Saturday, January 01, 2011

How to Cut Your Cable TV

We cut our cable TV two and a half years ago. We've never been happier with our TV choices after doing it. Here is our story.

I posted a "how to" blog post back in 2009 a few months after we cut the cable. It wasn't actually "cable TV" that we cut, we were using DirecTV at the time. And we didn't cut it by choice, it was mainly because our neighbor's trees had grown too high and were blocking our view of the satellite.

That said, let's move on. Our current configuration is much different than it was back in 2009. Also, you need to pay close attention to the type of content we watch, because if your preferences are a lot different, this might not work for you.

What We Watch

To be clear, we have specific TV viewing habits. My wife, Tamara, and I watch movies and TV shows but not sports. We don't watch soap operas, daytime talk shows or kid's programming. If you are like us, read on. If not, let's give you some quick advice here. Some sports are available over the Internet. Major league baseball has programming on the Roku unit, as does NHL hockey. But football is not available (as far as I know), nor is soccer. There are some international channels on Roku that claim to have cricket and football/soccer coverage, who knows how good it is.

For soap operas and daytime talk shows, check to see if Hulu offers access. Otherwise, you might be out of luck.

Okay, back to "what we watch."

We love to watch movies. We aren't the type of people who rush to see the latest releases. Basically, we are too cheap to pay for movie tickets, plus the experience of the movie theater (cell phones, sticky floors, etc.) is not inviting to us at all. We are very happy to wait 6 to 18 months until those movies come to DVD.

But movies are more of a weekend thing for us. During the week, we will usually try to catch one or two TV shows each night. Our favorites are:

King of Dirt
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Philanthropist
Sons of Anarchy
Running Wilde
American Dad
Family Guy
South Park
Brothers and Sisters
No Ordinary Family
Lie to Me
Mad Men
True Blood
United States of Tara
Desperate Housewives
Six Feet Under
Boston Legal
The Wire
The L Word
Dr. Katz

You'll notice several things about our list. There are network TV shows here (Desperate Housewives, Lie to Me) but also cable favorites (King of Dirt, Biography, etc.). Many of these are available on Hulu. You'll also notice lots of TV series that are long dead (Six Feet Under, Rome, etc.). We are recycling these fantastic shows and loving them just as much the second (or third) time around. Again, we are not the types who need to be up-to-date on the latest TV shows or movies. If you are, make sure your choices are on Hulu, which keeps up-to-date very well. Netflix TV shows are also 6 to 12 months after the shows have been on HBO or Fox or whatever.

What We Pay

I made kind of a big deal in my first post about how little we were paying. Well, it has gone up a LOT since then. Originally, we were paying about $110/month for our DirecTV subscription. That's about average when you have all the movie channels and a DVR/TiVO service.

We dropped down to only $17 a month for our Netflix service back in 2008, which includes 2 DVDs at a time plus full access to streaming. Netflix has raised prices a lot since then, and we have also increased our DVD limit to 4-at-a-time, so now our Netflix costs us $32.99 (including Blu-ray access).

Also, we've added a paid Hulu Plus subscription, which costs an additional $8.99 a month. In total, we are paying $41.98 a month for our entertainment. This still isn't equal to HALF of what we paid for DirecTV, but it is higher than what we started with.

Here is how our current plan is still an improvement over DirecTV (or cable):

  • Most entertainment has no commercials. Netflix has zero commercials and Hulu has commercials in everything. However, even with Hulu, the commercial breaks are usually 30-60 seconds, not the maddening 3-4 minutes you have to deal with on cable. It is quite tolerable. Plus, it is only ever national commercials (Nissan, Crest, e-Trade, etc.) These are so much easier to handle than the locally-produced garbage coming from car dealerships, carpet stores, etc. This makes a big difference in my mind.

  • Everything is on-demand. There is no need to wait for a certain show to come on. Even with DVRs, you are still waiting for a certain show so it can get recorded and you can wait it later. On Hulu and Netflix, everything is at your fingertips. Hulu can be a bit frustrating, because they will often put certain shows on "expiry" for no apparent reason. For instance, Archer, an animated sitcom about a spy agency, has produced two seasons so far. But Hulu only has three episodes of the first season. These quirks are not Hulu's fault. The TV networks are absolutely wacky about this stuff, and so Hulu has to pull down and put up particular episodes of TV shows depending on the whims of the network executives. It is okay as long as you don't mind "taking what you can get" rather than desperately seeking one particular episode of one particular TV show.

