I only watch a handful of the 200+ DirecTV channels I pay for. To see whether I could survive without the pricey service, I simply went without it. I soon wondered why we all don't just turn off traditional TV.
As illustrated in a few of our surveys, many of you have already made the jump, catching fresh TV via broadband instead of actual channels or even DVR. But the vast majority of us are still watching TV the old fashioned way—paying for packages from cable or satellite providers. But from what I've seen in my own house lately, I suspect that it won't be long before this practice is as archaic as owning a landline. Many of you refuse to pay for a phone twice, so why are you paying for two or three different ways to see your favorite TV shows?
There are, of course, drawbacks to a life without a broadcaster-friendly set-top box, so I spent a month trying to find out whether or not these drawbacks were significant enough to justify the huge additional cost.
Since this is Prof. Dealzmodo, you already know the impetus for this experiment was money. In particular my 12-month introductory package runs out soon, and the same channels will soon cost me nearly $80 per month. But why? The channel lineups are bloated and padded with filler—a veritable hot dog of entertainment where the real meat is mixed in with a lot of hooves and snouts. I mean, 70 music channels? Really? Isn't that what services like Pandora—and about 100 others—are for? Speaking of services, I decided to play it straight. I didn't get shows via BitTorrent. For a month, I simply used easily accessible, generally legal alternatives like Netflix, Hulu Desktop and network websites, plus Windows Media Center, which comes "free" with most PCs these days. The idea here is to prove that you don't need to spend tons of money, use complicated software or go to extreme measures to watch what you want.
First let's talk about hardware. I don't see the point in spending money on niche players like Apple TV , Vudu, and Roku to get internet content onto your television. These players only handle a fraction of what any home theater PC can deliver. Also, sticking with a computer makes it easier to roll with new services and software platforms as they're released. (Hulu isn't on any set-top box yet, but it's available to every Mac and PC, in several ways.)
You don't need something elaborate here—an HTPC's main purpose is to browse the web and stream video. Just about any computer will do—including the old laptop you're thinking about replacing anyway. Back in the day, I used to attach my laptop to the TV with a simple S-video connection, but a lot of today's laptops and home-theater PCs make things extremely easy with an HDMI port.
If you don't have an HDMI port, there are simple workarounds. For older computers in general, there are DVI-to-HDMI (video only) and VGA-to-component cables are also doable for older PCs, and if you already have some video cables, there are adapters out there that might do the trick for less money. Owners of new Macs have to fudge a bit with Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI converters, but even those, from Monoprice and others, are getting better.
There are plenty of products out there designed for the home-theater market that cost less than $500—including the Asus' EEEBox line and the Lenovo IdeaCenter Q700. Plus, there is always the option of buying refurbished or upgrading a cheap PC yourself to control costs.
If you want to cheat and record broadcast shows, you still don't have to pay for cable—you can get an over-the-air HD TV tuner. Generally, a USB dongle TV tuner or PCI card like those from Hauppage will cost $100 or so, and they work reasonably well, though you may need an external antenna for best results. You don't have to pay for service, and you can be assured of local news and other local programming, if that's important to you. Just don't come crying to us if you can't get your rabbit ears into just the right position.
No matter what computer and accessories you use, the added cost will probably pay for itself pretty quickly when you start canceling all those expensive subscriptions. As I mentioned earlier, going broadband-only will save me about $80 a month in satellite fees—in 8 months, I will have recouped my $600 home-theater PC investment.
In the end, my entire monthly TV entertainment budget runs about $60—that's $50 for basic broadband plus $10 for Netflix. Compare that to the $140 I would have paid starting in February for the combination of all that plus DirecTV. (As a sports fan, there are online programs that I do pay extra for, but you get what you pay for—as you'll see below.)
How To Manage and Control Your TV Content
You will have to sacrifice the basic (if not exactly pretty) UI you are used to. Fortunately, things are getting better. Hulu Desktop looks more like what you would find with a broadcast set-top box, and with Windows Media Center, having Netflix and other plug-ins makes finding and watching on-demand shows a whole lot easier. And there's at least one new website, Clicker that is taking a crack at organizing internet content into an easy-to-use programming guide.
Fortunately, I managed to keep the number of remotes on my coffee table to a minimum. I have a Windows Media Center remote to handle Netflix, DVDs, Hulu Desktop and downloads. Mac users have their own little white remote which handles much of this functionality, too. (A wireless keyboard and mouse are essential for more intricate navigation and many PC functions, but those can stay out of sight for the most part.)
