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Are you sick of paying for cable? You’re not alone. In the USA the price of pay TV keeps rising, far faster than inflation.
More and more people have had enough, opting to stop paying for cable, instead using the Internet for their entertainment needs.
Which brings us to a question: if you add everything up, do you really save money by cutting the cord?
The answer? It depends. Most cord-cutters combine a number of different sources for entertainment, including:
- Streaming video services like Netflix and HBO Now.
- An old-school TV antenna for picking up local stations (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBS, PBS), free of charge.
- Newly emerging IPTV services, such as SlingTV, for watching cable channels online.
- Free sites like YouTube and Hulu.
- Piracy (which we won’t get into here).
Whether you’ll save money or not depends on how you mix the above pieces. Some are one-time costs, while others are monthly. Cord-cutting requires you to change your habits – it’s not for everyone. But there are some clear benefits.
With this in mind, let’s look at whether cord-cutting can save you money. We’ll be looking specifically at the American market; prices and offerings will naturally vary in other countries, but the basic ideas will be similar everywhere in the world.
What Does Cable Cost Anyway?
People who have cable know what they’re paying for it, of course. But if you’re contemplating cable, you might want to know the cost for the sake of comparison.
It’s hard to work out a baseline for cable costs though, because prices vary by region, and most companies do everything they can to keep actual costs off their websites. The “Special Offers” that only last 12 months are prominently shown, and the bundles confuse things further: how much are you paying for cable, and how much for Internet and a phone line?
Having said that, here’s what the FCC says were the average cable costs in 2013:
- Basic (around 50 channels): $20
- Expanded basic (around 160 channels): $65
- Next most popular (around 245 channels): $77
Obviously whether or not you’d save money by cancelling cable depends on which of these three categories you’d be in as a cable user, but we’ll use these numbers as a rough guide.
The Easy Part: Watching Shows and Movies
A generation of people are learning the many pleasures of binge-watching, where you discover a show that aired a while ago and watch it from beginning to end in a few months (reasonable people), weeks (most people), or days (insane people/me sometimes).
If you partake in regular binge-watching sessions, cord-cutting is perfect for you: many services offer access to a wide variety of classic, and recent, TV shows. They also give you access to all kinds of movies, all of which you can watch whenever you want. In the USA there are four main options:
- Hulu: $8/Month
- Netflix: $9/Month
- Amazon Instant Video: $8.25/month (includes free delivery for everything you order on Amazon)
- HBO Now: $15/month
Any one of these services will provide you with thousands of hours of potential entertainment, meaning you could just pick one and be done with it. When you run out of things to watch on one service, you could switch to another. If you do this, the cost for having plenty of movies and shows to watch will be between $8- and $15-per-month.
My recommendation: use a site like iCanStreamIt to find out which shows and movies are offered on which services. Find a service with a couple of shows you’d like to binge-watch, then subscribe to that service until you’ve watched them all. When you’re done, cancel that subscription and move on to another service, with different shows you want to watch.
You could also, in theory, get all four of these services for $40.25 a month, which would already cost you more than basic cable but less than most expanded packages. You’d have access to a staggering number of shows, for far less than cable, and in many cases get new episodes the day after they air.
For many people, this is perfect. There’s one problem, though.
A Bit More Complicated: Live TV
Many cord cutters feel like the idea of live TV “channels” is obsolete. There’s no reason to watch shows on a set schedule with ads, when services like Netflix and Hulu let you watch things at your own pace without schedules.
Having said that, some people like to turn on a particular channel and just watch it. It used to be that this wasn’t possible for cord-cutters, but in 2015 there are a number of options either available now or coming soon.
- SlingTV, $20/Month for 21 channels including ESPN and Disney; $5 expansion packages offer 6 channels each.
- PlayStation Vue, $50/Month, offers 50 channels. Requires a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4.
- Apple’s upcoming service, reportedly $30/Month with access to 25 channels. Will almost certainly require an Apple TV and/or iOS devices.
Some of these services compare in cost to, or exceed the cost of, basic cable. However, all of them cost less than expanded basic cable, and you could even afford to combine any of these services with one of the one of the streaming services outlined above, for less than expanded basic cable and much less than top-tier packages.
