Monday, December 24, 2012

Cutting the Cord, Part 1: Content

An unhappy Cable Guy.
Photo: Crown Publishing
For a couple of years now, I dropped cable and have gone to watching TV over the Internet. Oh, not on my laptop or on a desktop, but on my TV. But, I’m getting content from the Internet. Almost all of it. Some I’m watching from an antenna.

About three years ago, I wondered if there was a way to save money on cable. We already had the basic service, but that was kind of expensive still.

Cable TV runs a lot. And satellite packages do, too. More than I want to pay. So, I took a year, noted every show we watched, then looked up the various ways it was available, and how much each way cost.

What I looked at were:
Yes, there are other methods available to get content, but these sources allowed me to easily watch content on my TV. Hulu (not Hulu Plus, but Hulu; there is a difference) was a little more involved, as you’ll see.


My goal was to watch content for less money, and with not a lot of work. Simple and cheap, that was my goal. For that reason, I didn’t include watching CBS content from, watching TNT content from, and the like. I wanted to be able to sit down, pick up a remote, point it at the TV, and watch away. You can’t do that with watching content from most Websites.

Another reason why simplicity is key would be for people that aren’t as technical savvy. I consider myself that way, but if I want a solution that might save money for someone on a fixed income, simpler is usually better.

Each of the sources I listed above had drawbacks, and none of the alternate methods got me everything I wanted. But, having moved from one city to another in the past, I found that cable services in cities all varied somewhat in the content they offered, and varied in price. So, I accepted up front that I would lose some content, and gain some other.

Cable and satellite are pretty much the same thing: lots of content, much of which I won’t watch, and at a great cost. Here are what I concluded about the other methods.

Over The Air Antenna

For watching content from ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, or NBC, an antenna works just fine. That’s how we used to watch TV years ago, before cable caught on, and before satellite TV took off.

The only drawbacks were distance and having to watch live. Distance may not be an issue for you. For me, though, some channels don’t come in quite as clear, and a large outdoor antenna was necessary. That’s an expense of around $100 or more.

My son had an even worse situation. He used to live in an area where a large outdoor antenna wasn’t feasible. He lived in a city that was isolated from powerful TV signals, and in a location where outdoor antennae were not allowed.

Another drawback about watching TV from an antenna is you have to adjust your schedule around it, unless you take the time and money to set up a DVR. Now, that might not be a big deal to a lot of people, but I bought a TiVo about seven years ago, and was quite used to a DVR.

The final drawback is the content of OTA. All the shows I was used to watching from networks like USA or TNT and such? Not available over the air.

The upside? After the expense of an antenna, and possibly a DVR, it’s free content. We also had a situation around here were some of the local channels were broadcasting a secondary channel that the local cable company didn’t carry. That might not apply in your case, but you might want to look into that if you’re considering dropping cable.

Hulu and Hulu Plus

Hulu actually comes in two flavors: Hulu standard, and Hulu Plus. Think about it like this: Hulu is free, but you can only watch that content on a computer. Hulu Plus costs $8/month, but you can watch it on your TV, if you have a set top box (STB) that contains the channel. More on set top boxes (STBs) in a bit.

Most shows that Hulu carry fall into one of two libraries: Hulu standard, or Hulu Plus. For example, The Simpons is available on Hulu, which means you can watch it for free, but you can only watch it on a computer. Family Guy, though, is available on Hulu Plus, which means you can watch it on a computer, on a STB, or on a mobile device.

To watch Hulu standard (free) content on your TV, though, you need a computer connected to your TV. That brings a level of complexity that might not be ideal. We’ll cover more about that when we talk about an HTPC.

Hulu Plus, on the other hand, is much simpler. It works on most set top boxes, and is fairly easy to use.

Hulu Plus, at $8/month is a good deal. You get a lot of current TV content (but none from CBS), plus some older TV content, as well as movies (mostly older). Some people bitch and complain about the fact there are commercials in most of the content, particularly TV content. However, they seem to lose sight of the fact that cable carries more commercials and costs a heckuva lot more per month.

I prefer Hulu Plus for watching TV content, though Netlfix is a good second choice, if you only want one subscription service.


The $8/month subscription service is much stronger than Hulu Plus for movie content, but has practically no current TV content. The TV content on Netflix is for older shows, or past seasons of current shows. Think about it like this: if it hasn't been released on DVD, you probably won't find it on Netflix.

Although the streaming content is only a fraction of what is available via DVD, it’s still a huckuva lot of content. You can always find something to watch, though not last night's hit TV show.

I prefer Netflix for watching movies, though Hulu Plus is a good second choice, if you only want one subscription service.


Apple’s iTunes store works well, and has a lot of content. However, the content is pay as you go (PAYGO). You buy the content and can download it or stream it to a compatible device. The downside is that it only works well on Apple devices. To watch it on your TV, you need an Apple TV device. We’ll cover the pluses and minuses of that device in a bit.

I like iTunes and Amazon equally for PAYGO content.

Amazon Instant Video

Amazon is newer to the streaming game, and is a cross between iTunes and Netflix. You can subscribe to content via a $79/year Amazon Prime plan, but the plan includes about 20% of the total streaming library, most older content. For the other 80%, it’s PAYGO.

If you already have Amazon Prime for the shipping benefits, it’s a great deal. I like iTunes and Amazon equally for PAYGO content.

Other Services

These aren’t the only services that are available, but these are the biggest. There are also services like Vudu and Crackle. Vudu is similar to iTunes or Amazon in that it’s PAYGO. Crackle is similar to Netflix, except it’s free, and the content is bargain bin quality; you’ll find the occasional gem, but most of the content is so-so.

Next, we’ll cover devices.

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