Cutting The Cord

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minnow gave a famous speech bemoaning the state of television. While at the time he was criticizing “game shows” and “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families,” among other things, I would argue that his statements are even more true now than they were in 1961.

I remember when cable TV first came to my family. We were living in Florida in the 1980s, and suddenly we had more choice than just four channels. Although it couldn’t have been more than 30 or so channels, there was now choice and and endless stream of things we could watch.

Throughout the 90s, we always had cable through all our moves. When I left for college, we had cable in the dorms. When I moved out, I got cable. When I moved to Huntsville, I got cable. When I bought my first house, I got cable. When we moved in 2012, we moved our cable too. The vast majority of my life, I have had cable.

And today, for the first time since I was a kid in 1980s Florida, I walked away from cable TV. We cut the cord, and went back to just a standard antenna and an Internet connection.

This has been something that has been a long time coming. It’s something we first seriously started considering in 2012 when our daughter was born and we stopped watching a lot of TV. But even then, my dissatisfaction with the ever increasing price and decreasing quality of cable TV had been building since the mid 2000s.

So this is why I decided to cut the cord and cancel my cable subscription.

Reality TV Destroyed Television

Once upon a time, a channel actually meant something. And if you watched a channel, you could count on a consistent type and quality of programming. I could tune into Discovery Channel and watch good documentaries on a wide variety of programing, or the History Channel for history programming. Sci-Fi Channel had science fiction. MTV played music videos.

Then came reality TV. And reality TV has destroyed television.

When was the last time you saw a good documentary on Discovery Channel? History Channel has shows like Cajun Pawn Stars and Ancient Aliens. TLC showed Honey Boo Boo. MTV hasn’t played a music video in years. And, while to their credit they are now trying to get “back to their roots,” Sci-Fi changed their name to “SyFy” and started showing wrestling and other non-sci-fi content.

Even the Weather Channel is showing reality TV!

They have all been completely overrun with worthless reality TV garbage. It’s the entertainment equivalent of a Big Mac - cheap, unhealthy and destroying you.

Ultimately, the vast majority channels don’t mean anything anymore. They’re all blending together into giant melting pot of suck, all showing virtually identical programming.

Too Much Choice

Do I really need 500 channels? Really? Especially when they’re all nearly indentical?

There is a such thing as too much choice.

Try this out next time you’re out: walk down the toothpaste aisle at your local grocery store and try to find a tube of toothpaste to buy. Chances are, you are confronted with a wall of boxes, all looking so very nearly identical that you have to stop and think very carefully about which one to buy.

That is choice overload. And cable TV is exactly the same thing. Sure, I had 500 channels. And most of them are very similar with no obvious differentiation between them. This may be why the average American only watches 9% of the channels available to them, all while paying for every single one of them.

So in a way, I’m actually okay losing 500 channels of choice. It’s overkill. I don’t watch most of them by far anyways, so I won’t notice them being gone.

There Is No Price Ceiling

When I first got cable in Madison, my bill was about $120, for cable TV and internet. Not cheap, but still affordable.

In the last eight years, my bill has nearly doubled. It was $230 a month last month when I finally decided to call it quits on cable. Between October and November of last year it went up $20 at once.

First, Knology made me upgrade to the top tier package by moving the decent channels (they call them “speciality channels”) that I actually wanted to watch (like Science Channel and BBC America) to the most expensive package.

Then, they transisitioned everything to “digitial cable,” which means where I once only had one box for the main TV in the house, suddenly I needed cable boxes for EVERY TV in the house. And even the cheap DTV adapters that don’t have program guides or any advanced functionality were $5 a month. So there ~$25 a month.

And then it will just randomly go up for no reason, like it did in October. Hey, here’s an extra $20 on your bill for no reason at all. Enjoy!

By dropping cable TV, my bill will go from $230 a month … to $50. $180 in savings. Even if you factor in $9 for Netflix and $7 for Hulu, I’m coming out way ahead. Even if you include $129 a year for Amazon Prime (which we already have because Amazon > Wal Mart), it’s still better than cable.

They’re Killing The Few Decent Channels Left

Given the preponderance of worthless programming, ever increaing price and ever decreasing quality of cable TV programming, you would think I would have killed it long ago. I should have, but two things kept me hanging on: sports and the few channels I did watch.

Well, then Knology (or WOW!, whatever their name is this week) canned the one channel I really liked watching: BBC America.

This is a trend with them, too. They killed WGN a few years ago (not that I watched WGN, but I’m sure some people did). They’ve killed other channels too. But guess what hasn’t changed? The price.

And with college football season over, there is literally no resaon for me to continue paying for cable. I hardly watched much of it to begin with, but now I will watch zero.

And that only leaves sports. But when I worked the math, dropping cable and going Internet-only means I’m going to save about $180 a month or $2,160 a year. With that savings, if I wanted to, I could buy a ticket to every single Auburn home game and still have money to spare.

If I really want to watch a game on cable TV, I’ll go to a bar. It’s an inconvenience, but not one worth $180 a month.

