Remember the days when you could watch network television for free? (those under 25, ask your parents). Well those channels are still available at no cost...if you have an antenna. And no, we're not talking about the clunky rabbit ears of old. Antennas have changed substantially in looks and performance over the last several years. Breakthroughs in technology spurred by development of the tiny but powerful digital antennas in smartphones have been adapted to the realm of TV reception. The result? "TV antennas today are 10% of the mass they were decades ago," says Richard Schneider, president of Missouri-based manufacturer Antennas Direct. "And the move to an all digital transmission that the FCC mandated back in 2009 has put those TV signals in a higher frequency which means a better signal with less noise".
You might be able to quit cable completely, moving to a mixture of streaming services and paid downloads. Or you might be able to reduce your monthly fees by replacing expensive rental equipment with a streaming box and free apps. Alternatively, you could stick with cable or satellite but spend less by figuring out what you really need. It’s easier than ever to watch the content you want without being stuck in an expensive, long-term contract.
Unfortunately, with some pay-per-view exceptions, you can’t buy live sports programming à la carte. Sports programming is one of the main reasons for big cable bills—ESPN and other sports channels demand the highest per-channel fees from cable and satellite services, and those fees get passed on to you even if you don’t watch sports. So cord-cutting combined with à la carte is more feasible for non-sports fans. If you do watch sports, we have more about your options below.
What you get: DirecTV Now should appeal to anyone who wants DirecTV service but not the satellite dish. The company recently hiked prices by $5 on its various plans. The company’s Live a Little plan, which provides 60 channels, now costs $40 per month, and the Just Right package has gone to $55 per month. Go Big jumped to $65 per month, and the top 125-channel plan, Gotta Have It, costs $75 instead of the previous $70. The good news is that the NFL Network has been added to all DirecTV Now’s packages starting with Just Right and above, at no additional cost. Also, you can add HBO for just $5 per month. The company will be launching a next-generation version of the service this spring that bumps up the number of simultaneous users from two to three.
1. Buy an HDTV antenna. Since 2007, local TV stations have been broadcasting digital signals so crisp that the reception is better than that of cable TV. Plus, despite all the hype about shows on niche networks, 19 of the top 20 TV shows in 2016 aired on over-the-air broadcast networks. That’s why Step 1 is to buy an antenna. These are not your father’s antennas. No rabbit ears necessary. A modern digital TV antenna can be so sleek it will match your decor or so skinny you can mount it out of sight. When Consumer Reports tested antennas ranging in price from $8 to $80, it found the cheapest often performed just as well as the priciest. So try an inexpensive one first and upgrade only if necessary.
Hulu got its start as an on-demand streaming service that competed with Netflix and the rest of the streaming video on demand (SVOD) crew. These days, Hulu is in the skinny bundle fray as well: its Hulu with Live TV service offers a single base package that costs $39.99/month and offers more than 55 channels, including live feeds of all four major networks in select regions. Hulu with Live TV also has regional sports networks in some markets. You can read our review of the service here.
If you just want local channels you could just get a TV with a digital tuner (most of them these days), and use a HDTV antenna to get all your local channels. To record live shows you can use a over-the-air DVR like the Tablo TV DVR. If there are premium channels you want beyond the basics there are services that carry those channels like Sling TV, Amazon, HBO GO, and more. It all comes down to figuring out what channels and services you need, and figuring out where they’re available.
On both Roku devices and Apple TV, much of the best content does require a pay per view fee or subscription, so you'll want to keep an eye on how many you buy. And there are a growing number of apps like HBO Go that are restricted to those still with a cable/satellite TV subscription. But even if you never venture much beyond Netflix and Hulu Plus, you're getting a lot of content for very little money.
So when people ask “how to cut the cord,” it's pretty clear that they're not really asking how to cut the cord. They're actually asking how to watch TV without cable. They're asking how they can replace all of their favorite shows, how to watch the latest movies, and how to fill the void that channel-surfing, live NFL games, or whatever else they liked about cable has left in its wake. That's what we dedicate the most time to here on the site. We call out site Cordcutting.com because all of the topics we cover are related to cord cutting in some way, but if we really wanted to name it after what we cover most, we'd call it HowToWatchTVWithoutCable.com. Not quite as catchy, we know.
You can watch most of your favorite network shows by simply streaming them directly from the networks' web sites. They're often available a few hours after they air, and regularly have additional goodies like behind-the-scenes footage or teasers for upcoming episodes. In addition to official network sites, more and more useful tools are popping up every day to help you get your TV fix online.
