Cable TV used to be as much of a leap over aerial broadcast as color sets were over black and white. The ability to get a hundred or more channels in crisp quality seemed miraculous at the time and was well worth paying for.
Today, however, this technology is showing its age. Viewers want more choice, better value, and less restrictive contracts. At the same time, many of them don’t want to give up live television in favor of on-demand library content only: local news and sports streamed live are important too.
So, while quality television may be important to you, you’d probably prefer not to spend a thousand dollars or more per year just on a subscription – throwing that amount of money at your credit card bill will give you much greater satisfaction. As you will soon see, there are plenty of more economical options that still enable you to view all the movies, series, and other programming you truly enjoy.
Let’s take a look at some of the best cable television alternatives that will save you money, in no particular order:
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Tuning in to Local Broadcasts
While the internet has eaten much of traditional television’s lunch, local, advertiser-supported stations don’t seem to be going the way of the dodo any time soon. They may not be able to afford a lot of premium content, but their community focus can be enough to make up for this lack. In any case, unless you truly live in the wilderness where affordable broadband is hard to come by, you’ll still be able to pick up at least a couple of major networks.
Video on demand is obviously a no-go and you’ll have to sit through a couple of ads, but most of what you’ll be interested in is at least broadcast in 720p HD. Poor picture quality due to interference, weather effects, and weak signals used to be good reasons to pay for cable instead, but improved technology has made this a moot point. A digital antenna costing under two dozen bucks gives crystal clarity, can be mounted indoors, and allows you to watch as much as you like without ever paying for a subscription.
In general, any free replacement for cable will contain ads or not offer all the premium content you might like to watch. On the other hand, this free video hosting platform contains some real gems if you’re willing to search for them, and you can probably get used to the advertisements if you’re on a tight budget.
If you’d like to expand your intellectual horizons, Ted talks can challenge, entertain and enlighten you on everything from politics to astronomy. If you have a taste for the weird, a little browsing is sure to turn up something among the mass of free user-generated content. There are also numerous episodes of popular TV series, which have presumably been uploaded with the permission of their copyright owners.
A Library Card
Though some technophiles will find this difficult to believe, brick-and-mortar libraries still have a major role to play in modern society, and they’re about a lot more than encyclopedias and newspapers from the 1950s. Many of them have a collection of movies and DVD box sets you can check out and take home. You may be surprised at the selection they offer, including many just-released titles.
More recently, many libraries now allow their patrons to stream movies at home, for free. You are normally restricted, depending on your local library’s policy, to between five and twenty free films per month. Still, considering that a library card costs next to nothing and they sometimes stock movies that are impossible to find on paid streaming services, this is really a pretty good deal.
Stream Classic Movies for Free
Plenty of people think that any film without CGI isn’t worth watching. Certainly, things were a lot less exciting in the black-and-white age, but older movies have a charm all of their own. For one thing, acting and dialogue were a lot more important: a pretty face alone would not get an actor a role, and every line follows the previous one logically while adding additional characterization or plot points.
Sadly, several films like these have actually been lost to time and carelessness. In order to prevent more of this happening, the Internet Archive hosts several thousand nearly-forgotten films, all of which are now free and legal to download (as nobody owns the copyright). Some of them are truly horrible and worth watching only in the same way as Plan 9 from Outer Space, others, like The Cabinet of Doctor Cagliari, will change the way you see cinema forever.
Depending on how much time you spend on the couch, a monthly fee may be money well spent. How much value for money you get depends largely on how many channels each package contains. In the case of Sling, you can pay $30 a month and choose between the Orange plan with 32 channels and the Blue option with over 50, or combine the two for under fifty dollars. This platform will probably be sports lovers’ first choice, as you’ll be able to watch multiple athletic channels, especially if you’re willing to pay more for optional extras like the NHL Network and NBA TV.
In either case, you’ll get access to major networks such as Comedy Central, CNN, and AMC. The range of channels each color-coded package contains is very different, though, so larger families will probably be better off getting Orange as well as Blue. You can record shows onto a cloud-based DVR, though you’re limited to 10 hours unless you want to pay an extra fee. In addition, though Sling is one of the better low-cost alternatives to cable, you may end up paying more than you expected if you choose to tack on premium channels and other optional add-ons. If you’d like to try before you buy, you can sign up for a 7-day free trial period as long as you own a compatible device.
If you’re not too picky about what you watch but still insist on a wide selection of programming, either Sling or Hulu will work for you. The latter offers something over 60 live channels, as well as a well-stocked streaming library, for a $55 monthly fee.
Hulu is somewhat heavier on the ads than Sling but does a better job of recommending new content for you. The menu structure also allows easier browsing, whether by genre, network, or on-demand options. As with many other options, you should make a point of tallying up the total cost of your package including all the extras. If you want to get rid of most of the ads, for instance, you’ll need to cough up an extra $5 per month, while extending your online DVR space from 50 to 200 hours sets you back $15.
Adding premium channels like HBO and Showtime costs extra, too – though you can choose to forego the live television channels in favor of on-demand movies and shows, including Hulu originals like The Handmaid’s Tale and Castle Rock, for only $6 a month. If you prefer to watch several episodes of a series in one sitting, Hulu’s video-on-demand offering will appeal to you much more than Sling’s.
For many people, the name Netflix remains synonymous with video streaming. Among its virtues is a wealth of original and exclusive content, including titles such as Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and Arrested Development. On the other hand, unlike Sling and Hulu Live, you’re pretty much restricted to on-demand content.
