Cord cutting simply means canceling your pay-TV service. Cord cutting has been a growing trend since 2009, when over-the-air broadcast signals switched from analog to digital. People began to realize that they could now get the vast majority of their favorite TV shows in beautiful HD using a simple television antenna rather than paying monthly fees to a TV provider.
Today, cord cutting is accelerating due to several factors such as the emergence of DVRs for TV antennas, which provides a very cable-like viewing experience, and the existence of streaming services that provide access to the Cable TV shows that are not available from a television antenna, and for a lot less money than what you would typically spend with a pay-TV service.
There's a lot of misleading information out there. Know your facts.
Consumers are inundated with inaccurate information when it comes to cutting the cord. To be clear, cord cutting is not subscribing to a lot of different streaming services that would end up costing you nearly as much as the TV service that you already have. And cord cutting is not subscribing to a contractual TV service that happens to be delivered over the Internet instead of Cable or Satellite. Cord cutting means no contracts and paying only for what you want.
A Few Common Myths About Cord Cutting
MythIf I cut the cord I have to give up live TV.
FactYou will have live TV, including all of the major broadcast networks, your local news and sports.
MythIf I cut the cord I have to give up the DVR.
FactYou can own your DVR. Some require monthly fees and contracts, some do not.
MythIf I cut the cord I have to give up my Cable shows.
FactYou can get all of your favorite Cable shows and pay only for what you want.
MythIf I cut the cord I have to stream everything.
Fact47 of the top 50 TV shows are available with a television antenna, no streaming required.
The Essential Cord Cutting Ingredients
If you've researched cord cutting you've likely found a lot of advice about what streaming services you should have. In actuality, a TV antenna is the most important part of any cord cutting solution and streaming services are secondary.
A TV antenna gives you live TV, the most-watched TV programs, your local news, and you don't have to stream the content from the Internet. The benefits are:
Avoid data caps and overage fees
Don't lose TV if the Internet goes out
Amazing picture quality
If you're already using a DVR you won't want to give it up, and if you're not currently using a DVR it would be worth your while to check it out.
A DVR for antenna users provides the same capabilities as a Cable or Satellite DVR:
Pause and record live TV
Set timers to record shows and series
Skip through commercials
Record a show while watching another
There are several good DVR options available for TV antennas and we'll discuss them in more detail below.
You're going to get all of the TV shows from the major broadcast networks for free through your TV antenna. But what about your favorite Cable network shows? That's where streaming services come in. In addition to Cable network shows, streaming services provide access to tons of movies and documentaries, too.
You don't need a bunch of streaming services to be a cord cutter. Because you have a TV antenna, you'll likely use only a few.
The Cord Cutting Guide
Now that you have some background information, let's explore your TV viewing needs to help you determine if cord cutting is right for you.
What TV shows will I get?
Broadcast TV Shows
First, let's look at all the TV shows you're going to get for free with a TV antenna, no streaming required.
In addition to the major broadcast networks listed above, your TV antenna will provide many other channels depending on your location. This includes movies, classic TV, kids programming, news, shopping networks and much more.
Current Season Cable TV Shows
Cable TV shows are available from streaming services in two distinct categories: Current and Past seasons.
Now we need to determine which current season Cable TV shows you can't live without. Current season means that you want to watch the episodes of the show as they air. Cable TV shows are anything not available on the broadcast networks that you looked at in the section above. They are shows on AMC, USA, HBO, Showtime, History, etc. For example, The Walking Dead, which airs on AMC, is a Cable network show. Mr. Robot, which airs on USA, is a Cable network show. Vikings, which airs on History, is a Cable network show.
Let's pretend that your list of current season Cable TV must-haves is:
The Walking Dead
Game of Thrones
The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Keeping Up With The Kardashians
As a good rule of thumb, a season pass for a current Cable network show from a streaming service such as Vudu or Amazon costs about $25 for the HD version. The SD version costs less, about $17.
