Setting Your HDTV Free – Cutting the Cable/Satellite Cord

April 14th, 2011 · 16 Comments · Blu-ray Discs, Cable TV, Connected TVs, Digital Media Receivers, Satellite TV

Setting Your HDTV Free - Cutting the Cable/Satellite Cord

My cable bill is $69 a month. That’s for AT&T U-Verse U200. I pay extra for HBO, $24 a month, and the privilege of HD for an additional $10. Many people I talk to think that’s pretty cheap, but $1,236 a year is a lot of money no matter how you look at it.

So the thought goes: how easy is it, today, to cut the cord?

I’m not talking about waiting for a show to be available on Netflix. Let’s be realistic. If you want to be that person who piously proclaims they don’t have cable, OK. Just know other people think you’re weird while they talk about and spoil shows you won’t be watching for a year.

With AppleTV, Roku, and the current crop of connected TV and Blu-ray players, if a person wants to remain relevant around the watercooler and save some money, is it doable?

There are a lot of options to do this, but I’m going to say up front that I don’t feel watching shows on your computer is a valid alternative. First of all, if you’re coming to, you’re looking for the best  TV you can buy. Why sacrifice all that for a tiny computer screen? If you want to hook your computer to your TV (certainly possible) or build/buy an HTPC, that’s great. In reality, most people aren’t or can’t do that. The fact is HTPCs have a cost and complexity most people shy away from.

So let’s keep it simple. With minimal fiscal and technological outlay, what can you get on your TV to replace cable/satellite but still watch all the shows you enjoy.

Roku XD with remoteI’m going to assume in the cost analysis you already have an Apple TV, and something that can get Hulu Plus, like a Roku, which also has Amazon Video on Demand. If you don’t, obviously you’ll have to add that to your personal calculations.

A little research on your part is also required to determine where your favorite shows are available. My mind reading skills are sub-par, so for this article I just used myself as a test subject. I did this as I know me pretty well, and I feel I watch a reasonable amount of TV. Less than some, more than others. I broke down my normal viewing week to see where my shows were available. Feel free to mock my viewing selections in your mind, but if you feel it necessary to do so in the comments, you’d better well list your favorite shows too so the rest of us can condescend.


Family Guy– Easy, Hulu Plus. At $7.99 a month Hulu Plus is available on a variety of products. Sadly, there are still commercials, but not as many as broadcast TV.

America’s Next Great Restaurant – Why does Lorena Garcia always stand with one leg in front of the other? Interestingly, this isn’t available on Hulu Plus despite being an NBC show. It’s available on, though, and seeing as it’s not terribly well shot, nor is there anything gained by watching it on the big screen, I’m going to go back on what I said above and just watch this one online. It’s not worth paying extra for (not that it’s available on iTunes or Amazon Video on Demand)

Robot ChickenI love this show, but I don’t think I’d pay $30 to watch the season via iTunes, the only place it’s available. I’d wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. So for that we should add Netflix to our list of cable replacements. Let’s go with the 1 Blu-ray at a time plan, which also includes unlimited streaming for $12.99 a month.

Walking Dead, Mad MenWalking Dead is easily worth $15.99 for its shortened season on iTunes. In fact, this is exactly what I did when this was airing as I didn’t have AMC HD and SD looks horrible on my screen. Via Amazon, it’s $2 cheaper. Mad Men is $34.99 on iTunes, $5 cheaper on Amazon.

Entourage, Boardwalk Empire, Game of ThronesThese HBO shows deserve to be on our big screen, so they’re worth paying for. Unfortunately, this is the first of our problems. They’re not. Because it’s HBO, and they make their money from cable/satellite providers, there really isn’t any way to buy these shows while they’re airing, or even shortly thereafter. You’ll have to wait their release on Blu-ray, which sort of goes against our goal here. We’ll mark them down as a casualty of our cord cutting.



Top Gear on AVoDTop GearThe best show on TV isn’t available in HD on U-Verse, so I rent each episode in HD via iTunes on the Apple TV. These become available the next day after airing, which isn’t a big deal to me. Each “series” or season is around 7 episodes, and if we’re lucky we get two each year. So I’ll estimate the total cost of this at $13.86. You can buy the episodes on Amazon for $13.99 for the season, or presumably $26.98 a year.

Castle, House, Lie To MeThese are available in HD on Hulu Plus. The picture quality is pretty much the same as over U-Verse. It might have been a touch softer, but the difference isn’t really noticeable.

How I Met Your MotherA bit of a stumble with this excellent show. Being on CBS, it’s not on Hulu. On iTunes it’s a staggering $52.99 for the season. The season pass on Amazon is for $2.84 per episode, which works out to $68.16 for the 24 episode season. That’s a lot of money for a single show, and likely double than the inevitable Blu-ray box set. I really like this show, though, and if you look at it as lowering you costs overall versus cable, it’s not quite as hard to swallow. Still, ouch.

