Cutting the Cord
Would you like to cut a $1,000+ a year from your cable TV bill?
Cutting the cord -- cancelling cable TV -- is a thing today. Many people are discovering they can watch the programs they want from other sources, easily saving over a thousand bucks a year.
Unless you're an avowed couch potato, the chances are good you can watch most or all of your favorite programs without paying an outrageous cable TV bill.
Prop your feet up and enjoy this deep dive into cable TV.
Why is Cable TV so Expensive?
The two main reasons cable TV costs so much is 1) Lack of competition and 2) Lack of consumer control over content. Here's what I mean by that.
Lack of Competition: That's an easy one. When there's only one gas station in town, the owner can charge pretty much whatever he wants, yes? It costs huge amounts of money to lay cable to homes and businesses so the barrier to entry for a newcomer in the cable TV business is high. Making things worse, the existing cable cos have managed to buy off our legislators making it difficult or flat-out illegal in many areas for new companies to come in, thereby protecting their precious monopolies.
Lack of Consumer Control over Content: This factor is rarely discussed but it makes a bigger difference than you'd think. With traditional cable TV, you watch what is provided and when. Your only control is choosing which channel to watch from those available in the package you subscribe to. That's it. You have no control over what is transmitted or when. Except for some minor time-shifting using a DVR, you are hostage to the cable co's schedule. And even with a DVR, the program still has to "air" before you can record it.
Said another way... Imagine if the brand of car you could buy was based on where you lived. Maybe you live in a small town where only Ford was allowed to sell cars. Or maybe your town is a little larger and you had your choice between Ford and Toyota, but no one else. Now, further imagine that each car maker had their own gas stations, meaning you must buy gas made by your car maker. As you can well imagine, the car itself would be pretty expensive (because you had little or no other choice) and the gas to make it run cost $10 a gallon because, again, you had no other choice.
That would suck, yes?
That's what the cable TV industry is like. Most people have only one choice for cable TV -- or two (sort of) if you count satellite like DirecTV. And since the cable TV company also controls the programming available they have no incentive to reduce costs. Why should they? Where else are you gonna go? You either watch the channels and programs they offer or go pound sand. It's not like you can shop around for content. It's just like my outrageous car and gas example above.
In short, what streaming does is decouple transmission from content. Transmission is the physical cable infrastructure itself (the "pipe") and content is the stuff going through the pipe. In the old cable TV days, both those things were handled by the same company. That's bad.
The internet turns this entire model on its head. With streaming on the internet, the consumer chooses what to watch, from whom, and when. Internet service is what we call a "dumb" or "empty" pipe. You aren't paying your internet provider (Comcast, AT&T, etc.) to fill the pipe (with TV shows). You, the subscriber, have complete and total control over what goes through that pipe. And that, dear reader, changes the economic ecosystem of paid television in a huge way.
That freedom to choose unshackles you from the cable co's content provider agreements (their contracts with the various media companies that provide all the channels) letting you choose any content provider you want, including those with no agreement with your cable co. You might call that "content competition" -- and that is what's missing from traditional cable TV.
An Industry Quaking in their Ferragamos
This very idea of content competition that cord-cutting affords consumers has the entire television and movie industry unable to sleep at night. There are countless billions of dollars flying around annually in all different directions between numerous interests in this industry: Between cable providers, content providers, networks, advertisers, etc.
No one knows how the cord-cutting endgame will work out as all the players are frantically trying to secure their respective futures in this seismically shifting paid television landscape.
This is all good news to consumers!
À la Carte Finally Arrives (sort of)
Cable TV subscribers have been clamoring for years for à la carte pricing (picking only the channels you want) yet it's nowhere to be found. Even today, the cable companies love to tout the huge number of channels they offer. But who cares? According to Nielsen Ratings, the average US home receives 189 channels but those subscribers only watch about 17 channels! Less than 10 percent of channels have regular viewers.
So why do the cable companies lard their lineup with all that crap, over 90% of which goes pretty much unwatched? To be fair, the fault doesn't lie entirely with your cable company. Most of the popular channels are owned by media companies and studios like ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Time Warner, Disney, and others. If your cable company wants to carry a popular channel they are usually obliged to carry some or all the crap channels offered by that media company as well. It's a huge money grab and the American TV consumers are the ones being robbed. This makes à la carte pricing pretty difficult.
But not with streaming where the focus is on programs, not on channels. No longer are you forced to pay for content that doesn't interest you. Streaming is the way to get the à la carte pricing model that's been teased for so long but never came about with traditional cable TV.
Actually Cutting the Cord
Most people by now have at least one streaming service. If you have Amazon's 2-day Prime delivery service, then you automatically have Amazon Prime Video. Not everything on Amazon video is included, but a lot of stuff is, especially Amazon's original content. You might also have Netflix.