For our calculation purposes we will assume that you want to purchase the HD version, although the SD version is still good quality if you want to save a few bucks.
7 Current Season Cable Shows x $25 = $175 Per Year
Now you have all of the broadcast network content from the TV antenna for free, and your favorite Cable shows for just $175 per year. Compare that with how much per year you are currently paying for TV service. For most people it's around $1,000 or more.
NOTE: When you buy a season pass for a TV show you are not renting it, you will own it and be able to watch all of the episodes again any time you want. Everything is stored in your Vudu or Amazon library, and the $175 per year is spread out depending on when your Cable shows start airing throughout the year. You don't pay for it all in one chunk.
What about news?
Your TV antenna has you covered for local news - morning, afternoon and evening editions from your local broadcast stations, live. You will also get the live daily national news shows from the major broadcast networks including Today, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News and CBS Evening News. Your TV antenna also provides any special live news broadcasts such as the State of the Union and breaking news.
Cable news shows, in their live TV format, are not available from a TV antenna. All of the majors, including Fox News, CNN and Bloomberg, have free streaming apps that include video clips of daily news broadcasts, access to regular news shows on demand, and some live streaming options.
What about sports?
Now we come to the one thing that's still a challenge for cord cutters, depending on what sports and teams you want to watch. Sports programming is by far the most expensive content on TV. For the average U.S. pay-TV subscriber, about 40% of your monthly programming cost is due to the sports content that is carried on the various cable network channels in your TV package.
Due to the out-of-control costs of sports programming, many sports have disappeared from broadcast TV to find new homes on Cable network channels and Cable-only regional sports networks, meaning you can't watch them without a pay-TV subscription.
Happily, the NFL has remained committed to airing local market and national games on free broadcast TV networks, so your TV antenna is going to provide ample football coverage! You'll get Sunday games, Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football. The only thing missing is Monday Night Football, which is only available on ESPN. There's now a great solution for cord cutters to get ESPN at a low cost and we'll explain more in the Streaming Services section below.
When it comes to MLB, NBA, NHL, Golf, NASCAR and College Sports, they are not as easy to come by. Each will air some national programming on broadcast TV throughout the year and you'll get those from your TV antenna. However, if you regularly follow these sports on Cable network channels and don't want to give that up, your options as a cord cutter are somewhat limited and sometimes costly. We will explore some options in the Streaming Services section below.
IMPORTANT: If you regularly watch sports on a Regional Sports Network, such as Fox Sports, Altitude, SportsNet, Pac-12, Big 10 or Mid Atlantic Sports Network, and you don't want to give up that programming (largely MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and College Sports), you should think twice about cutting the cord. Trying to duplicate that content in its entirety from streaming services will end up costing you as much as your current pay-TV service.
Which Streaming Services Should I Use?
You don't need a lot of streaming services to satisfy your TV needs. Most cord cutters use two, sometimes three services and there are specific benefits to each one. We recommend the following services because they provide the most value to cord cutters and they are readily available nationwide. Here are the main services you will likely want and why:
This one's a must-have, folks. For a very reasonable price you get access to a huge library of movies, TV shows, documentaries and award-winning original content.
With the exception of original content, Netflix does not provide access to new-release movies or current TV shows, they are about a season behind. Netflix also has access to 4K (or UltraHD) content for many of its programs, if you happen to have a 4K-capable TV.
$8 to $12 per month, depending on your needs. No contract, cancel at any time.
For Amazon Prime members, this is your option for getting current season Cable shows and new-release movies. If you are not a Prime member, Vudu offers this without a subscription. However, Prime members also get access to a large library of movies, TV shows (including past HBO seasons) and award-winning original content.
There are many other reasons to consider being an Amazon Prime member, including free two-day shipping, a vast free music library, free books from the Kindle library, and unlimited digital photo storage. Yes, unlimited!
View content for free with subscription, rent or purchase TV and movies.
