Cut Your Cable Bill: 10 Legal Alternatives to Costly Cable

How much money are you spending to sit and stare at an electronic black box every month? I’ll give you the numbers.

On average, American cable and satellite viewers pay $71 per month, which adds up to a staggering $852 a year. Canadians pay a steep price too. A recent CRTC report found the average Canadian cable subscriber spent close to $50 per month in 2009, while satellite subscribers paid $66 per month.


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Upgrade to a digital package, add in a few movie channels, and you’re paying at least ONE HUNDRED bucks EVERY month to sit and stare at a bunch of pixels. That’s $1,200 a year on commercials, pseudo reality TV, and some other slop. Super.

Now, I don’t have a problem with watching television. There are a few excellent shows on the small screen well deserving of my time. What I do take issue with is paying for the other sludge that cable and satellite providers slide into the mix. My time is valuable. My money is valuable. And I don’t want to time-shift, PVR, and channel surf to find the good stuff while still paying for the crap. No. I want to cherry pick the best shows and watch them when the time best suits me. Who doesn’t?

That’s why I fired my cable company, quit paying for satellite television, and started using a few legal alternatives to get my TV fix. And thanks to the burgeoning market of new web-based and wireless services, breaking up with your service provider is easy and could save you a bundle, especially if you watch TV online.

If you’re ready to cut the cable cord and save some big money (and time), here are 15 legal alternatives to costly cable:

1. Netflix.com

I asked the very fine people who follow Squawkfox on Facebook for their top ways to tap TV without the cable costs, and the resounding winner (for both Americans and Canadians) is Netflix. Netflix is a service that offers flat rate DVD and Blu-Ray disc rental by mail. Netflix also streams movies and television shows over the internet straight to your computer or preferred device.

Price: Free one month trial. Afterwards, instant streaming packages start at $7.99 per month, with more expensive plans available.

What you need: An internet connection, a television, plus a Netflix compatible device that costs around $180-$300. The most popular devices are the PlayStation 3 (PS3), the Nintendo Wii, or the Xbox 360. You can also use your handy home computer for free if you don’t mind the smaller screen.

Pro: With over 10 million subscribers, you’ve got to assume that Netflix is making the cable companies very nervous. Plus, there are no ads with Netflix, and you can pause, rewind, or fast forward as often as you like.

Con: You need an affordable internet connection. Netflix eats a fair bit of bandwidth, so it helps to have a fast connection without restrictive usage caps to take full advantage of the unlimited service. The newest movies are not always available to be streamed.

2. Over-the-air (OTA) digital television

Live in a big city? You’re in luck since you should be able to pick up several local stations for free. Many television stations in big cities still freely broadcast their shows over the air, and a few channels are now available in high definition.

Price: FREE

What you need: Big city dwellers need an antenna (possibly on the roof) to catch the airwaves for free. You also need either a newer television with a digital tuner built in, or an older television with a separate external digital tuner box. Rural residents might be able to view 1 or 2 non-digital stations with the right bunny ears.

Pro: Just like cable, but free.

Con: Channel availability can vary wildly from area to area, so Google for: your city name + “OTA TV” to see what’s available in your location.

3. Your Library

Give the Dewey Decimal System a spin at your local library and you might be surprised by the programs available for your viewing pleasure.

Price: FREE! But you’ll pay a late fee if you don’t return borrowed materials on time.

What you need: A library card. Remember those?

Pro: Many library catalogs have multiple seasons of popular TV shows and hit movies on DVD. By borrowing from the library I’ve caught up with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter.

Con: Limited selection, almost no new releases. You may need to reserve certain titles months in advance and wait…wait…and wait some more. Those needing instant gratification should probably choose another TV viewing method.

4. Hulu

Americans sure love Hulu — a website that streams ad-supported television shows and movies from NBC, Fox, ABC, and many other networks and studios over the internet.

