Do You Really Want To “Cut the Cable”?
Here in the States, cable and satellite TV providers bundle channels into packages. On the surface, purchasing any of these packages seems like a great deal. You can get 50, 150, 250, 350 or more channels. Unfortunately, most users typically watch only a small portion of the channels purchased. For example, I pay for 250 channels and watch on a consistent basis between 12 and 18 of them. If this seems to you like a waste of money, you are right. It is. Basic (without premium movie channels) satellite or cable service can run from $300 to over $1,000 per year, depending on the number of channels in your bundle.
How about movie channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz, Encore, and the rest? The fact is that most of the movies shown rotate from one vendor to the next, often in the same week. You might watch a title on Showtime, and find it a few days later on Starz or HBO. From this observation, it really doesn’t make sense to pay for “all” the movie channels found in the cable or satellite providers “top of the line” all movie channel bundle. Buying just one movie channel seems prudent. In addition, the only thing that really differentiates one movie provider from another is their special programs, like Dexter, Spartacus, Homeland and so on. So, you are faced with a decision. Is it worth, for example, paying $13 a month to get Starz, so you can watch Spartacus once a week for 12 weeks? If you are a real Spartacus fan, maybe it is. For me, I am more a fan of the $13 a month going someplace else.
I can’t take it anymore…….I want to “cut the cable”!!!
What to do? You could find a Warrior Queen, like the representation of the Celtic Queen Boudicca shown at the left, to negotiate a deal with your cable or satellite provider. Though there is a good chance of some success using this option, the downsides are pretty steep:
- It is hard to find a good Celtic Warrior Queen today.
- There is a high propensity for collateral damage and the resultant personal liability to you, stemming from such damage.
- Warrior Queens are not always successful in their conquests (Sorry to bring this fact up to the Boudicca fans reading this).
Fortunately, there are better options to choose from, and should not create any undue pain for yourself and/or your heirs. Here are some potential solutions to save a few dollars a month, without “cutting the cable”:
- As mentioned above, negotiate a better price for your service (minus the Warrior Queen). There is no out of pocket expense to this option, no hardware changes to make, – just make a phone call, plead your case, and hopefully, receive a lower bill for a few months.
- Drop your movie channels altogether, and get your movie “fix” from Netflix, Apple’s iTune’s Store, Amazon, etc. To me, Netflix is the cheapest at $7.99 a month for unlimited movie streaming (to do this, you must have a device connected to both your TV and the Internet. If you own a current, name-brand Blue-ray player, Apple TV, or other media player, Netflix is usually somewhere in the device’s menu). Netflix carries only a few “current” or very recent video releases, though a huge library of movies is available, the majority of which are as current as what you see on the movie channels from your TV service provider. The video quality of the movies is very good, – many are HD.
If you desire to go further and “cut the cable” (end your contract with your cable or satellite TV provider), the final result of using any number of solutions will be a TV experience that is not as reliable as the one you are experiencing today. Over-the-air solutions can be affected by the distance between your TV antenna and the tower transmitting the video signal, sun spots, weather, topography, etc. Though many solutions use the internet as a means to convey media to you, the internet is not always a smooth running process. Problems can stem from your service provider, your own hardware, the site you are attempting to reach, or even the infrastructure of the internet itself. In short, if absolute reliability is something you are seeking to obtain after cutting the cable, you will probably be disappointed with an internet based medium, and it will be important to decide which is more important to you, saving money or reliability. That being said, I have a few months left on my contact with my satellite service provider, so I have been running my “cut the cable” solution, alongside my current satellite service. Yes, there have been a few internet hiccups, for example: the most common, – me and a few hundred (thousand?) people are trying to stream the same video, and the site’s bandwidth is maxed out. It happens, but then again, there are so many options of things to view, I decide on something else, and comeback later to the site where I could not watch my original selection. I have been running in “cut the cable” mode for several months, and have not found any situation unbearable, or anything that would make me dedicate my future TV viewing experience to a cable of satellite TV provider.
Have I frightened you off yet? If not, o’ brave one, let us soldier on. The following is a menu of options from which to choose that will help you “cut the cable”:
Over-the-Air. This is the most popular option. By attaching an antenna to your TV, you will be able to pick up local stations. Go to tvfool.com and you will be able to determine:
- Which broadcasters are transmitting locally?
- How far are the transmitters from me?
- Which direction should I point my antenna?
- How strong are the signals in my area?
- What analog and digital channels are available?
Next, decide on what type of antenna you will need: analog, digital, or both, and then if you will need an indoor or outdoor antenna. An analog or digital antenna will depend on your TV type, as well as the channels you choose to watch. TVfool will also tell you if the over-the-air signal strength is sufficient enough to use a “set-top” indoor antenna, an attic mount, or a roof mounted antenna for each channel you can receive. In addition, it will tell you if “extreme measures” will be required to pick up the channel.
