This is the second in a four-part series on "cutting the cord". For the beginning of the story, where I explain what brought me to decide it was time to leave cable, see Part 1 - Cutting The Cord.
So here's the thing: part of what makes cutting the cord so difficult is not really knowing what your alternatives are. It's not as simple as "You stop paying your cable bill, and you do this instead." There are a lot of ways to fill the empty void in your life after the cable signal is gone. Just getting your head around all of the possibilities is one of the hardest things about making the leap.
So let me help. Here's a list of the most common approaches for dealing with life after cable:
No television at all. Just shut it off and walk away.
Admirable, but not preferable for most of us.
Get a pair of rabbit ears to pick up the local broadcast signals. If "Cold Turkey" is the drastic option, this isn't far behind. You'll be giving up all of the thousands of shows on cable, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Just you and the Big 3 (or perhaps 4) networks. Hello 1976!
This is one of the original cord cutting options, based on some informal feedback, is still a fairly popular approach today. In essence, you just pay as you go. Apple has been selling TV shows by the individual episode or the season for more than a decade. Amazon and Google do too, and the prices range from 99¢ to $2.99 per episode to $14.99 to $39.99 for an entire season. If you really just care about watching The Walking Dead, America's Got Talent and Game of Thrones, it's probably a lot cheaper to just pay for those series straight up than pay a full monthly cable bill.
Once you've bought the shows, watching them is pretty easy. The files are in MP4 format and can be watched these shows on your iPhone, iPad or Android device. If you're willing to shell out a few bucks, you can also attach a Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV or an Apple TV to your actual television set and watch on the big screen. Easy peasy.
This is what most of the tech nerds mean when they say they've cut the cord. They've completely shunned broadcast in favor of the popular streaming services. For many that means a Netflix subscription ($13/month), an Amazon Prime account ($13/month), and a subscription to Hulu ($12/month). That mighty triumvirate gives you a pile of old movies and buzz-worthy shows on Netflix (like Bird Box, Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror), the few exclusive gems on Amazon (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Jack Ryan), and a whole suite of back catalog TV shows from Hulu. That's a lot of content, and for many people, it's all they need. If you don't care about sports, and you'd rather binge-watch a two-year-old television series all at once than be spoon fed the episodes of a current show week by week, this may be the best option for you.
Getting started is super easy. Amazon and Netflix have apps pre-installed on virtually every television or set-top box made in the past 5 years. Odds are you already have a way to watch these services in your house now, and if not, it's as easy as plugging a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Google Chromecast into the HDMI port of your television.
So this is the interesting one. The one that's drawing all the attention. The one that's making cable TV providers nervous.
Imagine an experience that feels like cable, but 3, 4 or 5 times cheaper. The same major networks. The same popular shows. The same big-league sports. Plus a DVR, and all for $40 a month instead of $200.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
It's called a Skinny Bundle, and while it's not a 1-for-1 replacement of all that cable has to offer, it's damned close. There are big-name companies like Google, Sony, Disney, and even DirecTV that have stepped up to offer a compelling alternative to cable, and the prices are a fraction of what you're used to paying.
In a nutshell, they're streaming television network programming to you over the internet instead of your coax cable. You get a guide, a pile of popular networks, some – or all – of your local channels, and even a DVR to record your favorite shows. You sign up for the service, then use an app on one of the popular streaming boxes like AppleTV, Roku, Chromecast or Fire TV to watch the shows. All for about $40 a month.
How can it be so cheap? Well, think of it this way? The cable company has been in business for 40 years, and they've built up a lot of overhead. They had to run all of the wires to every home. They had to install a box on top of your TV. They need a fleet of trucks and service people to handle installations and service calls. That's a lot of overhead that gets passed on to you. But all you really care about are the networks and the shows.
Along come Google and Sony. They don't need to maintain the wires in your neighborhood, a fleet of vans and an army of technicians. They can just negotiate with ABC, CBS, ESPN and TNT for the rights to transmit their content. That's a lot less cost than what the cable guys have to deal with, so these newcomers can offer their television packages for a lot less. Who wins? You do!
So what's the catch? Well, nothing in life is perfect, and there are a few downsides to the Skinny Bundle. For one, you'll probably end up with fewer channels than you have right now. Instead of 200 random channels on cable, these services typically have 60 or 70 of the more popular channels. That may be a problem if you care about Univision, The Hallmark Channel or Sundance TV, but if you typically stick to the mainstream networks, you'll be fine.
Another issue may be your internet connection. If you've got consistent, reliable service, you'll be fine. My plan from Spectrum is 100 Mbps down, which is plenty for streaming. If you've got a DSL connection that barely reached 15 Mbps, it may be a different story.
Lastly, depending on your current equipment, you may need to purchase a streaming box to make this all happen. I have an Apple TV 4K at home, and that gives me access to all of the major services. If you just have a cable box and a dumb television, you may need to invest between $40 and $180 to get a device from Amazon, Apple, Google or Roku in order to access a streaming service. I'll discuss each of these devices in more detail in the next post.
What about premium channels like HBO and Showtime? Good news, you don't need to give up Game of Thrones, Westworld and Billions just because you've ditched cable. Some of the skinny bundle services offer premium channels for an additional fee – as little as $5 per month in the best cases. If your provider of choice doesn't offer these add-ons, you can still sign up for the premium channels directly. All of the major premium networks have their own streaming apps, and you may subscribe for somewhere between $10 and $15 per month.
So now that you've got a good idea of the alternatives to cable, it's time to talk about all of the companies and services vying for your business in more detail. Look for that in Cutting the Cord - Part 3: The Players.