Stargate: UniverseFor some reason I’m still watching this horribly written show. Wright and Cooper have clearly fallen down the Berman/Braga hole of creative incompetence. Too bad, too, as this show held a lot of promise. Once again the season pass is a lot: $53.99 on iTunes, and $2.84 per episode on Amazon (presumably $56.80 for the 20 episode season). Tough call on this one. I included it, though in hindsight given how bad it is and that it’s been cancelled, it’d probably say wait for the Blu-ray.



Glee – On Hulu, in HD, so this one’s easy.

Deadliest Catch – The new season just started airing, though no pricing is available yet. Season 6 is $12.99 on iTunes and $30.24 on Amazon, so I’ll use that pricing for now. This show is shot in HD, and isn’t available as such on either provider, so I’m going to count this one as a casualty as well.

Louie on AVoDLouie – Such stunning genius. Watch this show. Sadly, the first season was only 13 episodes and it’s $29.99 on iTunes and $30.99 on Amazon.

I’ll gladly give Louie C.K. my money, though, so this one is a no-brainer. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough: Louie: Season One ($35.99)



Modern Family, Cougar TownHD on Hulu Plus

Mr. Sunshine – $26.91 on iTunes and $25.56 on Amazon for the nine episodes of Matthew Perry’s new show. I’ll include it, though if it’s not on Hulu next season, I would probably wait for a disc.

Breaking In – No pricing yet for this new show. I’d expect the same as Mr. Sunshine, as it’s only 7 episodes for this season, and I don’t think I love it enough to really pay for it.



30 Rock, Outsourced, Grey’s Anatomy – All on Hulu Plus in HD.

Community – Interestingly, like a few other titles on our list, Community is only available on, not streaming via Hulu Plus onto a TV. Big money again, $53.99 on iTunes, $68.16 on Amazon.



Camelot, Real Time with Bill Maher – Here we have the same problem we had on Sunday. Camelot is on Starz, Real Time is on HBO. There really isn’t any way to get these shows other than subscriptions. Camelot will be available on Blu-ray certainly, but not Bill.

There’s a few vital daily shows like The Daily Show and  Colbert Report, on Hulu Plus as well.



It took a bit of research to check what shows where available and where, but in the end I got some interesting results. If I were to “cut the cord” and ditch my U-Verse, I’d have to spend about  $517.47 to watch most of the shows I watch now. That’s a savings of $718.53 in a year, or about $60 a month. You could save even more if you choose SD, but why would you do that?

This, however, isn’t the full story. There are a number of shows that simply aren’t available unless you subscribe to cable/satellite. HBO and other pay channels have some of the best original programming going, and without paying you’ve got to wait for the disc. The issue with that is if your friends and family are watching, you’re unquestionably going to hear spoilers. I’ve never seen an episode of Sopranos or Dexter, but I can tell you how the former ends and all the twists of the latter. But there’s a bigger problem.

Sports. I’m not a big follower of the sports, but if you are, this could be an issue. You’re limited to what’s broadcast, and that itself is limited to blackouts and other things that I have no idea about. Being an expatriate of Boston who’s a fan of the Patriots, I barely get to watch 4-5 games a season anyway. YMMV.

Speaking of broadcast, that brings a whole other level into this. Most cities broadcast some excellent looking HD, far better looking video than any cable or satellite broadcast. All current TVs have built-in ATSC (HD) tuners, allowing you to get the networks for free with just a simple antenna. The problem, and this is a deal breaker in my book, is you have to watch commercials. No thanks.

TiVo PremiereSo you’ll need something like TiVo, at an initial cost, plus a monthly fee of $19.99 a month. So in the one year we’re discussing, that would be $325.61 or $490.63 depending on model. Plus there’s still the cost for the shows on “cable,” about $100 in the cheapest option. You wouldn’t need Hulu Plus, though. So in the first year, this is pretty much a wash, though over time it’s obviously a lot cheaper.

So the reality is, yes, you can save some money by ditching cable. But if you like TV and don’t want to wait for the Blu-rays to come out, it doesn’t save a ton of money. Even in the best-case scenario with my viewing habits, I’d only save $67 a month. That’s not going out to dinner or lunch a few times in a month.

There are many, many ways to save money, but ditching cable isn’t the best option if you love TV. Though I guess in hindsight, duh?

Yearly cost of U-Verse U-200 with HBO and HD: $1,236


Yearly cost of Hulu Plus: $95.88 ($7.99/month)
Yearly cost of Netflix: $155.88 ($12.99/month) – ranges from $95.88 – $395.88 depending on plan
iTunes Purchases $265.71
Amazon Video on Demand Purchases: $320.88
Total: $457.47 – $812.64

Over-the-Air/TiVo Option: $325.61 or $490.63 plus about $100 in non-OTA content.

