Diary of a cable TV cord cutter: Day 1

The first rocky day in CNET editor David Katzmaier's chronicle of ending his subscription to cable TV service.

I'm trading in my Verizon Fios service to save money, but the transition will be painful. David Katzmaier/CNET

As the credits rolled over the DVR recording of the latest episode of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" yesterday, I picked up the phone and dialed customer service at Verizon.

"Yes, I'd like to modify my plan to remove the television portion and subscribe to the least-expensive Internet and phone bundle you have," I told the representative.

She cheerfully complied, and didn't even try to convince me to simply downgrade my current TV subscription--which included pretty much every available HD channel on Fios, the Home Media DVR, and a second box--to something more basic. It wouldn't have mattered, though. I'd done the math, and with a basic subscription that excluded HBO and Showtime but kept a DVR (which my wife and I agreed was a necessity), the savings wouldn't help my budget enough.

But when she confirmed that my new monthly bill would be $80 plus taxes and fees, down from an average of $179 this year, well, that mattered. It would enable me to afford my car payments.

Why I cut cable TV
Unlike many Americans, I can't truly claim financial hardship as the reason why I decided to get rid of my subscription television service--by which I mean Verizon's Fios TV, not technically cable, in case you're counting. The main reason was because my wife, Elizabeth, and I wanted a new car.

Is a new(er) minivan worth cutting cable? We'll find out.

Our faithful, paid-off 2000 Mazda MPV was showing its age, and a family friend was getting rid of his 2004 Toyota Sienna. The Mazda had made me a minivan convert, and ever since I drove our first child home from the hospital in my father-in-law's 2009, I'd loved Siennas. The '04 was a sweet blue XLE with leather and power doors, in basically perfect condition, and my wife and I could get it for a grand below Blue Book. We'd still have to make payments, however.

We looked over our budget and found a few places to cut corners, like meals out, but we were still well short. The only place with room for the necessary cut, it turned out, was our Verizon bill.

Aside from the price, we had no complaints with Fios TV. In the year-and-a-half since we moved to our suburban New York home, our TV service has been flawless. Hardware and software reliability was essentially perfect, the massive library of on-demand HD videos--many free--loaded every time, and I could watch DVR'd Mets and Knicks games in the furnished basement while she watched "What Happens" and skipped commercials upstairs. It was TV Nirvana, and we watch a lot of TV.

What I loved most, however, was the picture quality. I'd moved from Time Warner Cable to Dish Network before I got access to Fios, and I've experienced my share of DirecTV at work, not to mention Cablevision and Comcast elsewhere. Across channels, FIOS really does look better than any of the others, especially on my 50-inch plasma TV.

Nonetheless we both wanted that car, and rather than go further into debt, we decided to cut the cable.

Preparing for life after cable
I needed a TV solution that was easy and reliable. My first thought was the combination of over-the-air (OTA) HDTV with the Channel Master CM-7000PAL DVR. Provided I could get solid reception at my home nearly 40 miles from the main broadcast tower at the Empire State Building, we'd have all of the major networks with excellent video quality and not have to go into DVR withdrawal, or pay a monthly fee to TiVo.

Good-bye Fios boxes. Hello OTA DVR and streaming via the PS3.

Knowing we'd miss a lot of the shows that weren't available via antenna, however, I planned to use Internet video to fill in the gaps. The most content by far comes courtesy of PlayOn, a program that runs on a PC and allows streaming of Web-based video from Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, TV.com, CBS.com, and others, to living-room-based devices like my PlayStation 3. I've been using PlayOn on and off since it became available a couple years ago, and even took advantage of the $40 Founding Member lifetime premium upgrade price this fall, but with my TV subscription I never needed to depend on it.

I set about making the necessary hardware preparations, namely installing a new antenna on our roof and running a 100-foot cable from my router upstairs down to my living room entertainment center (I could have gone Wi-Fi, but I wanted the reliability of Ethernet). Installation was the easy part, requiring a couple hours with a staple gun and two holes--later weather-sealed, of course--drilled through the exterior walls.

Total cost for Internet TV: $50, no extra monthly fees aside from Netflix at $8.99/month. Since I already have a PS3, I just needed one-time investments of $40 for PlayOn and about $10 for the cable. Pay-per-view via Amazon VOD will cost extra, if we decide to use it.

(I also figure that, since I have to leave my PC running 16 hours per day, I'll spend another $8.87/month extra on electricity, thanks to the high average rate in New York of $0.18/kwhr and a PC that uses 96 watts average. That's incentive to try running PlayOn on an old, more-efficient laptop that's gathering dust, or maybe ditch the service altogether for a Roku XDS. I'm still considering that one.)

