I have been considering cutting paid cable/satellite TV service out of my life for quite a while. With my recent move into a new place with my partner Chris, I decided it was time to kick the habit. People have asked me to share my experiences.
My system combines over-the-air digital TV from a rooftop digital UHF antenna together with downloaded or streamed online content, delivered to my beautiful new 50″ HD television. The TV takes content from the digital antenna as well as a first-gen Apple TV (movies, TV episodes, video podcasts, YouTube) and a Playstation 3 (Bluray, Netflix). This full post below the jump provides detail about the core piece – replacing cable/satellite with over-the-air signals for digital broadcast television.
I’m thrilled to get 80% of everything I wanted from a paid cable subscription from free over the air digital television in pristine quality. Now I’ve become an advocate for cutting the cord, telling anybody who will listen to seriously consider it. I feel that the investment in professional rooftop installation was worth it for the reliable reception I get for US channels, paying for itself compared to cable in a few short months. It also felt good directing my money to an independent local business as opposed to a oligopoly cable/telco for a change.
Hardcore sports fans may not feel the same way, although that could change in the future with more HD Internet streaming of live events. The main reason I’m not missing anything has to do with the rest of my setup, which relies heavily on Internet downloads and streaming. I’ll write that up another time, if there’s interest.
More details of my setup, some key reference links and the results after the jump…
Digital Over-the-Air Television
Now that I finally have a new TV with a built-in ATSC digital tuner, I wanted to get a digital antenna to go with it. I’m in Toronto and researched what channels were available in my area. To my surprise, I discovered that I could get channels over-the-air that simply aren’t available on cable or satellite! And the picture quality is often better than cable. Apparently this is due to cable operators having to compress HD content to fit in their pipes. And digital over-the-air supports Dolby 5.1 surround sound, which is also part of my new setup.
See this page for a comprehensive list of digital channels available in the Toronto/Buffalo area: http://www.remotecentral.com/hdtv/index.html
To see what your reception will be like at your location, just enter your address in this fantastic tool: http://www.tvfool.com/
I live in a house so I made a deal with the landlord to install a digital UHF antenna on the roof. I wanted professional installation, and found these folks in Toronto who offer installation packages: http://www.hdantennastore.com/Installation-Packages_c6.htm I went for the Channel Master 4221 HD Ultra antenna. Using the compass points from TV Fool, the installers pointed the directional antenna to the weaker Buffalo stations. Overall, I had a great experience buying from these guys over the web and email. They also have a store on St. Clair Avenue.
Voila! We get 22 rock solid channels of digital TV, much of it in HD. If I were higher up and not partially closed in by apartment towers to the southwest, I’d probably get a couple more US channels.
From time to time, a couple of the weaker channels don’t come in. Because it’s digital it either works perfectly or not at all. Usually, I just try the channel again and it works. According to the installer, there’s a big difference between first generation digital TV tuners and the latest models in their ability to pull in and resolve a weak digital signal. My TV is a brand new Panasonic 50″ plasma. I was shocked to learn how cheap new large screen TVs have become, so I would recommend anyone considering buying an external converter box for their current TV consider how far your money can go in today’s television market.
Results – the Post Cable Experience
So what’s life like post-cable?
Well, I did go cold turkey upon moving, so while waiting to get everything in place I discovered that I actually missed broadcast TV. Internet downloads and streaming can’t replace the experience of channel surfing, an experience I was raised on since a child. Channel surfing is like mother’s milk.
Second, sub-channels are an unexpected and interesting innovation from the old analog over-the-air world. It’s possible to squeeze 3 digital channels in the space of a single old analog channel. Some broadcasters are taking advantage of this feature to provide more specialty content like sports, kids, music or lifestyle channels over-the-air. There’s room for more innovation here, and I’m hoping we’ll see more from Canadian broadcasters too.
I don’t miss premium channels on cable much at all. This is because the other parts of my system give me better on-demand access than scheduled programming for must-see premium content. Maybe I’ll miss some random HGTV or Discovery content in my surfing, but I’m sure I’ll find the good stuff in other ways – or it was just not that valuable to me after all. I don’t miss CNN or MSNBC – I get the shows I want from those networks (Olbermann, Maddow and Fareed Zakaria) via video podcasts on the Apple TV. Most of the Comedy Network stuff I like (Daily Show, South Park) I download.
If I was a big sports fan, I probably would miss channels like TSN for live sports events. I was impressed how immersive the digital channels are with sports content – hockey and football broadcast in gorgeous HD and surround sound, who knew! There’s also an all-sports sub-channel of the Buffalo NBC affiliate WGRZ. I’m curious if I’ll get US commercials on the US Fox affliate broadcasting the Super Bowl over-the-air. Big budget commercials have become part of the overall Super Bowl experience in the US, and many Canadians complain every year about not being able to see them thanks to cable providers substituting in Canadian commercials during simultaneous broadcasts of US stations.
The one local broadcast channel currently missing from the digital list is TVO, which has not yet switched to digital transmission. You can read an update on TVO’s digital transition plans on their Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=478606434371. I left a comment on their note to encourage them to consider innovative uses of the sub-channels available on digital broadcast. TVO Kids or TVO documentaries would be great additions to the local list of digital channels.
One channel I do miss from basic cable is CBC NewsNetwork. Given the sub-channel capabilities of digital broadcast, the CBC could be providing CBC NewsNetwork broadcast over-the-air on a digital sub-channel. I’d like to ask them about this, so if you know who best to direct that question do, I’d appreciate your advice.
If you cut the cord, I’d like you to take a minute to describe your location, setup and results in the comments below. It would be great to compare with other folks who are kicking the cable/satellite habit.
Over a year later, I have no regrets cutting the cord. US Super Bowl commercials were a lot of fun to watch and critique in real time over Twitter, and the half-time show was spectacular in crystal clear high def!
The final Canadian transition to digital OTA happened over the summer 2011 and with that milestone passed we now have TVO in beautiful HD over-the-air.
There are still few signs that Canadian broacasters plan to make creative use of the digital sub-channels to provide news and other specialty programming. CBC News Network, I’m looking at you!
I upgraded to an Apple TV2, which is now my Netflix device, supports AirPlay and together with my iPad 2 adds a whole new way of getting content to my TV. Between official broadcasters’ iPad apps and the amazingly versatile AirVideo app, many more options now exist to use the iPad to stream content on demand to the TV.
There are some weaknesses in my system, which are particularly in reception of US-based over-the-air signals. CBS is often offline for me, ABC frequently is and NBC occasionally. This seems to be a particular problem on Sunday mornings when I’m trying to get my US politics fix, so it’s just annoying enough to rise to the level of needing to take action. Adding a Channel Master 7777 amplifier should do the trick, so I’ll probably add that shortly.
I’m looking forward to seeing Ryan Coleman’s write-up, and hope others will share their experiences to help others who are thinking of cutting the cord.