For cord cutters who are not Amazon Prime members, Vudu is a fantastic service for getting your current season Cable shows and new-release movies. In addition, Vudu has frequent sales for all kinds of movies. At very little cost you will find yourself with a great movie library filled with all of your favorites.
Added bonus: Vudu lets you upload your DVDs to your Vudu library for a small fee. You won't need a DVD player any more and your movies are safe, secure and accessible from anywhere, on any device, from Vudu's cloud.
Sling TV is live Cable TV without a contract. Yes, you read that correctly. Sling TV is a small bundle of the most popular Cable channels, including ESPN, TNT, TBS, History, AMC, A&E, Food Network, HGTV, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, CNN and more. For sports lovers in particular, the combination of your TV antenna with ESPN, TNT and TBS from Sling TV is going to get you a lot of great NFL, MLB and NBA content. Sling TV has additional add-on packages and a big On Demand library, too. There's no contract, so you have nothing to lose by trying it out!
View live and On Demand content for free with subscription, rent movies.
About Internet Speed
You don't need rocket-fast Internet speed to stream high-quality video. 25 Mbps will be sufficient for most households and it's normally available at around $40 per month. If you use a lot of connected devices at one time, you may want to consider boosting that speed to 50 or even 75 Mbps for about $10 more per month.
You probably noticed that we did not include Hulu in the options above, even though it's one of the most common streaming services mentioned when people give advice about cord cutting. So why would we leave it out of our recommendations? Here's our reasoning:
The majority of Hulu content, and indeed the content upon which the service was founded, is current seasons of broadcast TV shows. With Hulu you can view current episodes of broadcast TV shows, with commercials, the day after they air. TV antenna users already have access to this content live, on the day that it airs, can record it on a DVR, skip commercials and don't have to use up data to stream it. Also, the non-broadcast content on Hulu, except for originals, can usually be found on Amazon or Vudu.
While we recognize that Hulu is evolving as a service, at this time we don't feel that it provides much added value to TV antenna users. For cord cutters who for some reason cannot use a TV antenna or don't have access to one, Hulu, at either $8 or $12 per month depending on whether you want a lot of TV commercials in your content or just a few (you can't skip them), Hulu would be a great service to have.
About Stand-Alone Streaming Services
The services that we have recommended above are what we call aggregate services, meaning they provide content from many different sources and are going to provide cord cutters with the best value. There are lots of what we call stand-alone streaming services, media companies who charge a monthly fee for you to access JUST their content, and more are popping up every day.
CBS has a service called CBS All Access. It's $6 per month. Antenna users are going to get the same CBS content for free from their TV antenna, in amazing HD quality and without using up data.
HBO Now, for $180 per year ($15 per month) is great if you watch a lot of HBO. But if you watch only a handful of HBO shows you're going to save money by getting that content from either Vudu or Amazon. The same goes for Showtime.
It will be up to you to determine if any of the stand-alone streaming services are worth your money. There are a lot of choices out there. Are you an anime lover? There's an all-anime service called Crunchyroll for $7 per month! We couldn't possibly list all of the choices here, but you will have fun discovering what's available.
Where do you find all of these options so you can learn more about them? Through a streaming device that we're going to talk about in the next section.
What Devices Do I Need?
1 TV Antenna
This is hands-down the most important part of your cord cutting solution. If you've never used a TV antenna you're going to be amazed at the value you will discover. Depending on where you live, people will have different requirements for TV antennas. We offer a thorough explanation in our Antenna Selection Guide. Channel Master has been making TV antennas since 1949 and we are the experts.
NOTE: There is no such thing as a "digital" or "HD" TV antenna. Those terms refer to the fact that the over-the-air broadcast signal is digital/HD (since 2009), not the antenna itself. No matter what you may read about "advanced technology" TV antennas, the actual reception technology has not changed in decades. Sure, antennas come in all different shapes and sizes today, even sci-fi-like designs, but those are physical changes not technical advancements. If you buy an older home and discover a TV antenna in your attic or on your roof, it's going to receive the same pristine digital broadcast signals as anything you would buy today.