The good news is that nearly all of these services offer the ESPN family of networks as standard, at the lowest tier. Many then offer regional Fox Sports channels, and even an array of overseas sports broadcasts. Soccer fanatics should also look into FuboTV, which emphasizes the major sports leagues in general but is particularly generous with international football. Again, be sure to check with the various live TV providers to see what you’re allowed to see in your region and for what price. (If you can afford it, consider Playstation Vue, which offers easy access to the many games streaming every day on ESPN’s website.) ESPN also now offers ESPN+, which features a selection of live games from professional and college sports, along with access to the network's documentary films and some studio content exclusive to the subscription service.
You might have a Blu-ray player or smart TV with streaming apps on board, but those offer a pretty dismal streaming experience. Newer TVs from Samsung and LG have pretty impressive smart interfaces, and Roku TVs like TCL’s 6-Series are fantastic for all-in-one streaming. Otherwise, if you’re going to transition to a full-time streaming entertainment plan you may want a separate device purpose-built for the job. Below is a small selection of some of our favorites. If you want more recommendations, we highly recommend sourcing our full list of the best streaming devices you can buy.
Your options get a little thinner after the skinny bundles, but there are some other apps to consider. One of these is CBS All Access, which offers local feeds of CBS stations to certain customers. Once again, you'll have to live in certain areas to get the live feeds – and, once again, you can find out how good the deal is for your region by checking out the service's week-long free trial via the link below. CBS All Access costs $5.99/month (you can pay more to get rid of commercials, but that only affects the on-demand content, not the live TV). You can read our full review of CBS All Access here.
Many local libraries have movies and television shows on DVD, and some even offer BluRay. Borrowing one is completely free as long as you are eligible for a library card, and you usually have a generous return window too. The only caveats are that your selection may be limited and other borrowers may not have been kind to the DVD when they borrowed it, so some of them may not work. But, when the cost is $0, it isn’t as painful when that happens.
Other important factors include cloud DVR and the interface itself. Yes, most of the services above allow you to record and play back shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions. Some services have a traditional, cable-box-like menu system, while some are more experimental (read: they have a steep learning curve).
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If you only wanted to watch certain shows, you could double check on Hulu or one of the other Playon supported services (CBS streaming for example), and see if those shows are streamed through their online services. if they are, you should be able to use playon at no extra charge. I know for a fact that CSI shows up in Playon, as we watch that show quite regularly. I’m not sure about the other one.
These services usually offer free or discounted trials, so you can try before you buy. They also don’t require long-term contracts, so if you want to subscribe only during football season to get all the college and NFL games, you can do that easily, unlike with cable. You don’t have to pay for installation or return equipment if you ever decide to stop subscribing. This makes it easy to try several of the services in consecutive months and then begin paying for the one that best fits your viewing habits. You automatically get the HD versions of each channel instead of having to pay extra for a box that can display HD, as many cable companies require.
Amazon has invested heavily in creating original TV shows, and often asks viewers to vote on the pilots they'd like Amazon to develop into full seasons (supposedly they're doing away with "pilot season" in the future). Great shows include The Tick, Sneaky Pete, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Catastrophe, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, and The Man in the High Castle.
Most HDTVs made these days have a built in digital tuner. If you bought it a few years ago before the new digital tuners were as common, and it was only advertised as an HDTV monitor, that could be the only caveat. Basically if it has a tuner built in usually it will have a video source on the unit called “TV” or something along those lines. Just plug in an antenna, go to the menu, and have it scan for channels. If you have a tuner those options should be there.
YouTube TV ($40/mo.): YouTube’s newest venture entered the market as one of the cheapest and simplest. Its channel package is small, there aren’t that many add-ons at the moment, and the service isn’t even available in every city or town in the United States yet (although the range is expanding every day; check here for updates). But if watching local stations live matters a lot to you, then you should know that YouTube TV is making that the cornerstone of its business — along with unlimited DVR cloud storage and enough portability that you should be able to shift easily from one device to another while watching a show you’ve recorded.
Hey Vince – I’ve been meaning to add Playstation Vue to this list! They are good. They have a higher minimum price point, but you do get a lot of value for it. But I will disagree about Sling – on my Android, my wife’s iphone, and our Roku 3, SlingTV’s app has been great on all platforms. About a year ago when they were first starting out, buffering was horrible sometimes. But they’ve cleaned it up, increased their bandwidth and I have had no issues at all in the past 9 months.
The majority of cable and satellite TV providers offer customers packaged deal pricing on a contract basis. Generally, rates are locked in for two or more years, although companies may include an increase in cost after six or 12 months. Customers should ensure they do research about their contract and what it entails before locking in service with one company.
Today you've got plenty of options. Six major services -- DirecTV Now, Fubo TV, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV and YouTube TV -- stream multiple channels of live TV over the Internet, including local channels. Each has its plusses and minuses, including pricing (starting at $25 per month), features (like cloud DVRs) and user interface, but the biggest differentiator is channel lineup.