The long list of cable channels that you never watch. The skyrocketing bills — and the battles with your provider's customer-service department to return them to earth. The fees for everything from equipment installation to service calls. Those are just a few of the reasons you should consider cable TV alternatives.
See Also: 8 Ways to Stream from the Web to Your TV
Dealing with a cable or satellite-TV provider is frustrating — and costly. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the average cable bill is $62 a month, or $744 a year. And prices can go a lot higher depending on the plan you choose. You could be happier (or at least richer) if you ditched cable and took advantage of the growing options for watching TV shows and movies online instead.
And yet we have a complicated relationship with our cable providers. A recent survey by CouponCabin.com found that 45% of U.S. adults think that cable TV is a waste of money. But even though the alternatives to paid TV are becoming more compelling, most people are resisting change. About 86% of households with a television set still subscribe to a "multichannel video service," such as cable or satellite TV, says Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group. Subscriptions have declined by just one percentage point over the past couple of years. Instead of replacing cable, many customers are adding Internet video options to their palette. "It's more of a supplement than a substitute," says Leichtman.
That means people are likely spending more money on video than the numbers show. But unless you are addicted to watching Mad Men on Sunday nights or you're an avid sports fan, you can probably get your TV fix from the Web via streaming video for a lot less money. The usual suspects, such as Netflix and Hulu, continue to provide access to large collections of movies and previously aired TV shows.
And a start-up called Aereo is testing the waters for streaming more TV online. For $8 a month, subscribers can view programming live from major broadcast networks and local channels and record shows to view later. Aereo is available in a few cities now, and it has plans to expand. The company has clashed in court with broadcast networks about the legality of its business, but so far Aereo has prevailed.
Methods of slinging Web video beyond your PC screen are expanding, too. Google, for example, recently introduced a $35 device the size of a USB flash drive called Chromecast. Plug it in to any HDTV and you can stream content wirelessly from compatible services, including Netflix and YouTube. Your computer, tablet or smart phone acts as a controller (see the box at left for more on Web-to-TV streaming devices). Video services are also responding to customers' increasing appetite for viewing programs on their mobile devices by offering smart-phone and tablet applications.
Find New TV Episodes
For many, watching TV without paying for it means going back to basics: setting up an antenna to pick up programming on local broadcast stations. Go to www.antennaweb.org, enter your address or zip code, and the site will pull a list of available TV stations as well as the type of outdoor antenna required to get a signal from each. (Bonus: You may find that your HDTV reception using an antenna is sharper than with cable or satellite.) You should be able to get stations that have strong signals using an indoor antenna (a good one may cost $40); for weaker signals, you'll need a good outdoor antenna ($50 to $100 or more).
Hulu.com is the hub for viewing TV shows from participating networks online. Typically, you can stream the five most recent episodes of a show's current season free, and programs usually pop up on the site the day after they air on TV. (Fans of Fox shows have to wait eight days after an episode's air date to watch it online — except for subscribers to eligible cable or satellite services.)
Upgrade to the $8 monthly Hulu Plus service and you'll get access to a wider selection of TV and movies — including full seasons of TV shows — as well as the ability to stream many shows through compatible devices, such as smart phones and the Roku box. If you can't find a show free on Hulu, check the station's Web site (current-season episodes of some CBS shows, for instance, are at CBS.com but not Hulu.com).
If you can't stream a TV show free, look into buying episodes from services such as Amazon Instant Video or iTunes. You may be able to purchase the full season of a show for less. For instance, buying the 22 episodes of Scandal's second season in HD on iTunes, at $3 a pop, would total $66; buy the full season and you'll pay only $30. Through Amazon Instant Video, order a TV Pass to get discounted episodes of current-season TV shows as soon as they are released.
Netflix's $8 monthly streaming service doesn't carry new, current-season episodes of popular network and cable-TV shows (though you'll find previous seasons of many programs). But Netflix has waded into creating original shows, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, that have proved popular with viewers. (In fact, the critically acclaimed House of Cards is now on sale through other streaming services.) And rather than use the standard model of releasing new episodes periodically, Netflix has made new full seasons available all at once.