Watching Your Favorite Shows
I'm not a TV addict by a long shot, but there are shows that I watch religiously. These shows include 30 Rock, Lost, Family Guy, Californication and Dexter. The following graph illustrates the pluses and minuses of viewing a handful of different shows—not just my favorites—from popular networks.
The newest episodes of many of these shows are on Hulu, which mostly hosts fresh content—there isn't a huge back catalog of shows. The catch with new shows, on Hulu or on network websites, is that you usually have to wait a day to see them. (For many DVR devotees, that's not a big deal anyway.)
It's also important to point out that certain networks tease their new seasons in many locations online—NBC has been offering free HD downloads of many new shows on iTunes, in hopes you'll buy the season pass for $40 or more.
Netflix is another place where networks promote new shows: I was able to see the first episode of Californication and Dexter on Netflix during their limited time Watch Instantly preview. Speaking of that, Showtime shows, if available at all, do tend to appear on Netflix, but mostly only in re-runs.
As you can see, not everything streams in HD quality, although this appears to be changing. ABC is already streaming in HD, and others like Hulu and Netflix are dabbling, so it's only a matter of time before HD content is widely available for streaming online.
What's Not Online
CBS, HBO and Discovery: I'm talkin' to you. I couldn't care less about CBS programming—though it's the #1 rated network, so clearly somebody does. CBS.com (and TV.com) offers a handful of full episodes (CSI and NCIS), and some of those show up in Netflix too, but until CBS decides their agenda, you may have to wait for new seasons of Big Bang Theory to show up on DVD, or try to record over-the-air broadcasts (see above).
I love History Channel and Discovery Channel, and these guys are also reluctant to accept reality, move away from old revenue models and look towards the future. Nonetheless, I still get my fix though Netflix. Early seasons of some of my favorite shows (Deadlest Catch, Man vs Wild) are available for streaming via Watch Instantly, and more recent seasons are available for rental. I have the patience to wait for some of my favorite shows to arrive on DVD or Blu-ray—it's a virtue that could save you lots of money.
Let's Talk Live Sports
Traditionally, one of the major drawbacks of internet TV is a lack of live sports. Again, I don't know what sports and teams you are interested in, but for me it is all about football. For example, a few days ago I checked out the Steelers/Chargers game on NBC Sunday Night Football online. The streaming content is "HD" quality (at least it's in the realm of HD) and the service offers a viewing experience that is actually deeper than a standard broadcast. Users have access to DVR style controls, four separate camera angles, highlights and live analysis.
I also have the privilege of access to my beloved out-of-market NY Giants games each week with DirecTV's online Supercast service. It broadcasts all of the Sunday Ticket NFL games over the internet, but access to the online content requires DirecTV service and the full SuperFan package that runs a ridiculous $400 per year (Manhattan residents can access Supercast without DirecTV service). However, if you know someone with a Supercast account, you can piggyback.
If baseball is your thing, MLB.com offers a service similar to Supercast for around $100 per year depending on the package—although it only includes out-of-market games. Live golf can be viewed for free on PGATour.com; college sports, baseball, tennis, soccer and more is free on ESPN360 (if you are affiliated with an ESPN-approved broadband provider) and streaming sites like Justin.tv offer plenty of free sports viewing options, including live ESPN. Windows Media Center owners can also get SportsLounge, with Fox Sports.
This is still the wild west, and things are apt to keep changing. I already mentioned services like DirecTV's Supercast and streaming games from MLB.com. Little by little, you will start to see primetime shows or packages offered a la carte online too. I hope we don't get to a point where we are paying more for access to online content than we now pay for cable content, but there has been serious talk by executives from Time Warner (HBO), CBS and Hulu (Fox, NBC, Disney) about that very thing: Either charge subscribers for premium content on demand, or simply verify that they are already paying customers of cable and satellite, and grant them access to stuff others can't see.
If the broadcasters have their way, you'll pay for it one way, or you'll pay for it another. Still, technology has a way of keeping pace with the dreams of media execs, and the experiments conducted by YouTube and Hulu and others with advertising may lead to some kind of compromise, too. It is really all up in the air, but for now...
What You Should Think About
When all was said and done, I found my experience without standard cable television to be more liberating than anything else. Sure, streaming video isn't always HD quality, not all of my favorite shows are readily available, and I have to search around a bit more for the things I want to watch—but I didn't suffer and I didn't feel like I was missing out. The added expense was not justifiable—especially when I was paying for a bunch of things I never watched. The best part is that I was able to get pretty much everything I needed with a basic set of tools that anyone with a computer can take advantage of right away.
Not everyone shares my taste in television but, at the very least, you should take a good look at your cable or satellite bill and ask yourself if it's really worth all that money.