Life Without Satellite Or Cable TV: My Story

Getting our $90+ DirecTV bill every month was always a conversation starter in my house.

Out of hundreds of different channels available, the truth was that we were only watching a handful of them. Another sad reality was that more than 50% of the programming that we watched was on one of the major networks so if we weren’t already paying for satellite TV, it would essentially be free. Does this sound at all like you?

We took the leap: We cancelled DirecTV, and we live to tell. It’s been three months since we cancelled, so I thought I’d share my experience because many of my friends and coworkers are on the cusp of making the same decision.

Before You Get Started: Please don’t just call up your cable or satellite company out of frustration and cancel your service. I have no complaints about DirecTV; the only reason that we cancelled was strictly financial. For me, $1,100 a year is a lot of money.

What does your monthly bill look like if you multiply it by 12? If your service is bundled with internet and/or phone, you may have to make a quick call to your provider to get a clear answer to this very important question.

When we called to cancel DirecTV, they made a very generous offer for us to maintain our service; ultimately, the savings were short-term and we would eventually return to the status quo. Be prepared for your provider to do this, and if you decide to cancel, have your mind made up before you call.

Getting Started: The very first thing I would do is to encourage you/your family/your roommate to make a list of what you watch on a consistent basis. Identify programs that fall into either of the two categories 1) Can’t live without 2) Really like.

Once you’ve made your list, simply read the rest of this post so you can determine what, if anything, you might be missing. You will probably be very surprised by how many programs are available without having to pay for satellite or cable.

Roof-mounted antenna: Depending on where you live, a roof-mounted digital antenna is most likely the very first thing you need to look at purchasing. I think it’s a big mistake to try to cut corners by getting an indoor antenna.

After much research, we ended up purchasing the ClearStream4 HDTV Antenna. It received excellent reviews on Amazon, and we’ve been extremely pleased with both the quality of our reception and the number of digital channels we get. We receive signals from all of the major networks with no problems plus 4 different PBS channels. On most days, we receive about 18 crystal clear channels.

Other things to consider with your external antenna:

  • Check your local stations to make sure they are broadcasting a digital signal. If possible, find out the location of the broadcast tower. This will be very important because this will determine where you aim your antenna. In an ideal world, all broadcasting stations will be located in the same direction.
  • Make sure that the area surrounding your house is not obstructed with large trees or buildings. It’s especially important to have some sort of clear path in the direction of the broadcast towers.

Installing the antenna: I paid a friend $50 to install the antenna for me. He mounted it on my roof in the same location where my DirecTV dish was located, and we simply plugged in the cable wires that were previously connected to the dish. I used a simple cable splitter so that I could run 2 different wires from my antenna since we have 2 TVs in my house; this does not degrade the signal in any way.

TV Considerations: I’m almost embarrassed to say, but as of December 2011, there was not a hi-definition television in our house. We bit the bullet in Jan 2012 and purchased a digital high definition TV. Wow, what an upgrade that was for us!

We moved our old TV into our bedroom, but the digital antenna couldn’t share a signal with our old analog TV. For a very small investment, I decided to purchase a digital converter box, and hoped that this would solve the problem. It did!

There’s probably not a perfect model out there, but after much research, I ended up purchasing the Zinwell ZAT-970A Digital to Analog TV Converter Box for $40. I’ve been very pleased with this digital converter box. We now get the same channels in both rooms, and my recurring monthly bill for this is $0.

TiVo/DVR Considerations: We’ve had some form of a DVR in my house for about the last 10 years or so. We’ve come to love and appreciate DVRs, and I didn’t want to cancel Satellite if that meant losing my DVR.

I was on the verge of purchasing a stand-alone TiVo receiver, but I decided to contact TiVo directly first to make sure that I could, in fact, use one without a cable or satellite service. When I contacted TiVo directly, I discovered that not only would I need to have a TiVo DVR, but I’d also have to pay a monthly fee to Tivo for the privilege of using their recorder. The info on the TiVo website conveniently makes no mention of this.

