Cutting the Cable

Three weeks ago I finally did something I had been thinking about doing for at least two years - I 'cut the cable'.  That's what people are calling switching from cable to streaming TV.  The challenge was to save money while still getting the entertainment I wanted on my television set.  Part of the challenge was making both my wife and me happy with whatever we did.  She doesn't like learning curves, but every time I scrolled through a hundred or two channels and couldn't find anything I want to watch, it reminded me how much I don't like cable bills.

So I marched into the cable office and turned in my set top box and remote control, and 'downgraded' my account to 'internet only'.  I figured I could save between $50 and over $100 per month depending on how you calculate it (more on that later) plus get most of the shows we care about as well as some things not offered on cable.

I must disclose that I am sports impaired.  People who are challenged have a hope of meeting that challenge, but when you are impaired there is no hope.  This works to my benefit in cutting the cable -- one of the reasons that cable TV is so expensive is that it is expensive for them to license sports channels.  And, for me, it means not paying for a streaming sports bundle.  We ended up with three streaming pay bundles -- four if you count Amazon Prime.  We get Prime for the free shipping and it pays for itself that way, so I consider the TV a free bonus.

What Shows Can I Get?
I found we were watching more on Netflix than on cable before making the switch, but many of the shows we like are on broadcast TV.  Hulu and CBS All Access cover that and more.

I realized that most of the broadcast network shows we really liked were on CBS, so I subscribed to All Access about six months ago -- with commercials.  I mostly watched old shows on it, but when the cable company DVR snagged a bad recording, which it often did, we'd watch the episode on the app, making liberal use of the mute button during the commercials.  When we cut the cable I bumped up to the no-commercials package, and am quite happy with it.  My one complaint is that even though the app keeps track of which episodes you have watched, it doesn't do so in a particularly easy fashion.  I suppose the Netflix app has spoiled us in that way.

By the way, the big selling point for CBS All Access was supposed to be the new 'Star Trek Discovery', which CBS reportedly thought would bring a huge fan base to subscribe to be able to see the streaming-only program.  It was slated to launch in January on broadcast and streaming, then, after the initial episode it would be on streaming only and that was going to bring CBS a pot of gold.  But for some reason -- the official story is that the makers of the show needed more time to make it really good -- it didn't materialize.  Now it is scheduled for May.  (It seems to me that puts more pressure on the show to be really good.)

An unexpected pleasure is that the CBS app streams the local (Syracuse) station.  For contractual reasons it blacks out some things, but we care about local stations for local news, so we can see that if we want to.  It streams in real time, though, so no binge watching local TV.  You can live-stream CBS shows as well, but since we added the commercial free option I don't see why we wouldn't wait for the shows to appear on the app the next day and experience that enormous wave pleasure every time an act fades to black, then immediately fades into the next act where the commercials would have been.  I don't think that will ever get old!

Hulu takes care of the other network shows plus a wealth of older content -- and I mean really older content.  I mean, 'Father Knows Best' and the 'Donna Reed Show' older content, as well as shiny new shows and everything in between.  Hulu is a bit better than CBS at showing what you watched, but still not as good as Netflix.  But once you have watched current shows Hulu, it flags new episodes in your watchlist.

How Good is the Viewing Experience?
The quality of the viewing is top notch.  We had Netflix when we had the Standard cable Internet offering and didn't have any problems with it.  We have a faster connection now, but I am not convinced we need it for TV.  We did have a buffering issue on the CBS app the other night -- minor, really, not enough to actually stop the show -- but it may have been the Apple TV's fault.  No problem after rebooting it.

There was also an issue where the Apple TV wouldn't play 'The Gilmore Girls' on Netflix.  It played anything else -- it just seemed to have it in for those Gilmores!  After searching the Internet for the error code the app displayed I learned that many Apple TV owners were having this problem with the Netflix app -- seemed to be a problem with the Apple TV (or the Apple TV version of Netflix).  Hard rebooting (unplug the Apple TV, count to ten, plug it back in) solved the problem, making me a tech support genius in my wife's eyes.

If you are not like me and more like normal people who like sports you should look into Sling TV.  They have a streaming sports package with ESPN and ESPN2, as well as cable network packages that include networks like TNT, CNN, HGTV, The Disney Channel, BC America, Comedy Central and many more.  I understand that Sling is more about live TV than on-demand, so that may be an issue for some people, especially since there is no DVR with streaming TV.  Also, it costs more than Netflix, Hulu, CBS, PBS, etc.  $20 a month for the package with sports, $25 for the extended cable network package without sports, and $40 for all of the above.  But it certainly fills a gap in the cable-cutting world.

What is the bottom line?
So what is the cost of cutting the cable?  Can you really save money, and is the less integrated experience -- various apps that work differently from each other, no unified guide/schedule -- worth saving a few bucks?

First the hardware, a one-time expense.  We already had an Apple TV and a Roku Streaming Stick.  We have other Apple devices, so we gravitated toward the Apple TV, but because of corporate wars, Amazon Prime is not available on the Apple TV, nor is iTunes available on the Roku.  To be honest, we only have the second device because I reviewed it for the Star -- you can use the Amazon TV app on your iPhone and use Airplay to view it on an Apple TV.  That works very well, so if Apple is your pleasure, that's all you need, and if Apple is your displeasure, the Roku is probably the best choice for its breadth of choices.

The Apple TV is expensive, especially the new one with the 'Siri' remote.  As my ears age and the young actors tend to mumble, I would say the investment was worth it for a Siri feature: missing the meaning of a mumble you can ask Siri, "What did (s)he say?" and the show backs up ten seconds and turns on close captioning for a short time so you can read the intended meaning of the mumble.  I use that a lot!  So if Apple is your pleasure, the newest version (4th generation) will set you back between $150 and $200.

