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Cutting costs by cutting the cord: an experiment with free TV

Every time I've written about the annoyances of subscription TV services--like expensive, inflexible programming packages and expensive, inept tuners and recorders--I've seen readers post comments to the effect of "You don't need to put up with that: Ditch your pay service and switch to free, over-the-air TV and free Internet viewing."

So that's what my wife and I did last week.

We'd been thinking of taking this step for a while, as our once-cheap Dish Network bundle had crept up to nearly $70 a month. Other options from Comcast, DirecTV and Verizon would not have been that much cheaper over time--though at least those other services, unlike Dish, carry Nationals games in high definition.

Then a mysterious failure of our Dish-provided DVR wiped out all of our recordings right after we paid about $1,000 more for repainting our house than we'd expected (who knew those columns at the bottom of the porch steps had rotted so badly?). With the Nats off the air, it seemed as good a time as ever to try quitting pay TV.

So I called up Dish and closed my account--I told both the account rep and the sales rep who called a few days later that they'd have a shot at regaining our business if they carried the Nats in HD and let us pay for only the channels we watch--and then unplugged the DVR and climbed out on the roof to remove the "LNBF" antenna from the dish.

This was a somewhat easy thing for us to do. We don't watch that much TV in the first place, and most of what we do view is on the networks anyway--I've never gotten into any of the cooking shows, and the last time I watched The Daily Show live was when my friend Robert Schlesinger showed up there to flack his book. Meanwhile, our home is close enough to the District to allow for good digital reception with just a pair of rabbit ears on both the TV and the DVD recorder below it; we can also catch up on shows through such free or paid Internet sources as Hulu, Apple's iTunes, Amazon and Netflix.

But we will have to deal with two issues.

One is sports programming. While we can watch the World Series and Redskins games in high-def over the air (it's fair to ask why I'd want to view the latter), most games are available only on pay channels like ESPN, Comcast SportsNet or MASN, leaving just radio as an option in our home.

We can deal with this over the winter (like a lot of Georgetown alumni, I've grown accustomed to Rich Chvotkin's... effusive play-by-play coverage). It will be a bigger issue in the spring, when the Nats resume play. I'd like to see MASN follow the example of other regional sports networks and offer its coverage to local viewers online--this network obviously needs all the audience it can get--but it hasn't exactly been an early adopter of technology. Then again, Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler call an excellent game of baseball on the radio.

The other problem we have is WUSA, the Washington area's CBS affiliate. With ABC affiliate WJLA, it switched its digital broadcasts from a strong UHF signal to a weaker VHF signal on June 12, causing numerous reception problems. Since then, WJLA has boosted its transmission power, but WUSA's broadcast remains far weaker. Sometimes, it's come in perfectly at home; other times, the TV can't even detect a signal. Maybe this station will follow WJLA's example and upgrade its broadcast; maybe I'll have to get a better antenna or put one in the attic or on the roof. Maybe some sports bars will get some extra business from me in March... well, assuming my Hoyas are playing any worthwhile hoops in March.

We'll just have to see how these things work out. In the meantime, I'm certain of one thing: I can find other worthwhile uses for $70 a month.

Have you made this switch? How has that been working out for you?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 29, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  TV  
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Comments

What are you doing for a DVR? The DVD recorder? I don't know much about DVD recorders, but that seems like too much trouble for me.

I can't go back to watching live TV. I do own a ReplayTV, but I don't use it anymore because it doesn't do HDTV. I have Verizon FIOS with HD and their built-in DVR. What are the options for DVR for over-the-air TV?

Posted by: kjhealey | October 29, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Haven't had cable since I moved to Ohio from Occoquan. Haven't missed it a bit - we get plenty of PBS reception and are more likely to watch dvds anyways (but then we're not sports fans). Why would I spend money on things I don't have time to watch anyways?

Posted by: borealis998 | October 29, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

My big complaint about over the air is that WETA and WHUT disappeared for me in the digital switch no matter what antenna I use.

