Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cut the Cord: a survival guide

Would you like to be a cutting the cord survivor?

Are you tempted by those monthly savings, but think they are too good to be true?  Tired of poor customer service and endless Cable bill increases?  Do you hate being bled to death by those "extra" monthly charges: what? you want HD, a DVR, and multiple rooms with TV?  Are you annoyed that the one channel that you want to watch always seems to be in the most expensive channel package (along with 100s of other channels you could care less about)?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you might just have what it takes to join me on "No-Pay-TV" Island for a little game of "Cut the Cord" Survivor.  Don't worry, I'll walk you through the process starting with a risk-free trial cutting and finishing up as a full-fledged cord cutting advocate!

We have just started season one and casting is about to start.  Before you say yes, let me tell you what you are in for.  Not everyone has the courage and motivation to make it.  Many have dreamed of this and more than a few have failed.  If you ask your friends they might laugh; if you read the news reports they will say it can't be done.  Pay no attention to the nay-sayers.  I'll share all of the secrets and we'll see who laughs last!

Here is a quick outline of the Season:

Episode #1 - Surviving on a crash diet of broadcast TV (this post)
Episode #2 - Foraging for free Internet TV
Episode #3 - Enjoying dessert:  premium streaming TV and rentals
Episode #4 - Winning the kids' hearts and minds
Episode #5 - Keeping your inner sports fan happy
Episode #6 - Miss your DVR yet?  Choosing the best "box" for cutting the cord
Episode #7 - Just say yes to place-shifting
Episode #8 - Dealing with annoying Cable addicts and cord cutting jokes
Episode #9 - Cancel your Cable bill in under 30 minutes

Finally, there is the problem of what to do with your monthly savings.  Sadly, for that, you are on your own.

Still interested?  Think you are up for the challenge?  No ticket is necessary, just follow along.

Feel free to forward to your disbelieving friends.  Let's make this a big party!

Episode #1 has just started and the Island awaits you!

Welcome to "No-Pay-TV" Island!

We will start with a "trial" cord cutting.  No you don't have to literally "cut" the cord (although that would be satisfying).  Just unplug your Cable/Satellite set top box or DVR and place it in your closet.  You don't even have to tell your Cable company.  It will be our little secret.

If your kids or significant other ask, just tell them that the DVR broke and the Cable company is sending you a new one (however it might take a few days - try to be vague).  Oh sure, there will be complaints at first (a little screaming, some wailing, and much gnashing of teeth).  Just hide that DVR really well or you could end up with a bit of a situation!

This is more or less exactly what we did a little over a year ago.  We were remodeling our living room and had to move not only the Cable DVR, but the TV as well into the garage where they gathered dust for over 6 weeks.

What happened next was a total surprise to us.  We found that we were amazingly content to substitute our cable viewing habits with what we could find on-line and (later) over the air.  At the end of those 6 weeks I had almost forgotten about Cable (but the Cable company kept sending the bills!).

This is the same experience I'd like you to share.  We need to cut ourselves off from the Pay TV first to give us the motivation to seek out alternatives.

You are on "No-Pay-TV" Island now and there is no Cable or Satellite TV here.  So, what next?

Free Broadcast Digital TV

We will start with over the air or broadcast TV as it is probably one of the best kept secrets of cord cutters.  If you are like me, you probably hadn't hooked up a TV antenna in years (perhaps some of you have never hooked up a TV antenna ever).

The transition to Digital TV in the US a year or so ago was mostly a non-event for people here.  If you were a Cable or Satellite subscriber you could care less.  You probably still have images in your mind of the old analog TV reception issues (snowy screens, ghosting of two channels together, garbled sound).  Yes, that was what analog TV was like (especially in fringe) areas.  However, believe me when I say that Digital TV is totally different.

If you live in a major metro area (or say within 30-40 miles of the transmitters), your TV reception could be near perfect.  Oh, and by perfect, I mean really mean PERFECT.  One of the joys of digital TV is that once your signal strength is past a certain point (e.g. about 50-60%), the image is nearly flawless.  Gone are the issues of poor analog reception.  Of course, you might need a good antenna if you are far away, but that is a small investment considering what you can get (and compared to Pay TV's bills!).

Who can get Digital TV?

I live in the San Francisco bay area (in California).  My area is relatively highly populated and I have a good selection of TV channels to choose from.  Lucky me you say, but I'm not alone.  There are more than 5 million people who live in this major urban area so the channels that I'll review here should be directly of interest to a large audience.

However, other major urban areas in the US should have a similar selection of TV stations to choose from.  Also, around the world many countries have already completed their transition to digital TV (or are in the process).  So, I think it is fair to assume that raising people's awareness about digital TV is of general interest even if the specifics may vary widely.  Just to give you an idea, here is a World map showing areas where Digital TV is already or is coming:

I think it is safe to say that Digital TV is pretty much a world-wide phenomena.

Sure, but I'll bet there is nothing on!

Wrong again.  Remember, you have DVR unplugged and hidden away (no cheating!).  I'll bet your stomach is growling and you are itching to grab that missing remote.   Just wait, you are starting to get the right motivation needed to really appreciate what is available for free in the air all around you.

