How I cut the cord to subscription TV!

I recently reviewed our family budget trying to find areas to trim the fat, and one of the things that just ate me up was how much money we were paying for subscription TV.  Our monthly TV payment was $115 for DirectTV and I can assure you I rarely, if ever, got $115 worth of use out of it!

A friend of mine suggested that I look into a Roku, which is essentially a small device that connects to your WIFI connection and serves content to your TV via the internet.  You can install scores of “channels” on it, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, NASA channel, Pandora, CNet, and many more.  Many channels are free, but some premium channels as Netflix and Hulu Plus have their own subscription fees.  In addition to the official channels offered in the Roku Channel Store, there are many private channels that you can install. Here is a list of private channels that I came across that were compiled in April 2011.  You can piece together a channel list that suits your needs.  I decided to purchase the Roku 2 XD, which offered everything I wanted for a one-time payment of $79 with no recurring fee for a subscription or anything.  With just a power cord and an HDMI cable, I was in business.

One thing that occurs when you switch to a Roku, or internet TV in general, is that you tend to quit using your TV as background noise.  With subscription TV, my family had a tendency to leave the TV on until something vaguely interesting came on and they would sit and watch it.  Instead, under this model, we actually seek out the programs that we want to watch and watch them when we wish.  Using Hulu Plus, we have access to entire series of many of the shows we would typically watch.  Often there is a several day delay between the live program run and the time that it shows up on Hulu, but considering how frequently we would previously DVR shows we wanted to watch and view them much later, very little has changed here.  With Netflix, we have access to the entire Netflix library on demand.

Roku home screen showing channel selection with Netflix focused.

Even with these pieces in place, I knew that I didn’t want to be totally cut off from live streaming TV.  I still plan on watching every Dallas Cowboys game as it happens, breaking news, certain live shows, and more.  Subsequently I decided to get an HD TV antenna so that I could watch all OTA (over the air) channels as well.  I mounted this antenna, which I found at BestBuy, to my roof using the existing coax in my house.  Depending on how close you are to the broadcast towers, you might be able to get by with less of an antenna.  You can help find your exact needs by putting your address in at www.antennaweb.org, which will tell you the distances you are from various stations and tell you the exact compass heading that you should point your antenna.  If you plan on splitting the line to multiple TVs, you may want to look into using a line amplifier (around $20)  to reduce attenuation.  Considering the fact that I am currently only serving one TV, I haven’t installed an amplifier at the splitter, but when I bring more TVs online in my house I may opt for doing so.

As a side note, I found it kind of interesting determining which ends of the coax on the outside of the house went to specific rooms in the house.  That is probably a post worthy of its own space!

Once the antenna was installed, I was shocked by how many OTA channels there are!  For example, on standard cable/satellite and formerly analog antenna before that, my local channel 8 WFAA (ABC affiliate) consisted of a single channel.  Now that channel exists as 8-1, and there is now 8-2  which is constant weather from Ch 8, and 8-3 which is… well, I don’t even know yet, but it’s some kind of programming also provided by WFAA.  I have found that many of the channels have sub-channels like this.  After letting the TV scan and find channels, we were going through all that it found, and my kids started watching 62-2 -  a children’s channel called Qubo.  Until now, I always thought Qubo was a subscription channel, and I had no idea there were OTA channels that high up the dial.

I have also found that the picture using the HD antenna is stunning! From what I have read on that topic, due to the compression techniques that the cable/satellite companies use for broadcasting, you will never see the picture quality that you can from a digital antenna.

So, what is missing?  One thing that I plan on adding is a DVR solution for broadcast TV.  I haven’t really figured out exactly what I am going to do here, but it seems that there are numerous options.  They do sell standalone DVR units like this, but I am considering setting up a media server.  That way I can pretty much play anything I want from the media server, through the Roku using something like Plex or Firefly.

Another point wort mentioning is that not all network shows are available on Hulu Plus, although almost all that we have been interested in are there.  What many people apparently do is subscribe to torrent sites which download specific shows for you once they become available (usually almost immediately after airing).  They are automatically placed onto your media server and then you can watch them via your Roku.  I can’t speak to the legality of this approach, but it is a method that I have seen nonetheless.  I believe that if I have a DVR like I listed above, this would eliminate much of the need for this approach.

Bottom line… with both Netflix and Hulu Plus, my total monthly expense is now amazingly under $15.00.  Amazingly I am saving $1,200 per year over what I was spending previously!  If there is a trade off in usability, and many would argue that there isn’t, it is FAR outweighed by the savings over time.