For sports though, your ISP may already be charging you for ESPN 360 which is a decent service and has lots of games (especially college football) but doesn't tie in smoothly to either windows media center or boxee (or myth) so it still kind of stinks for viewing on a TV instead of a computer. I suspect that's intentional.

Posted by: hesaid | October 29, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I made the switch 4 months ago from comcast (worst company in the f-ing world) to over-the-air TV and LOVE the extra money in our pocket. We are not big boob-tube watchers in the first place, and after the first month you don't even miss the 200 channels. There were some big hurdles, but I think I have got past them all. ***As a side-note, I am in the unique situation of having my widescreen tv also serve as my computer monitor and there isn't a loss in space (office vs. tv room) with my options***

DC United Games - bought MLS direct for $19.99, allows you to stream every MLS game live or watch them at your own convenience through the archives. WORTH EVERY PENNY!

Pardon The Interruption - I subscribed to the podcast of the show, its audio only (there is an option to watch the last segment) but it does the trick and not much is lost through the translation.

Redskins - Only kinks are the monday night games on ESPN, and we call those bar nights.

Sports - ESPN360 does an excellent job on showing college football, international soccer, NBA basketball (as per opening night) and pretty much anything else but the NFL. For any event "big" enough for alternate cable (USA, TNT etc) , they usually do a good job of streaming on the 'net and in HD! US Open tennis comes to mind.

Wizards, Capitals and Nationals - still looking for viable outlets, but the season is young.

Everything else is Netflix-ed, Hulu-ed or broadcast. If you seriously think about it, is your TV watching experience really worth $1000/year?

Posted by: The_Dude_Abides1 | October 29, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I've been very pleased with my decision to go without a pay TV services for the last several years. The advent of DTV and the growth in online choices like Hulu and Netflix has just made it better.
The sports issue is a real problem. As one of DC's many transplants, though, I'm able to watch my Phillies with an MLB.TV subscription, which wouldn't work for the Nats or O's because of black-out rules, unfortunately. The NFL's online audio subscription is nice when the Eagles aren't on broadcast TV.

Posted by: jcydc | October 29, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Agreed with The_Dude_Abides on MLS direct -- great value, and lets you watched matches live or archived as if you had a DVR.

Posted by: iammrben1 | October 29, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I made the switch about a year ago and couldn't be happier. I download a few favorite shows via P2P networks, which is technically illegal, unfortunately. I'd readily pay a monthly fee to download legally, but no such service exists yet. At least not that I'm aware of...

I am a little worried about the World Cup next year. I am a soccer fan and don't know how I am going to catch any of the games live from the comfort of my couch (except for the final, perhaps). My ISP doesn't give me access to ESPN360, so that's not an option for me.

Posted by: shmoozer | October 29, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

literally just ditched directv. was very hard because they offered very large $ incentive with no strings to stay. been happy, save for our crappy internet. will probably have to switch to something faster.

ROB - the solution for you nats problem is to convince MLB.tv to allow in network games. I've read somehwere (was it here?) that they have begun to allow for purchase or viewing of games that you are in the local broadcast area for. this should be encouraged. Especially with MLB.tv being availaible on Roku, would solve your (and mine)baseball watching problem. other sports are a problem, but not having the option to watch other games on ESPN certainly pleases my spouse!

Posted by: hermanmp | October 29, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

For kjhealey, the TiVo HD DVR works great with over-the-air TV. You can connect the TiVo to your DSL and download Netflix and Amazon movies directly to it.

As many suggested Hulu and ESPN360 (available as part of your Verizon DSL plan) can also fill many gaps that cable or a dish were providing.

