Cutting the cord: life post cable TV

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…

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.

Overall Impressions

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:

To see what your reception will be like at your location, just enter your address in this fantastic tool:

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:  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: 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.

Your Setup?

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.

UPDATE 2/20/2012:

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.

39 thoughts on “Cutting the cord: life post cable TV”

  1. special k and I gave up cable 4 years ago. we have a 42in HD plasma (only 1.5 years old) The UHF/VHF antenna is a Nexxtech $15 dollar special (Nexxtech). We have to adjust it – but once an HD station comes in – it’s flawless. We live in downtown toronto on higher ground so getting a signal is rarely an issue. antenna is on the 1st floor on the fireplace mantle. faces south. Here’s a pic of the antenna: get 14-20 channels. It’s all we need. And for everything else – there’s the internet. 🙂

  2. Say you’re in a north facing apt (no roof access) — while I understand you can get signals bounced from the CN Tower off nearby buildings, I assume this would make Buffalo stations impossible?

  3. Cutting the cord has been the best decision I’ve ever made as far as TV is concerned. I got more than 22 channels (Real HD not the over-compressed crap Rogers push through its cable) however to be honest I seldom watch TV at all! its not interactive, engaging and intuitive enough

  4. Hey MarkThanks for your comments about our installation services. We’re glad you are happy with your FREE HD TV and are spreading the word. Everyone should know we are still installing in the winter (depending on weather of course). Feel free to drop by our store at 881 St. Clair Ave. W. (1 block east of Oakwood) 7 days a week. Or call us at 416-654-HDTV or visit our web-site at or our web-store at http://www.HDAntennaStore.comWhy Pay for FREE TV?!?!The Antenna Guys

  5. I picked up this $17 indoor antenna from a few years ago and it just sitting right next to my TV in my living room, I get all the major Toronto stations in HD – all I need if I need to see the news or some other live event:'t be happier with ditching cable. Can’t deal with the ads and ridiculous, combo prices that you’re forced into buying.You got a pretty serious antenna setup there, Mark! Love it. You *might* be able to get some of the weaker channels at night, as with any wireless transmission, there’s quite a bit of interference from the sun and such.

  6. i haven’t had cable for nearly 3 years, and about a year or so ago I got rid of my tv completely. I do watch some prime time television at the sacrifice of watching it hours later when it shows up on streaming sites. the only thing I miss is specialty programming such as food network if only for background noise when I’m working at home. overall I’m satisfied with not having it at all. when I move in the next month it might change. thanks for this guide mk

  7. We cut the cord in 2008, and use an indoor HD OTA antenna, Apple TV 2.0 for Netflix and iTunes, some downloading, and direct viewing of some shows on the networks’ websites on a computer. Our experiences with an indoor OTA antenna at and — because we’re facing away from the tower, we don’t have great reception, but get a few key channels so that I don’t even miss live TV that much. The homemade antenna had an accident involving Damir and the cat, so we are back to the commercial one, and it works fine, although still with a limited range of channels. I’m so used to on-demand watching now that I don’t really have much desire to watch TV on the network’s schedule any more.Your comment on the improved digital tuners in newer TVs is interesting: our TV (and therefore its tuner) is about 4 years old, so possibly a newer one would help.

  8. We cut the cable more than 2 years ago. Since then, it’s been all digital downloads, streamed content and a homemade HD antenna built out of coaxial cable, a few wirehangers and a couple pieces of wood.Our setup: 42" plasma HD TV, 5.1 surround sound, with all of our digital downloads stored on a 2TB Time Capsule. The nerve center of our home entertainment system is a Mac Mini running Plex, and controlled by Rowmote Pro for the iPad.

