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November 13, 2020

Cutting The Cord [Joe Mannix (not a cop)]

With the generally deplorable state of entertainment and news, the constantly-rising costs of cable or satellite TV, the proliferation of high-speed internet and commonality of Smart TVs, the concept of “cord-cutting” is a more frequent topic of conversation in the forum threads. There is a lot of confusion around cord-cutting and how it works, what the goals are, how to do it, etc. To help demystify this, let’s break down what cord-cutting is and how to go about doing it.

This post assumes that you want to watch TV on a television set with a fairly standard TV viewing experience. You have more cord-cutting options if you’re using a PC to consume content, and there are also options like “casting” content from your mobile phone or tablet to your TV (essentially using your other device as a set-top box), but they are not the point of this post. This post is about cord-cutting while maintaining a normal and self-contained TV-like experience.


Some Terms
To better understand all that’s about to come, there are some terms that will be helpful to understand. This is a brief glossary that should help with understanding the rest of the post.
Cord-cutting: Getting rid of cable or satellite TV in favor of lower-cost alternatives
OTA: “Over-the-air” – traditional broadcast television you pick up with an antenna
OTT: “Over-the-top” – content delivered via a set-top box but not cable or satellite
Smart TV: A television set or set-top box that uses software to show streaming video services from the internet to your television.

What is cord-cutting?
“Cord-cutting” is a term used to describe the act of “cutting the cord” where “the cord” is your cable or satellite service (and sometimes extending to your home phone service if applicable). This can be desirable for a number of reasons, but the top two are cost-savings (OTT services are usually cheaper that cable or satellite) and/or “starving the beast” (not paying people who hate you). Cord-cutting can accommodate one or both of these goals.

General Overview
Cord-cutting generally consists of three or four broad categories to keep in mind:
Connectivity: This is your broadband internet connection, whether it’s cable or DSL or wireless or whatever.
Devices: This is your smart TV or set-top box that provides smart TV capability in your home.
Services: These are what actually provide content for you to watch on your Smart TV.
Antenna: This lets you pick up OTA signals if desired or applicable.
All of these (except the antenna, depending on how you go about things) are required to “cut the cord” effectively, and will be discussed in turn. To help keep this straight, think of it in these terms: “Your connectivity is used to deliver content from services to your device, which displays it on your television.”

Connectivity
Broadband internet access is a basic requirement for cord-cutting. As far speed goes, more is generally better up to a point. There are a lot of factors here, including how many screens you want to run simultaneously and the level of picture quality you demand. I know from personal experience in a rural area with only mediocre DSL available that cord-cutting can work with fairly small amounts of available bandwidth (in my case, 7.5 Mbit), but your experience may be marginal if you’re running more than two screens. If you have 20 Mbit or faster service, though, you should encounter no problems unless you want 4k (ultra-HD) service on more than one screen, or if you want to run more than three screens simultaneously.

One final call-out in this area: if you’re using geosynchronous satellite-based internet (e.g., DirecWAY or similar), then cord-cutting is probably a non-starter. One reason is the high latency on these connections and another is the data transmission caps that are usually enforced. Streaming video is a data hog and if you’re capped, then you’ll find out where those caps are fairly quickly.

