How much do you pay for cable or satellite TV? The average American household spends $86 per month for cable TV service, and many households pay a lot more than that. This explains why more and more viewers are cutting the cable cord to get their TV programming for free or low cost online.
Can you really find the same programming online, via streaming video, that you get from your cable or satellite provider? The answer is yes, pretty much – although you might have to supplement your online viewing with a little old fashioned over-the-air antenna TV.
There’s also the issue of how you get all that Internet-based streaming video programming onto the big-screen TV in your living room. It’s easy enough to log onto Hulu or Netflix from your computer, but do you really want to sit your entire family around that small notebook screen for an evening’s worth of viewing pleasure?
Watching TV Shows Online
When it comes to replacing your cable lineup, you need to find a streaming video service online that offers a similar selection of programming. While there’s no single service that offers every single cable network, you can choose from among multiple services that offer pretty much everything you want.
Start with Hulu and its paid sibling Hulu Plus. The basic Hulu service is free, and you’ll find a wide selection of current and classic TV series there. If you want to view more episodes of these same shows (past seasons and such) you may want to subscribe to the $7.99/month Hulu Plus service. Hulu Plus not only lets you watch all the shows you want, you can also watch on multiple devices in different rooms. It's a pretty good deal.
You’ll find more older programming on Netflix, which also costs $7.99/month. Netflix also offers a selection of quality cable shows, such as AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as some original programming, including House of Cards, Lilyhammer, and the new season of Arrested Development. (Plus, of course, a ton of movies – but we’re talking television programming here, aren’t we?)
Now, not all television networks license their programming to Hulu or Netflix. Some, such as HBO, run their own streaming services. HBO GO is available to anyone who subscribes to HBO on cable or satellite, which is problematic if you truly cut the cord and unsubscribe from all your cable services. (For what it’s worth, HBO is considering offering HBO GO online subscriptions to cable cutters, but they’re not there yet.)
Some networks offer their programming on their own websites. Disney, for example, lets you watch Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Disney Junior programming for free on its website. Other networks offer similar proprietary viewing options.
So to satisfy your viewing jones, you may have to use a combination of Hulu/Hulu Plus, Netflix, and network-specific websites. Still, you’re talking less than $20 a month if you go all in, and that’s considerably less than what you’re currently paying for cable.
Watching Sports Online
One thing that Hulu and Netflix don’t offer is live sporting events. This has been the purview of the national broadcast networks, your local television stations, and the big cable sports channels. Are any of these sporting events available online?
The answer is a resounding yes – for a fee.
Most of the major American sports leagues have their own online streaming video services, which let you view all their games on your PC or connected device in real time. Here’s what’s available:
- MLB.TV. This is the place to watch Major League Baseball games in full HD glory. Basic membership (for viewing on your PC) runs $19.99/month or $94.99/year. If you want to watch on other connected devices, you need the Premium subscription at $24.99/month or $114.99/year.
- NBA League Pass Broadband. The online network for pro basketball fans. Unfortunately, the online service follows the same rules as the cable-based League Pass service in terms of blacked-out games, of which there are many. You can select the Choice package (follow five teams for the season for $119) or the Total package (follow all teams for $179).
- NFL Game Rewind. Okay, so the NFL doesn’t offer live online streaming. But you can watch all your favorite football games after the fact via the on-demand Game Rewind service. You can follow a single team with the $34.99 Follow Your Team package; all regular-season games with the $39.99 Season package; and all regular and post-season games with the $69.99 Season Plus package.
- NHL GameCenter Live. This is the hockey junkie’s network; you can watch up to 40 out-of-market games each week for $159 for the season.
In addition to these official sites, there are a number of other sites that offer a variety of pro and college sports online in real time. These include College Sports Direct, SportLemon, and WatchESPN. In addition, most of the major broadcast networks offer live streaming of many sporting events on their sites.
What you typically lack from almost all these sites is the ability to watch your local team’s games, as typically broadcast by the big networks. For this, you need to tune into your local TV stations – which takes us to the next component of cutting the cable cord.
Watching Local TV
When you cut the cable cord, you also lose access to your local television stations – and thus the major broadcast networks. This cuts you off from local news and weather, as well as your favorite network shows and sports programming.
