So you want to break up with your cable company…

There’s nothing worse than staying in a bad relationship way past it’s natural expiration date, yet that’s what always winds up happening. We worry we can’t find anything better. We focus too much on the few good times, not enough on the multitudes of bad ones. We deceive ourselves into thinking things will get better.

That’s why I’m here.

I’m here to tell you can do better.

I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

I’m here to tell you how to break up with your cable company.

Things were not always so bad with cable. Really. Cable was always there for you after a long, hard day at work. Remember those three wonderful months that you got free HBO, Showtime, and yes, even though you don’t want to admit it, Cinemax? Those were nice. When you were the first guy on your block to get an HDTV, who made sure that the first channel you got in HD was the channel with the Super Bowl? That’s right. It was cable. And remember the time you were watching the Sopranos finale and you thought your cable had gone out right at the most exciting point? You got pretty mad at your cable, for no reason it turns out, but cable forgave you. (even if you still haven’t forgiven David Chase)

But then things got complicated. Really complicated. Cable got needy and really high maintenance.

Cable started demanding more and more of your time and energy, not to mention more of your money. It never gave without asking for something in return. Want to record your favorite programs? Cable offered DVR service for ten bucks a month. But then, on top of that ten bucks, cable demanded that you pay another ten bucks a month for “DVR box rental.” That’s essentially 20 bucks for a serve they advertise as ten bucks. And each additional room with DVR will cost another 20 bucks. And what about the time two of your favorite channels, which once situated nicely in the same channel package, got split up? You now had to get two channel packages, paying twice as much to get them both. Cable just keeps finding ways to make you pay for the same things over and over and over again.

And while your bills kept going up and up, were you really getting better service? No. It became testy, unresponsive and unreliable.

But cable promised to get better. Cable promised to work on the things that frustrated you. So you waited, and waited.

You waited long enough.

Time to move on.

The Alternatives:

Satellite. Let’s be honest, satellite companies are just cable companies in disguise. In fact, they can be worse. Cable companies had to dig up city streets to lay their, um, cables. So they had make some concessions to the government to get that kind of access. That’s why cable companies can’t make you sign a contract. Satellite companies are bound by no such obligations. They frequently do hold you to two year contracts (usually when you sign up for advanced services — like DVRs), and they stick you with big penalties if you cancel, even if you’re moving into a place that doesn’t allow satellite dishes. You might get a marginally better deal with satellite over cable, but not without compromises, and you’re still looking at a big bill at the end of the month. If you want a football package or some other specific your local cable company lacks, great, go for it. The difference between cable and satellite exists mostly in the details.

Also, you haven’t read this far just to see me recommend Direct TV. You want to know about the good stuff.

AT&T U-Verse and Verizon Fios.  I’m a huge fan of both.  They offer lots of cool features unavailable on cable plans.  And they tend to be much more flexible.  The problem, like Satellite, once you get some packages comparable to what you were getting with cable, they really aren’t cheaper.  Consider these if you want a better experience than what your local cable company provides, but not necessarily a cheaper one.

Media Center PCs. Some companies are still marketing computers specifically for use in your living room.  And they’re usually charging a bit more for them.  Don’t get it.  If you have the money and want to buy a new computer just to hook up to your living room TV, any new computer will do.  Chances are it’ll come with software to help ease the transition to the living room.  Heck, I’m using a computer that’s 5 years old as my media center PC (well, Mac technically), and it works just fine.  That’s what’s great about new HDTVs — they are essentially giant computer monitors.  With the right adapter (if necessary at all), just about any newish TV can be connected to any “not ancient” computer.  And if the computer doesn’t include Media Center software you like, you can always consider…

Boxee and Plex. Programs like Boxee and Plex make your computer user-friendly with just a remote control, downplaying the need for a keyboard and mouse.  They also aim unify material from the web-at-large with media stored on your computer. The idea is that with Boxee or Plex — as with any Media Center PC software — the line between your hard drive and the entire internet disappears. Boxee and Plex manage web content with widgets, essentially creating channels that represent individual websites. You can download whatever widgets you want, fully customizing your experience. The problem? You’re not going to find any widgets showing you first-run TV programming. Even syndicated (i.e. older) programming is super slim. With Boxee, I saw they had a Lifetime widget that streamed whatever episodes of How I Met Your Mother were currently airing on the Lifetime cable network, but the episodes were low-def. Very low def. The Boxee software also severely slowed down my two year old laptop — most of the content streamed too poorly to view. (Note: I did not try Plex on the laptop, so I can’t vouch for that experience, and I couldn’t run either software on my non-Intel-based Mac) Another drawback to both programs: they don’t play nicely with copy-protected files on your home computer.  If you bought or rented a TV show or movie from iTunes, for example, you’re going to have to use another program to actually watch it (which kinda defeats the purpose of an all-in-one solution).

There are other programs that do what Boxee and Plex do, but these are the two I looked into because I have a Mac, and because they had some nice write-ups. My verdict: Programs like these are great if you’re looking for a friendly, attractive way to access your hard drive and/or web media on your big screen TV, but they are not cable replacements.

