Read this before canceling your cable subscription

Canceling your cable subscription could save you around $1,200 annually, depending on your plan. Before you take the plunge, however, keep a log of your TV viewing habits to see if you will be truly better off without cable. 

Matt Rourke/AP/File
A coaxial cable in Philadelphia. Getting rid of your cable subscription could save you hundreds, but at a cost.

I canceled my cable last weekend, and it will save me about $100 per month. Here's what it's been like so far. 

In my kitchen, I have a dry erase board on which I keep a running list of groceries to buy and chores to do. For the last two months, I've had "CANCEL CABLE" written at the bottom in big loopy purple letters, circled for emphasis, plus an old cable bill stuck to it with a magnet just in case my message to myself wasn't clear enough.

The truth about my viewing habits is that I already rely heavily on streaming services, and know that most of my regular shows are available through them. But there are no easy, obvious streaming options for a handful of my most beloved programs' latest episodes, not to mention that I rarely watch any live TV. I get home too late for the national evening news broadcasts, and it's nice watching those on my own schedule with the ability to fast forward through all of the dopey pharmaceutical commercials. I wasn't quite ready to let go.

That all changed last week. With HBO Now slated to launch just in time for the Game of Thrones season premiere, it was finally time. I took a deep breath, steeled myself up for a multi-hour knock-down-drag-out fight with my cable provider's retention department, and took the plunge. And here's where I give a quick shout out to RCN, because outside of asking me why I wanted to downgrade my package to internet only, it was a short and pleasant conversation, I wasn't punted off to any retention specialists, and everything was arranged in under 10 minutes. Sorry, guys, but I have no horror story for you here, RCN was actually pretty great.

My first order of business after that was to make a list of everything I record on my TiVo before I had to ship it back to RCN (prepaid UPS labels FTW!), and find a different way to watch it. Here's what that looks like.

Cable TV & DVR List: Where to watch:
NBC Nightly News ABC World News Tonight on Hulu
NBC Chicago News at 6pm Over-the-air
The Daily Show Hulu
Game of Thrones HBO Now
Last Week Tonight HBO Now
The Voice Hulu
America's Next Top Model Hulu
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hulu
Arrow Hulu
Downton Abbey PBS on Roku
Sherlock PBS on Roku
Once Upon A Time Hulu
Battle Creek
Vikings History on Roku
Doctor Who ???
Orphan Black ???
Cardinals vs. Cubs MLB Baseball Audio broadcast

Apps like Fan TV and Yidio are really helpful for tracking down where to find my shows online. Note that I didn't mention any of my favorite shows from Netflix or Amazon. Nothing changed in the way I watch those after the cable subscription was gone.

There are definitely pros and cons, all of which are important to consider if you're looking to follow my lead.

The Good

I'm saving about $1,200 annually.
My bill with a cable + internet package with HBO was sitting at about $170/month. After ditching the cable subscription, it's just $70. I could have called and threatened to cancel or switch and maybe gotten an offer to reduce the price, but I wasn't too interested in that when I figured that I wouldn't be missing too much if I dropped it altogether.

I still get most of my favorite TV shows.
You can see that of these 17 programs:

  • 11 are available to stream through my Roku
  • 1 is available to stream on the network's website
  • 1 has a pretty excellent option for a direct replacement
  • 1 can be watched for free with an HDTV antenna
  • only 3 cannot be watched online or over-the-air while the season is airing

There are more programs than this on my list, but these are a pretty good cross-section. It's also worth noting that it looks like PBS and History are incompatible with my Roku XD, so I won't have access to those until I upgrade to a current model.

The Bad

I'm cut off from cable-locked content I used to be able to stream.
One of the reasons I held on to cable so long was having access to HBO Go. All of HBO's content was available to stream, so long as you had a cable subscription to go with it. Now that HBO will no longer to tethered to cable, it made sense for me to cut the cord, even if for now I can only watch on my iPad. But Showtime and AMC both still use this tethered model, which cuts me off from favorites like Mad Men and Better Call Saul. Fingers crossed that they'll follow HBO's lead soon.