  9. I tried cutting the cord by simply cutting out cable in 2008, and I have not looked back. There are only a handful of TV shows I watch, and I download all of my episodes from the Internet. I get all my news from Twitter and Facebook links to news sources that are of specific interest to me. I would get Netflix, but I’m still on wireless internet through the Ericsson W35 Mobile Wireless Router, otherwise known as the Rocket Hub. And with the usage-based billing coming into effect later this month, it won’t matter that I’ll be able to get high speed internet through my cable, I still won’t be able to use Netflix. Not unless it’s stopped.I have not tried over-the-air digital TV, that sounds interesting, thanks for the review, gotta check that out

  10. TSN actually live streams sport events on its website. We watched the juniors on our TV using a connected MBP and QuickTime with the iPad streaming URL. Wasn’t HD and surround, but it looked surprisingly good.Link to the TSN live stream URL: Open URL in QT and it streams it. Also works on iPad and iPhone (unless it’s a four, I’d find a less high res version). I have yet to find a streaming URL for a possible higher res version that the one they have for the iPad, but it’s great for now!If you have an AppleTV you can also use AirFlick, which can send almost ANY URL or file to aTV to play, transcoding it if needed. even works for YouTube files, and files only playable in VLC. AirFlick is available here: thing, it’s worth mentioning the huge amount of current TV Shows available on Boxee. Get an Mini DVI -> HDMI and you can hook it up with your TV. Just output the sound to a receiver via optical. If you have a new Mac Mini, it outputs video and audio through the built in HDMI output.

  11. I took a look this morning. We get WGRZ, CTV-HD, CBC-HD, WKBW-HD, CFTO-HD, CHCH, CBLFT, CTS, OMNI, WNYO-HD, CityTV-HD, SUN-TV, TVO Kids, and a few others. Because we have a clear line of sight to the CN Tower, most of the channels we get are in HD. During the Winter Olympics last year, we watched the sporting events in HD for free for 2 weeks, including all the hockey games.I honestly can’t see paying the $60 a month we used to pay for cable. That said, I do miss The History Channel and National Geographic HD. One of the biggest problems I have is that the cable TV providers make their packages very inflexible. Back when we had cable, there were maybe 5 channels I watched regularly; yet, we’d have to pay through the nose to get them because we’d have to order this package and that upgrade.

  12. We haven’t had cable for over 8 years, and there’s nothing I feel I’m missing. There’s always somewhere else I can find a good show, and the cost is always less than a monthly $60 charge. We are getting over 14 channels off the air with our little analog rabbit ears. We’ll upgrade to the digital antenna soon if we feel the need.

  13. I convinced Kim to not get cable when we moved into our new house last year, she really likes her tv. I have the same antenna you have Mark, I bought it for 30 bucks at above all electronics on bloor near bathurst, and attached it to a tall steel pole on a lamp up on our 3rd floor, which has a decent line of sight to the cn tower.We get 2-1, 2-2, 2-3 … 5-1….9-1….11-1…19…23-1….41-1….44-1….57-1…64-1…. and 66-1I attached the coax to the wall outlet upstairs because our house was wired with cable, and it sends it to the basement where I can feed the house. It was a snap. We have an apple tv, and sometimes hook up a laptop to our 46" smasung because often you can find stuff for free on history/discovery/ctv etc.Both of us wouldn’t consider ever, paying for cable again.I had rogers here hooking up the internet and the guy thought I was pulling free cable because I had the tv on with full HD, he saw the cable attached to the wall. Even he was astounded at the quality. The truth is, the quality is better OTA, because it’s far less compressed than rogers. Rogers HD sucked. Why pay for that?And the gold medal Juniors hockey game? Free on, hooked up to the tv.ha.

  14. @justin- The History Channel is not at all like it was a few years ago. There is actually almost no documentary/historical content on it anymore. You aren’t missing anything there.

  15. We have been living the life without cable for years, and we are doing just fine. We have several main channels + APTN + francophone channels, OMNI, and, of course, TVO – all without an antenna. I don’t feel we are missing out at all. Next to possibly go: home phone. Who in this day and age needs one?..

  16. I cut the cord back in 1998 since I rarely had time to watch TV anyway. For years I just watched with rabbit ears on my 1990 Toshiba tube tv. When it died in 2007, I replaced it with a 40" HD LCD TV. Believe it or not, the rabbit ears still brought in a good signal including HD for CTV. I replaced the rabbit ears with a disk antenna from The Sourrce and got a couple more HD Channels even with it just sitting on the shelf under the TV. Mark’s solution looks too good to resist. I am located near St. Clair W and Christie so being at the top of the hill with a line-of-sight to the CN tower is pretty ideal for reception. Putting an antenna on the roof would likely get me similar result to Mark’s.

