The first time I ever had cable TV was my freshman year of college. When I was growing up, our TV came through the finicky rabbit-ears on top of the TV. I’d watch shows on PBS and during the summer the FOX MLB Game of the Week (when I got my chores done in time). My TV experience changed dramatically in my freshman dorm room: SportsCenter in the morning, Tom and Jerry during my lunch break, and frequent Seinfeld reruns in the evening.
It’s easy to become accustomed to having such a variety of content available to watch at any time. Then I moved out on my own after college and, wow! I was hit by sticker shock when I saw how much even basic cable would cost me. I went to RadioShack (now out of business) and got my own rabbit-ears for my Indianapolis apartment.
My setup has changed since then. I’m not advocating going without a TV, although I admire that if you’re able. I’m talking about finding alternatives to cable. Most of them aren’t free. But I’m not burdened by a pricy monthly cable bill, and you don’t have to be either. Here’s how.
Over-the-air TV channels
When you think of a TV antenna, do you think of rabbit-ears sitting on top of the TV or a gigantic rooftop antenna that looks like it communicates with UFOs? Modern antennas are often much less unsightly than these. And if you live in or near a city, you can get some TV channels free…and in high definition if you have an HDTV.
I live about 50 miles from most of the transmitters in Indianapolis, so I’ve installed Mohu’s Sky 60 antenna. It’s designed to be outdoors or in an attic, but it’s far from an eyesore (in my opinion). It’s only about 3 feet high and maybe 1.5 feet wide. Since I’m near the edge of this antenna’s range, a few of the channels don’t come in cleanly, and this is made worse when storms move through the area. But we usually get FOX, CBS, ABC, and PBS in high definition, plus some secondary channels like 24/7 radar or oldies TV shows.
For those of you who live closer to a city than we do, there are cheaper and less conspicuous options available. For example, Mohu’s Leaf 30 indoor antenna is about the size of a sheet of paper, only 1/16th in. thick, and can be painted to match its location. Its 30-mile range should be plenty for folks living in a city or suburbs.
I’ve had mixed results with reception at the edge of my antenna’s advertised range, but I’ve been impressed with Mohu’s customer support. There are certainly other options available for HD antennas as well.
If you’re a cable user, you probably have favorite shows on cable channels like History or ESPN. Well, you won’t be able to get those with your antenna. But there are ways to see many of those shows after they’ve aired.
The most common of these are streaming services Netflix and Hulu Plus. Both are monthly subscriptions, and they include episodes of current TV shows, shows that aren’t currently airing, and lots of movies. (We had Netflix for a while, but after some months decided we didn’t watch enough to justify our subscription.)
Other streaming services are also available, such as Amazon Instant Video (free to Amazon Prime members).
Streaming services are available directly through smart TVs or through streaming boxes like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, which plug into your TV through an HDMI cable. Netflix and Hulu Plus are available through almost every smart TV or streaming box, but often you’ll find “channels” specific to a cable network, such as Fox News Channel. Some of these channels will require you to sign in with a cable provider, but others will let you watch recent episodes or clips for free.
Often you can also watch the most recent episodes of cable shows in full online after they’ve aired. You’ll have to keep up with them, because they usually only keep the few most recent episodes available.
If you’re willing to pay more, there are more options coming in the months ahead for “cord-cutters.” HBO, a “premium” cable channel, recently announced it will soon allow people without cable to pay for access to its shows. In addition, Dish TV announced a new standalone service offering live streaming of cable channels such as ESPN, CNN, and Food Network for $20 per month.
Don’t forget discs
Remember when Netflix sent DVDs by mail? Well, they still do! You can sign up for a Netflix DVD or Blu-ray plan separately from a Netflix streaming subscription or along with one.
My wife and I rarely watch more than a few movies per month. For us, Redbox is also a nice option for one-night DVD rental. Redbox.com allows us to find a location nearby that has the movie we want in stock.
If going without cable is starting to sound almost as expensive as cable, don’t forget about great free options! Your local library should have plenty of choices of DVD and Blu-ray movies and TV shows available.
And of course there’s a good chance if you don’t own a movie, you might have a friend who does. We’ve often borrowed movies and TV shows from our friends, and vice versa.
Have you quit cable? What’s your setup like? Let me know below!