Netflix and SlingTV combined, for example, would cost $28-per-month. You’d have access to more TV than you could ever watch, with more flexibility than even high-priced cable packages.
Having said that, there would still be a big hole for some.
The Basically Impossible Part: Sports
If you’re a sports fan, and want to stay within the law, cord-cutting probably isn’t for you. At least, not right now.
Sure, SlingTV – outlined above – gives you access to ESPN, meaning you’ll have a way to watch many nationally broadcast games. But anything not broadcast nationally isn’t offered on any current streaming service. There is a workaround though: most major sports leagues give you a way to watch their sports online.
- MLB.TV: $130/Season (divided by a six-month season, that’s $21/month).
- NHL GameCenter: $150/Season (divided by a nine-month season, that’s $16/month).
- NBA League Pass: $125/Season (divided by a nine-month season, that’s $14/month)
There’s a huge caveat here: games involving your local team, and games broadcast nationally, will be blacked out. If you follow an out-of-market team this could work for you, but major games – including the entire playoffs, in most cases – will be blocked for you (there are workarounds to geoblocking, but they’re legally questionable). For this reason, league-provided streaming options are best combined with something like SlingTV (which gives you access to ESPN).
What no current online service gives you access to, however, is the regional sports networks on which most local games are broadcast. That’s not likely to change, at least not anytime soon.
Still, combining one of these services with SlingTV can give you access to a whole bunch of sports for around $40-a-month – just not necessarily all of the exact games you want to watch. Combine this with Netflix and you’re looking at $49 a month – way more than basic cable, but surprisingly still cheaper than expanded basic.
Reminder: Broadcast TV is Still Free!
You might have noticed that major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and Fox – haven’t been mentioned yet. And there’s a reason for that: you don’t need to pay for these stations. At all. All of them are broadcast to you free of charge, and you only need an antenna to pick them up.
This is worth repeating, because many people seem to have forgotten: the major networks are available to you free of charge. Get a high-quality antenna like the Mohu Leaf and you can watch some of the most popular shows on television without any monthly subscription costs at all. The high-definition, digital signal means that, in most cases, the picture will look even better than when you use cable.
The FCC reception map can provide you with a list of TV channels you can get locally, right now, without paying a cable company. Combine this with a PRV (you could even build your own) and you’ve got a whole bunch of TV to watch with no ongoing costs.
There’s Plenty Of Great, Free Content Online
Of course, the above services aren’t your only options: there is a ton of entertaining content online that won’t cost you a thing. YouTube, for example, offers hilarious Web series, original animations and so much more. Start finding channels you love, subscribe to them, and you’ll have no shortage of things to watch. There is even poignant political analysis to be found.
Then there are lesser-known sites with free entertainment, like Shout Factory – where you can watch classic shows like Mystery Science Theater, free of charge. This isn’t even mentioning all the great podcasts you can get for free.
There is no shortage of free entertainment online if you know where to look. Finding it is one of the many pleasures of being a cord-cutter.
In Summary: Perfect, Unless You Love a Local Sports Team
So, what’s the verdict? Most people can save money, and there are some clear pros – beyond money – to cable-cutting:
- Generally, you can avoid seeing advertising altogether while watching TV shows.
- There’s no set schedule of when things are on, meaning you can watch things on your own time.
- You have a lot of choice over which things you will and won’t pay for.
Having said that, there are a couple of caveats to keep in mind:
- If you follow a local sports team closely, and want to watch their games live, you’re probably stuck with cable.
- If you want to watch cable-only shows live, or soon after they air, you’re probably stuck with cable (there are exceptions, depending on the shows you watch).
In most cases you can probably put together a combination of services that will save you money while providing plenty of entertainment. It depends on how much you love the things cable currently does better than other services. In many cases the reason cable does things better (i.e., sports) is more about legal complications than technical ones, and someday there will be more options.
For now, however, cable cutting is, for many people, a very reasonable option. Do you think you’re one such person? Do the math yourself and let me know in the comments below. Let’s talk about saving money whilst being entertained!