You will be getting live TV from all of the major broadcast networks through your TV antenna. This includes 47 of the top 50 TV shows! If you are currently using a DVR from your pay-TV provider and have become accustomed to being able to pause and rewind live TV, record your favorite shows to watch later and skip commercials, you will want a DVR for your TV antenna.
The DVR+ works like a Cable DVR, you just hook it up to your TV. The On-Screen guide will automatically scan for your antenna channels and complete the installation for you.
You can choose to supply your own USB hard drive, any size, or have a 1TB internal hard drive that provides up to 160 hrs of HD recording.
DVR+ also includes extras such as streaming services in the channel guide and free live Internet channels.
TiVo makes the Bolt DVR in either a 500GB or 1TB hard drive model. TiVo DVRs include lots of bells and whistles, but the problem for most cord cutters is the $15 per month fee and the contract, exactly the type of thing they are trying to get away from.
The Bolt can be used either as a DVR for your Cable service or a DVR for your TV antenna. It also includes streaming services in the main menu.
$299 / $399
Monthly Fee for Guide, Connects Directly to TV
Tablo is a cool little product that allows you to stream your TV antenna content around the home to multiple TVs and devices. The monthly subscription is $5, or a lifetime single payment of $150. For cord cutters looking for a traditional TV experience, you may find Tablo to be a bit frustrating to use.
Tablo does not connect to your TV, it connects through a streaming media player. You must launch the Tablo app from your media player or mobile device. You must also supply a hard drive. Channel changing is slower than you're used to and if your Internet/Wifi goes out, so does your live TV.
$220 / $299
Monthly Fee for Guide, Connects to a Media Player
NOTE: The options listed above are the three most common antenna DVR solutions and our intent is to provide recommendations for what we believe to be the simplest, most cost-effective solution for cord cutters. Each product will have advantages and disadvantages depending on your needs, so be sure to research each one thoroughly before you make a purchase decision.
About Game Consoles and PCs
Some people use a game console for accessing streaming services and even as a solution for live TV and a DVR, such as Xbox One or the Sony Playstation Vue streaming service. The reason we do not recommend these as live TV, DVR or streaming options is because using a game console in the always-on manner that is required for watching TV uses a LOT of power. It is the equivalent of adding another refrigerator to your household and you can expect your electric bill to go up about $8-$10 per month. It's just not a responsible way to watch TV.
Game consoles should be powered down when they are not being used for playing games. For example, we took great care to design the DVR+ to be ENERGY STAR compliant and it uses a small fraction of the power required to run a game console or a pay-TV DVR.
Some people build a DVR out of a PC. Yes, you can do this, but why on earth would you want to? Especially when there are professional DVRs available that work directly with your TV and you don't need a degree in computer science to set them up and use them. PCs also use a significant amount of power.
3Streaming Media Player
A streaming media player is a device that connects to your TV and provides access to streaming services. We recommend the two media players below because they provide the simplest user experience and the most value for cord cutters.
Roku provides access to more streaming services than you'll know what to do with. Some are subscription services, some are free. You'll get Netflix, Amazon, Vudu and Sling TV, which are the main services you are looking for.
Roku has several models depending on features such as a voice-control remote and the ability to stream 4K content if you have a 4K TV.
We recommend the Roku Stick, their lowest-priced solution, which is a dongle that plugs directly into an HDMI port on your TV and provides everything you need.
If you are an Amazon Prime member and don't need access to Vudu (not available on Amazon), this is a lower-cost solution that also provides access to the major streaming services, more than you will ever use, whether paid or free.
Like Roku, Amazon has several different models depending on your preferences, but the low-cost Stick, also an HDMI dongle, provides everything you need.
If you are an Amazon Prime member and you currently own or are ever planning to purchase an Amazon Echo, we recommend getting an Amazon Fire TV model that has integrated Echo functionality. "Hello, Alexa."
