Cutting The Cable Cord
With the economy the way it is, everyone is looking for ways to save money. For awhile now, I’ve thought about how much our cable TV costs us per month and whether/how we would do without it. We currently have Time Warner Cable’s All-In-One package (Internet, Phone and Cable) with two boxes. One is a DVR and one is a plain cable box. The phone line and Internet we would need to keep. (Ok, technically we could cut our land line and go cell phone only, but that’s a thought experiment for another day.) Switching to Time Warner’s “Surf & Talk” plan would save us about $65 per month.
Of course, our cable TV doesn’t go unwatched every day. NHL and JSL watch it. B watches it. I watch it. So we can’t just rip out the cable line and pocket the monthly savings. Some kind of entertainment is going to need to replace the cable TV loss at or below the cost of cable TV. In doing research on this, here are some of the options I’ve come up with:
We currently don’t rent very many movies. However, we do take out a lot of movies from the library. Under a “No Cable TV” plan, I’m sure our library use would increase. Still, the library only has so many DVDs. Eventually, we would tire of taking out the same kiddy DVD for the twentieth time. This is where Netflix could step in. Netflix lets you rent DVDs from a massive selection. They mail the discs to you and you mail them back when done. Using Netflix, you can also watch an ever-increasing catalog of movies and television shows online or on your TV.
TV watching requires an “unlimited plan” ($8.99 per month or more) and a supported set-top box like Roku. Now I just so happened to have won a Roku box from Buck Daddy (thanks again!), but a Roku box would normally only set you back $99. The Roku box connects to your wireless/wired network and allows you to watch movies on Netflix or Amazon Video on Demand. Roku is also adding podcasts, MLB and others. Those don’t happen to interest me, but it does show that “Roku box content” is going to be a growing selection.
This also leads me to my next Rental/Purchase location: Amazon Video on Demand. Amazon lets you rent movies and television shows from their site to view online or on your Roku box. Some shows, like my must-watch Mythbusters, are only available on television or Amazon VOD. Television shows, like Mythbusters, cost $1.99 to buy. Movies cost more, but aren’t prohibitively expensive. A season of Mythbusters can contain 30 episodes, so this might seem expensive. However, this $60 is less than one month of cable TV. Assuming that we bought three TV shows per week (one each for B and I and one for NHL/JSL), we would wind up paying less than $26 per month on Amazon VOD purchases.
Of course, we wouldn’t just buy online shows. We could buy DVDs also. More and more shows are releasing DVDs with multiple episodes of television shows. We already have many DVDs that go unwatched, so we could dig those out. We could easily give ourselves a $15 monthly DVD stipend, saving it up if we want to buy a more expensive box set or taking advantage of sales to buy more DVDs.
The big problem with DVDs is loading/changing them. Right now, NHL can sit down in front of the TV, turn it on, tune in to Noggin, and watch away. (He can also program the DVR, but that’s another subject entirely.) We don’t want to risk scratched discs, so we won’t be letting the kids load and unload DVDs themselves anytime soon. This means that watching a DVD would entail parental involvement to: 1) Find DVD from our ever-growing library of discs, 2) load movie, 3) put old movie away, 4) watch. It would be a lot simpler if NHL could simply browse through all of the movies we own and click which one he wanted to watch. (This shouldn’t be read as us trying to abdicate parental responsibility, but NHL should be able to choose what he wants to watch from the options we provide him.)
As it so happens, you can actually do that. I blogged awhile back that I was drooling over the IOGEAR Portable Media Player Enclosure. Unfortunately, that product looks like it has been discontinued, but others, like the Argosy TV HD Media Player ($69.99) are still on the market. If we ripped our DVDs to a 1 TB hard drive ($74.99), we could watch them on our television quite easily. Another solution would be to rip the DVDs to a central computer and stream the videos from that system (using free software like Tversity) with a wireless media player like the D-Link DSM-520 ($229.99).
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know about YouTube. There are tons of videos on there that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. I won’t pretend that there aren’t videos on there that don’t violate copyright (for example, some old Looney Tunes cartoons that I’m sure WB didn’t upload). Still, YouTube could be a good source for entertaining videos.
The same is true for Hulu. Started by some cable companies as a YouTube competitor, Hulu has a lot of television shows and movies available to watch for free. These, unlike many of the ones on YouTube, are completely legal.
The only problem with these two sites is that they are limited to your television screen. YouTube can be watched on the Wii, but it is a kludgy solution at best. My ideal solution would be for Roku to support Hulu and YouTube. Then, I could just select from the menu on Roku’s screen and begin watching. If Roku didn’t support YouTube/Hulu, then any Tversity-based solution I went with (see the “In-Home Streaming” section) would support these as well. Either way, this would be a free entertainment addon.
What would the final cost of cutting cable be? Our one time costs would total between $145 and $230 depending on which media player setup we went with. Monthly costs would run about $50 a month. This would mean a $15 a month savings. No, $180 per year isn’t a windfall, but every little bit counts. The first year’s savings would obviously get eaten up by equipment costs, but after that we would save money.
Another factor to consider is the multiple room problem. Right now, we have cable in two rooms: the living room and our bedroom. The costs I’ve quoted here give us only one rooms’ worth of Netflix/Amazon/YouTube/Hulu/In-Home Streaming. We have a DVD player in the bedroom, but ideally I’d like to be able to watch anything in the bedroom that we could watch in the living room. This could increase our one time setup costs by $244 – $329. With the setup costs for a two room scenario, savings would only be realized after 2 or 3 years.
Adjusting To Life Sans Cable
Obviously, doing this would be an adjustment. JSL probably wouldn’t care. In fact, he’s pretty well adjusted to this switch already given that he’s constantly asking to watch “Wa Wa Bee DD” (Wiggles DVDs in JSL-speak). He probably wouldn’t miss the loss of cable TV at all. Initially, NHL would greatly miss Noggin and Disney Channel. However, I’ve seen how adaptable he is to television change. One month Sid The Science Kid is his favorite, must-watch-every-day-or-else show. The next month it is Penguins of Madagascar. The month after that: Secret Agent Oso. A month or two after the cable cut, NHL would probably forget all about those cable channels and focus on the DVDs and other shows that were available to him instead.
How would the grown ups react? Well, we would have the biggest adjustment to make. There are plenty of programs that we really don’t care about but that we “watch” to either add noise to the room or to help us unwind mentally after a long day. We obviously wouldn’t be able to simply tune to Food Network and zone out to Guy at another diner, drive-in or dive. Movies require more mental attention than we are up for many nights. This could be solved by skewing our Netflix/Amazon/DVD rental/purchases away from movies and towards TV shows. Still, it would be a tough adjustment to make.
The Final Cut
In the end, I don’t think we’re ready to cut our cable line. I think that the alternatives to cable just aren’t as easy as cable TV (especially once you add a DVR to the mix). In addition, the equipment to support them on televisions (as opposed to a laptop screen) is just too pricey at the moment. However, I do plan on keeping an eye on this market, though. I think that this is the direction that we as a society are moving towards. Five years down the line, you’ll likely be able to purchase a Netflix/Amazon VOD/Hulu/YouTube/streaming media/whatever set top box for $100 or less. Then, cable companies will have a serious problem on their hands as people begin to question why they are cutting a large monthly check every month for entertainment that they could get more-customized for less money.