Posted by: wdnewho1 | October 29, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

A good antenna is very important with digital TV. A nice selection can be found here http://www.summitsource.com/index.php?cPath=47_57_60&sort=2a&filter_id=2

Posted by: longsun | October 30, 2009 5:14 AM | Report abuse

On June 12, many stations (channel 7 and 9) in our area went from UHF (7.1, 9.1) back to 7 and 9 with a 90% reduction in power. On September 18, channel 7 got permission from the FCC to double its power output. Channel 9 cannot increase is power because it would interfere (I believe) with channel 9s in NC and NY. If you have a rooftop antenna and get most channels (except for intermittent in-and-out) you should be able to use a signal booster. There are good signal boosters from Motorola, Winegard, Channel Master and others. Check reviews of other brands because many do not work nearly as well as claimed. The booster amplifier can be plugged into a wall outlet near your TV and connected to the antenna cable prior to where it plugs into the TV. If you already have a booster amp, then you may need to raise your antenna and/or get an antenna with higher gain (i.e., much bigger). Also check your signal at TVfool.com and antennaweb.org. Each gives excellent advice on what channels you should be able to receive at your location.

Posted by: jmjm1 | October 30, 2009 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Two additional subtle things for those of your considering antennas. Over the air, VHF carries twice as well as lower UHF (14-35) that in turn carries twice as well as upper UHF (36-51). Both channel 4 and 5 arrive at my location from almost exactly the same direction. Channel 4 broadcasts on UHF 48 and Channel 5 at UHF 36. I never have difficulty with Channel 5 but have intermitent problems with UHF Channel 4 because it is in high UHF (but approximately the same power as Channel 5). This discrepancy additionally holds for long (100 ft) cable runs that many people will have. With a 100 ft run, you can have 2dbi (or more signal decrease) with VHF, 4dbi decrease with lower UHF, and 6dbi decrease with upper UHF.

Posted by: jmjm1 | October 30, 2009 7:24 AM | Report abuse

Because all of the idiosyncracies, many individuals recommend having a professional install a rooftop antenna and related equipment. If you think you can save $300, then the rule-of-thumb is that you may be better having a professional. You cannot take back an antenna that does not work well. You may not be able to take back some of the other equipment. You may need to do very careful checking on whether a rooftop antenna that the manufacturer claims is for both UHF and VHF actually picks up VHF. All Winegard and Channel Master antennas work as stated. Some of the highly regarded square antennas that are excellent for UHF do not pull in VHF.

Posted by: jmjm1 | October 30, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Rob, what do you do for high-speed internet access? I get the cheapest TV package available from Comcast and as a result get a discount on my internet service. If I discontinued the TV, the price for the internet service would increase more than the money I spend on their TV service.

Posted by: jmyers8888 | October 30, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I've never wanted cable/satellite TV, but have been happy for several years now with broadcast digital TV, Netflix, & a DVR (Panasonic) from Costco. After the digital mandate this year, a group of additional stations appeared, too!

I have a Macbook hooked up to my HDTV. I recommend the free Hulu Desktop program; it is better for navigating Hulu programs (than going to hulu.com from a browser) and it works with my Macbook remote control. Unfortunately that remote doesn't work with Netflix streaming movies, so I have to walk over to the laptop to pause it. I know, poor baby....

You may laugh at this, but one of my best investments was a single box of reusable DVD-RAM disks for recording tv; with their "time-slip playback" I can watch other shows on the disk during a new recording, or even the the same show being recorded. DVD-RAM technology may be "failed" in general, and it is proprietary to Panasonic (?), but it works a treat with the DVR. If I want to watch a different station than is being recorded, I switch to TV alone. Its tuner picks up every station except - coincidentally with you, Rob - our local CBS affiliate. (I'm nowhere near D.C.)

One thing puzzles me, though, and that is that I have to use VGA cables rather than HDMI. I tried connecting the Macbook with HDMI but the picture was terrible; VGA works well, but it requires a separate cable for the sound. I'd hoped that HDMI would carry both sound & video, but it didn't work.

About a year ago Netflix made streaming possible for Macs (for a long time they required Windows laptops), and things have been great since then.