On the other hand, you can always get a digital antenna if you insist on a living person reading tomorrow’s weather report and other topical programming. Netflix memberships range from $9 to $16 per month, the difference reflecting what resolution you can download and how many streams you can view simultaneously. The first month’s subscription is free, but you’re virtually certain to keep watching after that.
Philo is a relatively new entrant to the streaming game but may be just what you’re looking for if you need a cheaper cable TV alternative that features both live and on-demand programming. For only $20 a month, you can watch any of nearly 60 channels – and there are no complicated package options to confuse you or drive up the price.
It works well on a number of streaming televisions as well as mobile devices. You can also record an unlimited amount, though this footage is only available for 30 days. Unfortunately, Philo doesn’t carry all that many of the highly popular networks, but with options like AMC, the Discovery Channel, and IFC at your disposal, you shouldn’t run out of things to watch even without dipping into the on-demand library. A bigger drawback is that Philo offers no local channels, which is often exactly what viewers prefer to watch live on cable.
Amazon Prime Video
If you’re already a loyal Amazon Prime member, making use of Prime Video is the next logical step. It comes bundled with your Prime subscription, which costs $119 per year. Some of its advantages are the ability to stream in 4K resolution, the option of buying and downloading movies and series to keep on your own devices, and some very impressive original content like Fleabag and The Man in the High Castle.
What counts against it is a selection of third-party content that’s poor by comparison with Netflix and Hulu. You can watch a pretty wide selection of movies, but which are available changes constantly, and many newer and popular titles never seem to make it onto the platform. Sports fans can subscribe to a couple of channels, but will be far more satisfied with Sling unless they want to add additional channels to Prime Video to keep track of their favorite game.
Youtube Premium and TV
While it’s certainly possible to waste hours on the free version of Youtube looking at funny cat videos alone, some people may want to take this to the next level and pay $12 a month for Youtube Premium, giving them access to some of the weird and wonderful content hosted only on that platform – much of this is actually of television quality or professionally filmed. A premium subscription also removes the ads on normally hosted video clips.
There is also a competitor to services like Hulu Live and Sling: known as Youtube TV, it includes live broadcasts from over 80 different networks. Given that Youtube TV costs $65 a month, it’s a relief that these provide a good mix between news and entertainment. Sports coverage is comparable to that of Sling, though Youtube TV costs significantly more. You’ll also get some of the best online DVR functionality out there, but people with small children may end up wishing for more comprehensive parental controls.
Fubo’s basic plan includes no fewer than 115 channels, some of which are broadcast in 4K. You’ll also get 500 hours of recording space and, as you would expect, this doesn’t come cheap: plans start at $65 a month. Adding the Sports and Extra channel packages pushes this up to $85, while a couple of additional channels can be ordered individually.
Fubo started off as a dedicated sports broadcaster and remains a strong contender in that area. Aside from that, there’s very little missing from its offering, including local channels. The well-designed interface is another point in its favor. Still, given its expense, you may be better off looking at cheaper options first, especially if you’ve never used a streaming platform before.
Disney’s entry into the streaming arena is notable for its emphasis on family-friendly programming, including titles from Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and of course Star Wars. This by itself makes it appealing to many households, and the price of only $7 per month is nothing to sneeze at either.
You can also get a slight discount if you pay a year in advance, but most people will probably want to spend six bucks per month extra and get both ESPN and Hulu in addition. This is without the Hulu Live package, but still makes Disney+ one of the most competitive options for sheer variety.
Quibi is an unusual streaming platform: instead of working with smart TVs or personal computers, this app is meant to work best, and in fact only, on mobile devices. What does this imply?
In the first place, this plucky little app is still trying to find a foothold in the market. Costing only $5 a month with ads and $8 without, it doesn’t support Chromecast or Airplay at present. Until the developers get this right, you’re limited to very small screens.
So far, it has only a paltry selection of only original shows, with episodes restricted to about ten minutes in length. This makes some sense for a mobile platform, but don’t expect Quibi to host Game of Thrones any time soon. If you think being able to get some streaming entertainment on the run is worth it, however, this app may bear watching.
Hide the Remote (Every Once in a While)
Though we all sometimes just need to veg out in front of the television, this really is far from healthy. Supposedly, the average American spends up to five hours per day staring at the screen, and this has scientifically been linked to diabetes, obesity and heart problems.
In other words, while you will no doubt get good use out of your new, cheaper cable TV alternative, it’s also important to keep a sense of perspective. Stand up every half hour to keep your blood flowing, read a book to stimulate your mind, take a walk every day, or simply switch off the set when you realize that you’re not actually interested in what you’re watching. Getting the most out of your streaming subscription doesn’t have to mean spending as many hours as possible using it. Instead, focus on real enjoyment.
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Whether you have friends over or you’re just decompressing after a rough day, watching some television can be all you need to enjoy yourself. Of course, you’ll like it a lot less if there’s an exorbitant bill involved. There’s no need to pay as much as a hundred dollars every month: even if you’ve grown to like the variety cable TV offers, there are free and low-cost alternatives that will keep you just as happy.
Have you had any experience with one of the video streaming platforms we mentioned? It’s always difficult to figure out how easy each is to use, what their customer service is like, and whether someone is likely to get tired of it after a month. If you have anything to share with the rest of us, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.