Are you a cord-cutter? Over 1 million American households took the plunge in the third quarter of last year. In the fourth quarter, the total number of pay-TV households dropped 4.1 percent. Experts say the cable TV companies are bracing for a grim 2019.
Me, I’m not feeling so grim. I disconnected from Comcast/Xfinity last month and couldn’t be happier. You can do it, too — it might be easier than you think.
The two primary reasons to take the plunge and cut the cable cord are because a) you can save serious money; and b) well, you can. The average cable bill, per Fortune magazine, was $107 in 2018, but if you want any sort of extras, premium services, specialty tiers, or extra cable boxes, the cost can escalate quickly. I’d been a Comcast customer since returning to the Boston area in 2002 and as of this year I was paying $228 per month for a “triple play” package of basic cable, Internet, and a landline, plus a Premier Sports Bundle that gave me HBO, Showtime, Starz, a ton of sports stations I don’t watch, and my beloved Turner Classic Movies channel — the only way I could get that option. I was also paying to rent the cable modem and for an extra box for our bedroom TV.
Why did I stay with it? Inertia, mostly, and the lack of alternatives. I’d call Comcast once a year or so and badger them down a bit, but I stayed. At last, prompted by a recent basement renovation and the installation of a movie critic’s man-cave with a big flat-screen TV, I googled a couple of how-to websites and took an inventory of my viewing habits.
That’s the first step if you’re thinking about cord-cutting. What kind of television programming do you watch, where do you watch it, and where does it come from? There’s probably a cheaper way to get what you need without involving a cable provider. Me, I watch more shows and films on Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and TCM than any other channels, plus live network and news channels for the Oscars and congressional hearings. No sports besides the Sox, and no gaming. I already had Roku boxes to stream Amazon and Netflix on my existing TVs. Besides Internet and phone, Comcast brought me live TV feeds, premium channels, and video on demand.
But the premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz I could also stream a la carte via Roku through their on-demand apps (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, etc.). I could get the same on-demand movies and back seasons of TV via Netflix and Amazon, more on Hulu if I wanted to subscribe. What would happen if I axed Comcast and just went with the streaming boxes? I use Roku, which is a one-time cost of $35 for the entry-level Roku Premiere box or around $45 for the Stream Stick, but other widget purveyors include Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire, and NVidia Shield.
Confused? Think of your TV as the building that houses a theater, think of the streaming devices as the stage, and think of the various channels as the acts. Then ask yourself why you need a stage manager when you can do it yourself.
I still wanted Internet and a telephone landline, but would Comcast provide those two at a reasonable price? The answer was no — Xfinity’s double-play package came out at nearly the same price as the triple package with TV. It’s a strategy the company has successfully used to keep customers in line and on the TV drip feed but it doesn’t make sense anymore, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. By contrast, RCN offers a decent Internet/landline package for around $50 a month, and I took it.
What has held many would-be cord-cutters back? Live TV, the missing piece that’s hardest to replace when you cancel your cable. Except it’s not so hard anymore. There are two approaches. The first is an unobtrusive plug-and-play antenna (available at Amazon from $13 to $50) that goes on or near a window and brings in dozens of local channels. (A friend asked me how much that cost and I had to actually remind him what free broadcast TV was.) The quality is HD, the reception is fine if you live anywhere near a major city, and the equipment is nothing like the old rabbit ears or giant rooftop paper-clips.
The second approach is Hulu + Live TV, a subscription streaming service that provides all of Hulu’s movies and extensive TV libraries (including the most recent episodes of shows), plus over 60 live network feeds, local stations, and basic channels. Local and national sports, 24-hour news, family programming, the works. It’s a bit pricey: $39 a month, going up to $45 a month in April, but it’s a cost I was willing to pay since it was the only way I could get Turner Classics — and not just the East Coast feed but the West Coast as well! Sold American. Oh, and the service comes packaged with 50 hours of storage for recording shows.
With Hulu + Live TV, you have the option of adding HBO for $14.95 a month, and Showtime, Cinemax, and Starz for lesser monthly rates. It’s easy enough to turn the spigot on for “Game of Thrones” or “Outlander” and off again when you’re done.
AT&T has a similar service, called DIRECTV NOW, which offers more live stations for slightly less money, and now that AT&T owns Time Warner you get HBO and Cinemax at a cheaper rate. I tested both Hulu + Live TV and DIRECTV NOW for a weeklong trial period and ended up going with the former, mostly because the interface was more intuitive and easier to use (as much for other family members as for me) — and, again, two TCM feeds. But both are solid options. And going with the antenna would have knocked that cost out entirely.
An additional novelty: My new man-cave TCL TV comes with Roku already installed, so I only have one remote with which to contend. Perhaps technology does evolve in the direction of simplicity after all.
So: my new math. Previously I had been paying Comcast $228 a month, plus $7.99 for Netflix and $10 for Amazon Prime, a total of nearly $250 a month. Now my outlay is $50 to RCN for Internet and phone, $45 for Hulu + Live TV, plus the $18 combined Netflix/Amazon costs. Total: $113 per month and a savings of over $1,600 a year. Even if I loaded in HBO ($14.99), Showtime ($9.99), and Starz ($8.99), I’d still be paying only $147 a month for a savings of $1,200 a year. And if I opted to ditch the Hulu account and just go with an antenna, the Roku, and those a la carte premiums, I’d be saving an additional $540 a year.
(Yes, I’m basically paying half a grand for the Turner Classic Movies channel. That’s how much old movies mean to me. Tell me about your all-access football package?)
It’s hard to argue with the numbers, and the cable companies know it, so if they’re smart they’ll start to get competitive. I’m not sure it will make a difference, especially when you consider that by far the biggest percentage of cord-cutters is in the 18-44 age bracket and that the newest generation is growing up with streaming-a-la-carte entertainment as their birthright.
It works for them. Now it works for me. Maybe it’ll work for you.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.