Cable TV is not such a bad value, but when $840 a year starts to feel like a lot, there are some solid alternatives
The year of hope and change is certainly off to a grim start in the tech world. Last week alone saw layoff announcements from stalwarts such as Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT), as well as Web 2.0 companies like Digg, to name just a few. If you've lost your job or had your salary frozen and are seriously tightening your belt, the (slightly) good news is that there are more options than ever to keep yourself entertained during these economic end times.
A few months ago, I defended the value of cable, writing that $70 a month wasn't a bad deal for what you get. But as your wallet gets lighter, you may not want to spend $840 a year for service. Before you fire off a comment saying "Just watch Hulu!" yes, that is a good idea. Between Hulu and network sites such as ABC.com and CBS.com, you can watch just about any program you like for free. But then you're watching on a small laptop screen while that big TV sits there, idle. You bought the big TV; you should use it.
If you're a bit more tech savvy, you can connect your PC to your TV, and if you're a Mac Mini or Apple TV user, you can install Boxee, the free open-source media center, on either. It'll allow you to watch Hulu, Joost, and CBS, among others, on your big TV.
For between $50 and $100, you can get an HDTV antenna setup, allowing you to get your local broadcast HD channels over the air. However, having an HD antenna does not guarantee that you'll get a clean signal. Any number of factors could inhibit your ability to receive some stations, and you won't get cable channels like ESPN or FX—but hey, once it's set up, it's free.
For a little over $200 you can get a Roku set-top box ($99) and a year's worth of service from Netflix (1 DVD at a time for $8.99/month). That baseline Netflix subscription gives you unlimited access to its "Watch Instantly" service, which lets you stream all-you-can-watch movies directly to your TV through the Roku. The Watch Instantly titles available are mostly older and not that great, but they're getting better—and some are in HD. Plus, the Roku will soon be opening up its box to other video providers, starting with Amazon VOD, so if you really need to see a new-release movie, you can rent it for $3.99.
Speaking of movie rentals, I've become a big fan of Redbox. There are 12,000 self-service rental kiosks all over the country located in places like supermarkets, and movies are only $1 per night. While Redboxes have new release titles, oftentimes the one you want is out of stock. But if you go online beforehand, you can reserve films at the location you want ahead of time. Yes, you have to physically go somewhere, but you can return your movie to any Redbox kiosk, and you've got to go grocery shopping anyway.
And, though I'll sound like a mom saying this, don't forget that your local library probably offers free DVD rentals as well.
Of course, if none of these solutions appeals to you, The Wall Street Journal reports that you might be able to get a discount from your cable provider. Hopefully you'll have better luck than I did; I tried negotiating with Comcast here in the Bay Area but was denied. Maybe I shouldn't have defended them after all…