Devices
Streaming to your television requires some kind of “smart” capability for your TV. Many TVs have this built-in, or you can add a set-top box. In many cases, a set-top box is superior (or will become that way over time as capabilities improve) to the built-in Smart TV platforms. The software ecosystems around the external devices are often bigger and support for services is often better. They can be upgraded if needed by getting the new model. One thing to keep in mind is that if you have a Smart TV with a built-in platform, there is nothing that precludes you from using a set-top box instead if you want to or if it becomes relevant later. It’s just an input like any other – like a DVD/Blu-Ray player, a cable box, etc. There are five major device categories/manufacturers:
1. Roku. This is what I use, and I love it. Roku is a dead-simple platform with an intuitive interface, an excellent services ecosystem and readily-available support online if needed. I have the most experience with Roku, and offer two pieces of advice if you go this route:
o Don’t buy the bottom-end Roku device. Get the mid-line or higher version. The user experience is improved with the faster hardware, and the price difference isn’t that significant.
o If you want to use a universal remote control, don’t get the “Streaming Stick” variant. These are nice and convenient, but use a radio frequency remote instead of an infrared remote, and this means your universal remote probably won’t work with it if you want to use it.
2. Apple TV. This Apple’s smart TV platform. It also has a good ecosystem and, like the Roku, is very easy to set up and use.
3. Amazon FireTV. This is Amazon’s smart TV platform. I have no experience with it at all, but I have been led to believe that like the rest, it has good support for services and is easy to use.
4. Android TV. This is a generic platform based on Android (Google’s phone operating system). Unlike the others, Android TV devices are available from various manufacturers, led by NVIDIA with their higher-end “NVIDIA Shield” device.
5. Built-in Smart TV platforms. These are television sets with all the “smart” bits built-in. Essentially, these are TVs that have the set-top box included. There are a variety of platforms under the covers. The higher-end Sony TVs actually run Android TV, Roku TVs (various manufacturers) run Roku, and other manufacturers (Samsung, LG, etc.) have other platforms. If you are going to be using your built-in smart TV functionality, check with your desired service providers to see if they support your TV. If they don’t, get a set-top box and use it instead.

Services
Services are the magic – and the value statement – for cord-cutting. In very broad terms, services come in two varieties: live services and library services. Live services bring you live television channels over the internet instead of through cable or satellite TV providers. These are essentially drop-in replacements for your existing cable TV service. Library services provide content libraries that you can consume. This is not live TV, but more like a library of movies and shows that you can watch. Each will be discussed in turn. The services to which you subscribe show up on your Smart TV after you add them. The different platforms have different names for things (Android TV calls them “apps,” Roku calls them “channels,” etc.), but they all work in essentially the same way.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that services and platforms are distinct. The question isn’t “Does Roku offer TVService1?” The question is “Does TVService1 offer a Roku channel?” In most cases, regardless of what the service or platform is, the answer will be “yes.”

Live TV services
There are many live TV streaming services, and they all have good support across devices. There are differences (sometime significant differences) in costs and channel availability. Most live TV services are paid services. The major cable-like services with large channel packages are YouTube TV (Google), AT&T TVNOW (AT&T), Sling TV (Echostar/Dish Network), Hulu (Disney) and Philo (joint venture owned by A&E, CBS, AMC and Discovery).

All of these are paid-for services and essentially provide cable TV-like services to your Smart TV over the internet at a lower cost than a traditional cable or satellite subscription. All except Philo offer local channels – though perhaps not all of them, and not in all areas. To see channel lineups, local channel availability, etc. see their respective websites. The costs involved range from $20/month for smaller channel lineups and no local channels (like with Philo), up to about as high as you want to go. You should expect to save at least 25% as compared to traditional cable or satellite services, depending on selected packages or premium channels like HBO or Starz. All of the paid-for cable-like services have free trials, so you can always play with it until you find what you like if you’re in this market.

In addition to the mainline paid TV services, there are other multi-channel, general-purpose live TV options like Pluto (ViacomCBS) that are free or have free options. These often don’t have the same channels you are used to and have a mix of live and library content. Pluto is a great example of this, which has a mix of some mainstream channels, some specialty channels (including Newsmax), and a lot of older programming.

There are also specialty/niche live TV services. For example, live OANN is delivered through KlowdTV (Herring Networks, which also owns OAN) through a bespoke service. There are many niche services, and they are usually fairly cheap or free. Most of the paid services run from $5/month through about $10/month. As with the cable-like services, they also typically offer free trials.

Library Services
Like live TV, there are countless library services that provide large content archives that you can consume so long as you keep paying the bill and the service provider maintains its contracts with the content owners. These range in cost from free (ad-supported) to about as much as you’d like to spend. Library services are the original streaming services, and most people are familiar with the big names. Library services include Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and more. There is an almost limitless variety of niche services for specialty programming (foreign shows, arthouse movies, etc.). Like the rest of the streaming media industry, the services that are paid-for offer free trials and good platform support regardless of what kind of smart TV platform you use.

