By Casey Gotcher
With the economy heading in the wrong direction these days, many people are looking at ways they can tighten their belt. I will not attempt to give advice on personal finance, as I seem to overspend myself, much to my wife’s chagrin. What I can offer is a way to embrace some new advances in web and TV technology, to lower your monthly cash burn. If you are like a lot of Americans, you probably spend upwards of $50 a month for Cable TV. In Austin, we seem to pay even more than most communities, with Time Warner gigging us to the tune of ~$75 a month, by the time you get a couple of boxes, pay for PVR, and HD. This is all before premium channels of course. Add HBO, Showtime, etc. and you can end up over $100 a month.
More and more of my friends and co-workers are getting tired of dealing with this cost, not to mention the associated taxes, and hassles the cable company puts you through. They beginning to ask, “Can I live without cable?” I have been looking into the answer to this question for some time now. If you had asked me 2 years ago, I would have said no. At least for most people. Ask me again today, and I would say Yes! Between over the air (OTA, ATSC), and online, you have some good options now that you didn’t have before.
The sites you are going to want to familiarize yourself with are Hulu.com, TV.com, video.aol.com, Fox.com, ABC.com, NBC.com, CBS.com, and Joost.com. These all offer tons of free content for you to watch, on demand. Many times, they even have HD options for better video quality. Some other sites that aggregate from other sites are surfthechannel.com and findinternettv.com. These will help you find what you are looking for, from a variety of sources, including those mentioned above.
In addition to the various websites that offer TV shows, you also have the Netflix option, should you choose to subscribe. What this means, is if you have a compatible Netflix device, such as an XBOX 360, TiVo Series 3, Netflix player by Roku, or a select Blu-Ray player from Samsung or LG, you can watch several movies or TV shows on demand, as part of your monthly subscription. Many Americans subscribe to Netflix any way, as their primary source of DVD rental. This is added goodness at no additional cost.
Below I will outline many of the options and services, that might allow you to get rid of that cable bill, and still catch many of your favorite TV shows.
Here is a sampling of some popular TV shows, and some options on how you might watch them if you did not subscribe to Cable TV.
Lost – ATSC (OTA), Hulu.com, ABC.com (free) iTunes, and Amazon.com ($1.99)
Heroes – ATSC, Hulu.com, NBC.com, iTunes ($), Amazon.com ($)
The Office – ATSC, Hulu.com, NBC.com iTunes ($), Amazon.com ($)
24 – ATSC, Fox.com, Hulu.com (free) iTunes ($), Amazon.com ($)
American Idol – ATSC, (free), excerpts, recaps from Fox.com and American Idol.com
30 Rock – ATSC, Hulu.com, NBC.com (free), iTunes, Amazon.com (1.99 per episode)
Battlestar Galactica – Hulu.com, SciFi.com (free), iTunes ($)
In going through this exercise I found the vast majority of shows I check on had at least one free option for watching. Most had additional premium options, if I actually wanted to purchase the show for archiving purposes. American Idol had the most limited options. If you are in an area where you can get ATSC (over the air HD), you are in good shape. If not, you would be limited to what clips and excerpts they posted on the two associated websites. All in all though, I was pretty pleased with the options I found.
One thing that you might be wondering about is DVR support. How do I record my favorite TV shows? If you purchased a PC in the last couple of years, you might be in luck. For any of the network TV shows, you can use the Over The Air (ATSC or NTSC) broadcast signal to capture. You will need a TV tuner card to enable this experience. I recommend the ATI TV Wonder 650. You can get it as an internal card for desktops, or as a external USB device for notebooks. It offers fantastic quality at a pretty decent price. You can either use their included Catalyst Media Center software, or Microsoft’s Media Center, if your PC supports it.
In addition to using the TV tuner as an option for DVR, you always have the option to buy the episode for $1.99 from Amazon or iTunes. I have even seen software programs advertising the ability to capture Hulu content. One such product is called Replay Media Catcher, from Applian Technologies. I don’t claim to understand all of the legal issues or ramifications surrounding this. That would be up to you to investigate. I am just noting that I have seen these options out there. Some people have also resorted to using P2P or Bittorrent services as a way to catch up on a TV show they missed. I am not endorsing this a legal option, just noting that it has risen in popularity of late. Of the options available to me, I prefer using the ATI TV tuner and Media Center for my own personal needs. I get outstanding picture quality and don’t have to worry about the legalities of downloading shows from websites. When I fail to remember to record the show, Hulu is my life line. I use it frequently.
The other thing that I get asked about is sporting events. NFL football is well represented with OTA (over the air options such as ATSC). NBA basketball is somewhat supported via OTA, especially as the season gets into the second half. Playoff Baseball is usually available over the air, but you may not have as many options for in-season games. In the end, it depends on which sport you are into and how important it is for you to see every game. For additional Online Sports Options, here is what I was able to find.
NBA – NBA League Pass online is available right now for $49 for the rest of this season
MLB – MLB.com – Basic package for $79, and Premium for $109 (HD, PIP, DVR)
NFL – NFL Game Rewind. Weekly for 4.99 or $19.99 for season (no live option)
UFC – PPV’s on sport.yahoo.com/mma for $44, various content, clips on spiketv.com
ESPN – No games online. Highlights, ESPN shows, and excerpts are at espn.com
So as you can see, there are tons of options for current and rerun TV shows out there. You may need to hook up an HTPC, Desktop or Notebook computer to a TV to take advantage of some of these, but the options exist. If you have an LCD or Plasma TV, you will likely have the ability to hook up through a VGA port or HDMI port. Most PC’s support VGA, although HDMI is not as common yet. S-Video is your best option if you have an older Tube/CRT TV. You may notice a little flickering with S-Video, but it works. If you are in the market to buy a new laptop, I recommend an AMD Puma based notebook, such as the HP DV4 or DV5, as they come with an HDMI port.
In our area, we went through a period of time where our cable company lost the ability to display NBC content. This forced us to look for alternatives, as we were right in the middle of Heroes and The Office seasons. We found both OTA/ATSC and Hulu to be sufficient replacements. What this also did was get us in the habit of watching these programs at time of our convenience, and not necessarily when they were originally aired, as Hulu (for example) wouldn’t have the show online until the following day. Now we watch the shows when we get around to it.
We also noticed that watching through Hulu, meant less commercials. For sports, I watch through my Media Center, using ATSC and my ATI tuner. I have also enjoyed using Media Center and the Fusion Media Explorer (from AMD) to watch live TV while I am surfing the web. This is great if you have email to catch up on, but still want to watch something on TV.
All in all, I think most people could get by without a cable subscription these days, and not miss it all that much. While not everything you have with cable will be available to you, I think most people will find the majority of the popular content is.
www.hulu.com The best website bar none, for online TV content
www.tv.com Another site with various TV shows online
www.joost.com Site with a lot of online TV content
http://video.aol.com Has lots to content. Great source for older TV shows and reruns
www.surfthechannel.com Aggregation service. Linked to Hulu, DailyMotion, etc.
www.findinternettv.com Aggregation service
http://www.antennaweb.org for locating and tuning your over the air channels.
I encourage you to sound off with your opinions and other observations.