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Five Ways to Kick the Cable TV Habit and Save Serious Cash

Dan Tynan

There’s nothing I despise more than paying a ginormous cable TV bill — except for filing my taxes, getting root canal surgery, and watching infomercials for The Potty Putter.

That’s why, a few years ago, I decided to kick the cable habit and join the small but growing cadre of “cord cutters,” people who’ve abandoned their pay TV subscriptions for the more interesting and generally more affordable pastures of Internet video.

Five Ways to Kick the Cable TV Habit and Save Serious Cash

(Thinkstock)

Fewer than 5 percent of cable subscribers have cut the cord, according to research firm Parks Associates, but nearly all of them did it for the same reason: Their cable bills were too damned high. The average American now pays nearly $100 a month for cable TV, says the NPD Group, a bill expected to top $200 by the year 2020. Meanwhile, cable providers consistently rank among the worst companies in annual surveys of customer satisfaction. That’s a big reason why pay TV subscriptions have been steadily declining.

But you don’t have to sit there on the couch and take it. I’ve heard from dozens of readers who’ve found their own ways to kick cable to the curb. They all require a bit more work than leaning back in your La-Z-Boy, popping a cold one, and manhandling the remote, but they can end up saving you hundreds if not thousands of dollars over the long haul.

Option #1: Beautiful streamers
These days, nearly all mainstream video entertainment is available via the web. The easiest way to stream it to your flat screen is by buying a $100 (or less) set-top box like Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Roku. These connect to your set with one cable and give you one-click access to video and music services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Pandora, and more, assuming you have a modern, broadband Internet connection.

But that’s not the only way. If you’ve bought a “smart TV” in the past two years, these services are built in. Plus, nearly any digital device that connects to your set — gaming console, Blu-ray player, DVR, or a laptop — gives you access to the most popular streaming video services.

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(Samsung Smart TV)

But there are three big caveats for cord cutters. A lot depends on your ability to obtain something called “naked broadband,” which isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds. That means paying only for Internet access without other services bundled in. Your cable company may not offer it, or may offer it for only slightly less than a triple-play bundle (Internet, TV, phone), which starts out heavily discounted but gets more expensive after the first year.

The second gotcha is that these video services also usually cost money, whether it’s $8 a month for all-you-can-watch viewing (like Netflix and Hulu Plus) or $2 to $5 per show (Apple iTunes, Amazon Video, Blockbuster on Demand). If you’re not careful, you could spend as much or more for entertainment à la carte than you do now.

The third caveat is that your access to sports and other live events will be expensive and limited. Streaming media boxes also aren’t great for fans of daytime television, local stations, or 24/7 cable news; impatient types who can’t wait for their favorite shows to appear online; or people who like to leave the TV murmuring in the background all day like it’s some hopelessly addled roommate.

Option #2: Streaming video + Aereo
Which brings us to option number two: Supplement your streaming video habit with live TV channels. One way to do that is by subscribing to a service like Aereo that delivers local channels to your set-top box or computer. 

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(Aereo)

Sign up for Aereo, and you’ll get a dime-sized antenna attached to a machine in its own farm of TV receivers. This pulls in the stations you would normally get by adding a pair of rabbit ears to your set, and then streams them to you via the Net. Even better, Aereo works as a network DVR, so you can record shows and watch them at any time. For $8 a month, you get 20 hours of recording time; $12 buys you 60 hours and the ability to record two shows at once.

Aereo works directly with Roku set-tops and indirectly with Apple TVs, if you’ve got a MacBook or an iPhone. It also works with any Windows PC or Mac. Support for Google Chromecast is coming in May.

There are two problems here, though. The first is that these services are available only in a handful of major metro areas at the moment, though more are being added. (To find out if yours is one of them, plug your ZIP code into Aereo’s search engine.) 

The second problem is that Aereo makes TV networks so uneasy that they’ve sued the Brooklyn-based startup for allegedly violating their copyrights. That case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court later this year.

Option #3: Streaming media + indoor antenna
Can’t get Aereo? No sweat. You can add your own regular-sized antenna to your set. In fact, you may already have an antenna built into your TV and not know it. The best way to find out is to go into your TV’s setup menu, switch the input to antenna, and do a channel scan. If you find channels, it has an antenna. I have two Vizio flat screens; one has an internal antenna; one doesn’t.

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(Mohu Leaf in white and black)

But all is not lost. An inexpensive indoor antenna will do just as well. I attached a pair of $40 amplified rabbit ears to my antenna-less Vizio and pulled in 10 channels without breaking a sweat. (How many you get depends on how close you are to TV transmission towers.) If you want to get fancier, you can get a super-thin wall- or table-mounted antenna like the Mohu Leaf or ClearStream Micron-R for $50 to $100.

Option #4: Outdoor antenna
Believe it or not, rooftop TV antennas are making a comeback, says Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates.

I believe it. About two years ago, I clambered up on the roof and bolted a $140 ClearStream Digital TV antenna to one of our dormers. (My wife hasn’t forgiven me for that yet.) If that’s too aesthetically unappealing — or you’re afraid of heights — you can put one in your attic.

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(ClearStream HD antenna)

The number of channels you can get will vary widely, depending on how many stations are available in your area, how big the antenna is, how high it’s perched, the direction it’s facing, and if you use a signal amplifier, notes Steve Kindig, a senior editor for electronics retailer Crutchfield. (Kindig offers an excellent guide to buying and installing an HD antenna here.)

In coastal North Carolina, I get only about 12 HD channels, but they include nearly all the major networks, so I can watch some NFL football games, the Oscars, presidential debates, and other live events. (One ModFam reader in Kentucky who uses an external antenna says he gets 28 HD channels; another in Los Angeles claims to pull in 180.)

Before you commit to an outdoor antenna, enter your ZIP code into the FCC’s digital TV reception map to see what stations are available in your area and how strong the signals are.

Option #5: Outdoor antenna + DVR
This may be the ultimate cord-cutting solution, because it combines streaming video with over-the-air channels and time-shifting in one easy-to-use device. We use an older TiVo as a tuner and channel guide (which, of course, also features streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus); a TiVo subscription costs $15 to $20 a month. Channel Master offers its subscription-free DVR+ for $250, designed to be used with a $60 SMARTenna you can install indoors or out.

Ever heard the saying “Information wants to be free”? So does television. And even if you can’t get it for free, you can certainly get it for a lot less. That’s something the cable companies would rather you didn’t know. 

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com

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