Savings over U-Verse (my viewing): $437.35 – $764.54 or $645.37/$810.39 with TiVo

Unable to watch “live” – Entourage, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Robot Chicken, Real Time, Deadliest Catch (in HD), Camelot, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sports


—Geoff Morrison – Follow me on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Cassie

    We cut the cable a month ago and are saving over $100 per month. Here’s what we did, including the hardware we purchased to do it: Cutting the Cable (

    We now use a Roku with HuluPlus, NetFlix and a MLB subscription.

    So far so good.

  • David

    Very interesting read. Currently I pay almost $90 for Directv and I decided to prune rather than cut as follows: I get great ota reception here, 40+ channels, all networks. So my setup: OTA plus Netflix, HTPC with Windows Media Center as my “hub.” I’ll keep Directv very basic $30 monthly service with sports pack $13 for the duration of baseball season, then suspend my Directv account for six months and repeat the cycle each year. I’ll save over $650 per year; the savings year one more than pays for HTPC. Our tipping point was WMC’s easy and seamless interface.

  • forkboy1965

    I’ve read a number of articles likes this over the past year or so and they all seem to come to the same conclusions: it’s possible to cut the cable/satellite cord, but it comes with a host of issues.

    One thing your article doesn’t mention is that your yearly cost will increase as you find new shows you want to watch (assuming you don’t stop watching others). There is no incremental cost increase for watching more television with a cable or satellite set-up.

  • ayat

    Nice thorough article, Geoff.
    ONE other important cost factor in cutting the cord is Internet. Unfortunately the best (often only) source of high-speed Internet is the cable company! So outrageously priced packages including Internet/Cable are a necessary evil.

  • Michael

    I cut the DirecTV cord a while back and have been surviving with OTA antenna, Amazon VOD, ESPN3, Netflix, HuluPlus and PlayOn through the Xbox 360.

  • HiFiFun

    Geoff says:
    “Speaking of broadcast, that brings a whole other level into this. Most cities broadcast some excellent looking HD, far better looking video than any cable or satellite broadcast. All current TVs have built-in ATSC (HD) tuners, allowing you to get the networks for free with just a simple antenna. The problem, and this is a deal breaker in my book, IS YOU HAVE TO WATCh COMMERICALS. No thanks.”

    The solution is to use FREE Over The Air (OTA) broadcasts and the FREE HD DVR in Windows Media Center. It is the most feature laden DVR out there. My family skips the commercials with a button press. There is no cost Geoff. Progam guide updates are FREE.
    Broadcat has the best shows too, like House, The Middle and the Chicago one.
    Just set the central htpc to update automatically and its largely worry free. It also replaces a NAS as it serves every room in the house, even laptops and tablets.
    So I’m a bit confused as you missed the most ideal and FREE solution.

    Geoff: If you’re going to quote me, perhaps include the relevant part: “If you want to hook your computer to your TV (certainly possible) or build/buy an HTPC, that’s great. In reality, most people aren’t or can’t do that. The fact is HTPCs have a cost and complexity most people shy away from.”

  • Ed

    If you need to hook up a box anyway, the computer is still the most versatile. now i know many people don’t like this route, but the web has the most content for free.

    I watch most of the network shows on their website in HD! (a lot of people just use Hulu, which has no HD in its free version, but the secret is, all the networks put most of their shows on their own website in better quality! definitely 720p, may be even 1080i because they look better than live broadcast sometimes)

    I hookup my computer via HDMI to my HDTV, and boom, free TV w/ less commercials.

    I’ll focus on the major nets, quality all depend on your internet speed. The HD is usually HD-like, but they are sharp enough. The following is rank from best to worst.

    – by far, the best video player. the website design is a bit clutter, but their video player stream HD, in full screen, the interface and cursor will just fade away, support on screen Closed Captioning. Best of all, the interrupting commercials stay in full screen without breaking into browser mode. All of their shows are available, most with 3~5 episodes streaming a day after broadcast. Very brief commercial breaks, around 90 seconds.

    – All shows stream in HD. Every show has 5 episodes streaming the day after broadcast. commercial breaks will usually break your full screen experience back into browser mode, so you’ll have to manually click “full screen” (not a big deal w/ wireless mouse), brief commercial breaks, on screen closed caption, the interface fade away in full screen, but your cursor will not, so put it away to corner of screen. Best website design, everything is listed in a logical manner under the video section.