Boxee, by the way, is coming out with a standalone set-top box that I imagine will do everything the computer software does. That sounds like an option for people without an old computer, but it’s still not what you’re looking for.

Google TV – It’s not out yet, so I couldn’t try it, but from reading about it, it doesn’t sound like anything close to a cable replacement. In fact, it looks like it requires you have cable (or satellite or at least an over-the-air antenna) to get full functionality out of it. Google TV’s main goal is to unite the web-experience with the TV-experience by interlinking the two mediums in new and innovative ways. Sounds great.  But this blog post is about canceling cable.

Apple TV and iTunes. People like to make Google and Apple out to be arch rivals. It’s true, they both offer smart phone OS’s that currently compete in the same the market. But when it comes to the TV, their solutions are completely different. Unlike Google, Apple is trying to replace your cable box. They want you to cancel your cable and just rent or buy programs a la carte, like you do with music (or at least, you did with music… before Pandora). Most episodes cost between 2 and 3 dollars to buy (via iTunes on your computer). Renting them costs 99 cents per program (via either iTunes or the new Apple TV). If your cable bill currently costs 100 bucks a month, but you don’t watch anywhere close to 100 episodes of TV per month, this could be a good option. The new Apple TVs aren’t out yet, so I haven’t tried it. But I’m firm believer in the a la carte model for most people. The downside: You can’t really sample shows.  And still no live viewing options.  Also:  Apple’s TV rental options will be slim at the onset.

Netflix. With Netflix, you don’t really need premium channels. If a TV show is on DVD, Netflix is the best way to watch it. And it’s library of streaming material is growing and growing. Netflix streaming is also available on just about every device you can find — built right in to many new TVs and DVD players and available as a free option on everything from game systems to the new Apple TV. Netflix is everywhere. It’s just not going to satisfy your TV fix, though. At least, not by itself.

Hulu Plus –  You can read my initial thoughts here.  The more I use it, the less I like it unfortunately. If you have a computer hooked up to your TV, you can save the ten bucks a month and skip Hulu Plus. Only pay the 10 bucks if you really want to watch some of their library on your PS3, iPad, iPhones, or other compatible devices. Like Netflix, by itself it isn’t going to fully satisfy you. But unlike Netflix it does offer more new (and newish) TV shows.  Note: Watching Hulu Plus via a PS3 looks great on an HDTV.

ESPN3.com – Great for live sports, but available only from some ISPs. Sometime next year it’s supposed to be accessible via the XBox 360 (if you have a paid XBox Live subscription). But if your internet service provider already allows it, you watch it for free right now.  Go on, do it now.  I’ll be here when you get back.

MLB.tv – With an MLB.tv subscription, you can watch every baseball game there is from a multitude of devices — your computer, PS3, iPad, and I’m sure they even have widgets for other devices. Like Netflix, you’ll see this as an option everywhere, but also like Netflix it requires it’s own subscription.  Whether you get this depends on entirely on how much you love baseball.  But if you love baseball, and you do get this, you will be guaranteed to have access to any game, any time, anywhere.  Unlike Direct TV’s NFL package, MLB.tv isn’t tethered to your living room.

Over-the-air antenna. What? That’s so low tech!  But if you haven’t checked out what’s available over the air, for free, in digital quality, you’ll be surprised just how much is there.  When the digital switch happened, the number of local channels actually increased.  In some places it doubled.   If you have an older TV, your built-in tuner is useless now, and you probably didn’t bother getting a digital converter box when they came out (and the government paid for them) because you had cable.  But you can still get a digital turner for just like 55 bucks at Best Buy.  And if your TV is on the new side, it probably has a digital tuner built-in.  Just get an antenna for it, and you’re good to go.  For those who like having the TV as background noise during the day, or can’t live without network sports, this will easily get you your fix.  If you want to DVR over-the-air broadcasts, that’s very doable.  You don’t need a cable box.  In fact, some Media Center PC software includes DVR functionality without any additional fees.

Okay, so these are all the things I’ve tried this summer. So what’s my overall recommendation?

First off, the one thing I didn’t want to do was sit at my computer monitor to watch TV. That’s a compromise I didn’t want to make, no matter how much money I could save. Watching TV on my, you know, TV was kinda a crucial element of this experiment.

So if you do want the cut the cable for good, a computer hooked up to your living room TV is a must. I hooked my five year old PowerMac G5 to my 50 inch Sony LCD and have been able to watch just about everything I need on just three websites:

Hulu (regular Hulu!) for ABC, NBC, and Fox shows, as well as a lot of cable.

Comedycentral.com for The Daily Show and Colbert.

ESPN3.com for live sports. (if ESPN covers it, it’s probably available)

And for the occasional program not on any of those sites — like the new episodes of Futurama — I bought them a la carte on iTunes.

Through just those four portals, I was able to satisfy 80% of my TV viewing needs.

I don’t use Boxee or Plex because, well, they didn’t offer me anything I couldn’t do with a web browser or iTunes. Sure, they provide a good looking experience, but they’re just too limited in terms of functionality at the moment to be of use to me.

