What you need to know before cutting cable
If you plan on joining the one out of five young adults choosing to “cut the cord” in favor of an old-fashioned antenna and rapidly growing numbers of online options, experts say to be prepared for a learning curve and a greater reliance on your Internet connection.
“So when people talk about cutting the cord, you’re saying, ‘I’ve had cable for 20 years, we’re going to stop paying for cable, and we’re just going to watch TV on the Internet or just the old-fashioned way, over the old rabbit ears,” Madison College marketing professor Steve Noll said.
Step one: Get an antenna
Fed up over cable’s high cost and feeling like they wanted greater control over programming, Stefan Whae and Michelle Whae decided to cut the cord in 2011.
Their first step was getting an antenna.
“It’s behind the W up there,” Stefan Whae said.
With three young sons, the channel is primarily turned to PBS.
“In general, people are surprised by how many channels we do get through the antenna,” Michelle Whae said. “We get 13 channels, so that’s free.”
News3’s “Gadget Guy,” Steve Van Dinter, said spending big bucks on an antenna is not necessary,
“If you live within a metro area, you live close enough to a TV broadcast station, any broadcast antenna’s going to do. It’s all a matter of size,” Van Dinter said. “They do a good job of picking up those digital channels. Plug it into the back of your TV. You’re not even going to see it.”
Van Dinter said distance from a television station’s tower can also be a factor when considering a more expensive antenna.
“If you want to spend a little more, some of them look like a stealth bomber. They’re kind of triangle shape. For the rural areas,” Van Dinter said. “I wouldn’t spend too much money on the antenna since pretty much any antenna will do.”
Step two: Internet streaming boxes
To move beyond over-the-air free network programming, many cord cutters choose online based streaming programming through Internet applications, like Netflix and Hulu. But to use the apps subscribers need to have an Internet connection.
“The myth is that the Internet is free. Well, it’s not. You have to subscribe to the Internet. Then in there is going to be a provider cost,” Noll said. “But most people, they already have an Internet provider anyway. So that’s not going to add expense.”
Van Dinter said because cord cutters are more reliant on their Internet connection, spending more on upgrading to a higher speed could be a worthwhile investment.
“If you’re going to have a great experience or a lousy experience, chances are it’s going to depend on your Internet connection,” Van Dinter said. “So you want to make sure your Internet connection is fast. We’re talking about six megabytes per second download, minimum. Anything less than that you’re still going to be able to stream, but that might not be a very pleasant or entertaining experience. You might get choppy video. It might get pixelated. It might also take a long time to load up. Make that investment in a faster Internet connection and you’ll be happier in the end.”
In order to watch programs over an app, viewers must be willing to invest in Internet streaming boxes. The most popular streaming boxes are Amazon Fire TV ($39-$99), AppleTV ($69-$199), Google Chomecast ($35) and Roku ($49-$129).
“All work under the same concept. Again, plugging it into your TV. It’s going to need an Internet connection to pull in that signal. Once you get all that set up it’s as easy as using an app,” Van Dinter said. “A lot of it depends what you want to get out of it. I chose the Chromecast because there are a wider range of apps there are available for it.”
“But at the same point it’s just not a matter of turning on the TV, and going from channel to channel,” Noll said. “To watch this program it’s on this app. To watch that program it’s on that app. This program is on this app or this app. We can decide which one we want to watch.”
Van Dinter said the apps you want are key when choosing which streaming box to purchase.
For instance, SlingTV, which is Dish Network’s app providing about 25 live cable channels, such as ESPN and CNN, is not available on certain streaming boxes.
Because the type of online programming you get depends on pay-per-view apps, Noll said the cost of app programming can add up.
“If you start to look at what type of programming you need, not every program is on every app. If you want to watch older programs you have to have Netflix. OK. Well Netflix is about $10 a month, but it doesn’t have any newer programming,” Noll said. “But then even Hulu has some of the network programming, but not all of them. So then you have to pick up your old standalone app.”
For instance, SlingTV, whose basic service is $20 per month for viewers looking for an option to replace cable channels, would be added on top of the Netflix, Hulu and in some cases the Amazon Prime subscriptions many cord cutters already purchased. In addition to movies and TV shows, each of those services also offers different original programming.
“And all of a sudden, before you realize it, you’re up to $50, $60 a month in programming. However, if you were paying $100 per month in cable, now you’re only paying $50 a month for all these apps, you’re still saving money,” Noll said.
While the Whae’s say the average $53 they spend per month on cord cutting might not have been the savings they originally expected, the control they now have over their channels is priceless.
“I feel like I have a little more control over the kids’ programming too, especially on Netflix,” Michelle Whae said. “We can bring up the channels I say they can have and that they want to watch.”
“I don’t miss cable at the end of the day,” Stefan Whae said.
A drawback to cord cutting, the experts said, can be paying up front for hardware like streaming boxes. To have a streaming box in each room requires the purchase of an additional device. And the Digital Video Recorder, or DVR, competent many cable watches have become accustomed to will be absent with cord cutting unless a viewer purchases an additional over the air DVR. However, those devices only let you record the free network programs viewers’ receive from their antennas.
“You may want to make that investment, because if you’re away from your house and you’re missing things, you may want to come home and watch them,” Van Dinter said. “Much of the time it’s investing in the content, do you want it to be able to push a button where it’s right there. Or do you want to go out and scour the Web a little bit. Chances are you’ll find it but it might take you a little more time.”
“People are spending their time watching video in a wide variety of ways nowadays, and there are plenty more options besides a cable operator,” officials with the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said in an email to News 3. “This is what makes the market a competitive one.”