For over-the-air programs, appointment viewing becomes necessary. 
Remember when you made no plans on Thursday nights because it was the best night of the week for TV? Weren't the 1980s totally rad? I don't have a programmable VCR anymore, and in a world of social media spoilers, missing an episode of your favorite over-the-air-only show is downright intolerable. I have to commit to blocking out specific hours on specific days if I want to keep up, and that's not ideal.

New content shows up 24 hours after it airs... and that can be a drag.
The evening news is most relevant on the day that it's aired. By the time I catch it on Hulu, yesterday's breaking news has seen a dozen updates and revelations. The same is true of daily news comedy like The Daily Show, though the delay feels more tolerable here. If you're a fan of The Voice, the voting window will be long closed by the time you sit down to watch. And everyone at the office will be buzzing about the crazy season finales of everything a full day before it shows up in your Hulu queue. Torture!

I'm cut off from location-restricted content I used to be able to stream.
The programs that I can't watch in-season are pretty high on my pecking order. Doctor Who and Orphan Black are BBC shows, and while BBC content is available to stream in the UK, US viewers are geo-blocked. As for baseball, well, that merits its own paragraph.

Network TV stopped showing over-the-air baseball years ago. is a summer staple for me, and as a Cardinals fan in Chicago I get to watch every game... unless they're playing the Cubs, which is blacked out since Chicago is the Cubs' home turf and the expectation is that you should be able to tune in on your local TV stations. Except that without cable, you can't do that. I'm lucky enough to live within easy reach of Wrigley Field, but tickets are pricey and that proximity does me no good when a series is played in St. Louis. If you're a fan of either team, you understand precisely why missing this particular match-up is so incredibly painful. The rivalry between these two is long and storied and lives at the very core of who you are. Seriously, don't even get me started on the injustice of home territory baseball blackouts. There are volumes to be written about MLB cutting itself off from would-be fans in local markets and the missed revenue opportunities there, but I'll leave that to Rob Manfred to figure out. (And if you're listening Rob, please, please do figure it out soon. Please.)

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO, talks about HBO Now for Apple TV during an Apple event in San Francisco, in March. For the first time, Americans will be able to subscribe to HBO without a cable or satellite TV subscription.

The Solutions

Most of the bad boils down to two very solvable problems:

  1. Geo-blocking.
  2. Appointment viewing.

And there are seemingly good solutions to both of these, though I haven't tested any of them yet myself. If you have, I'd love to hear about your experience.

Unlock location-restricted content with a VPN service.
It's a lot easier than it sounds, especially if you're willing to watch on a tablet or desktop computer. One Brad's Deals engineer recommended, a free in-browser VPN that got me past the location-restricted message at BBC iPlayer, but it was very, very slow. My guess is that being free and popular means that it's under a lot of strain. Patience is clearly a virtue here. Another option I'm exploring isUnlocator, which has a monthly fee of $4.95 (or $49.95 for 12 months) but is compatible with streaming devices like Roku - which would be key for, say, watching the Cardinals obliterate the Cubs on a big screen in HD.

Get an over-the-air DVR to record off your antenna.

If not catching your local evening news is a big deal, then a Tablo DVR, which sells for about $200, would pay for itself in 2-3 months for most households. The highly rated TiVo Roamio is cheaper at $50, but requires a $14.99 monthly subscription.

The final verdict? Two thumbs up!

Despite the cons, I'm extremely happy with my decision to give cable the heave-ho. I'm still adjusting to the change in my TV viewing routine, but so far the transition has been smooth and painless. It may be awhile before I stop reflexively reaching for the remote every time Hulu hits a commercial since fast forwarding is no longer an option, and I'll be watching HBO Now on a tablet until the exclusive contract with Apple expires. All I really have left to figure out is getting around location-restricted baseball games, and my leads there are looking pretty solid.

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