Diary of a cable TV cord cutter: Week 1

A week after cutting the TV cord, CNET editor David Katzmaier reports on what works, and what doesn't, for his household.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
6 min read

A week after the cut, cable TV is still acutely missed in the Katzmaier household.

A week has passed since we decided to stop paying for Verizon Fios TV in my household, and the world hasn't imploded. At least, not yet.

Check out my original Day 1 entry to get up to speed. Here's what happened next.

Dear Diary...
Tuesday, November 16: Arrived home to my wife, Elizabeth, describing how CBS.com, accessed on our TV via PlayOn, was cutting out in the middle of her show. While over-the-air staples like "Sesame Street"--a morning tradition for our 16-month-old--and "Oprah" were a success, she told me in no uncertain terms she wanted cable back. In the ensuing discussion I promised I'd try adjusting the antenna next weekend to get the currently unavailable CBS. She appeared mollified, for now, and we watched a catch-up episode of "The Amazing Race" together via PlayOn with no problems, my fingers crossed the whole time.

Despite the wealth of content, PlayOn proved less than reliable at times.

Wednesday, November 17: More issues, this time with over-the-air, where wind caused interruptions during "Law & Order: SVU." It basically made the show unwatchable, causing audio stutter, video breakup and extreme annoyance from eBeth ("That's crappy, does it do that every time it's windy?"). She created a CBS account just to leave comments on my original article in protest (one of which received the most "like" votes of any comment so far).

I understand I should have installed "guy wires" on my elaborate rooftop antenna to prevent wind-caused interruptions, but frankly I'm just happy the thing didn't blow down completely in the 40+ mph gusts. I also checked Hulu Plus, but that night's episode wasn't available yet.

Thursday, November 18: No major issues. I also figured out that TV.com was much more reliable than CBS.com via PlayOn, so eBeth was able to catch up on her daytime TV.

Friday, November 19: eBeth reported continued success with daytime TV, but I had a bigger problem: I really wanted to watch the Knicks play Golden State that night. So I experimented with a workaround of dubious legality. I utilized a Slingbox set up at the house of a buddy and fellow Knicks fan, who had agreed to let me experiment with streaming the game to my laptop connected to my TV. In short, it wasn't worth it.

With Slingbox's software reporting speeds of 470-480Kbps, the image quality was so bad I often couldn't tell the players apart (especially Fields and Gallinari) or make out the score. And though Slingbox does have a buffer, I missed the convenience of the remote for DVR action. I prefer my sports watching to have a "TiVo time" buffer to skip commercials, and in the case of basketball, routine free throws and those endless time outs. All in all I doubt I'll bother with the "Slingbox loophole" again, especially since it means depending on the largesse of friends.

In addition to its questionable legality, the method of using Slingbox to get missing programs is a pain.

Saturday, November 20: I spent the day away from home but arrived back in the evening to no TV-related complaints---a big win in my book. eBeth and I watched a Blu-ray rented from Netflix that night. "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" sucked as a movie, but the picture quality after a week without glorious Fios almost made it worth suffering through.

Sunday, November 21: The Jets were playing on CBS but I hadn't found the time to futz with the antenna so I went to Plan B: hitting my father-in-law's house across town to watch the game on his 61-inch DLP connected to Cablevision. Once again I was shackled to live time, but it was a great win and fun to experience with family, instead of alone at my house. That night was our traditional "Dexter" night, and though we successfully resisted the ages-old temptation of simply stealing it, going without serial killer drama gave us both feelings of withdrawal. She was especially frustrated when she discovered that, as a substitute, Thursday's "Real Housewives" still hadn't appeared on Hulu. I ordered the season pass for her from Amazon VOD for $1.99 per episode, and a semblance of happiness was restored.

Monday, November 22: "Dancing with the Stars" provided another victory for OTA and entertainment for her, while I felt content that Week 1 wasn't a total disaster. I did feel a bit of water cooler talk envy when, during a lull in yesterday's Holiday Help Desk segment, Molly Wood asked participating staff whether we'd seen "Top Gear America" last night. I hadn't, but silently resolved to try that History Channel plug-in for PlayOn once again.

Week 1 reactions
eBeth and I agree that saving $100 every month is great, but we disagree whether cutting the cord completely is worth it. Here's what she said this morning after I asked for her overall thoughts so far.

"I want cable back. It's not as unbearable as I thought it would be, but the lack of CBS [via OTA] is annoying, the networks' delay in uploading shows [to the Internet] is annoying, and I really miss Bravo. After this experience I feel I would be OK with basic cable rather than the full package, as long as we got a DVR, too. I also really miss the layout of the old DVR. Browsing Hulu and TV.com [via PlayOn] is a pain. But really, I just prefer turning on the TV without having to deal with all of turning on the PlayStation to watch a show and everything."

My feelings? Among all of the sacrifices, the biggest for me is sports. Having missed the Saturday Knicks win (two in a row!), I'm not looking forward to missing tonight's winnable game against the Bobcats. But feel I can deal with it, which might prove I'm not a true fan. I'd happily pay $100 for a season's worth of live streaming Knicks or Mets games, but right now that's not an option.

Aside from programming, eBeth also brought up one big problem with watching TV from sites like Hulu and TV.com: advertisements. Using a DVR with Fios we never had to watch ads. The OTA DVR lets us skip commercials on a handful of channels, but with shows we can't get over-the-air, watching ads suddenly becomes a requirement. Hulu and TV.com seem to rotate the same commercials over and over, and despite the relatively short commercial breaks, they still seem to take forever. Not being able to skip ads is one more "hidden cost" of Internet TV we didn't really consider, and makes us really appreciate the ad-free Netflix model. An ad-free version of Hulu or TV.com would certainly be worth paying for.

I've resolved to play with the antenna until CBS comes through.

That brings up the big question: how much am I really saving? If each month I buy Hulu Plus ($8), eight episodes from Amazon VOD ($16), and extra electricity to keep my PC on 24-7 for PlayOn ($9), I've already shaved a third from my savings in cutting the cord (I'm not counting Netflix since I'd be a subscriber anyway). The least-expensive cable service in my area would be around $60 per month with DVR, plus taxes and fees, according to a call I just placed with Cablevision. It's tempting, but for now we're going to hold out with the current plan, and try to avoid too much VOD.

In all, Week 1 was rocky but bearable, and my marriage survived...so far. I'm hoping eBeth adjusts to the new control system--as usual, my Harmony remote, combined with my PlayStation IR-to-Bluetooth adapter, makes things a lot easier than they would be otherwise. If PlayOn eventually proves too annoying, I plan to try other Internet TV options. Getting a simpler-to-use Roku XDS and continuing my Hulu Plus subscription (which I planned to let expire) could go a long way toward addressing her interface and programming complaints. And maybe over the long Thanksgiving weekend I'll find time to adjust the antenna to get CBS via OTA out of Connecticut.

Stay tuned.