  • The user interface is dead simple. It is a big clumsy to navigate between Netflix and Hulu, trying to figure out which show is where and why. But the Roku interface is easy to use and does not get in the way. Plus, we've even found ways to include YouTube and TED Talks onto our Roku boxes as separate channels. Very fun!

Then there are certain very popular shows that aren't available at all on Hulu. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report are two great examples. They were previously available on Hulu but suddenly Viacom, who owns Comedy Central, took them down. The shows are available on the Comedy Central Website, but of course the technology on the Comedy Central site is much harder to use, less reliable and not available on devices like the Roku. Plus, the commercial breaks are 300% longer. Ugh. As a result, we just don't watch them anymore, even though we were once daily viewers of those shows. Too much trouble!

Another example is South Park. This is a great animated series about potty-mouthed school children in Colorado. It isn't available directly on Hulu either, and certainly not on Roku devices (except older seasons on Netflix). You can go directly to the South Park Studios site for access to (almost) immediate fresh content, but this doesn't help us much.


Here is the equipment we use in our house:

4 normal TVs (some are 10+ years old)
3 Roku boxes
1 RF modulator
1 Wii
1 iPad
1 home wireless network

Here is our thinking. We have an HDTV projector. That is where we watch our Blu-ray disks that come from Netflix in the mail. We can also easily hook up a Roku box to it and project HD content from Netflix or Hulu. Then we have a 55" SDTV where we watch most TV shows. We have another two TVs in other rooms and each TV needs its own Roku box. Roku recently dropped their prices to $55 for the regular box, but it is worthwhile to get the $99 super HD box (we got ourselves two at Christmas last week). This means that each person can watch their own selections simultaneously in different rooms, although you need to be careful of bandwidth overloading. Generally, we find that if we are both watching different televisions downloading streaming content, we run into a lot of wait times. Our connection to the Internet is just standard 3Mbps DSL, so if you have a faster cable or fiber connection, you will probably have no problem downloading onto two TVs at the same time.

We briefly looked into the Boxee Box. It has the potential to aggregate content from all over the Web: Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, South Part Studios, YouTube, etc. I say "potential," because, currently, Boxee is having problems getting licensed content from the two biggies: Netflix and Hulu. Neither one works on the Boxee Box at this moment, so that's why we didn't purchase one. Once they have that worked out, we may buy a Box just to see how it is different. And to get yet-one-more TV connected to our wonderful world of Internet entertainment...

The RF modulator is necessary if you want to connect a Roku device to an older television. We have one TV that is so old the only input it has is an ancient coaxial cable connector. That's when you need an RF modulator (about $30 at Radio Shack).

Why the iPad? Well, actually, this is our "TV on the go." If my wife wants to watch a show in bed, or at the kitchen table, or on the deck, she can easily do so with the iPad and the Netflix and Hulu apps. These are the "killer apps" for the iPad, if you ask me. I couldn't think of a single use case for an iPad until the TV idea hit me. We bought the Wi-Fi iPad because we can easily use a MiFi device whenever we want to connect to the Internet via cellular. Has anyone bought a 3G iPad??? Doesn't seem to make much sense to me.

The Wii is a very nice Netflix streaming device. We use that in one of our rooms, it works great. No extra cost for the Netflix app on the Wii.

I think that covers it. I hope this is a worthy sequel to my original post. Please make a comment if you have a question or clarification. Let's get all of you cutting your cable, paying less and enjoying more!!


Nathan Duvall said...

Great post! My wife and I have been considering dishing our DirecTV for awhile now... we have a PS3 and AppleTV so we can easily watch all of the shows we typically watch. If only it weren't for football! Argh. I don't see any good ways to stream college/NFL games currently... there are murmerings that DTV will offer a streaming option, so if that happens maybe we can finally make the jump.

Daryl Kulak said...

Yeah, if you're a football fan you are stuck with cable for a while. I think some people use Justin.TV or other sources to pirate football games, but the quality is probably horrendous. Nice to hear you are on track to cutting the cable, Nathan.

ralphswurld said...

I wish cable tv companies offer an a la carte service. If that were the case I would get about 5 channels and not pay for anything else. My wife is a bigger sports fan than me (if you can believe that) and if it weren't for ESPN, NFL-N, Food Network and maybe bravo I would get rid of DirecTV.

Daryl Kulak said...


Yeah, that's a problem. I've never followed the logic of why you have to get 200 channels at once when most of them are terrible. Internet TV should eventually be the cure for this, but it looks like you (and wifey) will be held back by the sports thing. For Food Network and such, you might be able to use a Boxee Box.

Yusuf Fikri said...

Yeah, if you're a football fan you are stuck with cable for a while. I think some people use Justin.TV Alat Rumah Tangga