Regrets, I've had a few -- actually just a couple. I don't have the equivalent of a mouse that I could operate from the couch. If I did, I'd might view YouTube or read e-mail from the couch. My Apple Remote works with iTunes and Hulu media(movies/songs/video) but it's not a mouse. I don't have Turner Classic Movies. Darn -- Netflix doesn't carry some old movies. That's my equivalent of your "sports," Tom. Finally, although OTA HD is more dazzling than cable's compressed transmission, the DVR does not record in high definition (do any of them?); also, HD programs through my television's own tuner look slightly better than programs viewed via the DVR's tuner. The difference is tiny.

I've just not bothered to seek out a remote-control mouse, if one exists. And I actually can retrieve webmail on my tv through the Wii, so everything is hunky-dory. To sum up, if you've got wireless internet, you've got some good alternatives to cable/satellite.

Posted by: 5232news | October 30, 2009 9:39 PM | Report abuse

Can't believe I've returned to post again, but I was just checking my Halloween playlist on iTunes and realized that tomorrow I'll use my laptop to play them through the television. Why? For the visualizer in iTunes! It's fun to have the visualizers appear on the TV screen as the music plays. Of course you could also show photos or a presentation instead of visualizers, but the point is that people who have already connected their laptops to televisions can do more than tv- or movie-related things. They're perfectly positioned to simulate a jukebox ("Werewolves of London," Ghostbusters," "Monster Mash") or an old radio (with OTR Halloween broadcasts). "War of the Worlds," anybody?

Posted by: 5232news | October 30, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

@ 5232news: the tivo hd does a magnificent job of recording HD OTA. If you should need to go back to cable (shudder) it does well with cable systems too.

@ jmjm1: Best Buy does carry tv antennas and you can return them if they don't work out. I found the antenna direct db2 works well 23 miles from Orlando's antenna complex. Of course it's pretty flat here.

If you try it out do it while on the ground, no sense in climbing on the roof if it doesn't work. A pole lamp will hold the db2 while you aim it. 20 feet of rg6 (cheaper rg59 doesn't carry uhf as well) cable through an open window will give you a good idea of what you can get. Once you decide you can drop cable you can disconnect the cable from the house, attach the antenna to the house wiring.

Monoprice.com has cables very cheap. I'm watching hulu right now via hdmi from my desktop.

Posted by: KevinFromCentralFlorida | October 30, 2009 11:46 PM | Report abuse

Since in my distant suburb getting good antenna TV reception is more hope than possibility, I buy the minimal basic cable service (and their highest speed cable internet) plus Netflix Roku for downloading movies and documentaries and find this combination most enjoyable. The best TV series can be seen via Netflix, these arriving in one day, with the downloads being instant. Most current TV is terrible, whether cable or regular channel, and the ads destroy the enjoyment of the good shows, ads thankfully being absent from the Netflix.

Posted by: byron11 | October 31, 2009 2:36 AM | Report abuse

I cut the cable 4 months ago. I miss sports (college football) and the act of channel-surfing. I did go with Netflix and P2P. I like Netflix for the movie/show recommendations as much as watching DVDs instead of downloads (which are slightly less user-friendly on my system).

Posted by: wheels4me | October 31, 2009 3:11 AM | Report abuse

Has anyone tried the FTA [free to air] satellite receivers ? All their channels are free.
http://www.tech-faq.com/fta-receiver.shtml

Posted by: TennesseeJim | October 31, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

"I've just not bothered to seek out a remote-control mouse, if one exists."
http://www.amazon.com/Targus-Ultra-Wireless-Mouse-AMW03US/dp/B00084YC7K

http://www.apple.com/magicmouse/

Posted by: wvp123 | October 31, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

All of this is fine if you live within signal reach of broadcast TV. If you are outside that area and have high definition TV, you are limited to a pay TV service. Where I live it's either Comcast or one of the satellite services. (No FIOS here, yet.) Satellite services don't offer a fast Internet service and DSL is not good enough so that limits me to Comcast, the only cable company in this township. Their least expensive package of High Speed Internet and HDTV requires a set top box and is at least $100 per month. That leaves out the phone service. For an extra $15 per month they will add on unlimited digital phone service which is a good deal as long as the promotion lasts. I expect FIOS to arrive next year, but that will only offer faster Internet and more TV channels with no cost savings. The answer is more competition!!!