The Growth of Streaming

So I don’t watch much cable. What do I watch? Streaming.

It’s amazing how quickly Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have completely taken control of what we watch, to the point where it literally is 99% of all that we watch on TV.

I can watch some BBC programming on Netflix and Hulu. My wife can stream her soap opera from CBS on her iPad. There are plenty of documentaries on both, and plenty of cartoons and other stuff for Scarlett. And especially Netflix, they have some really great original programming.

Sure, we may be delayed by a day or two, but that’s not really a problem because society has adapted to that now. There is no such thing as the water cooler discussion about shows, because we don’t assume that everyone tuned in the night before. Between streaming and DVRs, there’s no telling when you might watch something, so there’s not a urgent need to watch TV. I can make TV fit my schedule, not the other way around.

I’m also keeping a very close eye on Sling, but my opinion on it is still out. It feels like I’m trading one cable company for another. I’d still be paying for a bunch of channels I’d never watch just to get the couple that I did. And it’s still TV - I still have to tune in, not watch at my convenience like true streaming services offer. But, to be sure, it represents a new option that wasn’t available a few months ago and might be what I do during football season.

My TV showing a crystal clear picture being delivered by a $50 antenna
        in my attic.
My TV showing a crystal clear picture being delivered by a $50 antenna in my attic.

In the meantime, with a $50 antenna, I can still get the about 20 stations, including all the major networks, for free. This is primarily for weather, but has other benefits too. Most NFL and major college games will still be carried on the over the air networks, and in the event of severe weather (which is common here in the spring), I can still get the local news to watch out for tornadoes.

And I can get that on every TV in my house. No need to a special box. It just works. And now that we have digital TV broadcasts, I even get program information. Just like cable, but without the cost.

Conclusion

The bottom line is price. I am simply not getting $230 worth of entertainment out of cable TV a month. Not when WOW continually degrades their service by dropping channels I like. Not when content producers continually degrade their offering to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And while I will miss ESPN and some of the sports channels, it’s simply not worth that much to keep them around.

To put it another way, here’s things I could do with an extra $180 a month:

  • (As I mentioned above) Go to every Auburn home game.
  • 4 theater movies a month (assuming $40 per movie, which factors in tickets for 2 and concessions or a sitter)
  • 1-2 concerts a month, depending on price.
  • 1 extravagent meal a month at a very nice restaurant for 2, including paying for a sitter.

And those are just four off the top of my head. Or (what I will probably do) I can take that money and put it into savings or investments. Both of which would be a better use than cable TV, which is seeing a 99% waste percentage in my life.

So if you have cable TV, I would urge you to really think hard about whether or not you are getting your money’s worth. In my opinion, it’s time to send a message to cable companies, channels and content producers. There are now more options for entertainment than ever, and cable TV just isn’t providing a good value compared to those other options.

Appendix: Parts List and Recommandations

My antenna mounted in the attic. Sorry for the potato quality, I was
        standing on a ladder taking this picture.
My antenna mounted in the attic. Sorry for the potato quality, I was standing on a ladder taking this picture.
  • Antenna: Channel Master CM-4220HD UHF and HDTV Antenna. Mine is mounted in the attic (due to HOA rules I can’t mount it outside, but I have no receiption problems) using some PVC pipe I had laying around. I ran a coax cable from there to my media panel and just swapped it out for the cable feed to all the rooms.

  • Receiver Box: Mediasonic HW180STB HomeWorx. Note, you don’t actually need this. Any TV built in the last 10 years will tune digital signals fine. I only bought this because I wanted to feed the antenna signal through the A/V Receiver via HDMI on the main TV. The rest of our TVs are just directly connected via coax.

  • If your signal is being split a bunch of times (like if you’re trying to feed more than 2 TVs from a single antenna), you may want to get an amplifier. Mine is an Extreme Broadband IPA1008D-RSVF. I already had this because I had signal problems with cable, so you may want to test it first to see if you really need it.

You can use AntennaPoint to find the over the air stations in your area, how far away the antennas are and which direction you need to point your antenna. Note that AntennaPoint doesn’t show all the stations. It only shows 6 in my area, but I get about 20 stations. Most are on digital subchannels.

I even get WeatherNation on a digital subchannel from one of the local TV stations, which is a lot like how Weather Channel used to be before they went full-on reality TV.

I would recommend getting an antenna with about 25% more range than the farthest station you want to get. One of my stations is ~30 miles away, and I can get it with a 40 mile antenna but the signal quality is about 50%. But this is digital, so it works fine and looks great mostly, although it does get blocky sometimes. But it’s a CW station, so I don’t really care. :)

For streaming, I have both AppleTVs and Rokus. I like the Roku’s features better, but the AppleTV has a far superior user experience, so that’s primarily what we use (seriously, Roku is such a great product with such a terrible UI). Netflix and Hulu are available on both, but Amazon is only on the Roku.

If you’re interested in cord cutting, I highly recommend checking out /r/cordcutters on Reddit. It’s a great resource for finding your options without cable.

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