By Rick and Kate Ganley
So, you want to live life off the TV grid.
A word of advice: Prepare.
Attempting to eliminate cable TV service in a family home is nothing less than a full military-style operation; there are meetings — strategy sessions really — that begin months in advance. Those supposedly in charge (parents) discuss each and every possibility and contingency: Will Child No. 1 still be able to watch her Nickelodeon shows? Will Child 2 still have access to her Disney and Sprout? How will we get the new season of Mad Men? What about baseball?
After weeks of talk and preliminary planning, research, charts displaying alternative sources and limited field testing of new streaming devices, an announcement is made to the general enlisted (kids): We are getting rid of Cable. Cable with a big C.
There is a look of terror and disbelief in an 11-year-old's eyes when told a service that she has never been without will one day just fail to be there. There is little room in said child’s mind for the thought of a world where the latest and most hyped television programming is not instantly available when wanted. How can such a thing be, Dad?
What follows is not a "how to" manual. There are plenty of blogs by hipster-types online for you to refer to. No, what I am offering here is a cold hard clinical review of one family’s first month without the flowing cable pipe jacked into every screen in the house.
Into the unknown
First, the basics: we’re not really cutting the cord; broadband Internet access is really a necessity these days. I look at it as any other utility. So we’re still beholden to the behemoth of Comcast for that bill. But TV service? We can go around the middleman! A telephone tethered to a wall? Blah! We’re decades into the cell phone revolution already. We pay the cell bill monthly anyway. Plus, it’s not like we’re really giving up TV — we’ve had Netflix and Amazon Prime for years now, and we’ve come to use them more often than the cable service. My wife and I figure we can live with those alone.
For me, this whole experiment isn’t without precedent. I’m old enough to have lived in the BC era — Before Cable. Growing up in the distant suburbs of Boston, we muddled through with an antenna in the attic and four watchable TV channels — you know, your NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS lineup. Let me point this out again for the full effect: We had four television channels. None included anything that would bring you Shark Week. There was, however, Battle of the Network Stars. I’d tell you to look it up on YouTube, but that would be several minutes of your life that you will never get back.
We did have — if the atmospherics were just right and my older brother forced me to stand at the set holding 50 feet of tinfoil — a couple of UHF band channels (38 and 56) that were very fuzzy (TV "snow" is something our children have been denied) that played shows like Creature Double Feature.
Look that one up. Thank me later, Godzilla fans.
I digress. There is nothing in my children’s world view that allows understanding of such a primitive state. So, when we announced cable TV would cease to be, there was apprehension. To involve my older daughter Kate in the whole process (and ease her through this difficult time), I’ve asked her to keep a diary and note how she is feeling without her ‘beloved’ television service. Early entry:
"I thought I would die!!!!
OK I am not that dead, besides I found something new.
I have to search ONLINE!!!
This is getting to be OK, besides it’s not like life or death."
The punctuation is hers.
Truth is, we had already been relying less on the cable service with our Netflix subscription taking up the bulk of the slack. Most of our viewing happens in the living room with the Wii game console streaming the service. To get ready for the Big Turn Off, we bought a Roku box for the bedroom television, and decided we could live without a third television in our walk-up attic.
There are now plenty of streaming boxes on the market, all relatively cheap (between $35 and $100). If you are running a wireless router with any kind of broadband Internet service, they are easy to set up. Our Roku box cost $50 and required plugging in the power cord and the three composite cables to the ol’ TV set —video, audio left and right. If you’re using your standard-issue flat screen, it takes just one connection using an HDMI cable; that gives you full high definition apparently. Me? I’m happy this thing is in color.
The Roku found our wireless router easily and setup was more or less painless — except for the fact it wants a credit card number. This is confusing because it’s a “free service.” The reason they want your account information is so they can sell you additional channels through the box, not unlike Comcast does. I wanted to bypass this option; I didn’t want to order anything via Roku so I contacted customer service directly and they were able to get the box online without having any additional charges. After the Roku account is set up, it’s an easy ride to adding Netflix or any other streaming service you may already have.
We practiced operations. We reviewed scenarios. After two weeks with just the Roku box streaming Netflix and Amazon in the bedroom, we felt stable. We felt OK. We felt as if we were ready to turn off the cable TV service completely. And so I made the call. The deed was done. As the kids say — you know, the ones who don’t know of a world without reality television delivered by cable — stuff just got serious.
As things turned out, our planning was not done in vain. My wife was just fine. She reads more. The kids breezed through with little thought and found what they wanted or simply turned off the screen. Exactly what we had hoped for. Another diary entry from Kate, a week or so in to The Great Cut Off:
"Over all everything is sooo much better than cable, because I can choose what I want, and there are no commercials."