Roku has about seven different hardware options from a $30 Roku Express to an entire television set, which starts at $140.  It has a wealth of potential channels, some pay, some not, and it does have Amazon Prime on it.   (Amazon also has a Stick, a very economical choice.)

I found I needed two more pieces of hardware.  The first is a programmable remote control.  Even though the streaming device remotes only have a few buttons, we used a many-buttoned cable remote for so many years that it became ingrained in our DNA.  I found a remote made by Inteset that is Apple and Roku friendly, had the look and feel of our old remote, and could be programmed (programming only sort of works for me, but I got it programmed enough to do what we wanted, at least for the TV, stereo and Apple TV).  My wife hates learning curves in things like remotes and computers, and once I got this programmed, it eliminated most of what would have been a learning curve for her.  So it was well worth it.

The other piece of hardware was unexpected.  I have had a cable box under my TV since... well that would be telling, but it has been a very, very long time.  The day I turned in my cable box and set us up for streaming I sat in my chair, ready to enjoy awesome streaming television, but something was missing.  And it really bothered me!  The clock on the front of the set top box was gone!  After all those years of looking at the time under the TV, I felt a visceral discomfort when it was no longer there.  So at 8pm I trundled off to Target and bought a cheap digital alarm clock.  Problem solved.

I will report that when all you want is Internet it ain't cheap.  Without bundles Time Warner's Standard Internet offering is $59.99.  I wanted a little better speed than Standard offers -- add another $10 for Turbo and yet another $10 for Extreme.  But once you get to Extreme you may be able to get a special offer, so for now, at least, I am getting it for the price of Turbo.  If you have an irrational hatred of our cable company, remember that Comcast is much worse, so we dodged a bullet when Comcast's buyout of Time Warner tanked, so don't bite off your nose to spite your face: cable is the best quality Internet connection in our area for now, if it is available to you.

I figured we could pay about $30 per month for Netflix, Hulu and the CBS app and it covered almost everything we really like with the added benefit of no commercials.  The free PBS app brings more, though it locks a lot of episodes, releasing new ones each week and locking past ones unless you pay $60 per year -- not required, but not a bad deal.

Figuring out your savings is a bit of a swamp.  We were paying $118 per month for out TV/Internet bundle, but it was a special deal.  Each year I would call the cable company, threaten to drop TV and see what kind of deal they would give me.  Prices for what I wanted ranged between around $119 and $190, depending on the representative I talked to.  And the price always included an enormous dollop of things I didn't want.  I was willing to pay the $119, but not more, and remaining firm on that point got me my price for as long as I was willing to suffer the time consuming, annoying annual phone call.

So the bottom line is that if you use the lowest bundle price I was offered, I save $50 a month by keeping cable Internet without TV.  But if you use the price the cable company wanted me to pay, I am saving around $120 a month. The cable company makes it so difficult to learn what their service really costs you once those enticing deals expire, that I can't really tell you what the real savings is, except to say that dropping TV from my cable package minimally saved me $50 from the last monthly charge I paid for the TV/Internet bundle I had.  Adding the commercial free option for  CBS and Hulu together costs less than $100 per year.  If you don't mind commercials, you can save more.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a potentially even less expensive choice.  if you are only an occasional TV watcher, just buy a season of the few shows you like.  iTunes and Amazon both offer these options -- a season of a new show may cost in the range of $15 to $40, depending on the show and how recent it is.  That may seem expensive, but if all you want is three current series you are paying about $120 a year for them, rather than the about $360 a year I am paying for my three subscription apps.  Even if you do subscribe to an app you can always add that one must-see show by purchasing a season pass.  The à la carte aspect of streaming subscriptions makes it genuinely attractive.  I don't feel like I am paying for 200 channels with nothing to watch.

OK, so what are my savings?  We already had Netflix and CBS with commercials well before dropping cable, so I don't count those in my calculation.  However, adding Hulu without commercials and upgrading CBS to commercial-free added about $15 a month.  Subtract that from the conservative estimate of a $50 a month savings and the least I am saving is $35 a week, or $420 per year.  No more annoying phone calls, and I can downgrade to the commercials versions or outright cancel online without that annoying human-reading-a-script interaction.

Is it worth it?
Cutting the cable was a good move for me.  I love the commercial free services.  I mean, I really love them (have I mentioned how much I love them?).

Also, the streaming on-demand service is simpler and faster to use than the cable version, which does have commercials and doesn't keep track of what you have watched.  I do miss the schedule, and one of the advantages of the DVR was that it snagged the shows you wanted automatically, so they showed up on your list after they were broadcast like little treats -- with streaming you have to keep better track of your schedule in your head.  But the joy of fast forwarding through the commercials on the DVR, something I thought I would really miss -- is nothing to the extreme pleasure of not having commercials in the first place.  Stopping that DVR fast-forward at just the right moment was a bit of a skill that has been rendered 100% irrelevant with the commercial free streaming options.

Another benefit is that the major streaming apps have versions for your phone or pad and are available in your computer's Web browser, so you can watch TV you like any place you go (watch out for cell phone data charges, though -- you use a lot of data with streaming).

Cable cutting can be a treacherous road, and if you get greedy for content it can exceed the cost of cable TV.  The integrated experience cable offers is really good, so I am not saying that cable has become a bad choice.  Also, because of the surprisingly high cost of Internet-only packages, the savings will not be as much of a windfall as you might think.

After about a month of streaming, though, I am very happy with the streaming options we have.  In general I think I am happier -- I am paying for what I want without a lot of stuff I don't want, and once you get used to the different way of accessing it, the experience is at least as good as cable, if not better.