I also didn’t try Netflix, but only because I already know all about it — and I’m a fan of what they’re doing.  I’ll be adding it to my set-up at some point, just didn’t feel the need to do so for this experiment.

Oh, and I also use a wireless keyboard and mouse.  Those are essential if you’re going the Media Center PC route.

Am I happy with this set-up? Not completely.  I still don’t get news or non-ESPN sports. This past summer that hasn’t been a big deal, but I’m really curious to see how this all holds up during the regular TV season.  Also, even for ESPN-sports, watching them via a web browser (even on a TV screen) just isn’t the same.  No programming has been helped more by HDTV than sports programming.  It’s hard to go back to watching sports in less than HDTV quality (which is what you get with ESPN3.com, since it’s streaming.)

Another frustration: I like to leave the TV on in the background as I do chores around the house. That’s harder now. Once a show is over, it’s over. You have to load up something new yourself. And I’m used to falling asleep to the TV, also hard to do, especially if your bedroom TV is computer-less.  Multi-room set-ups like this are hard, if not impossible for most people.

So what is the advantage of using services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, MLB.tv, etc.?  Sure, they seem restrictive in that you have to have a computer hooked up to your TV to enjoy them in your living room.  But unlike cable, when you leave your living room, you can take them with you!  If you have a laptop, iPad, iPhone, Android phone, or any number of other devices — these services are totally portable.  Cable isn’t.  For $100/month of cable, you’re stuck on your couch.  For 50% of that cost , you can get 75% of the content available in 1000% more places.  If portability is important to you, and you already have compatible gadgets (or were considering getting them), it could easily be worth it.

Speaking of gadgets to consider:  I’m looking forward to the new Apple TV. With my computer in the living room and an Apple TV in the bedroom, that should solve the multi-room issue.   Apple is trying to make all their devices share all their content in a nearly invisible manner.

Random notes:

– Oh yeah, a high-speed wireless internet connection is required for all this.  But the basic assumption of this piece is you already have that and don’t mind paying for it.

– I’ve also been watching a lot of TV at my girlfriend’s — basically any sports.

– What do you do if don’t have a computer to use as a dedicated Media PC? You could buy one. But where’s the savings in that? Again, that’s why I think Apple TV is going to be great. If you already have a broadband internet connection, and you already have a wireless network in your home, then Apple TV provides the missing link to your TV. And if you refuse to buy Apple products on principle, don’t worry, other companies promise to offer devices with similar functionality.

– Really, if you don’t already have broadband internet, then forget everything you read above. None of this is for you. Keep the cable box.

– Also keep the cable box if you’re such a TV junkie, you have to have the TV on pretty much all the time. Or if you like the news. And sports. For some people, $100/month for cable actually isn’t a bad deal.  That could be you.

– Sadly, there is no real one-stop-shop solution for getting rid of cable (save for Satellite or U-Verse/Fios, but those don’t really save much money).  Only do this if:

  1. You’re okay with paying half your old cable bill for half the content
  2. You want portability with your content or
  3. You’re an early adopter type who just likes fiddling with these types of things.

– If you’ve got multiple rooms in your house with TVs, just keep the cable.  Why?  Because that probably means more than just you (and possibly a significant other) live there.  Cable is great for families because everyone gets what they want in a way that everyone can understand.  Patchworked internet solutions offer no such simplicity.

So my current final conclusion:  Until the new Apple TV comes out and I can try it, here’s what I think can both work for most people AND save them some money…

In your living room–

Hook a computer or a PS3 (with a Hulu Plus subscription) to your TV.  These will allow you access a good chunk of current shows at the least.  The XBox isn’t there yet, and neither is the Wii.  The PS3 also has options for a la carte TV episode buying and Netflix streaming.  A combination of these services can deliver a huge % of the TV content you’d want to watch at a fraction of the cost of cable.  Even if you “max out” and get Hulu Plus AND Netflix AND still buy a dozen or so shows a month, you’re still paying half you’re old cable bill, and getting enough programming to satisfy you.

The computer allows you to buy/rent content via iTunes or Amazon.  The PS3 has it’s own store with comparable content.  The Ps3 looks better on the TV, but the computer is more flexible (you’ll also have access to all the network websites with even more content).  But I suggest going with whatever you already have, whatever you can acquire more cheaply.

In your bedroom–

Get an over-the-air antenna.  You might have to fall asleep to Jimmy Fallon instead of Jon Stewart, but it’s 100% free.

On the go–

If you only have one TV in your home, but want the ability to watch stuff in other rooms, get an iPad.  Seriously.  It’s a great media device that works well with computers and other devices.  Until other companies start to make something that rivals the ease of use of the iPad, it’s currently the ideal Kitchen TV/Couch web browser/e-reader.  It’s also the only one.

Should you get a smart phone just for sharing TV shows from your new and improved living room set-up?  No.  You’re never going to watch a TV show on your phone.  And if you do, you’re such a junkie, keep cable.  Get a smart phone because you want the other stuff.  TV shouldn’t be a selling point for one. (sorry Sprint and Verizon, I know those are big marketing points for you)

Anyways, I’ve still got some more products/services I want to try… so consider this just chapter 1.

-Eric

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