Best Ways to Cut the Cord and Slash Your Cable Bill
Cord cutting 101, from Apple TV to Netflix
After decades of dutifully paying my steep cable bill, at age 49, I felt the time was finally right to cut the cord and craft my own package of home entertainment options.
I’d just moved cross-country and knew the clean slate of such a decision should likewise herald a new type of viewing relationship with my television. Or put another way: My cable bill was just too darn high!
It was a good decision. I’m saving more than $85 a month as a cord cutter and have suffered no tryer’s remorse. When I canceled my cable contract, I faced no penalty (I’d completed my contract), so it was no hassle to bail. In fact, I received a small refund.
I’m still watching all my favorite shows, enjoying high-speed Internet and can think of no reason (outside inertia and your contractual expiration date) that you shouldn’t join the growing number of Americans doing so, too. Currently, 83 percent of U.S. households pay for TV service, down from 87 percent in 2010.
What Is Cord Cutting?
Simply put, “cutting the cord” is unbundling yourself from your cable provider’s programming contract (the "cord") and replacing its pre-selected, packaged channels with content of your own choosing through providers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video.
Don’t ditch everything, though. You’ll want to keep your Internet connection for streaming your chosen content (and for emailing your friends about all the money you’re saving).
Yes, it’s true that cord cutting is generally presumed to be the domain of Millennials looking to avoid paying high cable bills; maybe your grown kids have already done it, if they ever had a cord to begin with.
But many consumers of all generations are going this route out of frustration with their cable company’s policies, pricing ($200 a month!) or just for greater control over their viewing choices. Why pay for hundreds of channels when they you only watch a handful of programs at best?
For me, it was mostly a pricing issue. And I’m here to say that cutting the cord turned out to be easy; the savings weren’t half-bad either.
Cord cutting has become easier to do each month, too. There are now even websites devoted to learning more about how to up your cord-cutting game and apps to keep you informed of tonight’s programming details.
To be fair, cutting the cord isn’t as simple as saying sayonara to your cable company and plugging your TV directly into the wall. There will be some research into purchasing decisions and maybe a little cursing as you stretch to hook up that new antenna.
The first thing you need to know are the products, services and costs to factor in:
A box. This is the streaming device to receive the programming you choose. You don’t need a box for every TV you own, depending on the services you choose and whether you have a Smart TV (an Internet-connected television).
An antenna. You'll want one for each TV getting streaming services. Antennas come in lots of configurations – yes, you’ll see some rabbit ears – but mostly, this year’s models are slick and modern. The ones I have lay flat against the window, attached easily with Velcro in about five minutes. You hook these up yourself with short cables that go into the back of your TV.
Content subscriptions. You’ll pay monthly subscription fees to different content providers if you want to watch shows beyond the free broadcast channels you get where you live. I pay about $8 a month for one subscription.
Finding Hardware and Content
Let’s now look a little harder at the two main steps to becoming a cord cutter: finding your hardware and finding your content. These steps must be considered in concert; your content must work on the box you choose.
Think of the hardware as elegantly designed replacements for your old set-top cable boxes. If you have a Smart TV, you may not need to buy any since many of the apps you’ll need are built right in. But if you don’t have a Smart TV (and sometimes even if you do, depending on the content you choose and your TV model), you’ll need hardware to serve up your shows. Some of the hardware products are not much bigger than a pack of cards, like Roku and the new Apple TV (the name is deceptive, it’s not a TV — it’s for your TV). Read up to ensure the one you’re considering will work with the content services you’re choosing.
The antenna you get will be used to wrangle the over-the-air signal into your living room so you can watch your favorite local stations. Search “HDTV antenna” online and read the user reviews when you’re ready to buy. (After your antenna is hooked up, don’t forget to re-scan for channels on your television, changing your “source” from “cable” to “antenna” or whatever verbiage your set uses under the menu options.)
Lastly, don’t forget that you will still need Internet access. So whether you choose to keep your existing provider or shop for another (deals as a new customer with a competitor may be cheaper), be sure you have a connection of at least 5 Mbps (Megabits per second). You’ll want more if you have multiple members in the household doing multiple, online things like emailing, surfing or gaming. The Federal Communications Commission recommends at least 15 Mbps in those circumstances.
Here’s the down-and-dirty about popular cord-cutting boxes:
Roku It comes in a wide variety of prices, depending on the feature set you want. Note: If you have an older model TV, you’ll want the Roku SE or 1, which accommodate composite A/V cables.