Price: Free viewing on a computer. Hulu plus (with high definition) costs $8 per month and can be viewed on multiple devices.

What you need: An internet connection plus a Hulu compatible device, generally a computer hooked up to a television.

Pro: Many TV shows available and served on demand.

Cons:

  1. Hulu is not ad-free, so you’ll still have to sift though some sludge.
  2. Canadians will all share a collective groan with me since Hulu is only offered to Americans in the United States and its overseas territories. I’ve clicked several Hulu links over the years only to find that my internet address is blocked. Thanks CRTC. Boo!
  3. You need a fast internet connection with no restrictive usage caps.

5. Network Websites

Many big television networks stream shows on their websites shortly after the initial air date. For example, NBC.com offers full episodes of many shows such as 30 Rock online.

Price: FREE

What you need: A fast internet connection plus a computer.

Pro: Watching a favorite show on a familiar network feels like having cable, except you watch TV online, on demand.

Cons:

  1. Networks often add non-skippable advertisements to the start of the program.
  2. Older episodes may not be available. The network may only have the last five episodes online.
  3. Your shows won’t all be in one place. You may need to hunt through several network websites to find your desired programs.
  4. Shows available on network websites may only be viewable on a computer in a web browser. Full-screen quality may be lacking.

6. iTunes

A quick visit to Apple’s iTunes reveals why it’s the third largest retailer of media content in the United States — the site is huge.

Price: Some shows are free, but most episodes start at $0.99 and up. Passes for entire TV seasons can save you a few bucks. Higher quality HD programs are available, but often cost more.

What you need: A computer, the iTunes application (which is free), and an internet connection.

Pro: Both a media player and an online store, iTunes sells a huge variety of movies, TV shows, and music.

Con: Apple iTunes can get expensive fast, plus your downloads may cost big bucks if your internet bandwidth is pricey. Not all television programs are available.

7. Amazon Video on Demand

Americans can surf on over to the biggest online retailer and watch new movie releases and television shows by streaming with
Amazon Video on Demand.

Price: Price varies per show, plus the cost of a compatible streaming device.

What you need: An internet connection, a television, plus a compatible device that costs around $80-$100. The most popular devices for this set-up are the TiVo and the Roku Player. You can also playback your movie or show on your home computer.

Pro: Amazon boasts over 75,000 movies and hit TV shows and dozens of compatible HDTVs and devices.

Con: Only available to Americans in the United States. Sorry Canucks, I too feel your pain.

8. Sezmi

A digital video recorder that offers local broadcast channels, on-demand content, and a few cable channels. Yes, another internet streaming device.

Price: Around $299 for the Sezmi device and $19.95 for a monthly subscription.

What you need: An internet connection and the Sezmi device.

Pro: Sezmi is cheaper than traditional cable and satellite offerings. The device combines internet content with cable and DVR.

Cons:

  1. The device is expensive.
  2. Only available in a few larger cities in the United States.

9. National Film Board of Canada

Canadians AND Americans can watch documentaries, animations, alternative dramas and interactive productions either on the web or on an iPhone. Start watching the National Film Board here.

Price: Free for personal use and on a subscription basis for schools and institutions.

What you need: An internet connection and a computer. Those with devices such as an iPad or iPhone can watch the National Film Board shorts too.

Pro: Lots of films and documentaries online, for free.
Some HD content and a few OSCAR Winning (and nominated) pieces.

Con: Mostly older documentaries and Canadian vignettes, such as The Log Driver’s Waltz — which I remember WAAAAY back when I was in diapers. Yeah, that’s old.

10. YouTube

Disconnecting yourself from the cable tube and signing onto YouTube could save you hundreds, even thousands, over the years.

Price: YouTube is a free service.

What you need: An internet connection and a computer. Those with an iPad, iPhone, or PS3 should be no stranger to viewing viral YouTube videos online.

