For those of you sick of paying ever-higher cable bills, two huge pieces of news in the last week should encourage you to take action.
First came news that two previously cable-only channels, TBS and TNT, "are about to become the first national entertainment networks in the industry to stream on-air content live across multiple platforms," likely positioning the stations to eventually (though not yet) sell their content direct to consumers on an à la carte online basis, rather than only through traditional cable TV packages. Then yesterday came word that CNN and BuzzFeed are partnering to create a YouTube channel, allowing anyone with an Internet connection -- but not necessarily a costly cable subscription -- to view the new content.
The action this (and other similar news in the television world) should prompt, of course, is cutting your cable TV cord -- or at least considering it.
Now, sure, your initial reaction to that idea might be apprehension or sheer fright. I get it. That was my first reaction, too. Cable TV became so common and seemingly mandatory in the pre-Internet age that it started to seem less like a luxury than a necessary utility you paid for along with water and electricity. But after decades of living in cable TV households, we finally decided to become one of the 3 to 5 million Americans who have cut the cord. Though we kept our Internet connection with our service provider, we terminated cable service — and I have no regrets. Not even close.
Two big factors -- one of them related to this week's news -- finally pushed us to end our cable subscription.
First and foremost, there was the cost savings of about $100 a month. That's a lot of money in our annual family budget and a boatload of cash over a lifetime. Indeed, one estimate found that when you factor in inflation, the monthly ongoing expenditure on cable and what you could additionally be earning off that expenditure if you were investing it, cable TV over your lifetime could cost between $634,000 and $4.2 million.
But cost wasn't the only consideration. There was also our simultaneous hate and love of cable television content.
On the hate side, I can't stand most of today's cable TV news programming. It is loud, grating, infuriatingly vapid and, at times, unnecessarily terrifying. I've become particularly aware of -- and disgusted by -- the latter quality as more and more "news" content is now just a bunch of talking heads opining while ever more horrifying disaster porn fills the screen.
Getting basic information about disasters is certainly important, but being exposed to the disaster porn imagery that dominates cable television simply isn't healthy. Just as scientific research suggested that seeing images of the World Trade Center collapsing a zillion times created a kind of virtual PTSD for everyone glued to their TV a decade ago, so too do many experts believe that being televisually force-fed repeated images of a bombing or a fertilizer plant explosion or a dude with a bloody meat cleaver can have serious psychological consequences.
Yet, even though I was coming to deeply despise cable news programming, when it was easily available on my television, I often found myself uncontrollably drawn to it. That meant time unnecessarily wasted and, worse, me finding myself in a bad or angry mood. So cutting the cord thankfully removed the frictionless availability of the unwanted noise and terror, while the Internet still, for the most part, lets me find the clips and video content I truly want.
That "want" part is the love side -- and the part related to this week's news about yet more video content going online. Yes, there is some select content (including news content) available on cable TV that I do want. But, as alluded to, much of it is available in some form on the Internet. The news stuff I need for work, for instance, is available if not as video then as text, and that's fine by me because it's news. Likewise, the entertainment stuff I want -- documentary-based shows, scripted programs, etc. -- is mostly available in video form. And I'm not a huge sports watcher, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything by losing the expensive sports stations that disproportionately weigh down the typical cable bill.
Of course, despite these compelling reasons, it took us a while to actually cut the cord. The inertia was a product of fear and laziness: Basically, I knew there were many other decisions and moves required if we were going to both cut the cord and still get most of the content we really wanted. The possible labor intensity and complexity of getting to my desired content nirvana created paralysis -- the kind that cable television providers rely on. That's right, they are banking on us seeing the ease and simplicity of plug-and-play cable TV -- and the perceived hassle of getting content some other way -- as a justification to just keep paying the cable bill.
But a few weeks into our cable-free life, I'm here to tell you that cutting the cord and still getting the content you desire isn't such a hassle, and is well worth the effort. Assuming you aren't really into sports (yes, cable TV is probably still the only way to satisfy sports junkies), you can probably rid your life of the content you don't want and get most of what you do want on your existing television screen, that is, as long as you adhere to a some guidelines. Here are a few of those I developed through trial and error while preparing to cut the cord.
1. Get an HD antenna: While it may be difficult to remember, it's true: Before the advent of cable, there was no such thing as pay TV. Back then, people paid for a television and antenna, and then received the content for free over the airwaves.
Now here's the good news that may surprise you if you can't remember that pre-cable era: A solid amount of TV content remains free over the airwaves. And guess what? If you have a decent television and the right antenna, a lot of that content is high-def.
For many, the HD TV and HD antenna is a simple plug-and-play conduit for lots of channels (in our case here in Denver, more than 50). That includes HD versions of live local and national programming from major networks like NBC, CBS and ABC.
The complicating catch, though, can be signal; with some antennas and locations it is easy to get, but with others, not so much. In our home here in Denver, it was the latter, which meant I spent a week going back and forth to Best Buy purchasing indoor HD antennas and then returning them because they weren't delivering the promised image quality. Despondent, my last-ditch attempt to get this bundle of free content was going online to purchase the much-vaunted Mohu Leaf Ultimate. And guess what? It delivered, leading me to believe that in most population centers you will be able to find an antenna that will work for your situation.
