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How to cut the cable TV cord in 2020

Still watching TV using a cable box? Now's the time to start streaming your favorite TV shows and movies instead.

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The cable box is an expensive way to get TV. Yes it's familiar, but it's also something you don't need anymore to enjoy your favorite TV shows and movies. The apps built into your smart TV or running on an inexpensive streamer such as Roku or Amazon Fire TV can provide more great shows than any cable box for less money. 

More Americans than ever are cutting the cable TV cord in favor of streaming, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Staying at home, facing financial hardship and bereft of options for live sports and other big events, people are turning to streaming in record numbers

Services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu have thousands of TV shows and movies to stream on-demand, but that's just the beginning. Live TV streaming services, available from the likes of Sling TV and YouTube TV, can stream most of the live channels available on your cable box with no contracts to sign, so you can cancel anytime. And if you don't want to pay at all, numerous other services stream free TV shows, free movies and even free live news


Ready to ditch your cable box for a screen full of apps? Relax, it's easy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Whether your favorite shows are on Netflix or TNT, Disney Plus or ESPN, Amazon Prime or your local ABC, NBC or PBS station, you can probably stream them without ever needing to use a cable or satellite TV box. 

Here's how to get started.

(Note that CNET is owned by ViacomCBS, which is a compensated programming provider on all cable, satellite and online TV services that offer CBS and Viacom channels including CBS, Showtime, Nickelodeon, Pop, CBS Sports and The CW, among others. ViacomCBS also owns and operates its own online service, CBS All Access, which is mentioned below.)

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Determine how much money you'll save

Even if you cut cable TV you'll still need a home internet connection for streaming. Many people get internet as part of a cable TV bundle, maybe with phone service too. Often your cable company is the same one providing your internet connection, but sometimes you can shop around to multiple internet providers.

You'll need to find out how much home broadband by itself, with no TV bundle, costs. If your bundle is $130 a month, maybe you'll have to pay $60 for just internet. That leaves $70 of potential savings by cutting cable TV. That's a lot of money every month to pocket or spend on new streaming services.

Other things to consider as you shop for internet-only plans:

  • Are you under contract? If so, you'll have to either wait it out, renegotiate a new internet-only deal with your cable company or eat the early termination fee.
  • How fast of a connection do you need? Start by pricing out the same speed you have already but keep in mind that with everyone in your home streaming more, you might need faster broadband.
  • You should get a plan with unlimited data, if available, which can cost more than data-limited plans. Streaming video can really add up.

Live TV services like YouTube TV have grid-style program guides, just like your cable box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Figure out what shows and channels you can't live without

Now it's time to figure out your TV must-haves. Cancelling cable means you'll need to stream the stuff you normally watch on your cable box.

Make a list of the channels and shows you and your family watch regularly. In some cases you'll be able to replace the shows on those channels with a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu, but be aware that many current-season episodes won't be available immediately.

The best option to replace your cable box directly is with a live TV streaming service. Each offers a package of live channels you can watch on a streaming app that, with a little learning curve, works just as well as (or better than) a cable box. They include program guides, cloud DVRs and extras your box can't deliver including user profiles and mobile streaming. Prices start at $20 a month but to get live local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, For or PBS) you'll need to pay at least $50 per month. For premium shows, HBO ($15 a month), Showtime ($11) and Starz ($9) all have standalone services, too. 

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. 

Read more: Best live TV streaming services for cord cutters

Read more: Top 100 channels you can stream on each live TV service

Want to save even more? Consider using an antenna

One way to get around the high cost of local networks on streaming is to use an antenna. Just about every TV 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 Fire TV RecastAirTV or TiVo Bolt OTA, you're restricted to live-only viewing.

Read more: Cut the cord for $10: Best indoor TV antenna in 2020


Amazon's Fire TV Recast is an antenna DVR designed for cord cutters.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Get the right devices to replace your cable box

You won't need that cable box anymore, but you will need some kind of steaming 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. In any case you'll also need to connect such a device to each TV that's currently connected to a cable box.

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.

Read more: Best streaming devices of 2020: Roku, Apple TV, Fire Stick and more compared

streamers roku apple tv chromecast fire tv

A steaming device and the right apps can completely replace a cable box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Try to replace your DVR'd shows with streaming options

Do you use your cable box's DVR a lot? Live TV streaming services offer a "cloud DVR," but often 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 to watch commercials. YouTube TV has the best cloud DVR we've tested, but in some ways it's still not as good as TiVo.

Thanks to on-demand, however, you might not miss your DVR much at all. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others let you watch shows on-demand -- often the same shows you're using your DVR to record. And live TV services such as YouTube TV and Sling TV offer 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.


Sports fans can cut the cord too.

David Katzmaier/CNET

Do you care about watching sports?

The onset of coronavirus cancelled most live sports but some are coming back and soon sports fans will have plenty of options they'll want to follow live. Unfortunately, sports fans will have the toughest time cutting the cord. 

Some channels devoted to pro baseball, basketball, basketball teams, known as RSNs (regional sports networks), are only available to cable subscribers. Live TV streaming TV services, particularly the more expensive ones like Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV, numerous RSNs, but coverage varies widely by sport, team and city. To find out if a live TV service carries your team's games you'll need to visit the service's web site.

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 will carry 2020 NFL games for free, including to compatible TV-connected devices.

Do a trial run first

Cutting the cable cord can save you a lot of money but you'll need to do some planning to make the transition as painless as possible. It pays to get all your streaming ducks in a row before you make that final fateful call to your cable provider.

Go through the checklist above and figure out which services you need to subscribe to and which devices you'll need to get. Install everything on your main TV, unplug your cable box and get used to using streaming instead. Educate yourself first then move on to helping other members of your household.

Chances are you'll experience some bumps along the way. The menu systems on some streaming services are different, the remote controls on devices are different, even the lack of channel numbers and need to use search can be tough to grok. Give it time and patience, however, and it will be fine.

Ready? Call up your cable company and cancel

After you've lived with streaming for awhile and have grown comfortable with the process of clicking on an app rather that firing up your cable box, it's time to make the fateful call. Your cable provider might offer you incentives to stick around and you'll have to weigh those against the benefits of cutting the cord, but do so carefully. Especially if the offer is contingent on signing a 2-year contract. A lot can change in two years and with the freedom of streaming, it's simply a lot easier to save money than with cablew.

In the end, cutting cable TV isn't for everyone. No single device or service has as many channels as a premium cable package. Juggling different services to find the shows you want to watch can more effort than some users are willing to put in.

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 if you do it right, you'll never miss that old cable box.