Posted by: NJAnalyst | October 31, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

@KevinFromCentralFlorida, thanks for the HD tip. Am envious that you connect your laptop via HDMI. Tried 2 cables on mine, failed; gotta be a limitation of my Macbook, tv cnx fine w/other HDMI peripherals. Agree w/you on Monoprice!

@wvp123,thank you. I described what I wanted poorly. I'm imagining a remote control that I can point at my laptop, then click on my laptop's desktop/app/whatever, such as the way the Wii remote works; the desktop would be displayed on the tv for guidance,but remote-mouse wd be aimed at the laptop. To act as a mouse without having to be put on a surface/mousepad. Your link to the Apple mouse was interesting, though: 33-ft range, but mousepad needed, not a "point & shoot" (Amazon item was unavailable.) Maybe I'll really search now, just hasn't been a priority. If this rings a bell, please share, and thanks.

@NJAnalyst,even without OTA signals there are lots of TV items on Hulu, Fancast, network sites, and station sites, in effect giving you tv programs without tv signals. Understand if you need local news live or other local shows. But so many (nonsports) shows are available online, from PBS/Masterpiece Theater to South Park, that I can't think of anything I want that's not online. Maybe children's channels, for some people? In sum, anyone who hasn't looked at the internet offerings lately will be surprised at the quantity of streaming programs.

Posted by: 5232news | October 31, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

@NJAnalyst, I missed this: "DSL service is not good enough." So sorry. If you can't get unbundled fast internet in your area my cheery "streaming is great" message is beside the point. In my area there is not much competition, either (AT&T dsl vs Comcast cable) but the DSL works. Now I'm wondering, does your DSL have a lot of downtime, or is it not as fast as advertised?

Posted by: 5232news | October 31, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

@5232news, My local telco, CenturyLink (aka Embarq,Sprint, United) will not provide unbundled DSL. The fastest DSL they offer is 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps and that is bundled with local service (Note: Long Distance calls extra!). For this reason, my options are very limited at the present.

Posted by: NJAnalyst | November 1, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

@NJAnalyst, now that I consider it, my phone & internet are bundled together, but it suits my particular need. I don't have the fastest pkg, but dsl streaming here looks good at speeds MUCH lower than 5Mbps (Netflix calls 1.5 adequate but recommends 3.) Just good luck? Can't say.

Certainly I'd prefer unbundled broadband and deplore the unholy trinity of "phone/tv/broadband." Am really happy without pay-TV. I have good TV/OTA but even without it, internet tv shows would be a good substitute (for me).

You said a mouthful when you wrote: "The answer is more competition." True that.

Lots of subjects here for Rob. Rob, could we have a status report later on your experiment with free tv?

Posted by: 5232news | November 1, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I use EyeTV with my iMac. Also watch hulu, and many pbs shows on their websites. Also any missed network shows on their websites. Free. I occasionally have to rescan the channels. Can't comment on sports, but here in Pasadena, there are many foreign language channels that carry sports, including soccer, so for soccer fans the over air might pick up that in DC.

Posted by: kmjones1 | November 1, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

Just wanted to say thanks for all the informative comments here. (Some of y'all wouldn't happen to spend a lot of time on AVS Forum, would you?) And, yes, I'll post an update or two here on the progress of this experiment.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | November 2, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Rob, knowing that you live in Arlington, I'll hazard a guess that you've got obstruction issues that don't show up even with TVFool. You mentioned attic installation as possible, so you have a couple of options as I see it:
1) get a smaller (relatively speaking) VHF-only antenna for the attic, and combine it with your existing (Terk?) indoor antenna using a special coupler (like the UVSJ from Pico Macom) that isolates VHF and UHF inputs.
2) ditch the table-top antenna entirely and go for a modest-gain VHF/UHF antenna for the attic.

In both cases, I would avoid pre-amps because strength is likely not your issue. Multipath and noise likely are.

Yes, I do participate in the AVS Forums...

Posted by: KGDave | November 5, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

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