I'll skip the specifics of hooking up an antenna.  You can read all about my antenna and how to point it here.  Most modern TVs sold recently are mandated to have the ability to receive digital TV broadcasts.  Just connect that TV to the antenna and let's see what is on!   You don't need a fancy DVR or Tivo (We'll get to that later), just plug that antenna in directly!  It couldn't be easier to get started:

Here is just a quick teaser before I jump into the channel list that I get for free.
  • All of the Major US TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC)
  • A live 7 by 24 TV guide channel
  • Multiple local TV stations with a variety of local news, weather, movies and entertainment
  • Multiple Public Broadcasting stations (and sub-channels)
  • Other TV networks such as CW and ION (more really good programming)
  • A large assortment of foreign language programming and news (some in English, and in a variety of languages).  Lots of non-English speakers here.  Cable TV subscribers pay an extra fee for this!
  • There are even a couple of simulcasts of excellent public radio stations.
All in all I get at last count 67(!) channels and I see more showing up all the time.  Many of these stations broadcast in HD.   For you sports fans, watching broadcast HD is clearly better that the same feed over Pay TV.  The other day we compared AT&T's U-verse with broadcast and broadcast was clearly better.  Funny that you are paying for an inferior picture that you can get for free over the air!

What about the programming itself?  Well, the Fall TV show lineup has started and I can enjoy Glee, Castle, House, and numerous other high quality shows all in High Definition.  I get Sunday (and Monday) night Football.  Note: Monday night football is rebroadcast on CW in HD channel courtesy of ESPN (only when local teams are playing).   I even get a non-stop diet of Olympic style sports on the Universal Sports Channel.   Soccer fans can get their fill of coverage (not always in English though), via Univision.

Here are some screen shots of Glee on FOX, Monday Night FootBall on CW, Castle on ABC:

Nothing wrong with these pictures!  We got full HD here.

Also, unlike Cable TV, many of the local stations have quite a bit of character.  If you check out KOFY you can watch a late night horror show with a bit of entertainment on the side.

67 channels, I don't believe you!

Still think there is nothing on, check out this list of channels that I get:
  • KAXT - Low power local station with 15 sub channels and diverse programming.  Channel 1.1 "The Cool TV" now has on on-air guide for all broadcast stations in the bay area!  Some of the sub-channels have Vietnamese, Spanish, and Indian programming.  There is also a Family sub-channel that occasionally plays older movies.
  • FOX - Major Network, 2 sub channels (FOX HD, and FOX).  The non-HD sub-channel carries spanish programming
  • KRON - Major Local Station, 2 sub channels (one has usually has HD, the other standard definition, but both are in English).
  • CBS - Major Network, only one channel, often in HD
  • ABC - Major Network, 3 sub channels.  The first one has HD, the second has misc programming (and infomercials, and the last has local weather radar).
  • KQED A Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) - 3 sub channels.  Needless to say PBS stations contain top-quality educational and news programming.  They also have excellent childrens' shows.  While the first sub-channel is in HD, the other two often show interesting content as well.  The other nearby PBS station KTEH often coordinates programming.  When KQED is broadcasting something in SD, you can often find it in HD on KTEH - nice!
  • NBC (KNTV) - Major Network, 3 sub channels.   The first is in HD, the second carries local weather, and the third (Universal Sports) covers unique sports programming (volleyball, bicycling, skiiing, etc).
  • Univision - Major Spanish Network, 2 sub channels.  The first is in HD.  Before English speakers dismiss this channel, keep it mind it has unbelievable coverage for Soccer.  While the major World Cup games were covered by English networks, Univision carried almost all of the games (and in HD!).  Besides, it is kind of fun watching sports in a foreign language.  The sports casters aren't nearly as annoying when you don't understand.  However, GOOOAAAALLL!!!, isn't hard to translate!.
  • KOFY - Local station, 2 sub channels.  The first channel carries HD programming and the second sub-channel has Spanish programming.  I've notices that KOFY has an eclectic mixture of show including vintage TV shows (e.g. Streets of San Francisco) and even an off-color late night horror movie on Saturday night.
  • KCRB - Another PBS station that is a bit far for me to receive all of the time, but it occasionally comes in.  Like KQED, it has 3 sub channels and a mixture of HD and SD programming.  The third sub-channel is a simulcast of KRCB-FM (audio only).
  • KTSF - Local independent station with 3 sub channels.  Carries programming and news in multiple languages including Japanese, Madarin, and Cantonese.
  • KFTL - Local station with 4 sub channels.  Carries a mixture of programming in multiple languages including Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese.  Has religous programming during the day in English.
  • KMTP - Local station with 4 sub channels.  Another multiple language channel including German.  Carries International programs in English including Deutsche Welle TV, Russia Today TV, and the Classic Arts Showcase.
  • KICU - Local station with 3 sub channels.  The first channel contains a mixture of classic TV shows, movies, and kids programming on the weekend.  The two other sub-channels show programming in Korean and Spanish.
  • KCNS - Local station with 3 sub channels.  Has programming in multiple languages including Tagalog (Philipines), Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.
  • KTNC - Local station with 3 sub channels.  The first two channels are Estrella TV (Spanish).  The third sub channel carries this TV (English) and an assortment of movies.
  • KBCW - Also known as CW, owned by CBS.  This stations carries a lot of premium content and is often in HD.  For you American Football fans, it also carries Monday Night Football through ESPN HD! (correction: when local teams play)
  • KSTS - Owned by NBC and operated by Telemundo and has 2 sub channels.  Broadcasts in Spanish.
  • KTEH - Local (PBS) station with 5 sub channels.  See KQEH above about the excellent PBS programming available.  I can't say enough about the quality of shows available on PBS.  If you aren't a PBS member supporting this outstanding service, you should be (and this week is pledge week).
  • KCSM - Local public station operated by the college of San Mateo and has 3 sub channels.  Includes two sub channels Worldview (showing worldwide programming) and a simulcast of the SUPERB Jazz radio station KCSM-FM 91.1.
  • KKPX - Part of the ION network, with 3 sub channels.  Lots of great content in both HD and SD.  There are also quite a few Home improvement shows.  This is a nice compliment to the normal mixture of shows on other stations.
  • KFSF - Univision affiliate with 2 sub channels.  Spanish broadcasts in HD and SD.
With the exception of KCRB noted above, I receive all 67 channels nearly flawlessly.  I probably could even get KCRB if i wanted to put up a bigger antenna, but why bother (no offense to KCRB)?  As you can see there is plenty to choose from.  All of this is thanks to the new digital technology and transition to High Definition.  It took a while, but I'm glad it is finally here!