Fortunately, you don't need cable or an Internet connection to view your local news shows or watch this week’s big NFL game live. That’s because all your local stations broadcast their programming for free over the public airwaves, and in pristine digital format. Since just about every TV sold in the past five years or so has a built-in digital tuner for these over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts, you should be able to receive what you want just by hooking up an indoor or outdoor antenna and tuning your TV to the appropriate station number.
Unlike old school analog broadcasting, the digital OTA signals you receive today are crisp and sharp, in perfect high definition with Dolby Digital surround sound. The days of fuzzy, snowy TV reception are long gone; if you can receive a station's signal, it's going to look (and sound) pretty good. It’s the perfect (and free) way to watch your local and national network programming – including your local teams’ sporting events.
And here’s an added benefit to watching OTA television. Most local stations today broadcast not just their main signal, but also several subsidiary channels, called sub-channels. For example, where I live in the Twin Cities our local ABC affiliate KSTP broadcasts the standard ABC HD programming on digital channel 5.1, but also offers the Me-TV network on sub-channel 5.3, the Antenna TV network on sub-channel 5.4, the This TV network on sub-channel 5.6, and the Live Well Network on sub-channel 5.7. Other channels devote their sub-channels to 24/7 weather, children's programming, or foreign-language networks.
If connecting an old-school antenna to your fancy new flatscreen TV seems a tad anachronistic in today’s digital age, there may be a more amenable solution coming your way. Aereo is a new service (backed by Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp) that installs a collection of small antennas in your town to receive your local television stations, and then beams what it receives to you over the Internet. This lets you watch your local programming online, using any computer or connected device. At present the Aereo service is available in 21 cities, with more on the rollout list. You pay $8/month for the basic service, with higher priced options available. (Note, however, that the legal status of Aereo is literally up in the air; the major broadcast networks are suing the company for lost cable subscription revenue.)
Connecting It All Together: Watching Streaming Video in Your Living Room
Now you know what you need to do to replace all your favorite cable programming. Just connect to the Internet and subscribe to Hulu and Netflix, subscribe to your favorite sports packages, and connect an antenna to your TV to receive OTA local broadcasts.
But there’s one part of the cable-cutting solution that’s still missing. How do you get all that Internet-based streaming video from your computer to the big-screen TV in your living room? After all, you don’t want to watch your favorite shows and sporting events on a small computer screen.
There are a number of ways to solve this little problem. It all depends on what equipment you own or want to buy.
The simplest solution is to purchase a so-called “smart” TV that includes built-in Internet access. You connect your TV to the Internet via your home network (typically wirelessly, via Wi-Fi), and then tune in to all the necessary online streaming video services directly from your TV’s main menu. Of course, this option is viable only if you need to buy a new TV, and you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks for the higher-end “smart” models.
Another option is to purchase a Blu-ray player with similar Internet connectivity. Spending $150 on a connected Blu-ray player is a lot less expensive than buying a whole new connected TV, and in most instances you get access to the same online streaming video services.
If you have an Xbox 360 or similar videogame system, you may not need to purchase any additional equipment. Most current videogame consoles provide access to Netflix, Hulu, and the other streaming video services, so you can watch your favorite movies and TV shows through your game player. You may need to pay extra to access your system’s Internet service, but then you can watch all the streaming video you want.
A final option is to purchase a so-called streaming media player for watching TV and movies online. This is a small set-top box that connects to the Internet (wirelessly) and to your living room or bedroom TV (via HDMI). You tune into your favorite streaming video services on the streaming media box and watch your programming on your big-screen TV. These devices run from $50 to $100 or so, and are available from Apple (Apple TV), Netgear (NeoTV), Roku, Western Digital (WD TV), and other manufacturers.
I happen to like the streaming media player solution, because it offers the additional benefit of streaming music, movies, and photos from any PC connected to my home network. This way I can listen to my music collection on my living room audio/video system, even though all my music files are stored on the desktop PC in my home office. These streaming media boxes also let you listen to streaming music services, such as Spotify and Pandora. They’re a lot more versatile, in terms of media playback, than a smart TV or videogame console.
Once you get everything connected, you should be able to call up your cable or satellite company and tell them to pull the plug. You now have access to just about everything you want, either in real time or on demand, in full high definition. You’ll never watch TV the old way again.