For my situation, an RCA ANT751 fits the bill (street price from $51 to $60). It has a 40 mile range. The antenna is an HDTV roof mount. I simply unfolded the RCA ANT751, and mounted it on an old satellite dish mast (Hint: You can use the old satellite’s coax cable to run to to your TV). Pointed the antenna to 277 degrees, plugged it in to my tuner (I will explain later), and it works like a charm. An outdoor antenna preamplifier is available for bringing in a stronger signal (RCA TVPRAMP 1R, street price between $18.88 and $22.48).
Note: If you are using an outside antenna, follow the instructions for installing it carefully. Grounding is important. There should be two grounds, one from the antenna or mast, and the other just before the coaxial cable from the antenna enters your house. The purpose of the grounding is to reduce the static electricity build up in the antenna. The static running through your antenna could make it a target for a bolt of lightning during a thunder storm. A ground will not effectively divert lightning once it strikes your antenna, – major damage will occur to your electronics, and possibly to your dwelling.
Once you have your over-the-air antenna installed, access your TV’s setup menu. In there, you will find a sub-menu where your HDTV will automatically search and find the available channels from you new antenna.
Once you start viewing, you may note a pleasant surprise: HDTV content delivered over-the-air can be much clearer than the HDTV content you are receiving from your cable or satellite provider. The reason is the provider’s content is compressed, while over-the-air content is not.
Watch and record your local channels to any PC on your home network. The HomeRun HDTV Dual Tuner, by SilconDust allows you to do just that. With this option, you plug your TV antenna (either directly or from a splitter) into the HomeRun device, and you also plug in an Ethernet cable from your local network. Assuming you have the appropriate software installed and running on your computer, you can now watch TV on one channel and record on another. The tuners are equal to, or better than those currently available on most TV sets (The HDTV on my iMac is beautiful). If you have a media PC connected to your TV, and on your local network, the antenna connection to the HDTV HomeRun device is the only antenna connection you need to make. The device is compatible with Window’s Media Center, Myth TV – DVR for Linux, and Elgato Eye TV – DVR for the Mac. Though I have not tried it, XBMC’s media center (Eden and Fredo) is supposed to work with the HomeRun as well. Street price for the HD HomeRun Dual HDTV tuner (Model HDHR3-US) is between $90 and $100.
View the many TV series legally available on the internet. If you are having problems getting local channels over the air, or choose not to use an antenna, all is not lost. You can watch many TV-series, on the internet. Go to disablemycable.com. Here, you will find a metaphorical remote with buttons for the major network channels, as well as many others, like USA, Lifetime, A&E, etc. Make your selection, click the button, and you go right to the website for the corresponding network. The most recent shows from a series will have a delay, ranging from 1 day to one week. You can watch these on your computer, or connect your computer to your TV and watch them on the “big screen”. The price for viewing these channels: Free!!! Also, check out HULU, the (Free) little sister to HULU Plus. HULU has a lot of viewing options, and a strong list of classic TV series as well. HULU Plus raises the the bar to include the most popular TV series, and all their respective current episodes. The price $7.99 a month.
Also, you can also watch many sporting events on the internet for the same price: Free!!! This year’s Super Bowl is an excellent example. Some sites sell packages for specific sports, including the ability to view every game in that sport during its season, for a little over a hundred dollars a season (this is a deal, check Direct TV’s price for Direct Ticket).
Build a media center PC with XBMC. This is a terrific option. Having a media center powered computer attached to your TV gives you a great deal of flexibility in what and how you enjoy your media. Your TV now becomes a really big monitor for your PC. You can view your home or commercial movies from your hard drive directly to your TV. Your can stream movies directly to your TV screen from the internet. See how the photos from your digital photo collection look in HD, on the “big” screen. If you have a home theater system, plug the digital audio from your media PC to your AV Receiver and enjoy your movies in Dolby, and your audio mp3’s as well. In October, 2012, I wrote an article on how to build a media center PC with XBMC, you can find it here (click the title to go there): XBMC Media Center PC Setup
What is XBMC? The article mentioned above explains it in detail, so briefly, XBMC stands for XBox Media Center. Originally, it was designed to run……….(wait for it)………., on an XBox. As time has passed, that option is no longer available, but XBMC does run on most popular operating systems, including the Mac. When using the media center you have a pretty much an all-in-one solution, in that you can play your own movies and music through it, view your photos, and so on. Because of its open source nature, there are many plugins available for it, allowing you to legally (and potentially, illegally) access links for all kinds of media from the internet (xbmchub.com being the most popular plugin source). Note: BE CAREFUL WITH PLUGINS, as the content you can access through their use may violate copyright laws in your country.
So it seems that there is life after “cutting the cable”. You can have a simple solution, from just using an HDTV antenna, and maybe adding an internet media provider, like Netflix and/or Hulu Plus. You can add all your home networked computers to your list of devices to view TV by using the HD HomeRun HDTV Dual Tuner option. In addition, you can create your own PC driven media center. I am sure there are even more options. The bottom line is that you have options, and over paying for bundled media from a TV service does not have to be one of them.