Recent posts by David Crow and Mark Kuznicki have me thinking about an analytical approach to cutting cable or satellite TV out of your life. This isn’t a screed about how cable companies are in a heap of trouble. They’re not. But Cutting the Cable and finding yourself a bit heavier in the wallet is a real option depending on who you are and where you live. I will leave my thoughts on potential new media landscapes to later posts (preview: Canada is a much different environment than the US), but Cutting the Cable may be tipping into a non-fringe activity, and I would think Rogers, Bell and others should be watching closely.

Is Television a Utility for You?

Sources vary, but from what I can find, Canadians watch an average of from about 25-30 hours of television a week. Let’s call this 4 hours a day and 120 hours a month, for round numbers’ sake. Depending on who you are, this number may strike you as about right. Between work, two small children, and social and family events I can tell you that number strikes me as crazy high. I don’t have time to watch that much television. I might watch half that number, and even that might be high.

I have been cable free for over 7 years, but friends and family tell me that their cable bills, with various specialty packages range from $100 to $150 per month. Some folks will go even higher with pay per view, on demand viewing and cable box and PVR rentals. Again, for the sake of easy math, call this $120/month or $1/hr for your TV viewing. Even this might start to give you pause, but if you’re a light user like me, it’s more like $2/hour and not worth the money. Take an honest look at your viewing habits and your bill. Is it worth it for you to have the always-on access of the 500 channel universe and the freedom to channel surf in your idle hours?

The last time I actually paid for cable (about 13 years ago. I lived in an apartment where it was included in the rent after that), it was an analogue world and my bill was about $30/month for access to about 35 channels. I watched more TV (say closer to the average of 4 hours a night), there was little in the way of alternatives and I was paying about $.25/hour for access to always-on television. Now there are lots of alternatives to cable, I watch less TV and the always-on access costs about 8x as much on a per hour basis. For me cable TV is not a utility. At this price I don’t need it. You may feel differently. I can’t live without heat and I can’t live without electricity. As well, there are steps I can take to reduce my usage and reduce my gas and electric bills. For cable, those options are limited. You cannot select access to channels a la carte, and even if your usage is low, you pay the same as your neighbour who has the TV going all night from Jeopardy through to the end of Jimmy Fallon.

What do you watch?

If you’re not convinced you can cut the cable just on the basis of how little you may watch, take a look at what you watch. Live sports is probably the clincher in your analysis of whether what you watch determines whether you can ditch cable. Will you watch a terrible baseball game just because it’s on, or because it has an impact on your fantasy pool? Do you need access to all 84 Toronto Maple Leafs games? (Really? Why? Would you slam your finger in a car door 84 times?) It will be hard to replace your sports fix without paying the cable man.

I have an antenna on my roof that enables me to get Hockey Night in Canada in HD and that’s fine for me. My antenna picks up lots of NBC, CBS and Fox NFL broadcasts as well. Baseball and NBA are not dealbreakers for me. Just looking at TSN’s schedule for today (I don’t know how long this schedule will be there, but have a look), it gives new meaning to the word “filler”. A full 15/24 hours of the broadcast schedule is Sportscentre, and most of that is on a loop. There’s also some Darts on there. Seriously. And this is the main network. This isn’t ESPN8, the Ocho. Think of how much “real” sports you’re actually watching on TSN vs. how much filler.

As for sitcoms, dramas, and other specialty programming, much of this is replaceable through other means. Lots of sitcoms and dramas are broadcast free, on Over the Air (OTA) HD broadcasts. This depends on where you live, but in downtown Toronto, I pick up about 15 HD broadcast channels for free. Yes, free, as in too good to be true, FREE beer. If you live in a rural area, or are more than 100 miles from the closest US broadcast tower (I get many stations from Buffalo), you may not get any HD stations, or at best one or two.

Chances are, if your favourite specialty shows from networks like The Food Network, HGTV, TLC and A&E are popular, you can find them on iTunes. If you’re really adventurous, you can try a nerdy solution to mask your Canadian IP address and watch shows on Hulu in the US. CityTV, CTV and Global also put many of their shows on their web sites.

The point is this: If you’re at all serious about this, just take a look at what you watch and ask how much of it can be replaced or easily foregone. I’m willing to bet you will be surprised by the answer. Most of my viewing was easily replaceable by free options. I have foregone some shows, but could easily pay for a few things on iTunes and have more than enough to watch. If you are willing to wade into the morally questionable waters of downloading torrents, it’s likely you can replace 100% of your non-live event (news and sports) viewing.

What is the true cost of replacement?

OK, so you’ve done your research, and are starting to think of what you are going to do with the $1500/year you are suddenly not giving to Rogers or Bell. What’s the investment required to cut your cable for good? Depends on your needs, but if you need to spend more than that one year’s worth of cable fees on subscriptions and equipment, you probably have enough disposable income to just keep your cable and forget about it.

Channel Master 4228

Gear?

  • Outdoor Antenna – If you live in a house and have a decent line of sight to local broadcast towers, get an outdoor antenna. A decent antenna will run you slightly over 100 bucks. You can even pay for professional installation if climbing on your roof gives you the creeps. Even with professional installation, you are looking at a maximum investment of $500
  • Homemade PVR – If you can afford this and you are technically inclined, I would do it. PVRing shows that are already broadcast over the air saves you the cost of buying a season pass on iTunes. Just as an example, two shows we watch, Glee and Modern Family are about $130 combined for a season pass. We PVR the OTA broadcasts and now they are free, again, as in FREE beer (too good to be true).
    There are a ton of resources on how to do this, but from a cost perspective, you may have some of the equipment already. If you don’t have an old PC or Mac kicking around, a $500 PC is more than sufficient to set up as a PVR. If form factor or appearance is a big issue for you, consider a Mac Mini. A Tuner card might run you another 100 bucks. I have a nifty little device call the HDHomeRun from SiliconDust, which takes my antenna signal and converts it to a network stream, meaning any computer in the house can access it.
  • If you do the PVR thing, good software (like seriously, really good) is no more than 100 bucks. Windows 7 comes with Windows Media Center built in, but last I checked, OTA broadcasts in Canada are unsupported. I use SageTV, which isn’t the simplest to set up, but it’s been around for a long time, is well supported and has a large user community in online forums for help.
  • If you roll your own PVR, you probably don’t need an AppleTV, but they’re cheap, small and cool, so why not just get one? 120 bucks in Canada.

Now, none of this is as easy as calling Rogers, getting a box and letting the 500 channel universe wash over your corneas. It takes some research and some work. But it’s fun and it makes you feel good about cutting some unnecessary costs and taking control of your viewing habits. You may also be on the cusp of something bigger. Just 7 years ago, I had no cable and I had to wiggle my rabbit ears just to get the hockey game. Today, I likely have about 50 times the programming I used to, and still pay very little other than the amortized cost of about $1000 worth of gear over several years. Very Cool!

Resources:
Gear
Apple TV
HDHomeRun
Search for HTPC (Home Theatre PC) on Engadget
Digital Home Canada’s HTPC forums
Sage TV

Over the Air TV in Canada
Remote Central
TV Fool – Check for available stations in your Postal Code
Digital Home Canada’s OTA forums