So, You Think You’re Ready To Cut The Cord?
Most Americans continue to enjoy their daily TV programming through a pay-TV service from a cable, satellite or telco provider, but increasingly segments of the population have forsaken the traditional route for cheaper and sometimes more relevant alternatives.
Options for all of this so-called “cord-cutting” or “cord-shaving” activity are growing by the day, and we have listed a few of them here, in case you might be considering this approach for yourself.
More on cord-cutting, some available options and their advantages and disadvantages, after the break:
According to various demographic studies, quite a few of those leading this revolution belong to the millennial generation, and their behavior tends to be based on necessity as much as choice. Many in this segment are starting out their lives and can’t afford to pay another hefty service bill. For them, a diet of Internet-delivered over-the-top (OTT) programming through services including YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, etc. provides all the content they need, and they can pick and choose what they want to watch and when to watch it. Often, the display of choice for this activity may be a tablet or laptop as much as a traditional television screen.
But if you opt to cut the cord, all TVs have an on-board tuner, which depending on where you live, might pull in free over-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV signals providing local news and national network programming for the price of an antenna. Your TV can map your channels, but won’t necessarily provide an easy-to-navigate listing guide.
Fortunately, a few resourceful manufacturers have developed typically inexpensive products that combine OTA TV reception and OTT streaming options into a central graphical user interface (GUI) and program listings guide. In addition a few options are popping up to help you receive live OTA content on your tablet, smartphone or laptop, which can be used to relay programming to TV screens using apps.
The Live OTT Option
At the same time, new live OTT services such as Sling TV and soon PlayStation Vue, provide a slimmed down and less-expensive cable TV experience over broadband connections. These offer a handful of popular cable channels for a similar fee to some advertised basic cable tiers (just without all the extra hidden charges).
Sony’s PlayStation Vue is due to roll out in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia in the next two weeks, according to the Wall Street Journal. It has not announced subscription pricing or channel packing yet, but it’s slated to include a broad offering of channel choices including: live linear signals from CBS Television Network’s owned-and-operated TV stations in select markets in addition to on-demand prime-time programming. Other channel options will include: Discovery Network’s: Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery, Science, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Family Channel and 11 more brands; Fox Networks Group’s: FX, FXX, FXM, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, BTN, Fox’s regional sports networks, including YES Network and Prime Ticket and Fox owned-and-operated television stations; NBCUniversal’s: NBC, Telemundo, regional sports networks, Bravo, CNBC, E!, NBCSN, Oxygen, Sprout, Syfy, USA Network; Scripps Networks Interactive’s: HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network and Cooking Channel; Viacom’s: BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, PALLADIA, Spike, VH1 and more.
Following the initial launch markets, the PlayStation Vue service will spread out nationally later in the year.
Dish Network’s similar SlingTV, which launched in February, offers a basic tier of a little over a dozen popular cable channels for $20 a month, requiring only an active credit card number. No contracts or credit checks are necessary. With an average broadband subscription, SlingTV’s channels stream smoothly with good quality HD images, virtually the same as those delivered by the traditional service providers.
Channels include ESPN 1 and 2, CNN, TNT, TBS, AMC, IFC, Disney, ABC Family, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, HGTV, TLC, Travel Channel, Food Network and others. SlingTV also offers “add-on packs” for an additional $5 per month including: “Epix Movie Channels” – Epix2, Epix3, Epix Drive-In and Sundance TV; “Kids Extra” – Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV; and “News & Info Extra” — HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV.
Not included is any comprehensive offering of local TV channels, requiring subscribers to use OTA antennas for free broadcasts, or to subscribe to a separate cable life-line service or an OTT solution like CBS All Access.
These new live OTT streaming services are carried on video game consoles (in PlayStation Vue’s case) or on set-top media adapters (in Sling TV’s case) that also provide access to apps to stream popular programs from individual video-on-demand providers. Examples include: Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Prime, and History Channel. (The recently announced $14.99 HBO Now service will soon launch only on Apple TV streaming media players but is expected to rollout to other platforms after a three-month exclusivity period.)
SlingTV’s app is available today on Roku devices including the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick media adapters as well PCs, Macs and iOS and Android devices. PlayStation Vue will be available initially via the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 video game consoles, but is expected to roll out to other OTT platforms and devices in time.
