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These days, more of us are considering cutting the pay TV cord and getting rid of cable. It's a very appealing option, considering how expensive pay TV is getting to be and all the new streaming services being offered these days.
However, not everyone will be happy dumping their cable or satellite TV package. The decision can be more complicated than it seems at first.
Let's look at the case for cord-cutting first. The biggest argument on this side of the ledger is the rising price of cable. The average pay-TV bill is now nearly $110 a month, according to Bruce Leichtman, principal at Leichtman Research Group. And prices seem to rise every year. The high prices helped drive 6 million subscribers to drop pay TV last year, in the industry's largest decline ever, according to Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson.
The other thing that makes cord-cutting increasingly attractive is that new streaming services are giving consumers more alternatives. If you want traditional channels such as HGTV and CNN, you can get one of the cable-replacement streaming services that have been around for the past few years. Free streaming services provide a lot of content, though you'll have to put up with seeing ads.
The options also include both established giants like Netflix, which now has more than 73 million subscribers here in the U.S., and newer services such as Disney+ service, which isn't yet a year old but already has more than 60 million paying customers.
So why the note of caution? For one thing, over the past 12 to 18 months streaming services have been raising their prices, too. They're still cheaper than cable, but the savings might not be as large as you expect.
And while "cord-cutting" has become a popular term, chances are you won’t really be cutting ties with your TV provider—that same company may provide your internet connection and phone service. That makes pricing complicated to untangle.
There are also other reasons that cord-cutting may not be for you, starting with how complicated it can be to choose the right alternatives. Here are the details on what you need to know to make a decision you'll be happy with.
You Have Great Streaming Options
In just the last year, consumers' streaming options have exploded—the choices can be dizzying. Just picking an alternative to cable TV can be enough to deter some people from cutting the cord.
We can help with that, however. Here's a quick rundown; you can also click the links for more information on each type of service.
If you're looking to basically replicate what you get from a traditional pay TV company, consider one of the cable-style streaming services. These include AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now), FuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV.
These services range in price from about $30 to $65 a month, and they typically bundle live local broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, and PBS and Telemundo—with an assortment of cable channels such as AMC, CNN, and HGTV.
You can also look at newer services from large media companies. It's hard to sum these up, other than to say that as a group they offer an awful lot of content, from original programming to broadcast shows to movies. They include Apple TV, which costs $5 a month; Disney+, which costs either $7 a month alone, or $13 a month when bundled with Hulu and ESPN, and the $15 a month HBO Max service from AT&T's WarnerMedia division.
There's also CBS All Access, which costs $6 a month, and Peacock, an ad-supported service form NBCUniversal that has both free and paid tiers. These services tend to leverage content from their parent companies' other properties, and offer a lot of original programs. One option for cord-cutters: Combine some of those services and you can put together a robust assortment of programming for under $25 a month.
If you really want to cut back on expenses, there are a growing number of free streaming video services that offer TV shows and movies if you're willing to sit through ads. These include Crackle, Plex, Pluto, Tubi TV, and Xumo. Many smart TVs, including those from LG, Samsung, and Vizio, and streaming devices such as Roku and TiVo, come with apps that offer free content.
Of course, there's also "the big three" streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu. These tend to be somewhat different from other paid subscription services, since many of us get one or more of these services in addition to whatever pay TV or streaming services we use.
And don't forget the power of a simple TV antenna. Depending on where you live, you might be able to get most of your programming for free, over the air, just like in the old days.
Cord-Cutters May Pay More for Internet
Bundles are the glue that keeps many of us stuck to a pay-TV package. In addition to the convenience of getting just a single bill for your TV, internet, and home phone services, you often get a discounted rate for internet service when it’s part of this type of package.
If you de-bundle broadband from TV, you’re likely to find that you’re paying more for the same level of internet speed.
For example, in my area Altice offers an Optimum bundle that includes 220 TV channels, 300 Mbps internet service, and home phone service for $75 a month, plus fees and taxes. (The offer is good only for one year.)
But without TV, that same 300-Mbps broadband service, plus the phone, costs $50 per month. So with the bundle, I'm essentially getting 220 TV channels for just $25 a month, which is a hard-to-beat deal.
One other thing to consider before you cancel cable. If you currently pay for a lower-speed internet service, you might have to upgrade to faster service if you decide to go the all-streaming route, especially with more of us working or attending school from home, or if you'll be streaming more 4K videos. And that will probably cost more.
You Can Get More Local Channels
When cable-style streaming services first launched, one big drawback was that they often lacked local broadcast channels. That situation has greatly improved, but you still may not be able to get all your local channels from a single service.
