Now more than ever, the internet is a viable substitute for cable TV.
On-demand TV services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have thousands of TV shows and movies to stream on-demand. Live TV streaming is available from the likes of Sling TV and DirecTV Now -- as well as from YouTube and Hulu itself. And there's constellation of new, more capable devices like Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast that you can buy outright, rather than rent from your cable company, for as little as $30.
What does it all mean? Maybe it's time to cut the cord and cancel your cable TV subscription.
But just because the grass you're about to cut is greener, doesn't mean it's better. Even today, with more options than ever, ditching cable TV still means making a sacrifice or three for most people.
Before you make that fateful final call to your cable provider, here's some stuff to think about.
(Note that CNET is owned by CBS, which is a compensated programming provider on all cable, satellite and online TV services that offer CBS channels, which include Showtime, Pop, CBS Sports and The CW, among others. CBS also owns and operates its own online service, CBS All Access, which is mentioned below.)
How much does 'just internet' cost, and is there a data limit?
Chances are, you already have home internet service as part of a bundle, maybe with phone service too. Usually your cable company is the same one providing your internet connection, and since they don't want you to cancel TV, they often charge proportionally more for just internet alone.
If your bundle is $130/month, maybe you'll have to pay $60 for just internet. That leaves $70 of potential savings by cutting cable TV. Once you subscribe to a new TV service or two, you'll start eating into that savings quickly.
And if your internet provider has a monthly data limit, streaming TV eats into that more quickly than just about anything else. We advise heavy streamers to get a plan with unlimited data, if available, which can cost more than data-limited plans.
Can you negotiate a better price for TV by threatening to cut the cord?
Remember that $130 price? Maybe the cable company is willing to negotiate once you call them up and tell them you want to cancel TV service. Dropping the monthly bundle price by $10 or $20 could make cutting cable less appealing.
When doing the arithmetic, be sure to factor in the savings of not paying the cable company a monthly fee to rent their equipment. And if you can get "just internet" from another provider in your area, it's worth checking their price, and using it to negotiate too.
Keep in mind those make-good prices (which may include things like "free HBO") usually only last a few months, at which time they often bounce back to the full amount with no notice -- at which time you'll need to repeat the negotiation to lower your bill again.
Which shows and channels do you actually watch now?
Not having cable TV means you'll need to get your must-have shows and channels from another service. Make a list of what you actually watch, then find out how to get it, then figure out how much it will cost.
Netflix ($8/month), Amazon ($99/year for a Prime subscription), Hulu ($8/month or $12 without commercials) and CBS All Access ($6 or $10 without commercials) have many major shows, and HBO ($15/month), Showtime ($11) and Starz ($9) all have standalone services, too. You don't need to subscribe to all of them, but most cord cutters use one or two at least.
Another option is a live multichannel TV streaming service, like Sling TV (starting at $20/month), PlayStation Vue ($30), DirecTV Now ($35 at AT&T Wireless) ($35), YouTube TV ($40 at Google Store) ($35) or Hulu with Live TV ($40). Each has particular channels, strengths and weaknesses, but all five are designed to replace cable TV for a lower price.
The best part about any of the services above? Unlike cable, you can cancel and restart service anytime without contracts or penalties. You can subscribe to follow a particular show, for example, and then cancel after the finale.
Do you have the right device?
You won't need that cable box anymore, but you will need some kind of device to watch any of the services mentioned above. Maybe the app is built into your smart TV, maybe into your game console, or maybe you have to buy a new streaming device like a Roku or Apple TV. At least they're relatively cheap ($30 and up), and you don't have to pay the cable company every month to rent one. And with most services you can also watch on your phone, tablet or computer.
Does your family watch a lot of live TV?
If the answer is yes, then one of those live TV services is worth considering. One catch, however, is that each service places a limit on how many streams you can watch at once.
The $20 Sling TV service, Sling Orange, only lets you watch one stream at a time, so if another person on the account starts watching on another TV (or their phone) at the same time you do, one of the streams won't work. Sling's Blue service ($25/month) allows three streams, DirecTV Now allows two, YouTube TV allows three, and PlayStation Vue allows five. With Hulu's Live TV you get two streams for the base price, or unlimited streams for an extra $15 fee. Services like Netflix also charge more for multiple simultaneous streams.
How do you feel about using an antenna?
Just about every TV (with the notable exception of 2016 Vizios with SmartCast) has an over-the-air tuner built-in, so you can plug in an antenna and watch broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS. Reception varies widely depending on where you live, however, and unless you buy an antenna DVR like the Channel Master Plus or TiVo Roamio OTA, you're restricted to live-only viewing.
Sling, DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue offer live streams of local channels, too, but only in certain cities, and even there they lack PBS and other local networks beyond the "big four" broadcast networks.
Can you replace the DVR with on-demand?
Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV and Hulu all offer a "cloud DVR," but it's not as capable as a TiVo or the DVR from your cable company. They often have smaller storage limits, shows that expire after a certain time, limitations on which channels can be recorded, and even force you into watching commercials.
Thanks to on-demand, however, you might not miss your DVR much at all. Netflix, Hulu and the rest are almost all on-demand, so you can watch their shows anytime you want. And the live TV services like Sling also have a lot of on-demand shows, and you can often pause or even skip commercials. On the other hand every episode of every show might not be available.
Do you care about watching sports?
Sports fans will have the toughest time cutting the cord. Many channels devoted to pro baseball and basketball teams are only available to cable subscribers, and streaming packages like MLB.TV black out local games. NFL pro football games are usually carried on local networks, but you'll typically need an antenna, a live TV streaming service, or CBS All Access (for CBS games only) to watch them. One exception? Amazon streams 2017 Thursday night NFL games for free, including to compatible TV-connected devices.
Will you depend on somebody else's logins?
The dirty little not-so-secret to saving money on TV? Stealing, er, "sharing" login information. Many people without cable watch TV over the Internet using apps like HBO Go and FX Now and login information (username and password) borrowed from someone else, like their parents.
Even if your parents give you permission, this practice can cause problems. It goes against the terms of service for the provider, for example, and services can track multiple logins and perhaps restrict access based on location. That said, the savings is significant, so a lot of cord cutters do it anyway.
Are you ready for more hassle?
If all of that sounds like a lot more of a pain than what you're used to with cable, that's because it is. Even today no single device or service has everything you get from cable, and juggling different services to find the shows you watch is more effort than just paying the piper and getting your TV the old-fashioned way, from your cable company. Cable is also more reliable in our experience than most streaming services, especially for large events where a lot of people want to watch at the same time.
On the other hand, cutting cable is getting easier and cheaper with every new option that hits the market. Beyond the savings, you get the freedom of being able to pick and choose the service you want -- and drop it like a hot potato if you don't like it anymore, your show ends, or something new comes along.
Cutting cable is all about choice and can work great for you and your family, as long as you know what you'll be giving up.
This article was originally published December 7, 2016, and has been fully updated.