Summary
Services are where the magic happens with cord-cutting. Your network connection and smart TV platform are usually secondary unless your platform doesn’t support the service you want. It comes down to what you want to watch and how much you want to spend. In almost all cases, it will be cheaper than a traditional cable or satellite service because you’re paying for your internet connection anyway. The variety of content available through various services is effectively limitless.

Antennas
Note: This isn’t really a part of the “smart TV” discussion, but antennas are good for augmenting a break away from cable and satellite services. Antennas work with no extra hardware or services, as long as your TV set as a digital tuner.

For receiving local channels – and there are more of them than you think since the HDTV transition was finished – you have choices, too. Many of the cable-like services also include local channels, but not all do. Unless you are quite rural or have mountains in the way, an antenna may be a great choice to pick up live local programming. This works, in essence, like it always has. If you have a remotely modern TV set (manufactured after about 2005), it likely already has a digital (ATSC) tuner. Plug in your antenna and instruct your TV to scan for channels (your TV’s user’s manual will show you how).

In the digital TV era, signals are broadcast at a much higher frequency than the old VHF and UHF analogue systems. As a result, you may find that your reception isn’t great outside of urban areas. In my experience, indoor TV antennas work fairly well in cities and suburbs and above ground (e.g., not in the basement). For more marginal areas, a rooftop TV aerial probably makes sense. For some indication of what channels you can receive with an antenna, the distance to your local transmitters and where those transmitters are, I strongly recommend checking out www.antennaweb.org. Here, you can enter your ZIP code or address and it will tell you what channels you should be able to access, where the transmitters are, how far away they are and what kind of signal strength you can expect. It’s a great resource for choosing an antenna and aiming it.

One final note on antennas is around availability and distance. If you’re more than 20 miles from a transmitter, assume you’ll need an amplified antenna to get a good signal. This may be true anyway. In addition, keep in mind the “digital cliff” phenomenon. Essentially, anything you get is going to come in well with a clear, good picture and sound. Analogue signals decay naturally and so marginal signals will show up with a snowy picture, or black-and-white instead of color, etc. Anyone who has used analogue TV will be familiar with this. Digital signals are different. They transmit a digitally-encoded signal with some error correction. The moment the signal is too degraded for error correction to work, you’ll lose picture and sound entirely – it falls off a “cliff” and there is a very narrow zone where you pick up a moderately-degraded signal. This becomes more relevant with long distances between you and the transmitter, or significant obstacles (mountains, densely-packed skyscrapers, etc.).

Understanding Your Goals
As mentioned at the beginning, there are two reasons most people have for moving away from traditional TV services and cutting the cord: saving money or “starving the beast.”

If you’re looking to save money, just break out your pocket calculator, review the services and lineups that suit your desires, and do what makes financial sense. In almost every case, you’ll save some cash every month. The devices are cheap and you’re paying for internet access anyway, so you’ll probably find that you break even in well under a year.

If you’re looking to starve the beast and withhold your hard-earned money from people who hate you, things get trickier – and you’re probably not going to get a clean break from all of them unless you go with exclusively OTA content. That said, there are things you can do to maintain most or all of what you want and seriously reduce your patronage to companies that you dislike. This is pretty easy to do with library services – basically, just pick one that isn’t Netflix or Amazon or Disney unless there are content considerations you find compelling. This is much harder to do – in fact, it is impossible at this time – with live TV services.

For me, the best compromise on the live TV side of things is Philo. It’s owned by a joint venture including some firms I don’t like, but it is cheap and it doesn’t include major news networks (CNN, Fox, etc.), sports networks (ESPN) or local channels. Because of what Philo doesn’t have, it is very affordable at just $20 a month for what is essentially a mid-tier cable package other than its very significant exclusions of news and sports. As a general-purpose entertainment and lifestyle service, it’s very good and very cheap and doesn’t support too many people who hate me. I augmented this with KlowdTV (OAN) and I pay a total of $25/month for general entertainment and 24-hour news. Not bad.

That’s it! I hope someone has found this helpful, and that it was remotely worth the read!

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posted by Open Blogger at 05:11 PM

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