Why is there a monthly TiVo fee? TiVo likes working with a satellite or cable TV provider because they already have all of the channels mapped. If you’re instead using an antenna, you’re essentially paying TiVo a monthly fee to map all of your channels. This enables you to program your TiVo device to schedule recordings in advance.

Both my digital TV and digital converter box let me see the current show and the next show scheduled, but there’s no “guide channel” like you would be used to with cable or satellite.

We decided that not to get a TiVo box. Read on to see why.

Roku: There’s a lot of free programming available online, and I thought that the Roku was my answer to access it. Boy was I wrong!

What is the Roku? It’s a tiny, little receiver that makes it easy & convenient to access a ton of different digital content. With much reading and experimenting, the “free” programs available using a Roku are very, very limited. You can add certain approved channels easily, but you have to research a more complex way to add a handful of “free” unapproved stations. For instance both CNN and CNN International fell into this category which really surprised me. I think broadcast quality has a lot to do with what they consider “approved.”

Important note: You will want to have a wireless internet connection in your house if you’re planning to get a Roku. Fortunately, we already had one, so this was not a needed expense or complication for us.

The good news about Roku: It’s very easy to set up and activate if you have wireless internet. My particular version came with a free version of Angry Birds that my kids played non-stop for the first 6 weeks that we had it.

We’d purchased the Roku with the intent of subscribing to one or more of the following services: Netflix, Vudu and Hulu Plus. Another benefit of purchasing the Roku is that you get a free month of most of these specific services and a few others; you can evaluate which options best meet your needs before having to spend any money on a subscription.

I also need to mention that the Roku is a very simple system to use to access programs-especially if you subscribe to any of the services that I listed. If you’re not a tech-savvy person, the Roku will make your life without cable or satellite much simpler.

Ultimately, although I was disappointed with the availability of truly free content on Roku, I think with a basic subscription service and a digital antenna, it is a very, very attractive alternative to satellite or cable.

Amazon Prime: We were very close to signing up for Amazon Prime so that we could access tons of free video content; however, I read several reviews that complained that it’s very difficult to locate the specific content that you want, and it’s almost impossible to find the same spot in the same episode you were watching if you have to stop to go somewhere before you finish what you’re watching. Based on these reviews, we decided not to upgrade to Amazon Prime.

Live Sports: Probably the biggest argument that I hear against cancelling cable or satellite is access to live sports.

First of all, depending on where you live, you should have access to most of the major networks, and all of the games that appear on these networks. This includes the Olympics, the Superbowl, PGA Golf, etc.

The killer solution to access most live sports: After my disappointment with the limited free content on Roku, I found an article that explained how a simple VGA cable could be used to connect my laptop directly to my TV. This is a very low budget solution. I purchased mine at Best Buy, but later found almost the same item on Amazon for much, much less.

Regarding sports, we were able to watch the NBA All-star game for free on NBA.com and we were even able to select any one of 6 different camera views. NBA All-star access even included the 3-point shootout and the slam dunk contest. Again, this is all free with a VGA cable, a laptop and internet access.

During NCAA March Madness, I wanted to watch some of the games that weren’t on the main CBS channel, and discovered that for a 1-time payment of $3.99 I was able to watch all of the games live. Using my VGA Cable I was able to watch these NCAA March Madness basketball games on my TV over the course of the tournament.

If you’re a baseball fan, you can subscribe to MLB TV for just $109.99 and have access to all baseball games via the internet for the full season.

ESPN: Probably the absolute best 100% free online sports access can be found on ESPN3.

I won’t guarantee this, but it certainly seems that any time there is a major sporting event on ESPN, it’s simulcast for free on ESPN3. Even better than that are the ton of recently recorded and live sports events that you probably don’t even realize are available for free. If you are a fan of European league soccer, almost every league game is available on ESPN3 for free.

To see what’s available on ESPN3, click here, scroll down and you will see 3 tabs: Live Now, Upcoming & Replay. It defaults to the full list of programs, but you can filter by specific sport using the drop down box that’s directly below each tab.

Unfortunately, if you’re an NFL DirectTicket subscriber, there’s currently no online only option available for this. If you subscribe to DirectTicket, you can pay a premium and get online access as well, but you can’t purchase online as a stand-alone subscription. This means that you’ll have to go to a sports bar, or find a friend or relative who has DirectTicket.