Pro: Owned by Google, YouTube offers viewers endless hours of user-created content, limited TV programs (mostly clips), music videos, and the odd independent short film. Some full length films and television programs are legally available to viewers in the United States.

Cons:

  1. Playback is in a web browser, but many devices provide support.
  2. More suitable for viewing short video clips, not watching full programs.
  3. Many videos contain advertisements.

Final Thoughts

Quitting cable and switching systems may sound like a hassle at first. But even after buying a $300 device or gaming console to watch TV online, you’re still saving hundreds over a cable or satellite service each year.

Squawkback: I’d love to hear from you guys. Do you still subscribe to cable or satellite television service? Or are you streaming your movie and TV shows online?

Your two cents:

  1. cindy February 21st, 2013

    I have a stupid question and I didn’t take the time to read all of the posts so it may have been answered but do you get the tv shows on these alternatives a day late a week late or the time they are on? Also, can you get channels like golf channel/sports channels on these alternatives? Thanks to whomever can answer…

  2. John Paul February 21st, 2013

    My belief is that cutting the cable is about individual values and I cut the cable for two main reasons; to save money and to not get sucked into the commercialization of everything. Doing this has forced me to exhibit patience and make sacrifices. Patience because using other sources of viewing will require waiting for a day or sometimes months. Services like Hulu will often allow viewing of shows within a day or two of the original broadcast and Netflix will show full seasons of many popular shows within a year of the season’s original broadcast. Sacrifice comes in when wanting to view live sporting events being shown exclusively on a cable network. If it is that important for you to view it might be a good idea to get with some friends and go to a sports bar or may give you a reason to hang out with friend (that is paying for cable).

    I was scared that I would not be able to live without my precious cable but it has been more than two years and I really don’t miss it. Honestly, I have discovered so many full seasons of shows on Netflix that I overlooked in the past. Also many channels have their own web sites that show full replays of programs within a day or two – like HGTV has the last 4 or 5 episodes of most of their shows.

    I hope this answers your question . . .

  3. I haven’t had cable for a number of years… I don’t miss it at all. Netflix, Hulu and an antenna cover just about everything I need.

  4. js July 23rd, 2013

    cable was nice but long movies are better.

  5. Sharon July 24th, 2013

    Great ideas but too bad for me! I live in Huntsville, Ontario and have no access to a good internet connection. Would love to do this!

  6. klv September 7th, 2013

    Chromecast For The Win!!!

  7. Denise December 16th, 2013

    Just read your gift list for 2013 and jumped to this site for further reading about ditching cable. My hubby and I just dialed it down to the basic cable package for about $19/month so we could watch our regular network shows and local news. The rest of our TV time is through amazon Prime. The only thing we missed was our national news station, and we cured that problem by hooking my laptop up to a large computer monitor that we were storing. Instant Fox News! Cable needs to get on board–who of us is content to spend $225+ a month to watch 10% of the channels offered in a “bundle”??? Great stuff, Kerry!

  8. Carolyn Jane Gillis March 25th, 2014

    I cut the cord two years ago, opting for $30.00 per month Internet cable, and OTA TV, which gives me ABC, CBS, NBC, CW, Fox and PBS, via rabbit ears. I couldn’t live comfortably without Internet access to my favorite online sites. When I have a favorite cable show that I just to have to have, I buy it in DVD form, or get whole seasons of it at my local library.

    I’m going to buy a new computer this year, an iPad, and a Kindle Paperwhite eBook reader with the money that I saved by not paying for cable TV for the last two years.

  9. kei b August 29th, 2014

    I am really amazed by the options. I never would have known about it if I did not do reviews for mostly everything. I honestly have not had cable in my home for maybe 2 or years, I am here to tell you its very hard my kids. Oh well its not in our budget not when cable prices are starting at $120.00 is not pocket change. I’m thankful that I discovered these few options. Thank you all again.

