With 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.
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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Of course, to access any of the streaming VOD services above, you need two things: broadband Internet (the faster, the better) and a computer or networkable A/V product. New Smart TVs and Blu-ray players include streaming VOD services, and there are plenty of inexpensive standalone streaming media players that you can connect to your existing TV. Just make sure the product you buy has the services you want. Once again, pretty much all of them have Netflix and many of them have Hulu Plus, but Amazon is not a given.
I own the Apple TV, which offers both Netflix and Hulu Plus, but not Amazon. Roku is another very popular developer of streaming media players, and the Roku platform includes all three services (you can get more details on Roku here). Western Digital, Netgear, and D-Link/Boxee are a few other manufacturers of streaming media products. You can check out our review page here for more details on these devices.
Of course, streaming products aren't the only solution for those who wish to cut the cord. If you don't want to completely give up on the live TV experience, you can get free over-the-ai
r content, pulled in by an antenna. Any display that's labeled an HDTV has a built-in ATSC tuner that, when mated with an antenna, will grant you access to all of the daytime and primetime content (not all of which you can get through VOD) on local broadcasts stations like ABC, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS. If you're picturing the days of climbing on your roof or into your attic to position a heavy, bulky eyesore of an antenna, don't. There are plenty of sleek, low-profile indoor antennas that might do the job for you, such as the Mohu Leaf we recently reviewed. I plan to check out more HDTV antennas from companies like RCA and Antennas Direct in the coming months as I get closer to my potential cord-cutting date.
Live TV is nice, except for all those pesky commercials. Saying goodbye to the pause/rewind capabilities of my DVR would be difficult indeed. There aren't as many standalone DVRs as there once were, but you can find a few out there that will work with an HDTV antenna. Not all TiVo DVRs have a built-in ATSC tuner, but the TiVo Premiere DVR does, although it will cost you the price of the box plus a monthly service fee of $15. Magnavox still offers a line of combo HD DVR/DVD recorders that don't require a subscription.
D-Link combines streaming VOD and live TV in its new $99 Boxee TV. Through a network connection, you can access streaming services like Netflix and VUDU, but the box also has an internal ATSC tuner and comes with an HD antenna to watch live TV content. In select cities, Boxee also offers an optional "No Limits DVR" feature that lets you record and store as much content as you want in the cloud for a monthly fee of $15 (with the first three months free). Since the recordings are in the cloud, you can view them on portable devices, too.
Finally, if you're willing to add your computer to the mix, you can find plenty of TV/DVR software programs on the market that, combined with the HD antenna, can pull in and record over-the-air TV and store it on your hard
drive. A couple of examples include El Gato's EyeTV Hybrid, Snapstream's BeyondTV, andSiliconDust's HD HomeRun tuner.
Food for Thought
As you weigh the pros and cons of cord-cutting, here are a few other things to consider. An important one is picture quality. A lot of streamed content is offered at "HD quality" in a 720p or 1080p resolution, but the actual quality depends on your broadband speed, your router's reliability, and the network traffic at any given time. The slower your broadband speed, the more compressed the streamed content will be, and the worse it will look. If there's a lot of traffic, you may experience stutters and freezes in the stream.
That said, cable/satellite providers compress the HD signal, too - some worse than others and often varying by region. I'm pretty happy with the quality of my satellite HD signal, but before that I lived with a highly compressed cable signal that probably wasn't much better than a streamed signal. Conversely, over-the-air HD can often look much better than cable/satellite because there's less compression involved.
As I mentioned above, the VOD-only approach removes the "live" from the TV experience, including live news from major news outlets like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, as well as special live events like the Academy Awards, the Grammys, concerts, etc. More events than ever before are being simultaneously streamed online, but it's not a guarantee that this option will be available with the event you want to watch. Again, adding an HD antenna to get over-the-air feeds lessens this concern.
The person who might have the hardest time cutting the cord is the sports fan. Sports are the ultimate live experience, after all - and on any given day, live sports are scattered all over the channel lineup. Sure, with an HD antenna, you can watch games offered on the major networks, but you're out of luck for games on premium channels like ESPN, the NFL Network, TNT, etc.
Several sports leagues now offer some type of Web/mobile package in which you can pay a fee (per season) to stream live games to a computer or other device. Major League Baseball,Major League Soccer, the NBA, and the NHL all offer these types of packages, and some streaming media players and Smart TVs include the necessary apps to access these services to view on your big-screen TV. If you're a hardcore fan of only one of these sports, then this might prove to be a cost-effective solution, but subscribing to all of them would likely surpass the cost of your cable/satellite package (although you would probably get more games).
My sport of choice is football and, sadly, neither the NFL nor NCAA College Football offers this type of service - which isn't surprising, given the very expensive TV contracts that are in place. Via an HD antenna, I can watch Saturday and Sunday games on the major networks, but I would lose everything on the ESPN channels, the NFL Network, and the Big Ten Network (hubby's a Cornhusker). Besides just the games, SportsCenter is like white noise. This is definitely the main obstacle to cord-cutting for me, and several cord-cutters I talked to eventually returned to cable/satellite because of sports.
If ... the Price Is Right
Yes, the monthly savings can be substantial when you move from cable/satellite to a Netflix, Amazon, and/or Hulu subscription plan. However, you must also consider upfront costs to buy new gear, as well as other potential monthly costs. The more you try to replicate exactly what you've got with cable/satellite, the higher those costs could be.
If you don't already own a Smart TV or Blu-ray player, you can buy a standalone streaming media player for a one-time cost of $50 to $100. An HD antenna can run anywhere from $20 to $200; the type will depend on where you live and how powerful an antenna you need. If you must have DVR service for those live TV signals, factor in the cost of the DVR box and (if it's TiVo or Boxee) another monthly service fee of about $15.
Remember, you will need to keep or add broadband Internet for this experiment to work and, if you're currently paying for the slowest broadband speed that your provider offers, you might want to step up to a faster tier for the best performance.
So, are you still intrigued? Do you plan to cut the cord, or have you already done so? We'd love to hear from you. Share your thoughts below.