Surveys on Statista.com indicate that younger people are less likely to subscribe to traditional cable TV or satellite. In fact, only about 1/3rd of the 18-29 year old segment subscribes to traditional cable TV or satellite. But that percentage grows considerably at higher age groups with the 65+ year old segment topping out at 81 percent.
Even the 65+ segment uses streaming services. But they are also paying for traditional cable TV. The reason for this is likely a combination of inertia, unfamiliarity, or the lack of technical savvy to implement and commit 100% to streaming as the only source of programming.
So while using streaming services is great and wonderful, you aren't going to save any money unless you cancel your regular cable TV. In fact, it's costing you even more.
Be careful though: You do not want to cancel your internet service! Only the TV portion of your services.
Today's streaming landscape is larger and more diverse than ever before. We are on the cusp of a massive change in how people watch TV. A world where people can subscribe only to what interests them and leaving all the other cable company mandated crap behind.
But while all these choices seem like a good thing, there are downsides. Years ago, Netflix pretty much had streaming all to themselves. That made it easy for them to license numerous movies and TV shows for their subscribers. And all for one comparatively small monthly payment. But there was no way the media industrial complex was going to leave all that money on the table.
These last few years have seen a rapid increase in the number of streaming providers, balkanizing the ecosystem. No longer would just one or two services like Netflix and Amazon suffice for most people. Now there are dozens, each offering their own mix of programming, some of it original.
Here are just a few popular shows and the services that exclusively carry them:
Games of Thrones franchise: HBO
Star Wars franchise: Disney+
The Crown, Bridgerton: Netflix
Reacher, Lord of the Rings: Amazon Prime Video
Star Trek franchise: Paramount Plus
The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul: AMC Plus
You get the idea...
Balkanization is getting to be such a concern that people sometimes respond by subscribing, binging for a few months, then cancelling. Rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat, cycling between perhaps 8 to 10 streaming services. What a pain. Subscribe to all those at once and, well, you're back to paying cable TV prices or even more. Yuck.
So how do you get access to this buffet?
Most TV sets made since the mid 2010s have media players built-in. If your TV is older then you need a small media streaming device such as a Roku, Apple TV, or Fire-stick device that plugs into the TV.
Next you need to determine where to get your content. The services you'll subscribe to depend on what type of programming is important to you. Are you a sports fan? Movie buff? Enjoy the latest sitcoms? Listed below are several content providers and what they're good at (as of this writing) so you can tailor your own suite of providers focused on your interests.
In general, most non-sports programming is easy to get via streaming. Cord-cutting sports fans will have a harder time seeing their favorite teams and certain games because of transmission rights and the obscenely huge amounts of money involved in collegiate and professional sports broadcasting. No one single streaming provider will have everything a serious sports fan wants. It may take several and they tend to be expensive.
Most subscription services are by the month and have no contract. Cancel anytime.
I. Subscription Services
There's a ton of streaming services at the time of this writing (late 2022). Here's just a partial list:
Amazon Prime Video
CBS All Access
Acorn TV (British and Australian shows)
BritBox (British Shows)
As you can see there's lots of subscription streaming providers today. Keeping up with all those passwords and streaming start/end dates could be a pain. Amazon, being the Goliath they are, offers a lot of these services inside their Amazon Prime offering. You still have to pay for them, but you can use Amazon's interface to manage them. That makes it pretty easy to see what all your subscribing to and to cancel them whenever you want.
II. Pay-Per-View Services
There's also a number of pay-per-view services that require no monthly subscription. Maybe you want to watch a recent movie that's not yet available on your favorite subscription streaming service. The beauty of PPV providers is they cost nothing to have around. You only pay when you use it, hence being called pay per view.
Vudu / Fandangonow
Movie rentals generally have a time window in which you must watch after you rent.
e.g. Amazon generally gives you 30 days to begin watching then 48 hours to finish watching (or watch again) after you first begin playing the movie.
Renting the HD version of a movie usually costs a buck or so more than the SD version. For watching newer movies on a fairly large flat screen (50 inch or larger), that makes sense. But for anything older than the 1960s or on a smaller TV, paying for the HD version may not be much or any better.
Your tastes may vary, but I generally don't rent individual TV episodes as that can get expensive. For a 26 week season at $2 a pop, that's $52 for a single season of most TV shows which is quite a lot of money. If you want to watch old TV shows and it's not available as a stream except on PPV, then I'd recommending buying the DVD or BluRay disks used from Amazon or eBay. They often cost far less than the streaming rental price and then you'll actually own it and can watch any time. Or resell them and recoup most or all your money.
With movies, I may pay $3 to rent a movie on PPV, but at $15 or $20 I would never buy unlimited viewing. If I want to own a movie that I can watch any time, then I'll buy the actual DVD or BluRay -- again, used from Amazon or eBay. Never new unless it's a special sale.
