A Digital Antenna, Slingbox and Other Alternatives for Viewers Looking to Save
July 15, 2014 9:05 p.m. ET
This makes me angry, and a little ashamed, to admit: My family's Comcast CMCSA 2.88 % bill for this month was $212.65. For the shows we actually enjoy on HBO, plus our Internet connection and a landline phone, I pay for endless hours of Kardashians.
Like many of you, I've been considering cutting the cord on cable TV.
Today about 19% of American TV households live without cable, according to market research firm GfK. Many holdouts are haunted by doubts: How will I watch live sports? Without HBO, how will I know why everyone is talking about some mother of dragons?
Cutting the Cord
Going without cable—or at least with considerably less of it—is easier than you think. Last week, I sliced my bill from $212 to $75 without giving up the stuff I really watch. Yes, cable and satellite companies lock away some content for subscribers. But you don't have to be an online pirate to see what you want.
Broadcasters give away the most popular HD channels free over the air, and Internet video services like Hulu, "smart" TVs and streaming boxes make it possible to remain a full-fledged couch potato. None of this is as simple as clicking channel up and down on your cable remote. But for the app-savvy, Internet streaming wins not just because of price, but because of convenience.
We should send Hollywood a message by voting with our credit cards for the content we want—delivered the way we want it.
Aereo, one alternative for streaming TV over the Web, was shot down by the Supreme Court last month. But thankfully, there are other options.
A digital antenna can allow for crisp viewing of over-the-air networks without taking up much room. Kagan McLeod
Get a Digital Antenna
I hadn't thought about a TV antenna since 1985, but it may be time to go back to the future. Today, the network channels you can get free over the air can be crisp. And unlike that giant antenna that used to dominate Uncle Louie's roof, today's antennas, like the $70 Mohu Leaf 50 and $90 Winegard FlatWave Amped, are slim enough to fit on a bookshelf.
Since 2009, U.S. TV signals have been digital and usually broadcast in high-definition. If you watch mostly network shows like "NCIS," this may be all you need. Some videophiles argue aerial signals are even sharper than cable's compressed video, and over-the-air broadcasts work with DVRs like the TiVo TIVO 2.49 % Roamio, which nicely blends live TV and Internet streaming services.
It isn't perfect, and your experience may vary depending on how far you live from broadcast towers and other interference.
A colleague who helped test indoor antennas in Palo Alto, Calif. was able to get more than 80 channels with the Mohu. In San Francisco, going aerial with the advanced Winegard almost worked—but with one big problem: I live in a dead zone for my local NBC station, and I'm not prepared to give up "The Voice." (To pick up NBC, I'd likely have to mount an antenna on my roof. Mercifully, they're now much smaller than Uncle Louie's monstrosity.)
To give aerials a try, start by typing your address into the site tvfool.com. which plots what you can probably pick up. Start with the most basic antenna based on your distance from broadcast towers, but be ready to return it if you need an upgrade.
Remote Control: With a Slingbox attached to a friend's cable box, users can watch whatever's on that box anywhere in the world, a particularly useful feature for displaced sports fans. Kagan McLeod
Bypass Cable With a Slingbox
Even if you don't have a cable subscription, chances are you know someone who does. You can beam your buddy's TV signal over the Internet to your laptop, tablet or TV with the help of a Slingbox.
Slingboxes have existed for years, but this week the company is launching two new models designed for a broader audience. I tested the new $150 Slingbox M1 to beam
cable TV to an iPad in my office and to a cable-cutting buddy's Apple AAPL 5.74 % TV box to watch the World Cup. It could also work well for college students or people with second homes.
Wait, is this legal? It sure is. What makes it different from Aereo is that this stream goes from one cable connection to just one outside device. You hook the small Slingbox hardware to the analog ports on the back of your host's cable box, and then connect it to their Wi-Fi network. It works with almost every cable system in the U.S.
It doesn't impact your host's TV experience, but everyone must always watch the same things—unless the host gets a dedicated cable box. (Slingbox's apps do let the remote watcher change the channel using an infrared burst from the Slingbox that replicates a remote.)
In my tests, the quality of the signal I received was usually high-def, but did depend on both the Internet upload speed of the host and the download speed where I watched it.
Pay For Just What You Need
Some great channels—and many lesser ones—offer their video free over the Internet via apps on smart TVs and boxes like Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV. That list now includes ABC News, which launched late last month on Apple TV with live coverage and on-demand reports.
Paid streaming services such as Netflix NFLX 8.48 % ($9 a month) and Amazon Prime ($99 a year with Amazon's shipping club) offer access to a deep bench of older TV seasons and movies, plus original hits like "House of Cards." Hulu Plus ($8 a month) offers more of the freshest TV from networks such as Fox, NBC, ABC and Comedy Central.
For other shows, you can often buy whole seasons directly from Amazon or Apple's iTunes, some right after the episode has aired. A season pass to ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars" costs $40.
Many professional sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, sell direct Internet streaming access to games (though, frustratingly, they generally blackout any game that's nationally televised or aired locally).
Getting out the calculator, my tally of shows and Internet access comes to about half my peak cable bill of $212 a month. But if you keep up with a lot of shows or sports, it could be pricier than cable.
Thanks for the Password, Mom: Some people share their access to online streaming services like HBO Go that restrict online access to cable subscribers. Kagan McLeod
Find a Login
And what about the channels that refuse to sell streaming access? HBO and ESPN, which own some of the most desired TV content, restrict Internet access to cable TV subscribers, locked behind a login. The economics of selling direct online access just doesn't work, they say.
Some cable cutters deal with this by "borrowing" logins. It's one of the moral gray zones of being a modern digital consumer. For the record, spokespeople for both HBO and ESPN told me their services are meant only for use by one "household."
But they also hardly try to stop folks from sharing: Most channels allow at least three simultaneous streams. They don't check that you live together or cut you off for using it in different corners of the U.S.
If borrowing a login feels like stealing, there's another option. I asked some of the biggest cable operators the cheapest way to get just Internet service plus HBO. In many cases, they don't promote this option, but you can get it if you know what to ask for .
Comcast calls it "Internet Plus"; Time-Warner Cable TWC 2.48 % calls it "Starter TV + HBO and an Internet plan." If your cable company sales rep acts like a used-car salesman trying to upsell you, just keep saying you want Internet and HBO only.
Comcast's sales rep didn't initially offer me this service, but when we asked for "Internet Plus," she did let us buy it for $67 a month, plus $8 for a modem. This doesn't include a phone landline, but I won't miss that—or all the money I was paying before to subsidize Kardashians.