“The number of local stations carried by live streaming services really varies based on the city you are in, and the streaming service you are using," says Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan. "Many of the streaming services have made an effort to include a lot of local stations, but there is still a big gap for many consumers who don’t live in major markets."
The best way to find out which channels you’ll get in your area is to go to each service’s website and enter your ZIP code to see the complete channel lineup.
With many of the services, even if all local channels aren’t included, you may still be able to get them on demand, which is fine if you don’t mind waiting a day or two to watch a favorite network show. But it does mean you’ll miss out on “appointment TV”—live events and shows such as sporting events and the Academy Awards.
This lack of local channels is one reason that more households are using antennas, pulling in free over-the-air high-definition signals. In fact, Parks Associates, a research firm, estimates that one quarter of all U.S. households with broadband internet now use a TV antenna.
Cable Is More Reliable Than Streaming
One of the great things about cable TV is that it provides consistent, reliable signals to your TV set—you turn on your TV and expect to get a picture.
Streaming services aren’t always like that, as many of us found out recently during hurricane season, when internet service remained down even after power had been restored. If you relied solely on streaming, you were out of luck. In my neighborhood in the Northeast, for example, FiOS broadband service was out for two days, while some Optimum internet customers had no service for five days.
Also, with streaming the quality of the video you get depends on the available bandwidth, which can vary with the number of users in your neighborhood who are on the same connection you’re using. So you may get a great picture late in the evening or early morning but find that it isn’t quite as good right after dinner, when more people are watching. Companies such as Netflix will dynamically adjust the quality of the video based on the speed of your connection, and they may downgrade the quality of the video to avoid it freezing or pixelating.
Also, with more of us now at home for both work and school, as well as for entertainment, we're sharing our broadband connections and WiFi with more people for longer periods of the day. If you have lots of people in your home streaming content to a variety of devices at the same time, the quality is likely to suffer.
Even your wireless router can affect video performance. Older routers may be slower or use only one frequency band, which can lead to interference from baby monitors, cordless phones, and even microwaves. Newer dual-band routers have two bands—2.4 GHz and 5 GHz—to provide you with a second option. If there are dead zones in your home where WiFi doesn’t reach, routers that create a mesh network could help. A handful of routers now use the next generation of WiFi technology, called WiFi 6, that provide faster speeds and better coverage. But your devices will also have to support WiFi6 to take advantage of the new technology's benefits.
But sometimes the problem is with the service itself or the networks’ servers. Many services have had periodic outages, including some high-profile ones, such as the CBS All Access and CBS Sports apps crashing for those using Roku devices during last year's Super Bowl. More recently, both Netflix and Hulu had temporary outages this spring, just as more people were staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it’s not just sporting events. Streaming services or network servers can get overwhelmed when a lot of people are trying to watch at the same time. On the day it launched last fall, Disney+ had problems throughout the day. This same issue has plagued HBO a few times, such as during high-profile episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective.”
Consider How Many Users You Have
If you have a bunch of people at home, all trying to watch a different show on their own TV or laptop, you may run into some restrictions. Every streaming service we’ve reviewed has some limits on the number of separate devices that can be streaming content at the same time. For example, Sling TV’s Orange plan, $30 per month, allows for only one user at a time. The Sling Blue service, $30, allows access for three simultaneous users; you get a fourth user with the combined $45 Orange and Blue plan.
AT&T Now and Hulu limit you to two simultaneous streams; AT&T lets you add one more simultaneous user for an additional $5 per month, while Hulu + Live TV has a $10-per-month Unlimited Screens option, provided users are on the same home network. With YouTube TV, up to three users can stream at the same time.
It Depends on What You Want to Watch
Although all the services regularly add new channels, there’s no guarantee that any one service will provide all the networks your family wants to watch. This is especially true as more companies that used to license their shows and movies to other services are now pulling them back for their own streaming offerings.
For example, Sling TV still doesn’t have CBS, and Fox News is available only in some markets. AT&T Now is missing some bigger cable channels such as AMC, Food Network, and HGTV. YouTube TV doesn't currently have A&E, Hallmark, and History Channel. Hulu With Live TV is missing AMC, and Viacom (Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon).
However, that might not be that different for people who still pay for cable. According to Parks Associates, 54 percent of U.S. homes with internet service subscribe to two or more services, while nearly a quarter—22 percent—subscribe to four or more.
Last, don’t forget to consider device support; not all the services are available on every streaming player or smart-TV platform. For example, right now neither HBO Max nor Peacock is available on the two biggest streaming media player platforms, Amazon Fire TV and Roku. To see these new services, you'll need an Apple TV or Google Chromecast.
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