    – plays in HD, the quality is consistent. commercial breaks around 90 seconds, but they will ALWAYS break full screen mode, so you’ll need to click full screen button after every commercial. the interface fade out in full screen, but cursor remained. Do not have full screen on screen closed caption, they also appear in browser mode, but ABC sometimes have text-based producer commentary with the episodes. Depending on the studio that makes the show, sometimes they’re not available for a while, but all ABC produced shows are there. Usually around 4~6 episodes available at a time, a day after broadcast. the website design is good, all shows listed in their logos under video section. it’s similar to the iPad app’s interface.

    – plays in HD, but their quality is choppy, need a while for the steaming to get enough bandwidth for best quality. extremely short commercial breaks, usually 30~60 seconds. Shows stream right after West coast broadcast (very good for late night viewing for watercooler talk the next day). HOWEVER, not all shows are available (depends on the studio that makes the show, all CBS produced shows are there), and usually only 2~4 episodes at a time. on screen closed caption. the interface and cursor will fade away in full screen mode. commercial breaks sometimes break into browser mode, sometimes the player stays in full screen. the website is very clutter, they have way too many clips mixed w/ videos under the video section, so it’s best to go to the show’s page and select full episode from there.

    now the rest here do not have HD, they play 360p to (almost DVD quality) 480p which looks good enough in full screen when look at a distance, but all are free w/ good collection:

    – The CW: longer commercials than the major nets, have all CW shows, around 4~6 episodes available

    – all PBS shows available, some episodes are not available (such as when the documentary is an import, but all PBS produced shows including BBC Master Piece are there), ZERO commercial, MANY episodes streaming.

    – for more Warner Bros. produced shows, go to; they stream classic shows, but also recent hits (such as previous seasons of Fringe, Chuck, Veronica Mars, Smallville, Pushing Daisies, etc) they do rotate their selections regularly.

    – for more Sony Pictures produced shows, go to, HUGE selection (but not all have full episodes), movies, anime, foreign films, etc. [it is also accessible from Bravia Internet Video if you have Sony TVs]

    Sorry for my long post, but the point is, there are many many FREE (and legal ad-supported) options available when you have a browser. the solution is not as elegant because you do need to have computer hooked up, but it really isn’t that big of a hassle when you have wireless mouse, or if you already use your TV as a monitor.

  • GoodbyePayTV

    Great article on saying goodbye to pay TV. We are doing just that for our customers, and we install an off air antenna to complete the internet setup. In general, our customers have their systems paid off in less than 1 year, then it’s free TV forever. We are based in the SF Bay Area, but hope to be across the country soon. We need qualified franchisees! Google Goodbye Pay TV for more information.

  • Snap

    The vast majority of NFL games (all Sunday games), and a large portion of college football games are available free over the air in better quality HD than you get from your pay-tv provider.

  • Snap

    For an over the air DVR the Channel Master CM-7000pal DVR is a no fee DVR that uses TVGOS for its guide (7 days on most channels). It is just under $300 at Walmart’s web site. It records 30 hrs of HD, and if you update the hard drive 140 hrs. It has 30 second skip for commercials. There is no “season pass”, but for the money you save it’s worth it.

  • Mark

    Instead of cutting cable completely, you might consider nipping it. Cutting back to the cheapest cable package available will still give you clear QAM HD versions of all your local stations. That could be cheaper than other alternatives for over the air network content. Of course an antenna would ultimately be cheaper but may not provide as good or reliable signals.

  • Chris

    There is a solution for CBS shows and the “web only” Hulu content. It is not the most reliable service but gets the job done and only costs $40/yr. It can be added to any Roku player as well. It encodes any web video onto your tv screen. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think it deserves a review in this article or a future one. It works for my needs:)

  • Phil

    Matt is right — My father only watches sports, and without cable or satellite, you are screwed. If it were just me, there would be no cable or satellite — Only the internet and some Netflix, but the sports addiction offers no alternative to cable & satellite. Zero.

  • Dean

    Comcast would charge me $19 a month for THEIR DVR. So my lifetime TiVo HD XL will pay for itself in less than 2 years. Break even is 46 month, a better DVR and less money to Comcrap.

    But in todays numbers, If a cable DVR is $19/month and TiVo is $99 start and $19.99 a month you CANNOT consider the FULL cost of a TiVo in your cord cutting numbers.

    Suddenly, cord cutting is HUGELY money saving.

  • Steve A

    Most sports that are available on TV have online streaming packages. ESPN also has ESPN3. The problem is picture quality. I have a 50 mbps connection through comcast, but because of their bandwidth limits the picture just isn’t close to what you get on a Direct TV HD channel. I’m hoping within the next couple years true HD quality feeds will be available. As you have pointed out, there are surely plently of people who are willing to pay if it lets them cut the cord with cable and dish services.

  • Matt

    Just admit this is for non sport fans. If you enjoy the nfl or college your screwed.

    Geoff: Sports fans! I admit you should read the article before posting. Especially the part where I talk about sports.

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