Monday, February 15, 2010

Technology 2: Moving Away from Cable TV

In a recent post I mentioned that I was thinking about getting off cable television for internet content. Well, that transition is nearly complete.

I've haven't had cable TV very much over the years. I grew up without it, of course, and my parents got it after I'd already left for college. It came very late to New York City where I lived in the late 80s, although I had it for about 2 years when my folks got me a nice TV for my birthday one year. After I moved out of NY, first to my grandparents' house in the country and then to Israel, I didn't have it at all. In fact, I didn't have television at all for about three years. When we moved into our own place we had had broadcast only, which when I shared it with some of my students led some of the more chutzpadik among them to infer - not without reason - that it was due to the poverty wages I received as an Israeli high school teacher.

When we were in Philadelphia for rabbinical school we didn't have it, again because we were poor, and then in Chicagoland we also didn't have it, more out of principle at this point that anything else. As baseball content moved more to cable and then Jon Stewart became a thing it was clear that I was starting to miss something, but we just never felt it was enough of a priority to get it, even when we (more or less) could afford it. As a note, we used plug-in rabbit ears and were able to get to get most of the available broadcast channels.

When I moved to Wichita I brought a TV with me (DW and the DKs came about four months later) and for some reason the electric rabbit ears didn't work. I also got broadband internet for the first time at that point (until 2007 we used dial-up) and I just had them put cable in at the same time. So that was a little more than two years ago, and we have basic cable, no pay services and not the extra digital tier, since we're still using the no-longer-so-nice (and non-HD) TV my folks got me 15 years ago.

Lately, though, as we've been looking a little more carefully at where our money's going, the $50 per month we've been spending on cable has started looking at me funny. I keep thinking of this line from Tightwad Gazette 3, in an article about whether people who are in desperate financial straits have really done all they could to get out of them:
Some people won't abandon cable TV. This may seem like a small point, but to me, cable TV is a sort of barometer. Anyone who is deep in debt and spends $25 a month for cable clearly hasn't "gotten it." A frequent excuse is that "we can't afford any other entertainment, so we fell this one expense is justified." ...
(This of course applies to the Sunday NY Times as well.)

But I'm just not prepared to go back to the electric rabbit ears. How are you gonna get them back on the farm after they've seen Jon Stewart?

And it so happens that lately I've been seeing some articles that speak about moving to a cable-less existence:
  • "Cable Freedom, Aided by a Mouse," from the Times technology page, and
  • "Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite," from the website Bible Money Matters, which I found via Google I can assure you.
This method described in this latter article is the way I decided to go. What the writer did was connect his Xbox into his home internet network, then downloaded a software program called Playon which enables you to stream content from Netflix (which we already get), Hulu, Youtube and some selected content on ESPN (reports, not games) and CBS directly on the TV, via the Xboxs.

We have a Wii, and Playon does work with that, but Wii is not as supportive a platform for streaming (the picture is bad, I'm let to believe) so I bought a used Xbox from Ebay ($190) as well as a remote that can handle the set-up ($55, also used from Ebay). The software costs something too, not sure how much yet (there's a two week free trial period), so if it costs $50 the total investment will be $295, which is about the cost of cable for six months.

In addition to this initial cost, the disadvantage of this system is that it's more limited programming-wise. Microsoft has a Windows Media Center application that allows you to watch Internet TV on the PC as well as recorded content on the Xbox, but so far there's no way to watch internet TV directly on the Xbox, which means I'll be watching a lot more TV on the PC in the future. (Fortunately we have a nice big monitor.) Most of the shows I watch are available on line - Stewart and Colbert, Charlie Rose, Cspan. Whatever few narrative shows we watch we usually get via Netflix anyway. Sports is going to be a challenge, although now there is some content (actual games) available via espn360, which our ISP, Cox, is providing, and which may be available through the Xbox before too long. I may also feel the need to drop some bread for a internet baseball subscription, which would raise the price of the project a bit; we'll have to see how much baseball is available through espn360.

I haven't actually canceled cable yet because the kids are interested in the Olympics and I'm already paid through the end of the month anyway. But I'll get to it. So for the next six months I'll be putting the cable money into our credit card bill to pay off the cost of this project; after that, it'll be gravy. Whether this approach turns out to be a money saver in the long run only time will tell; but given the availability of content on-line, it certainly doesn't seem like we need to be paying on an ongoing basis for cable TV any longer.


Kelly said...

I lived without a television for the six months when I was DC and I only missed it on a rare occasion. With all of the big shows easily available on the internet and my busy, it seemed pointless to have TV. I don't know how keen your kids are to the idea, but I think it's smart parenting to cut of the tube!

rebmoti said...

Hey Kelly, Thanks for dropping by. We're pretty tough about TV time - the kids get a movie (usually a Netflix or library rental) on Saturday night, and we had a policy of giving them a show or two one night during the week, like an episode or 2 of Carly or something, but lately they've been passing it up in favor of more time on the Wii.

Peter said...

Thanks for the link to my post! I believe some of Comedy Central content including Jon Stewart is available via Playon. Don't quote me on that but I seem to remember watching some of the Daily Show on there. If it isn't already in there, it may be a special plugin that you'll have to install for Playon.

Good luck!