  10. Jepaul August 30th, 2014

    Kei – remember that this is old article. I save by using a TV tuner card in an old PC running Win7. This allows me to access Netflix, Hulu free, YouTube, and network websites. My roof antenna picks up 58 channels but using the PC and tuner card I am able to use media center in Windows and have on screen guide and the ability to use a DVR feature too. The channel guides updates itself via your internet connection and allows the recording of shows automatically just like cable or sat would. Your children will survive without cable and will adjust just fine. Just think of the wonderfull things you can do in the future with the thousands you will save.

  11. Cristina October 11th, 2014

    The idea that online streaming hurts cable companies is bogus, since the same companies that provide cable are also the biggest internet providers. If anything, they are making more money, because viewers need unlimited high speed to watch Netflix online, so the increase in income from selling internet services more than compensates the loss of income on cable. Don’t cry for Bell, they are going to be just fine. I think all TV networks need to go online if they want to survive. There is enough stuff already available online, either free or fairly cheap, that there is no motivation to keep the cable for the few shows that are not. I’m saying shows only, because for news, the internet beats TV anytime.

  12. Ian Taylor March 27th, 2015

    For $5/mo get UNOTELLY and get access to world-wide TV networks and unblocking of USA-based networks. Add Adblock to avoid almost all commercials. For $35 plug a CHROMECAST device into your HD TV and cast all the shows to your HD TV. Preferably, opt for at least 10mbps Download service from your Internet provider to avoid video stuttering.

  13. Mag April 10th, 2015

    I cut my cable cord 18 months ago. I watch pretty much anything I want on the internet. CANADIANS you can watch Hulu, BBC or anything else with a VPN unblocker. Using a VPN unblocker is legal, unless you use it to hide in order to commit a crime. Streaming is not a crime! Fraud, scamming, child porn, these are crimes.

  14. paula May 16th, 2015

    what are our options if we need to have golf and tennis channel?

  15. Christine September 20th, 2015

    I cut the cord about 1 year go. I know stream on off a Roku 3 I also added Netflix and Huluplus each cost me $7.99 a month totally to approximately a whopping $16, on Huluplus I get to watch ABC, NBC, FOX, CW, MTV, VH1 and quite a few more network channels. I have to wait til the next day for any current “live TV” show series but I don’t mind about that. I can also get PBS for free which I like watching shows like “Downtown Abbey”. What I do miss is CBS shows, I have tried the whole “CBS All Access” and that is a joke its mostly reruns and if you live in a rural area you won’t be able to view any “Live TV Show” because there probably isn’t a station in your area close enough to pick it up. Guess I am just going to have to start watching my favorite CBS shows online through my laptop by attaching a HDMI cable to my HDTV like I do with newer movies..I refuse to pay for those ridiculously high fee’s for cable or satellite TV.

  16. Jepaul2438 October 21st, 2015

    Hi Christine. Good for you, cutting the cord. Have you tried an antenna? A digital indoor one can be found very cheaply and usually will be enough to pick up most major network broadcast. My newest cord cutting toy is my RokuTV and antenna which gives me 67 on air channels and all of the Roku features in a single remote.

  17. Max just February 27th, 2016

    everything listed above are great choices to say fk the blood sucking and gully cable companies that raise the price or do whatever they wish with adding dollars to ur bill and lying that its a nationwide tax increase or rate increase, i have had cable for 11 years and honestly i had to call them every freakin month to adjust the amount i have to pay. Imagine how much time i have wasted cussing them out over the phone for their shady ways to conduct business at at least once a month between half hour and an hour for 11 years straight :// sometimes im just blown away the stupid things i do :/ but yesterday i cut them suckas off … Even though they tried everything to make me not cancel my cable service.

    Im surprised nobody has mentioned rabbit tv, my mother is using it and has only good things to say about their service.

    I just signed up for netflix for now, well see if it will cut for a month or two and then if it will not i will look into other options that are out there.

    And i say fk the cable companies for real for real, and actually what they are doing is a monopoly which was illegal last time i checked !!!

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