2. Apple TV, another Airplay-esque device, or the right computer-to-TV cord: I don't mind watching short videos on my computer. However, the computer is my work machine, and because of location issues (it's in my office) and work-life balance issues, I just don't want my work computer to be my main television. Yet, having cut the cord, Internet-based content is my television content. How, then, could do I get that computer content onto my couch-positioned television?
Enter the Apple TV. This $99 item is Apple's conduit to get you to purchase content from the Apple Store (more on that in a second), but it is also a way to stream anything on your properly equipped computer or smartphone onto your regular television. As long as your computer or smartphone has Airplay or Airplay-like capabilities, you can use the Apple TV to mirror the video and audio from your computer or smartphone screen onto your television.
In practice, this puts great YouTube programming like, say, The Young Turks right on your television. Additionally, it opens up a whole world of cable TV content -- but for free. You want to see Rachel Maddow's latest takedown of the GOP? You want to watch the latest "Frontline"? You want any of the programs available for no cost on demand at the free version of Hulu? And you want to do all of this on your cable-less television? No problem; pull up the corresponding websites on your laptop or smartphone and then Airplay it over to your TV.
If you happen to be Apple-averse, or if you just don't want to buy an Apple TV, the workaround is to just plug your computer or smartphone directly into your TV with a device-to-HDMI cord. It's a different method with more cords, but it achieves the same result: more content you want on your regular television.
3. You can legally mooch a premium channel off a family member: So far, I'm giving you suggestions for using your Internet connection to get totally free content. The gray area between free and paid content is the mooch.
I've written before about the moral dilemmas involved in bumming HBO Go off a family member. Wherever you come down on those questions, the fact remains that, according to the New York Times, that HBO Go "allows subscribers to have three separate accounts so that family members can watch different shows at the same time."
In practice, this means that if you happen to know a family member who is already paying for HBO, you are allowed to use their account to stream HBO content to your computer or smartphone. Using the aforementioned techniques to mirror those devices onto your TV, you can easily get that content on your regular television screen making your situation, content-wise, no different than someone paying for HBO to come through their TV.
Now the reason I said this is a gray area is because someone (read: a family member) is paying to get you your HBO content. So it's not totally free. That said, if a family member is already paying for HBO because they really want it integrated into their cable TV landscape, they aren't paying any extra to let you use their HBO Go account, so that's at least sort of free ... right?
4a. Pay for the stuff you want, part 1: If all the aforementioned free content isn't enough for you -- and it isn't for me -- the next step is to get comfortable with paying for the programming you do want because for most people, that will still be less than what you'd pay when you subscribe to cable.
In terms of dollars spent for sheer volume of programming, the most consumer-friendly ratio in the pay-for-content world is a subscription to a service like Netflix and/or Hulu Plus.
Netflix, for instance, gives you access to movies, documentaries and -- most important to making a seamless transition to a cable-free household -- many TV series. The catch here is that, unless it is a Netflix original like "House of Cards," you don't get those series right when they are released. Instead, you typically have to wait up to a year to be able to stream them (if they are available at all). For people who don't care about being completely up to date on a TV series, this is a perfect option.
For those who want to be up to date, though, Hulu Plus might be a preferable option (or, better yet, a good compliment to Netflix). Assuming it has the programs you want, Hulu typically provides those programs with a delay of only a few hours or days.
Netflix streaming service (as distinct from its DVD-by-mail service) and Hulu Plus are each $7.99 a month. That's not nothing - but again, it's probably way less than you will spend on even basic cable TV service.
4b. Pay for the stuff you want, part 2: OK, so let's say that, like me, you are a "Mad Men" fan. Let's also say that, like me, you are willing to wait a year for a lot of shows to get to Netflix, but that you aren't willing to wait a year or more for this particular show. You want it, and you want it now. Are you out of luck because the show isn't on Hulu Plus?
Nope. Just buy the season from the Apple Store, and don't feel like doing that means cutting the cord was a bad idea.
Look, full seasons of current series aren't cheap; "Mad Men," for instance, costs $34.99. But again, most TV watchers will spend way more on cable TV than they will buying seasons of the relatively few shows that A) they don't want to wait to get to Netflix and B) aren't available on Hulu Plus (or anywhere else). Just do the math: If you save $75 a month by cutting the cord, at the "Mad Men" rate, you'd have to be buying more than two full seasons every month of premium for-pay content to make cutting the cord not worth it. Most likely, you aren't going to be buying nearly that many full seasons.
5. Powerline Adapter/Wired House: One of the appealing things about cable TV is not just its plug and play simplicity but also its reliability. You turn on the TV and most of the time, you get a decent picture and don't have to worry about it cutting out.
Streaming video can be a bit different. Especially if you are relying on wireless connectivity, your viewing experience can be plagued by buffering delays -- or, as we call it in our household, the spinning wheel of death.
Don't fret, though; the simple solution is to follow these easy steps to strengthen your home network. When it comes specifically to video, just make sure your streaming content comes through a high-speed connection. You can do this by hard-wiring your Apple TV to an Ethernet cord. If that's not feasible, then get a powerline adapter that turns your outlets into an Ethernet-like connection.
Sure, you still may see the buffer sign or the spinning wheel every now and again, but you won't see it all that often. On the occasions that you do, remember: It's a tiny price for not having to pay that absurd cable bill anymore.