III. Over the Air
Rabbit ear antennas may be a thing of the past, but receiving OTA (Over The Air) TV is definitely not dead! You can watch local channels (network affiliates and the independents) by setting up a digital TV antenna. The antenna costs around $50 or so and installation isn't difficult. No monthly fees! Just like the old days -- commercials and all.
Often you can simply mount the antenna to a window. But sometimes the signal is too weak which may require an outside installation possibly on a mast.
Some HOAs (Home Owner Associations) have rules prohibiting outdoor antennas. Don't let that stop you. Federal rules specifically allow certain antennas and disallow HOA prohibitions on same. If your HOA has such prohibitions, contact them and politely explain that such prohibitions are unenforceable and to grant you a variance.
Monthly Data Caps
On an internet connection, everything you do results in data being transferred -- mostly downloaded to you. Streaming a movie or TV show is no different - it's just another form of data that is downloaded. It all counts against your monthly data caps (if you have caps). Very few customers actually hit those data caps, however. You'd had to be watching many hours of streaming TV per day.
Data caps vary, but for most traditional cable-based internet plans, you'll get 1 TB. Wireless and satellite generally have lower caps. Netflix estimates that SD (standard definition) programming consumes 0.7 GB per hour of viewing and HD consumes about 3.0 GB per hour. You could watch about 333 hours of HD streaming before you hit a 1 TB monthly data cap. That's about 11 hours per day of non-stop viewing on a single TV. Or about 5 1/2 hours per day non-stop on two TVs. Unless your family are all couch potatoes, you are unlikely to hit these caps.
Here Today and Gone Tomorrow
Streaming providers are constantly changing their offerings. e.g. If you find a good but older show on Netflix with many past seasons (lots of episodes) to watch, like How I Met Your Mother or Friends, you may find that Netflix drops the show before you've finished watching the entire series. That sucks!
Why does that happen? Because Netflix and the various content producers sign a contract specifying, among other things, how long Netflix will carry a particular show. The show is dropped when the contract expires. Maybe it'll come back later, but most likely not. Even worse, sometimes content providers drop their own shows because of quirks in the tax law.
What can you do? There are ways to permanently copy shows from Netflix, and other streaming providers, to your computer ahead of time so that even if they drop a show before you are finished watching all the episodes, you won't be left out in the cold. Then you can cast the saved show to your TV and watch at your leisure with no concern about it being yanked.
Obviously, Netflix and other providers don't approve of this but there's practically speaking little they can do about it. This requires some amount of technical savvy or knowing a computer geek that can do it for you.
We really dislike binging our shows. It's the TV-watching equivalent of gobbling down a whole bag of Halloween candy. You don't really enjoy the show nearly as much but you don't want to stay subscribed to whatever random service it's on for a whole year, either. Blegh.
Our approach is to wait till a show has wrapped then buy the entire series on BluRay disks. Yes, you'll be behind. But there's advantages to this approach if you aren't an impulsive type.
You'll know if the show actually wrapped as planned and ended organically; not having been cancelled early. Many (most?) shows are cancelled at some point in their run without a proper wrap leaving story lines unresolved and fans wanting. That's very aggravating.
Buying the entire series in a boxed set at its conclusion is cheaper than buying individual seasons while the show is still in production. I can usually find a used copy but even new copies are generally not very expensive.
You can read reviews, talk to friends, and decide if the show is actually worth watching before investing a lot of time in it. In the past, we've suffered from a few bad shows and finally bailed on them. Reviews certainly aren't conclusive proof that you'll like or dislike a show, but it can help.
You can watch it again years later even if no streaming provider has it available or sell the disks and recoup some money.
Our approach requires a more specific show-centric mindset rather than menu surfing whatever that streaming provider offers -- most of which is probably not very compelling.
TV watching has changed a lot over the years. Broadcast-only network TV shows, then cable TV, and now streaming. One of the best features of streaming is that, finally, after long last, it's possible to completely avoid commercials and watch what you want and when you want.
It's true that cutting the cord does require some changes in how you enjoy TV. But I submit the "old way" of watching cable TV is simply a learned habit and is no more the "right way" than a streaming-only option. You can unlearn the old way and enjoy the new way just fine.
Need more convincing? The $1,000+ annual savings mentioned at the top of this article is no tease. I've converted several clients away from their cable company's expensive triple-play package, reconfigured their various telecom services, and they all are saving at least a $1,000 a year and $1,500 isn't all that rare.
One of those clients is saving over $2,000 a year! She was paying $290(!) a month for her triple-play package from a well-known provider. After discussing her TV watching habits, I was able to eliminate her expensive triple-play and reconfigure her telecom (phone and internet). She now pays about $100 a month and is satisfied. Imagine what you could do with an almost-guaranteed extra $1,000+ a year by not giving it to the cable company bandits.
You just gotta unlearn the bad old habits formed by years of watching expensive cable TV. Do that and you can save a ton of money and have cool new viewing options, to boot.