All you can watch TV

No, this is not the fabled 500 channels (ha!) that you are used to watching on Pay TV.  There is no HBO, Showtime, or the like.  However, we are on Survivor Island!  This first step is to show you that you won't die without Cable TV (and this is just with free broadcast TV alone).   There is plenty of enjoyable content (more than plenty really) that is available for free.

This is only the first step.  In later steps I'll show you how you can supplement your diet of broadcast TV with other sources to truly make you forget that you ever paid for TV.  We are not there yet, but already I hope you have an appreciation that things are looking up.   You may just make it to the end of the Season and send that DVR back for good.

Leave a comment, and let me know that you are on the Island too!

More to come...


  1. Great article. I'm looking forward to following this series, especially your take on alternatives to DVR and Internet streaming devices.

    Any OTA antenna recommendations? Does your TV aggregate the channel guide, or is that broadcast over the air as well?

  2. I second the OTA antenna recommendation. I live in the Bay Area as well, in the Peninsula, and I'm trying to find a decent OTA solution without having to try a bunch of different antennas.

  3. Hi Ajgiampa and Sean,

    Thanks for the feedback and support. To answer your questions:

    I highly recommend the combo VHF/UHF antenna that I put together and am using. It's inexpensive, high gain, not obnoxiously large, and would probably work well in a variety of locations. You can find it listed under "Categories - Digital TV Antenna" on the blog's sidebar (with information on how to point it too). Other antennas will work fine too, but take the time to do it right with an outdoor (v.s. indoor) antenna. You won't regret the extra effort.

    Also, my TV does receive the over-the-air channel info (if I were to connect the antenna to the TV). However, the better approach is to use a Media PC or DVR with a deeper program guide data (obtained via the Internet). In my case, I use a Media PC and the guide information comes free with Windows 7 Home Premium (nice).


  4. Great article, I cut the cord 10 months ago. Don't miss cable at all.

    FYI that you only got Monday Night Football for that one week because the 49rs played. NFL has an agreement that since MNF is on cable channel only that the local market teams can get an OTA station to broadcast the game in the local market. You won't get MNF again OTA unless the 49rs (or Oakland) are playing.

  5. Hi Bonscott, thanks for the correction and feedback!

  6. George,
    I've always wondered where you are located. I'm also a California resident but, in Sacramento the OTA aren't as abundant. There is still plenty to suffice my home. I will be following your series. We cut the cord about 3 months ago and will not be going back.

  7. Glad I ran across this "experiment". I am an electronics technician (tv repair man) for over 40 years. During that time I have installed thousands of antennas when analog was king and now I am installing "digital" antennas for the proud and bill free cord cutters.

    OTA antennas are great and I agree that the picture quality is superior to cable. No doubt!
    Once you have installed an OTA outside antenna your basic needs are covered. But what about movies? Well, supplement your OTA with an inexpensive set-top box such as a ROKU, sign-up for NETFLIX @ $9.00 a month and you will have access to live streaming content which numbers over 20,000 to date. Roku currently has over 100 "channels" offering free and paid content for viewing.

    Feel free to contact me if you need help in installing your antenna or which to choose.


  8. Great blog here! Also your website quite a bit up fast!
    What host are you using? Can I am getting your associate link for your host?
    I want my website loaded up as quickly as yours lol
    Look into my web site - my computer is slow


Copyright (c) 2010 All Rights Reserved.