Think Twice, Cut Once
Before selecting any approach, it may help to do a little due diligence. Ask yourself: “Am I ready to give up a lot of the channels I’ve been used to watching on cable or satellite?” “Would I be better served by simply scaling back my programming package?” and “If I choose a service bundle (TV, broadband and telephone), will I be making out better than paying for all of these different subscription services (including some OTT services) a la carte and with less billing hassle?”
Also keep in mind that every multi-channel pay-TV service has low-cost package promotions, just remember to factor in trial term limits and the cost after those expire, penalties for early cancellation and hidden costs for equipment lease fees, HD reception, DVR service capability and remote-room equipment fees. Those all add up and can balloon a $19.95 advertised special into a much higher figure.
The following is a glimpse at some of the hardware and service options out there that promise to help you cut the cord:
The OTA/OTT Options
Channel Master, which is best known for TV antennas, offers its CM7500BDL3, which is a $314.99 OTA broadcast TV-centric cord-cutting solution equipped to record free HD programs to an optional attached hard drive. The DVR includes dual ATSC broadcast tuners to receive free OTA TV broadcasts (when connected to an optional antenna), and supplements that with some limited streaming. The device will access select OTT video from YouTube and Vudu and music from Pandora. A Wi-Fi dongle is included to connect to an in-home network. To find available programs, Channel Master includes a free on-screen program guide that lets you tune to a live show and schedule the recording of a selection up to 14-days in advance. The unit’s dual ATSC tuners allow watching one program while simultaneously recording another.
Mohu, a manufacturer of paper-thin indoor HDTV antennas, recently launched its Mohu Channels product at a $150 retail price (plus antenna) which merges OTA broadcast TV reception with streaming apps from an integrated OTT system. All selections are presented in one graphical user interface (GUI) with program listings to make channel tuning selections without the need to switch back and forth between devices. Users attach one of Mohu’s antennas (determined by transmission distance) to the Channels device to access OTA stations, while the smart TV system gathers select streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu+, and YouTube; and other content from various sites around the web such as Sling TV’s OTT service. Mohu Channels is updatable via firmware downloads for continually changing options.
The product solution also includes: a universal remote with a backlit QWERTY style keyboard, and built-in air mouse. It will enable “time shifting,” defined as the ability to store up to 30 minutes of live television on the fly, for instant replays or program rewinds, pauses and fast forwarding. It will not, however, allow storing a program for later playback, like a DVR.
Mohu Channels also allows side-loading a USB storage device, like a thumb drive or portable hard drive, to playback personally collected video content.
SiliconDust Simple.TV2 also offers a dual-tuner OTA and OTT solution for sending free OTA TV channels via an Internet connection to a smartphone, tablet, or Amazon Fire for direct playback from on device. To view programming on a standard TV, a connection must be made to the smartphone, tablet or compatible set-top media player, like Roku boxes or a Chromecast dongle. Image quality is fine for small screen devices, somewhat weaker on larger-screen TVs.
Tablo DVR is a product and service similar to Simple.TV2 designed to receive free OTA channels and relay them to iOS and Android smart devices as well as Roku, AppleTV and Chromecast devices in the house. Those devices, in turn, can connect to a TV in the home to view the programming on a larger TV screen, controlling playback through an app on the handheld device or media adapter. Image quality is generally better at highest settings on TV screens than other approaches. The system has dual ATSC tuners and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. The product is available with two or four ATSC tuners for viewing and recording multiple programs simultaneously. The dual tuner Tablo DVR is available now for $190 (via Amazon direct), and a $5 per month subscription fee is required for program listings service.
TiVo’s Roamio OTA is a $50 DVR solution optimized for OTA TV reception. It isn’t subscription free, however. Users are charged $14.99 a month to receive a program listings service, and TiVo doesn’t provide the option of an up-front lifetime service plan or support for a CableCARD. So don’t expect to use it with encrypted cable programming if you decide to add cable service later. Similar to the previous base-model TiVo Roamio unit with cable tuning, the TiVo’s Roamio includes a 500 GB hard drive and essentially swaps out the QAM digital cable tuners for four ATSC “over-the-air” broadcast tuners. The new model also keeps the RF remote, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity and provides a selection of OTT streaming services.
By Greg Tarr
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