Price: $50 to $130
Best for: People wanting a low-profile, do-everything unit with customer support.
Apple TV Newly revamped, this iteration of the Apple TV follows the familiar (to iOS users) behavior of finding, selecting and downloading apps. Here, the apps are content providers like Netflix and the Apple Store. Play everything you’ve stored in your iTunes vault, too. Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, can help you along the way.
Price: $149 or $199
Best for: Apple devotees invested in the Apple ecosystem
Amazon Fire TV Like the others on this list, Fire TV serves up all the big content providers, plus more than 800 games. Similar to Siri, it has a remote control with voice search where you can ask it to search for, say, “movies starring Paul Newman.”
Best for: Those very invested in Amazon’s programming or who already have a catalog of downloaded Amazon content.
Where to Find Content
First, the good news: local broadcast stations (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, PBS and some independents) are available in HD-quality over the air, free of charge. For many of us, that will cover a lot of our programming needs: the local news and weather, national news and our favorite primetime broadcast shows.
But for programming beyond that — think AMC, TNT, HBO — you’ll need to subscribe to one or more content providers. A caveat: when you’re choosing content, what you see listed today may not always be a part of that service’s library. Remember this: the beauty of cord-cutting is that you can always simply unsubscribe.
Most of these services let you view content on your mobile devices, desktop computer or laptop, but in the examples below I am talking mainly here about seeing the content on your home TV. What if you have an old TV? I can’t speak for all of your carbon date-ables, but one of my televisions was 15 years old and my Roku plugged right in. Look for “composite video” connections when doing your research and check with the FAQs or customer service. This can be tricky territory.
You may wish to subscribe to one, two, four or more content services, depending on whether you’re trying to replicate your entire cable package or just trying to find your favorite shows. My advice is to start with one, learn its interface well, then add on from there if you feel like you’re missing a “must-see” part of your life.
Below are some of the more popular services (you might also want to check out CBS All Access, Sling TV (good for sports lovers) and iTunes:
What you can watch: Watch or buy your favorite past-season TV programming by the episode or a season at a time plus original, new Amazon programming (such as Transparent) and many movies are “free” if you’re an Amazon Prime member — super-quick delivery for a yearly $99 fee.
Price: A la carte, but usually $1.99 to $3.99 to buy a single episode, seasons vary by number of episodes; for movies, $5.99 is a popular 24-hour rental price with $14.99 a common purchase price. Many TV shows and movies are included at no charge with Prime membership
What you can watch: Past and present HBO shows (Game of Thrones, Veep, The Wire, The Sopranos…) without being asked to authenticate through a cable provider. Plus: movies, documentaries and special sporting events
Price: $14.99 a month
What you can watch: This will be the closest you’ll come to thinking, “This is sort of like a DVR.” Hulu is owned by 21st Century Fox, Disney and NBCUniversal (which include the Fox, ABC and NBC networks), so your selected current primetime programming (except for CBS) will appear in your Hulu queue the day after it airs. You’ll also find the CW and cable networks like Comedy Central, MTV and E!, but no ESPN. Hulu also has a vast library of A-list movies and past-season TV favorites, including some of CBS’s.
Price: free with restrictions; $7.99 a month for limited ads; $11.99 a month with no ads; add Showtime for $8.99 a month
What you can watch: This is where most of us cut our streaming teeth, and there’s still every reason to include it as part of your streaming arsenal. You’ll get Netflix’s own original programming like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards and entire new seasons of these “Netflix Originals” are loaded at once so you can binge all weekend. Also: other networks’ TV shows from seasons’ past and more movies than you can watch in a lifetime.
Price: $7.99 a month for standard definition and one screen/program at a time, $9.99 a month for HD and two screens, $11.99 a month for HD/4k and four screens
Does It Make Financial Sense?
If this all sounds good in concept, it’s time to do the math. Consider that you would have been paying for Internet access anyway, so call that a draw. Amortize the hard costs of your antenna(e) and other hardware, add the cost of your monthly subscriptions for the content services you want and then see if the monthly total is enough to warrant a switch.
My advice to friends who ask whether cord cutting is worth it: “Give it a shot.” You can do so slowly — trying out the content providers through their free trials while you’re still wired up — and then pick the ones you prefer. Then, if the cord-cutting life isn’t for you, go back to cable. Someone will always have a deal for you!