Chasing OTA onto the roof
The antenna was trickier. I lurked on message boards and consulted with longtime cord-cutter and OTA devotee Matt Moskovciak, and the consensus recommendation was TVfool for initial research and SolidSignal for hardware purchases. TVfool's awesome-looking (and, according to enthusiast forums, somewhat optimistic) mapping service told me I shouldn't have much trouble getting a bunch of HD stations, including all of the major networks. An e-mail from Solidsignal recommended a Winegard HD 7698P, 100 feet each of coax cable and grounding wire, a grounding block, and a grounding rod.

When you're 40 miles from the source broadcast tower, you need a big antenna. The Winegard 7698P is 14 feet long.

I already had a mast attached to my chimney, topped by an old antenna that, sadly, I couldn't use since it had no visible place to attach a wire. Foolishly deciding to go the DIY route, I estimated I could remove the old antenna and replace it with the massive Winegard in a day of work.

The procedure proved extremely difficult, mainly because of my steep roof and the inconvenient placement of the mast on the opposite side of the chimney. Perched on the peak in the waning light of the last day of daylight saving time, I finally managed to heave the 14-foot antenna's U-bolts over the top of the mast without falling nearly three stories to my rocky front yard. The sick yet infinitely relieved feeling afterward reminded me of the time I nearly got hit by a bus crossing Madison Avenue.

In short, I recommend getting your rooftop antenna professionally installed.

A couple of weekends of sporadic work later, I had aimed the antenna as well as I possibly could toward NYC, had run and secured the coax wire from my roof and into the living room, and had grounded the whole thing per the SolidSignal installation manual.

Total cost for OTA: $620. That's $220 for the antenna, etc., from SolidSignal; $50 for shorter coax cables, insulated standoffs, and weather boots at Radio Shack; $350 for a Channel Master CM-70000PAL DVR (Full disclosure: The DVR is a review sample I'm in the process of reviewing and will return to Channel Master afterward, per company policy; I plan to buy my own or get a TiVo afterward); and $59 for a Channel Master CM7777 Titan2 preamp.

Many cord cutters won't have to spend nearly as much to get "free" OTA. Smaller antennas, including inexpensive indoor ones, often work great closer to broadcast towers. The $99 TiVo makes an excellent OTA DVR, as long as you don't mind the monthly fee, and provides lots of other Internet video services, too (I'm thinking of getting a TiVo instead of the CM DVR, in fact). PC-based DVR software combined with a DTV tuner card is also a more economical solution if you don't mind having a computer in the living room. And, of course, you could skip the DVR completely and just use the free tuner built into your HDTV.

Preliminary feelings
After all of that, I definitely have a feeling of accomplishment, as well as the singular joy of shedding part of my monthly payment obligations.

But going from the full Fios monty to an antenna/Internet hodgepodge still hurts.

PlayOn via my PS3 opens up a wealth of programming options.

eBeth, who reports some classic withdrawal symptoms in this first 24 hours, experienced a couple of disconnections ("DLNA error") with PlayOn when she was trying to watch daytime TV yesterday, although stability was otherwise very good. Video quality on all of our Internet TV shows is subpar after Fios, of course, and we both hate having to watch those unskippable, constantly repeating ads from Hulu and TV.com.

Image quality on the antenna is superb, on the other hand, and having a 30-second commercial skip is great. On the downside, antenna reception, even with my elaborate setup, is spotty. We can't reliably get CBS, which is a major source of our weekly programming palette (I'm a Jets fan; she loves CBS daytime, "Medium," and Charles Osgood). TVfool pegs a "co-channel warning" as a potential culprit and Wikipedia mentions a new transmitter permit for a "digital fill-in translator on channel 22" near my house, presumably to address the problem. Until it's built, however, we'll have to get our CBS fix online. (Editors' note: CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS, thus the author is an employee of CBS.)

Just this morning Elizabeth called to tell me that all of the channels were showing "0" on the DVR's signal strength meter, and she couldn't watch anything over the air--although later the signal apparently reappeared.

Unfortunately, I can't get CBS over the air from my location right now.

"Guess we should have tried it out before we switched off our service," she remarked after telling me about the drop-out. I lamely speculated it had something to do with the rain.

Stay tuned. I'll be back soon after we settle in with our new life of "free" TV. Future installments may include grappling with shady, albeit tempting, solutions like bittorrent; "cheating" using a Slingbox to watch the Knicks; and numerous frustrated references to blocky, soft, low-frame-rate Internet video.

Special thanks to Matt Moskovciak and Marguerite Reardon for the inspiration to chronicle my switch.

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