Chromecast and Apple TV are streaming media players that also provide access to streaming services but are not as robust or easy to use as the two devices recommended above. Chromecast requires that the user "cast" the streaming service from their mobile device to the TV, which means that you need to open an app and use a phone or tablet to use the device, rather than a simple remote control. Many first-time cord cutters will likely find this to be an inconvenience.
Apple TV has direct access to some streaming services using the remote control, and for others you must use an Apple device to cast the service to the TV. In addition, neither Chromecast nor Apple TV provides native access to the Amazon streaming service, so if you are an Amazon Prime member using either of these devices you are missing out on the valuable benefits from your Prime membership.
About Smart TVs
Smart TVs are great until they are no longer smart. Not all makers of Smart TVs keep the services updated after the TV comes off the manufacturing line. In addition, Smart TVs contain just a small amount of Flash memory, which means they are very limited to the number of streaming services they can put on the TV. It's possible that the streaming services included with your Smart TV at purchase could end up being the only ones you'll have for the duration of ownership. Since most Americans keep TVs for 7-10 years (longer than we keep automobiles), a Smart TV is not necessarily a "smart" long-term solution for cord cutters.
What if I have bundled services with my TV provider?
TIP: Even if you decide not to cut the cord, buy your own modem/router, don't rent one from your service provider, it's just money down the drain. Talk with a sales rep at Best Buy to help you choose the one that's right for you, or explore customer reviews on Amazon to choose one that fits your needs.
This can get a little tricky because sometimes Cable providers offer promotional packages that give you Internet service at a lower cost if you also subscribe to TV. In other words, it appears to cost less to have Internet and TV than it does to have just Internet. If this is the case, keep in mind that it's a promotional price and will go up when the promotion period ends. Also keep in mind that the "TV service" part of that package generally does not include a DVR, the fancy menus or many of the Cable shows that you currently watch.
Why would your Cable company offer this kind of package? Because whether you use the cable box or not, they still get to count you as a video subscriber on their books, which looks good on Wall Street, and they can afford to give you cheaper Internet because broadband is a high-profit commodity that is already over-priced to begin with.
It's up to you to determine what kind of deal you can get from your Cable provider for Internet service, just don't be fooled by the "you will save money by bundling this with TV" pitch. It won't last, and you'll end up locked into a contract for TV again.
IMPORTANT: Pay attention to your Internet provider's data allowance cap. While many people don't have a data cap for Internet service today, data caps are coming for all of us. Major providers like Comcast have begun rolling out data caps in certain parts of the country and the trend will continue. This is especially true if your Internet service is provided by a pay-TV company.
Pay-TV companies assume that if you want Internet only, you must be a cord cutter. To make up for you not paying for the TV service and associated equipment, they have begun capping data use at around 300 Gigs per month. If you stream video for three or four hours a day (average TV-watching time in most U.S. households), you will easily exceed this allowance. This means you will be charged overage fees, and to avoid those fees you will be forced into a higher-priced data tier. This is the most important reason to use a TV antenna - stream only what you need and use the antenna for the rest.
If you have a landline phone service through your TV provider, it's time to ask yourself whether you really need it. The vast majority of cord cutters rely on their mobile phones and do not have a landline in the home. For people who require a fax line, services such as eFax provide everything you need through a mobile app on your PC, phone or tablet and you don't have to be home to send or receive faxes.
Some people may require a landline phone for special cases such as a medical device that needs to send data over a phone line. If you need a landline phone after severing ties with your TV provider, we highly recommend both magicJack and Vonage as low-cost solutions that will meet your needs and provide additional benefits as well.
Congratulations, you now have a very thorough (and accurate) description of cord cutting and how to do it! We hope you have discovered how easy it is and the freedom that it provides - freedom from contracts, freedom from escalating fees, freedom from being stuck in the middle of legal wars between your TV provider and their content partners.