The Cord-Cutter’s Dilemma: Will Cutting Cable Really Save You Money?

So, you think you want to cut the cable cord and go all-in on streaming? It’s a question people have been asking themselves ever since Netflix introduced on-demand streaming in 2007. 

But it’s more relevant than ever now: 2015 might just be the Year of the Stream, with several new streaming services from traditional cable and broadcast networks like CBS and HBO, new cable-replacement services from Sling TV and Sony, and new generations of set-top boxes like the updated Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and the Roku 4. 

And when you add in the fact that the holiday season is the perfect time for families to decide how to best set up their entertainment infrastructure, now is the perfect time to consider — again — whether cutting the cord is right for you. Here’s how I’d sort through your various options right now.

Over-the-air networks

Among the biggest things you give up when you ditch cable or satellite TV service is access to the major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. In addition to providing some pretty great programming, the networks also bring you some content — like live sports — that you just don’t want to miss.

You can still get these channels without cable, but you’ll need to buy a specialized antenna (if you don’t have one already). Fortunately, decent options are available on Amazon for pretty cheap: You can get a good one for anywhere from $20 to $100 or so, with ranges of 25 to more than 60 miles.

$20 to $100.

General-purpose streaming

Conventional streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu Plus have been around for several years, and each are worth considering picking up for streaming movies and TV shows to your TV and mobile devices.

Of those major options, Netflix currently offers about 10,000 movies and TV shows, including about 7,500 in HD. And it offers three pricing tiers: $8 per month for non-HD content with one stream at a time; $10 for HD content and two simultaneous streams; and $12 per month for Ultra HD content and four streams.

Amazon Prime Video has approximately 17,000 movies and TV shows, but only around 3,500 are in HD. Prime Video is included with the company’s popular Amazon Prime service, which costs $99 per year (or, for comparison’s sake, about $8.25 a month). With that subscription, you also get free two-day shipping on your Amazon orders and the Prime Music streaming service. You can rent newer movies or subscribe to current seasons of TV shows for an added cost.

Hulu is unique in that it has a free tier, which lets you watch a limited amount of content on a PC — typically older movies and a few TV episodes. The company’s premium Hulu Plus service unlocks a slew of additional content, including current seasons of several popular TV shows. Both the free plan and the basic $8 per month Hulu Plus plan have commercials; a $12 monthly tier removes the ads. Hulu Plus users can add Showtime’s streaming service for an additional $9 per month.

$10 (assuming you choose just one streaming service).

Streaming from cable and broadcast services

There are a couple of different ways to stream live content from popular cable and broadcast networks. Some services essentially offer a mini-cable package, with live and on-demand cable network content, while some cable and broadcast networks offer their own standalone streaming services.

  Sling TV is a relative newcomer to the streaming game. For $20 per month, it gives you access to over 20 channels, including ESPN, Disney, AMC, TNT, TBS, HGTV, Food Network, and Cartoon Network. You can add sports, kids hollywood, world news, and lifestyle channel packages for an extra $5 per month each, or HBO for $15 per month. The service also offers new customers free Roku or Chromecast streaming sticks and discounts off streaming boxes. 

PlayStation Vue is the service that’s most like cable, and comes with similar price points. PS Vue has three tiers — Access, Core and Elite — priced at $50, $60 and $70 per month, respectively. The base tier lets you stream content from broadcast networks FOX, CBS and NBC in addition to typical cable channels like Bravo, CNN, Food Network, HGTV and more. The higher tiers include additional channels like Fox Sports, Nickelodeon, AMC, FX and TNT; it will soon add Disney and ESPN.

 So far, three networks have announced relatively inexpensive streaming plans that let users stream their content: HBO Now costs $15 per month; Showtime’s streaming service is $11 per month (or $9 per month when packaged with Hulu Plus); and CBS All Access runs $6 per month.

Each service gets you access to shows as they air on the respective networks, as well as access to past shows and each network’s current catalogue of movies and other video content.

$6 to $70 and beyond (depending on the content you want).

Streaming sports

One of the biggest reasons people don’t quit cable is live sports. Fortunately, many sports offer standalone services that let you stream live or on-demand games — but they tend to be pricey and limited in what they let you watch.

Baseball, hockey and basketball fans can subscribe to MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, or NBA League Pass, respectively, with prices ranging from $100 annually (for PC-only baseball) to $200 per year (for live NBA games). Unfortunately, these services all have local blackout restrictions, so you won’t be able to watch your home team unless you’re outside your team’s broadcast area.

Things get a bit more complicated with the NFL. Verizon has a deal with the NFL lets Verizon users stream live local games on Sunday and primetime games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights for free. If you’re not on Verizon, the NFL Game Pass service costs $100 per year, but it lets you watch games only after they’ve ended; you can, however, listen to live radio broadcasts.

There’s also an NFL Sunday Ticket streaming option from DirecTV, but it only applies to those who can’t get DirecTV service in their home or apartment complex. And it’s pretty expensive, ranging from $200 to $359 per year depending on how you want to watch the games and whether you want their extra football-specific channels.

Finally, soccer fans can subscribe to Fox Soccer 2 Go, a $20 monthly (or $150 annual) service that lets you stream live soccer matches, with one big caveat: The service no longer includes the British Barclay’s Premiere League, one of the more popular leagues in the world.

$8 to $30 per sport (with significant limitations).

The hardware

To get all this content onto your TV (as opposed to your computer or smartphone screen), you’re going to need either a Smart TV or a connected device that plugs into your existing set.

There are lots of options available, from streaming sticks (like the Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick or the Roku Streaming Stick, which cost between $35 and $50) to streaming boxes (such as Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku, which cost from $50 for older models and $200 for the latest and greatest).

All of these connected devices let you stream content from a variety of different platforms; some of the higher-priced models add features like Ultra HD content and games.

$35 to $200 (if you don’t already have one). 

Adding it up

So will cutting the cable cord save you any money? It depends entirely on what you like to watch.

Let’s say you’re paying $100 a month for cable TV now. (Estimates vary, but that’s one guess at the average American’s bill.) There are lots of combinations of the numbers above that get you lots of TV content — if not everything you’re getting from cable now — for less than that. It’s also quite possible to spend a lot more — and even then you might not get everything that cable has to offer.

If you can get by with just one or two streaming services — say Netflix and HBO Now — you can probably save some money by going all-in on streaming. If, however, you’re more of a TV junkie and need to subscribe to several different streaming services to get the live sports, TV, and movies you want, you may be better off sticking to standard cable.

Or, you can do what a lot of people are doing and mix-and-match traditional cable or satellite services with streaming to get the TV package that’s right for you — but you won’t save any money that way. 

The bottom line: Decide what you really need in order to satisfy your content needs, then do the math and figure out the best way to get that within your budget. 

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