What else is available for free with a VGA Cable? Outside of sports, there is a ton of excellent free video content online; too much for me to even begin listing, but now that you’ve made your “Can’t live without” list, you can search to see if they are available for free online.

For me personally, I really enjoy watching episodes of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert; while they’re not available live, I can watch any episode the day after it’s broadcast for free.

So what about not having a DVR? With all of the free content available online, and all of the paid content that you can stream through Roku with a subscription to one of the very inexpensive providers, there’s almost no need for a DVR.

The major exception here is with TV that’s broadcast live through your digital antenna. Some of this content may be available for free at the network website, or you may be able to access using one of your Roku subscriptions. If neither of these are options, you can typically purchase single episodes on iTunes, but unless you get an AppleTV, you may be limited to watching them on your computer or iPad.

Essentially, if any of the above options will give you low cost access to a recorded version of your favorite program, you will no longer need a DVR.

In summary, cancelling your satellite or cable subscription is certainly worth investigating. Hopefully, the links and information provided in this short post will give you a starting point to begin your evaluation. Under no circumstances should you cancel your cable or satellite without having a specific plan in place for watching your favorite shows. Best of luck!

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Have you recently cancelled satellite or cable? Are you happy with your decision? Please share your comments below.

  • Asf

    I dumped Dish in 2010 after having Dish for about 7 years. With my Roku player, Netflix, Amazon and Crackle, combined with over the air TV, and other Internet accessible resources to content, unless you are a sports junkie, there are few reasons to keep paying $60-$120/mo.
    Including the Netflix, Amazon costs and the cost of my Roku player I’ve saved over $1200! I already had Internet access, so I don’t include that cost of $28/mo. I also dumped AT&T as my land line phone company that I was paying $55/mo to for phone service and picked up Vonage for half that amount, so in the end, it’s an overall even greater savings.
    Bottom line paying for TV wasn’t bad, but over the years, it was frustrating paying to watch 40% commercials on basic. If HBO, Showtime and some of the networks wised up, they’d have web based subscriptions they could offer direct. I could see paying a few bucks a month for HBO, Spike or Sci-Fi, but until they do, I’m gone, gone, gone, never to return!

  • http://twitter.com/byoung210 B.C. Young

    I did the same thing two weeks ago.

    A year and a half ago, Dish changed their satellite and put a new dish on our house pointing in another direction. This went directly into trees, which became a problem in the spring and fall when the leaves grew.

    Since we were under contract, we waited until it was up to cancel Dish.

    So far, I have no complaints. In fact, I see this as the way many people will go in the coming years. I highly recommend it!

    • http://www.twistedscifi.com/ Blase Ciabaton

      Thanks much for stopping by and adding to the conversation! Glad to hear that this has been a positive experience for you as well. I agree that more and more people will make the switch and be happy that they did.

  • Gilberto Martinez

    I don’t see myself leaving my Satellite soon. Most of my favorite channels aren’t available online but probably because they’re foreign. I don’t really watch the locals at all either. It would be nice to cancel Dish but splitting the bill is also helpful and balances it out. Not yet for me!

    • Sy

      The Roku offers an entire channel of foreign television shows. Not sure what you like, but their offerings are extensive.

  • Mom of 2

    I cancelled DirecTv, as well. Little did I know, I am getting BASIC cable (for free, they normally charge $30 per month) through my cable company because I have internet through them and it goes through the same lines. It is all local channels, plus a few didgital versions. (Lots of oldie shows, that I like.) We get several HD channels, too. I didn’t need to watch all those shows and barely did watch them. So, here is my suggestion, if you have cable internet, hook up the cable line coming into the house (not the internet line) to your TV and see what channels you get. It’s free and legal. :)

  • kate

    I cancelled DirecTV in Oct. 2012 when my agreement ran out. They tried everything to get me to stay – ha. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, and never “live”, so all I subscribe to is HuluPlus. I get my new shows AND some of my favorite old ones… like American Gothic. I went from $80/month to $9/month. Pretty sweet.

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