Idol," the vast majority of network programming is available for purchase by the episode or by the season. Amazon and iTunes generally sell episodes for $1.99 apiece, $2.99 in what they refer to as high-definition. (In practice, their HD is closer to DVD than Blu-ray, and the advertised surround sound is virtually impossible to take advantage of, but them’s the breaks.) Amazon offers a piddling 5 percent discount for a season pass, while iTunes will knock off as much as a quarter of the price. The downside is that iTunes is download-only, which in the case of an hourlong drama can mean a wait of nearly twice that long, while Amazon allows you to stream the episodes as soon as they’re available. (Amazon offers downloads as well, but only to a TiVo DVR or Windows PC.)

Even better, the Roku, a $100 box about the size of a paperback book, allows you to stream videos right to your TV set, from Amazon, Netflix and a host of other providers. Major League Baseball, for one, offers a subscription package allowing access to live games and broadcasts, although blackout restrictions make following hometown teams a drag. Although Netflix doesn’t carry current shows, it does offer streaming access to entire past seasons. The above-mentioned "Bones" fan could watch every episode of the show’s first four years, along with two seasons of "Dexter " and five of "Weeds."

As elsewhere, the skunk at this garden party are premium channels like HBO and Showtime, whose shows are available only as an add-on to cable or satellite subscriptions or via pricey DVD sets. If you want to watch the current season of "Entourage" without shelling out for HGTV as well, you’re out of luck.

Step 5: Go back to basics.
There’s a simple way to get network programming for free, anytime you want it. It’s called an antenna. (Ask your parents.) The idea of hooking your 50-inch plasma up to a pair of rabbit ears may seem hopelessly retrograde, but since the digital transition, the major networks, PBS, and many other channels broadcast in high-definition widescreen that can be picked up with a $30 antenna. Technically, the quality of their digital broadcasts not only equals that available via cable or satellite, but surpasses it, since pay-TV providers compress high-def signals to fit more channels into their limited pipelines. If you’ve bought your set in the last few years, the chances are good it has a built-in ATSC tuner, which means all you have to do is plug in and kick back.

We get it: Antennas aren’t sexy or “cutting-edge,” and they don’t lend themselves to eye-catching headlines. But it’s still hard to stifle a sigh when tech-oriented articles like this New York Times piece single out "American Idol" as a show that can’t be watched online without so much as mentioning how easy it is to get it for free. Even seemingly insurmountable barriers can be scaled with a little creativity. The pangs of regret we felt when we realized that many of this year’s World Cup games were confined to ESPN evaporated when we realized we could pull in the same feed via Univision, with the added benefit of banishing the English-language announcers’ insipid commentary. “They’ll have to put the ball in the net and play better defense” versus “Golazo, azo, azo, azo!”? No contest.

But what about time-shifting? Does going back to over-the-air broadcasts means I actually have to sit in front of my set when a show airs like some pre-VCR savage?

There are two solutions. One is to buy a DVR. There’s a catch, though. Of the DVRs on the market, most either require you to pay a monthly fee for program listings (the TiVo model) or come with no program guide at all, which means you’re back to the days of checking listings and punching in times yourself. One exception is the Channel Master 7000, which uses the listings information provided as part of the networks’ broadcast signals to provide a program grid reaching eight days into the future. There’s no way for it to distinguish between old and new episodes, but it can’t be that hard to delete "Criminal Minds" reruns, can it?

Alternatively, there’s Elegato’s EyeTV, a USB gadget that allows you to connect your antenna directly to your computer and use your hard drive as a DVR. The downside, as with any downloaded video, is that if you want to watch the playback on your television set, you’ll have to plug your computer directly into the screen, which can be a cumbersome process unless phrases like “Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter” roll trippingly off your tongue. But just consider: Once you’ve connected every wire, you can watch "CSI: Miami" without paying a cent, while silently flipping the finger to your former cable provider with every indrawn breath. Now that’s comfort food.

For those of you looking for a great lineup to watch without a TV, here's a brief (and entirely unobjective) guide to TV shows online. Add your favorites in comments:

For the most part, disconnection from the incessant din of 24-hour news programming has a salutary effect. It’s amazing how trumped-up controversies like the Shirley Sherrod flap fade into the background when you’re not glued to Fox or CNN. Jon Stewart and his intrepid staff let you keep track of the chattering classes from a safe distance and often provide the only sane perspective in an environment that puts a heavier premium on airing extreme points of view than distinguishing fact from fiction. Available via the show’s website.

With his second half-hour sitcom, veteran comedy writer Louis C.K. has found the ideal blend of unrestrained stand-up and sporadic narrative, mixing comedy-club clips with some of the most cringe-inducing encounters this side of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Wisely putting word-of-mouth ahead of short-term profits, FX allows you stream every episode on the show’s site. Start at the beginning, or with “Heckler/Cop Movie,” in which CK pulls out all the stops to silence a female audience member and nabs a bit part in a Matthew Broderick-directed "Godfather" remake.

The perennially on-the-bubble drama about the cutthroat world of high school football in rural Texas has been saved time and again by its devoted fan base and consistently glowing reviews. Perhaps it’s time you got on board as well? Netflix streams the first three seasons, and Hulu has the last five episodes of Season 4.

Reviews couldn’t save this Starz series about a group of would-be actors consigned to catering jobs, but as of this week, both seasons of the cult favorite are available via iTunes and Amazon, and the latter allows you to sample the Season 2 premiere free of charge.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this one? New episodes of the era-defining show are available weekly from Amazon and iTunes, usually around 6 a.m. the morning after the Sunday premiere. While you’re sampling the best that AMC has to offer, you might want to check out "Breaking Bad," whose chronicle of Bryan Cranston’s meth-making chemistry teacher grows darker and richer with each episode.

NBC ignominously banished this Thursday-night upstart to midseason to make room for the singularly unpromising "Outsourced," but think of the delay as an opportunity to catch up on what you’ve been missing. Hulu and have five episodes available until the end of the month, which should be enough to get you hooked. The documentary-style comedy about a small-town bureaucrat (Amy Poehler) boasts one of the best comedic ensembles on television, including Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and new cast regular Rob Lowe, as a disingenuous state auditor.

By Sam Adams

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.


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