Cutting The Cable Cord, Part 1

Even though I’ve received some exceptional service from Charter over the last couple of years, the wife and I have decided to cut the cable cord at the end of this year. We currently pay over $180 per month for bundled cable, telephone, and internet. That’s a ridiculous amount of money on its own, but when you add in our monthly smartphone bills, it’s a shameful first-world problem.

There are a lot of reasons to make a change. We barely get any calls to our home phone, we watch very little live television (outside of sports), and we have no use for 99% of the channels and programs on digital cable. High-speed internet is invaluable to us, but with the 4G speeds offered by Verizon in our area, Charter is no longer the gatekeeper to the virtual world.

But the most important reason I’m cutting the cord is my belief that uncustomizable television channels with rotating content blocks are out of place in this on-demand age.

My Routine

As it is now, I listen to music while I make breakfast in the morning. I usually listen to audiobooks from my local library on the way to and from work. When I get back home each night, I listen to music while I cook dinner.

I haven’t watched a televised news program in years. Not only am I turned off by the brazen bias and unnecessary hostility that infects most of the primetime programs, but, honestly, what are those pundits going to tell me at night that I haven’t already read about during the day?

When it’s time to sit down on the couch and relax, I turn on the TV and check my DVR queue. I usually record whole season of shows before watching the first episode, and I enjoy the occasional film or documentary. But most nights, the wife and I watch a DVD or a sporting event.

I’m glad to see that the networks are investing in quality programs again after the decade-long orgy of ‘reality’ TV, but when you take into account that I don’t like DoctorCopLawyerCrimescene shows, and that the rest of the shows on TV seem to be AlienRedneckHousewifeMakeoverChef, it’s easy to see that I’m just not interested in most of the stuff that’s on cable anyway.

The Cost

We currently pay $2160 per year for our bundled cable, telephone, and internet services, plus around $300 for Netflix. Let’s call that $2500 per year for digital entertainment on top of our existing smartphone bills.

If we drop telephone and cable services, our internet connection will cost around $60 per month. By using this coupon, we can get a year of high-speed internet for $40. We already spend around $25 per month on Netflix and we’re Amazon Prime members ($90 per year). If we add a Hulu+ subscription to access the popular network shows, that’ll run us another $8 per month.

By taking these steps, our digital entertainment bill will drop to $966 per year. Let’s call that $1000 to leave room for the occasional movie rental on Amazon Instant Video and Vudu.

That amounts to annualized savings of 60%.

The Tools

Even though I have an Android phone and the wife has an iPhone, we’re not invested in Google Play or iTunes. We use the Amazon ecosystem across all of our devices.

I have a Windows 7 computer hooked up to the television in my den (known as a Home Theater Personal Computer, or HTPC) that allows me to access anything online. It doesn’t have an HD graphics card, so the picture is less than optimal, but you stop noticing that a few minutes into a movie. Plus, I can stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, and more through my BluRay player in all of its HD glory. I think Windows Media Center requires too much programming/hacking to get it to be a seamless media management system, so I’ve elected to use web-based aggregators.

Clicker is a great resource that allows you to browse and manage Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix content (as well as content on network websites) in one place. It even allows you to set up and manage a queue of programs just like a DVR. Crackle is another free aggregator that lets you manage TV shows and movies.

90% of the media we consume will be accessed and organized via Clicker. To make it easy to navigate between and among the myriad content providers that make up the other 10%, I created a home theater website that acts sort of like a web app.

Click here to see my home theater menu...

I set it as the homepage of my browser on my HTPC. That way, every time we open a new tab or hit the home button, it’s like returning to the menu. That makes the whole set-up very organized and wife-friendly. Feel free to click around on it. You may recognize the error page.

The Plan

I’m going to start incorporating my home theater “app” into our nightly ritual to see what gaps there are in our online viewing habits compared to managing our content through the cable box. I hope this half-wet/half-dry transition period allows us to get an accurate feel for the cable-free life before we take the plunge, so to speak.

I’m not a huge basketball fan, so I figure that by cutting the cord after the NCAA bowl games (most of which are on ESPN), I won’t feel like I’m missing a ton of live sports until next fall rolls around. I’m also going to install a digital antenna so that we can watch the major networks (and local NFL games) on our TV. If we’re happy with the basic set-up after a year, I’ll build a custom HTPC with Windows 8 that has HD picture and audio output. If we’re not happy, we’ll probably go back to a basic cable package.

The Problems

The companies that own the TV networks have a codependent relationship with the cable providers. They use the collective influence of their successful channels and programs to force the cable companies to carry (and subsidize) their unpopular channels and programs. That’s why there’s no a la carte option for viewers. Because of this codependency, both the networks and the cable companies are loathe to tear down the virtual wall. They offer online media as a complement to their television broadcasts, not as a substitute. Prospective viewers are forced to prove that they already pay for cable before they can stream it online. You see this with the websites of cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and TBS.

There are a few ways to get around this wall, which I’m not necessarily endorsing because of their questionable legality:

  • Visit a friend’s house to watch unaccessible programs like sporting events and cable-only content.
  • Share a friend’s cable login credentials. Your friends pay for access to online content whether they use it or not. If they’re not streaming content and don’t mind if you do it on their behalf, then that’s between them and you. That’ll get you on the other side of the cable wall.
  • Buy a slingbox and hook it up to a friend’s cable/satellite box on a TV that rarely gets watched. That will let you watch their cable channels over the internet, thereby giving you access to everything whenever you want it (as long as no one else is flipping the channels on the actual TV).

Another problem with cutting the cord is that no television will be useful in our house after we cut the cord unless it has another device hooked up to it to play or filter content. We don’t have kids and we live in a tiny house, so that’s not a big deal right now. I’m getting the wife a 7″ Kindle Fire HD in case she wants to watch something or read in bed. Still, it’s very limiting. I’m hopeful that, in a few years, our phones will be able to wirelessly stream content to nearby televisions anyway, providing even less of an incentive to pay for cable.

In Conclusion

When I said that I think television channels are out-of-date, I meant it. Programs on most channels aren’t very similar throughout the day/week anymore, so what’s the point of having a “channel” anyway? We’ve arrived at a point where The Learning Channel has nothing to do with learning and the History Channel has nothing to do with history.

Think about how you use your digital cable now compared to the way you watched TV ten years ago. Do you actually surf through the channels anymore or do you just glance at the menu/guide? Do you watch a lot of live television outside of news and sports? How often do you watch shows in the same hour that they air? The same day? The same week?

Imagine that a movie you want to see is being released at the local theater. You learn that it’ll cost $10 to see it on Friday night, but only $1 to see it anytime on Saturday or later. You go see it on Saturday or later, right? That’s what’s happening now with television shows. You pay a premium for live programs that you’re probably not watching live anyway. You could be doing the same thing online for pennies on the dollar.

UPDATE: Cutting The Cable Cord, Part 2

Cutting The Cable Cord, Part 1
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