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How to Break Free from Cable/Satellite Fees

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Cutting-the-cord-small.jpgWith the proliferation of streaming video and network-connected A/V devices, a growing number of consumers are contemplating whether or not to "cut the cord" - to cancel their cable/satellite subscription and get their TV content through other methods. As I approach the end of a two-year contract with a certain satellite provider, I myself have been seriously weighing the pros and cons of canceling my service. If you're thinking about doing the same, let's talk about the products and services that can fill the cable/satellite void, as well as some potential drawbacks to cutting the cord.

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Video-on-Demand Options
If you choose to cut the cord, there's certainly no shortage of video-on-demand services to choose from right now. The major broadcast networks (ABC, NBS, CBS, FOX) and some premium channels make many shows available for free streaming through their websites, although the number of episodes is usually limited. There are also a number of fee-based VOD services that offer TV shows. Some, like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, require a subscription fee. Others, like VUDU and iTunes, are pay-per-use, meaning that you pay a rental or purchase fee to access one particular film or TV episode.

iTunes, VUDU, CinemaNow, and the Amazon Video Store are good options for movie fans who want to rent or buy a particular film. However, they aren't necessarily ideal for TV, because you have to purchase each show individually. You can get a discount if you buy a whole season of a show as opposed to individual episodes, but you still have to pay for every different show you watch. These services are fine if you just want to buy one TV episode that you missed or purchase complete seasons to own (as you would on disc), but they're not the most cost-effective solutions for the TV lover who wants to cut the cord but still watch a lot of TV content.

The better options for TV fans are Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon's Instant Video service. For a monthly or annual fee, you get unlimited access to each service's complete streaming catalog. (Amazon offers both subscription and pay-per-use content; the subscription catalog does not include all the same titles that are available through the pay-per-use store, especially when it comes to movies. Streaming services do not get big-ticket releases as early as pay-per-use services.)

Of the three services, Hulu is the most TV-centric and puts the strongest emphasis on offering up-to-date episodes of popular shows. Hulu has deals with most of the majors, offering shows from Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC/Disney, the CW, A&E, Comedy Central, MTV, PBS, Nickelodeon, and many more. One notable omission is HBO, but you'll find that's true of all three services. Check out the full list of Hulu content partners here.

You can actually stream a lot of shows for free at Hulu.com via a Web browser. However, to get full access to the complete lineup and full episode lists, you need to subscribe to Hulu Plus for $7.99 per month. Lots of Smart TVs and streaming media players offer the Hulu Plus app. Hulu Plus is not a completely ad-free experience; several times during a show, they will take short (non-skippable) commercial breaks.

Of course, Netflix is the best known of the three providers, and it's the marquee service on pretty much every streaming platform on the market. If you have a Smart TV or video-streaming device, it likely includes the Netflix app. Netflix's monthly subscription is $9.99 for unlimited, commercial-free streaming. Netflix offers a lot of movies (but few new big-name releases) and has a large selection of TV shows, although not necessarily the newest episodes of popular shows.

Amazon Instant Video is available to anyone who signs up for the Amazon Prime service, which costs $79 per year. In addition to unlimited streaming video, you get free two-day shipping on all Amazon orders and access to the Kindle Bookstore. Although the average monthly price of Amazon Prime is the lowest of the three ($6.58 per month), you can't pay monthly; after a free 30-day trial of Amazon Prime, you must pay the full $79 annual fee. (Amazon briefly tested a month-to-month plan late last year, but it's no longer available.) Here is the list of TV content partners for Amazon. Amazon Instant Video's TV selection isn't currently as strong as Hulu's, nor is the service as ubiquitous as Netflix and Hulu Plus in terms of how many streaming devices it appears on, but it is slowly catching up.

It's worth noting that, just because one of these services has a partnership with a certain content provider, it doesn't guarantee that every show from that network will be available in the streaming catalog. You need to do some homework. Write down the list of shows you love, the list of shows on your DVR's series manager, and do some research to see which service offers access to the most shows on your list. Of course, this doesn't have to be an either/or scenario. You could pick Hulu for its TV and Netflix/Amazon for movies and still pay less than $20 per month.

One drawback to using VOD for all your TV viewing is that you lose the live experience. You usually have to wait a few hours or, in some cases, a few days after the initial airing for a TV episode to be available for streaming. If part of your love of TV is watching your favorite shows live and interacting with friends via Facebook or Twitter, you won't get that through the VOD approach. If, on the other hand, you watch almost everything time-shifted on your DVR (like I do), then the VOD experience won't be all that different.

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