Despite the widening array of shows on the Web, the online options don't yet match what you get—think HD, DVR, and sports—from your trusty set-top box
With Apple's iTunes now offering HD programming from all four major broadcast networks, Netflix streaming shows from CBS, and Hulu letting you cherry-pick the best skits from Saturday Night Live,, you might think it's time to cut the cable cord. But there are some things you should consider before telling Comcast where it can shove its overpriced coaxial cable. Whether it's time to dump cable depends on how much TV you watch, how important picture quality is, and whether or not you're a sports fan.
Let's say your cable bill is $70 a month (which roughly four out of five American households pay, on average), or $840 a year. Here in the Bay Area, that gets you access to hundreds of channels (no premium channels, such as HBO), HD programming, and a DVR. More than $800 a year for TV is a lot, especially in this economy…or is it?
If you watch just two shows each weeknight, that's 10 shows a week. With cable, you're paying roughly $7 per show (in HD) each month, or $1.75 per episode if there are four episodes of each show in that month.
On iTunes, individual episodes cost $1.99 for standard definition and $2.99 for high definition, but there is a discount if you purchase a season pass. I looked at the season-pass prices for a sampling of 10 popular shows (The Office, Mad Men, Grey's Anatomy, etc.), and it would cost $417 for a season's worth of entertainment. That's half as much as the yearly cable bill—but it's only for those 10 shows. If you have kids, that number could get a lot bigger real quick, and any additional programs you want to watch will cost extra.
With cable, you get everything you currently watch, as well as other stuff you might want to try (and don't tell me you never zone out in front of the TV, flipping through the channels). Plus, with iTunes, you have to buy the shows, which fills up your hard drive. And unless you have kids, will you watch any of these shows more than once?
Now, you could install an over-the-air antenna to pick up HD programs from the broadcast networks for free, but then you'd need to buy some kind of digital recording device, such as TiVo, and pay a monthly service fee, which cuts into the savings you got from dumping cable (which has a DVR) in the first place.
Weaknesses of Netflix
If you don't like paying à la carte for TV shows, you could go with the Netflix streaming service. With a $14.99-a-month Netflix subscription and a $99 Roku, an Xbox, or LG Blu-ray player, you can stream all-you-can-watch movies and TV shows to your big-screen TV at no extra charge. The Netflix service works extremely well on the Roku, there's just very little content. Netflix is addressing this, adding programming from CBS, such as CSI and Numb3rs, but it still has a long way to go. If you want to watch The Office through Netflix, you can enjoy only seasons one through four, but not this current season. And while the Netflix stream looks quite good on your TV (depending on your connection), it's not HD.
For a reliable, free option, there is Hulu, which offers tons of great premium content. But Hulu has to be watched on a computer screen (attaching the computer to the TV is possible but not practical for everyone), and it's not in HD. And because of release windowing issues, new episodes of such shows as House and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia aren't available on Hulu until a week after they air on TV, so you'll have to wait.
No matter what alternative set-top box option you may choose, there is still one big component missing from all of them—live sports. Sure, sports are becoming more prevalent online as baseball, basketball, golf, and now even football are getting into live-streaming the action. But again, you're stuck watching on a small screen and not in HD, and not every sport streams every game.
Don't get me wrong. Cable is far from perfect. I've had to deal with Comcast's really dumb DVR and key queuing issues, and the company has announced it's raising its rates again in November (at which point I'll have to redo my math). And the alternatives are looking more attractive: Apple and Hulu keep adding content to their services, the Roku is opening up its box to more video than just Netflix, and Amazon is making its own streaming pay-per-view moves. But for the average consumer, cable still delivers the goods.