I had no issues either, until…
THE RED SOX MADE THE WORLD SERIES.
Return of the antenna
I had considered the Sox play-by-play before we cut the cord, but decided I could live without the TV coverage. I often listen to the game on the radio, because it allows me to get other things done while the game is on. Although I certainly would miss watching the occasional game, everyone in the house had to make some kind of sacrifice in this effort, and so did I. This noble thinking was all done before Labor Day, when the idea of a World Series run seemed remote. Playoffs, sure… but World Series? Wishful thinking would get us all in trouble. By denying it could happen and getting rid of NESN, I somehow made the post-season run happen.
It’s this logic that leaves me to believe I am solely responsible for this world championship. You’re welcome, New England.
The week the Sox were set to play the Tigers in the Divisional Series, I decided I had to take action. I bought an antenna for the attic and one of those set top digital converter boxes for our ancient (13-year-old) analog television. Yes, we still have one of those 200-pound glass-fronted giants from the last century. I’d buy a new one, but I don’t want to move the old TV. The disposal fee at the dump would be more than the cost of a new screen anyway.
So, after hooking everything up and spending six hours positioning the antenna in just the right place, I could get post-season baseball coverage on Boston’s FOX affiliate. In the attic. You see the problem, right? Glass Giant is in the living room. Three stories down.
Long story, but after hooking up the antenna in the attic to some cable I put in the walls many moons ago we get beautiful digital over-the-air TV signals in the living room — loads of channels for free — to supplement Netflix and Amazon. Yep. All the major networks of my youth were there, free for the plucking. ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS … but FOX wouldn’t show up. The signal strength was just not enough to make it down the 75 or so feet of cable. Any other time in my life I couldn’t have cared less. During this post-season, though, it was the only thing I wanted to watch.
That’s the thing about over-the-air TV: In New Hampshire, you’re bound to have a hard time getting the Boston stations without a big-set up in the attic or on the roof. When you do go through the trouble of installing an antenna, you’re still limited to the major broadcast networks and a few sub-channels. Depending on how you aim it, you may only get a few stations at the exclusion of others. If you’re addicted to cable-only programming (HBO, AMC, Discovery, etc.) you’re going to be watching your online subscription services most of the time.
Finding your shows
The major concern for many who want to cut the cord, including us, is finding new episodes of the programs you want. Netflix does not carry current season television. It’s often a year or more behind in its offerings. Amazon offers the latest and greatest, but at a price. If you want to buy an episode or two it’s fine, but an entire season can eat up a lot of the savings you garner from cutting the cord. Hardcore sports fans would have a nearly impossible time of it; the cable and satellite providers have a stranglehold on the major leagues, and there is really no (legal) way to get live play-by-play coverage on your television without paying for a package. Even a subscription to MLB’s online service will not take its place, as the games are blacked out online if you are what is referred to as “in a team’s home coverage territory.” Yep, that includes New Hampshire.
The online services also can present some technical challenges. Kate noted this:
"Losing all these remotes. Netflix and Amazon do have little errors, but very few. Netflix has less glitches than Amazon. Works faster. Lots of kids stuff too. The picture quality is better on Netflix. Sometimes the sound on Amazon is out of sync."
I spent a fair amount of time programming universal remotes, and of course it takes some time getting everyone used to them. The online audio and video quality has been an issue, mostly with Amazon’s instant video service; it’s often slow to load on all of our devices — Roku, Wii, laptops — and while the quality is usually fine, it’s obviously inferior to Netflix. There’s also the question of what service has what series: Spongebob is on Amazon, but Jake and the Neverland Pirates is on Netflix. These are important considerations in a family household. It’s my job to know this. To sum it up in one word, dropping cable service is a compromise. You are trading in a certain amount of convenience for the sake of savings.
A month after cutting the cord, civilization as we know it seems to have survived. Kate and I have caught up on all the episodes of Mythbusters we missed; my wife has plenty of Antique Road Shows on tap, and our attic antenna brings us all the PBS channels, including their fantastic PBS Kids and WORLD. Our 3-year-old likes that and has managed to find plenty of series to enjoy online. Her two favorites are My Little Pony and the BBC’s Top Gear. She’s like that.
As for baseball? Well, I watched a couple of games in the attic, but I ended up listening to the final innings of the World Series on my radio.
Rick Ganley (host of Morning Edition on NHPR) is known primarily as the father of Kate Ganley. Kate Ganley is a 6th grade honor student, dancer and part-time farmer. She’s currently pressuring her parents non-stop for a new cat.
As seen in the January 9th, 2014 issue of The Hippo