After serious soul-searching, and the level of planning typically reserved for multinational military invasions, I made a major life decision last month:
I cut the cable cord.
I did something similar, in the early 2000s, when I dropped my land line. But that had little effect on my day-to-day existence, beyond making it harder for telemarketers to reach me. (Sadly, they’ve now managed to figure out how to call and text me on my cellphone.)
It’s a practical decision, because you can save a lot by getting rid of cable, premium channels, set-top boxes and a DVR.
It’s an emotional one, too, because it’s hard to give up the ability to watch (almost) anything you want to watch at (almost) any time that you want.
I realized this when I posted my news on Facebook, and I received a gusher of responses from people who a) happily cut their cable years ago and wanted to offer advice or b) wanted to do it for financial reasons but were afraid to take the cable-free plunge.
My wife and I did it to save $82 per month, but it wasn’t easy to cobble together a plan to watch our favorite shows and live events. So consider this a tale of one consumer’s experience in the tumultuous world of cable cutting, over-the-air TV and streaming video.
I know I’m not alone. The number of cable TV customers in this country peaked at 66.9 million in 2001, and has steadily declined to 56.4 million last year, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which cited SNL Kagan data.
Nielsen in March reported that the number of “zero-TV” households – whose members consume TV shows and movies through an Internet connection, not through cable or satellite service – rose from 2 million in 2007 to an estimated 5 million this year.
These “zero-TV” households on average are younger, less likely to have children and more likely to live alone than the population at large, and cost was the No. 1 factor driving their decision to live without cable.
As much as we love our “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men,” cost was our motivating reason, too.
We paid $140.03 to Verizon for FiOS TV and Internet service in our last monthly bill. This included an $89.99 “bundle price” for TV and Internet, $18.99 for HBO, $16.99 for our HD DVR set-top box and $6.99 for a second set-top box, plus taxes.
We paid $35 per month for Internet as part of the bundle, and I knew the stand-alone price would be higher. But I was surprised when a customer rep said the price for Internet alone was $74.99 per month.
When I asked if that was the best she could do, she said she could lower it to $69.99 per month. But this would require a two-year contract.
She also said she could lower the price for our current arrangement to $100 per month, but this reduced price only would be good for one year. So I took the $75-per-month, Internet-only price and contacted Time Warner Cable next.
I checked online first. We had the 15/5 Internet with Verizon FiOS, meaning up to 15 megabits per second of download speed, and up to five megabits of upload speed.
Time Warner calls this their standard Internet, with the same 15 mbps for downloading but only 1 mbps upload speed.
The base price is $34.99 for each of the next 12 months, but Time Warner adds $10.43 for a modem and wireless Internet to bring the cost to $45.42.
The Time Warner representative also told me the cost will go up after 12 months, but the company doesn’t say what the new price will be.
After getting this price quote from Time Warner, I went back to Verizon to give them a chance to keep our business. The representative said she talked to her manager but she couldn’t lower the price any further unless we were buying a package.
“Cutting the cord is something we are aware of, certainly, but it’s just one option consumers have at their disposal, including maintaining their FiOS TV,” John J. Bonomo, a Verizon spokesman, said later in an email, adding, “A strong FiOS Internet connection will be able to make the consumer experience a better one. Like any other purchases consumers make, there is additional value in buying several services bundled together, rather than one on a standalone basis.”
I asked the Verizon rep about an offer I saw online for new Verizon customers, for $49.99 per month for a year – rising to $69.99 per month for the second year of a two-year contract – for the same Internet service.
She encouraged me to cancel our Verizon Internet, wait two days and then try to sign up as a new customer. But I didn’t want a two-year contract, so we signed up with Time Warner for Internet ($69.98 installation fee) and canceled our Verizon service altogether.
Now that we’ve taken the plunge, we face the question of how to get all of the shows we want to watch.
We already had Netflix ($7.99 per month), which streams movies, documentaries and TV shows to our TV through our Wii. Netflix is generally a season behind on most current TV series, and it doesn’t have everything, but it has a great catalog of old shows and movies.
We wanted to stream more content to our TV, so I knew we needed a player that would allow us to do this.
I considered three: Roku, Apple TV and TiVo.
All three can pull in Netflix and Hulu Plus (also $7.99 per month, with new episodes of a lot of shows, usually a day later).
Roku and TiVo also get movies and shows through Amazon Instant Video (you pay per movie or show instead of a monthly fee), while Apple TV ($99, through Apple) can pull in paid content from Apple’s iTunes.
The TiVo Premiere ($149.99 from TiVo’s website) also can record TV over the air, but paying for DVR service adds a $14.99 per month fee. In the end, we bought the Roku 3 streaming player ($99 from Amazon).
We’re also using antennas to pull in over-the-air TV, with mixed results. We had an old set of rabbit ears for our smaller TV, and I bought an RCA digital flat antenna from Best Buy ($29.99) for our main TV.
We were hoping to pull in NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CW and FOX, but the signal on some channels has been hit or miss at our suburban home.
We used TV Fool to try to figure out where to point the antenna. Generally speaking, a roof-top antenna works best, an antenna in the attic is the next-best option and an antenna mounted near the TV is the least effective.
There are a handful of shows that won’t have new episodes on Hulu Plus, Netflix or Amazon Instant Video – “60 Minutes,” for one – that we’ll have to watch live over the air or through the show’s website on our laptops.
Other shows, such as “Mad Men,” we’ll have to order on Amazon ($1.99 per episode or $22.99 per season in low-def).
Sports are a tough one. No more cable TV means no more ESPN or NBC Sports Network.
Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on how they play) Bills games air on the broadcast networks. I’m out of luck with the Sabres, though, since the games aren’t streamed online. I can buy NHL GameCenter LIVE for the Roku but it only carries out-of-market games.
So, to watch the Sabres, I’ll have to spend more time in my friendly neighborhood bar, or rely on the kindness of friends. At least it’s a rebuilding year.
Since cutting the cord, we’ve had to get used to something that hasn’t been part of our lives: commercials.
I knew over-the-air TV would have commercials – we DVR’d shows and skipped through the ads – but Hulu Plus has more than one dozen brief ads for each hour-long show, and you can’t fast-forward.
However, the monthly savings are worth the annoyance, for now. We’re three weeks into our grand experiment. We can always add more Internet speed, if we need it – or basic cable, if we can’t live without it.