How to Cut the Cable TV Cord With Streaming Services
David KatzmaierEditorial 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.
ExpertiseA 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.
As streaming gets more popular and people look for ways to save in a difficult economy, cable TV subscriptions become options, not necessities.
Why it matters
Cutting cable TV can save you money every month, and provides more freedom to pay for the TV programs you actually watch.
If you still haven't ditched cable, our step-by-step guide will walk you through the process.
How much cheaper is streaming compared to cable TV? We did the math, and the exact answer ranges from $30 to more than $100 every month, depending on what you actually watch. The general answer, however, is that cable is almost always more expensive than streaming, especially once you figure in all the taxes and fees that get added to your monthly cable bill.
Set up a home internet plan with unlimited data, if you can
Even if you cut cable TV you'll still need a home internet connection for streaming. Many people get their 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 find the best internet provider.
You'll need to find out how much home broadband costs by itself, without a TV bundle. 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 a faster connection.
You should get a plan with unlimited data, if available, which can cost more than data-limited plans. Streaming video can really add up.
Which TV shows and channels are your must-haves?
Now it's time to figure out your TV must-haves. Canceling cable means you'll need to stream the stuff you normally watch on your cable box.
Make a list of the shows and channels you and your family watch regularly. In some cases you'll be able to replace your favorite channel programming with a streaming service such as Netflix or Hulu, but be aware that many current-season episodes won't be available immediately.
Here are our picks for TV and movies you can stream on each of the main streaming services:
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 bit of a 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 $25 a month but to get live local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox or PBS) and a package comparable to cable, you'll need to pay at least $65 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.
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 they do have some limitations compared to TiVo or the DVR from your cable company. They often have storage limits, shows that expire after a certain time, limitations on which channels can be recorded, and some even force you to watch commercials. YouTube TV has the best cloud DVR we've tested, and in most ways it's as good as TiVo, and most other services' cloud DVRs are solid too.
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.
Install a TV antenna for local channels
One way to get around the high cost of local networks on streaming is to use an antenna. To qualify as a television, and not a monitor, a display needs to have 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 AirTV or TiVo Bolt OTA, you're restricted to live-only viewing.
Use a streaming device: smart TV, game console, Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast or Apple TV
You won't need that cable box anymore, but you will need some kind of streaming device to watch services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max. 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.
Streaming devices are relatively cheap ($25 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.
Sports fans have an increasing number of streaming options that show live games, but depending on which sport(s) you follow, the local team(s) in your area and how many games you want to watch, it can get costly. Channels devoted to NBA basketball, NHL hockey and MLB baseball teams, known as regional sports networks, are available on most cable networks but are rare and expensive on streaming services. These are the channels you'll need to watch most regular-season games for those sports (the playoffs are generally on national channels).
Live TV streaming service DirecTV Stream's $90 plan is often the only option if you want to watch your local RSN via streaming, although in some parts of the country a somewhat cheaper service (namely YouTube TV or Fubo TV at $65 or $70, respectively) will carry your channel. Coverage varies widely by sport, team and city, so check out our dedicated guides for more details -- including exactly which services carry your local team and how much they cost.
NFL pro football is a different beast. Those games are usually carried on local CBS, Fox and NBC networks, but you'll typically need an antenna or a live TV streaming service, or you'll have to watch select games on Paramount Plus or Amazon Prime Video -- the latter hosts Thursday Night Football exclusively in 2022. And of course you'll need ESPN, available on most livestreaming services, to watch Monday Night Football.
If you like to chat with friends in real-time during the game, or follow live games on Twitter or social media, be aware that streaming sports are often delayed compared to the "live" game on cable or elsewhere. The Super Bowl, for example, lags 30 seconds to a minute behind cable.
Do a trial run before you cut the cord for good
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 your checklist 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. Familiarize 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? It's time to cancel your cable service
After you've lived with streaming for a while and have grown comfortable with the process of clicking on an app rather than 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 two-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 cable.
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 be more effort than some people are willing to put in.
On the other hand, cutting cable is getting easier 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 favorite 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.