  17. Hey Mark, thanks for the suggestion, but we don’t have a balcony, so will be sticking with out indoor antenna for now. We are west of Spadina and face west, so are not line-of-sight to the tower although quite close to it.

  18. It appears facing north in a downtown lowrise apartment building would mean not very many channels — esp those Buffalo ones. So, not so great for north facing, apt dwellers.

  19. Buffalo is a bit east of south, so we don’t get anything from our viewpoint. Neighbours on the south side of the building pick up a few from Buffalo, with just the same indoor antenna that we use.

  20. I recently got a Boxee Box and I love it. I was surprised by how many shows I can watch from the Canadian broadcasters. The web stream works well, looks great, and I’m enjoying lots of web content and video podcasts. I’m happy that CBC offers full seasons of their programs on the web instead of just the latest episode, which I understand is a licencing issue for many. There is definitely more to watch than I have time for, a similar feeling to a traditional cable box.

  21. Amanda, I was wondering who of my friends had a Boxee Box. I have Boxee installed on my Apple TV (hacked), and I love the interface, love how it plays anything I throw at it. Unfortunately, the old Apple TV is too underpowered to support HD flash video or downloaded HD files bigger than Apple’s 720p MP4 format. It is a hack, after all, but a pretty successful one.I love Boxee’s integration with the web. If you find something while you’re browsing, you can use the Watch Later bookmarklet and it goes to the Boxee queue to watch on your TV. Love that feature. Also, grabbing all videos shared by my friends on Facebook and Twitter is awesome for content discovery.I was thinking about replacing the Apple TV with a Mac Mini, but maybe I should just add a Boxee Box for $200 and get the best of both.

  22. I’m a huge advocate for the Boxee. Like you, I try to convince anyone who will listen that it’s the way to go. I like that I can play local files and stream great quality content – and the thing took no time to setup. Plus, the networks don’t necessarily have to create apps to feed it content, so maintenance isn’t an issue. I like the CBC National and TVO apps, most definitely!And yes – the Facebook and Twitter video feeds are great. I’m waiting on the promised Netflix integration, but I just saw online that a Boxee software update is being pushed tonight. Maybe the next update will include Netflix!For $200, it’s absolutely worth it, IMHO.

  23. boxee, I forgot about that. Did you use atv flash Mark?Inspired by this post, I figured how to raise my antenna another 18", and I ended up getting abc (7-1) fox, (29-1, who can live without right wing misinformation) and holy mother of bonuses, the country channel at 29-2! Height seems to be your friend for sure, I will consider mounting a good antenna up on my roof when it’s warmer, and can deal wit the issue of a lightning rod. What’s the thoughts on this? Is it a real bad problem if the antenna gets hit? safety for TVs?My favourite which I’m not sure you can get on cable is RTV at 2-3. All the magum PI/knight rider/dragnet et al you could possibly handle.

  24. Tim, I did use atv flash, which is far from perfect, but it works as a way to jailbreak the Apple TV. They have a new version in development for the 2nd generation Apple TV, but I would get it will probably take a while to work out the kinks. Just realize it’s pretty beta.

  25. Haven’t had cable for almost 2 years. I live in Kingston, I get no CDN digital, but I do get US channels from Watertown and Syracuse. Anxiously waiting for next year’s cutover to digital and hoping it helps me get more digital here. I use Windows 7 to record shows, we watch the recordings with the Xbox 360 and use it to also watch Netflix. So far, it is working out great. I don’t miss the $80.00 bill.

  26. Hi Mark–We cut our cable 6 years ago and are happy with the 3 channels that we get. Although the reception is pretty dismal. I’ve just found it difficult to understand what to do to improve our reception. We just have a set of indoor rabbit ears. Neither my husband or I are tech-savvy enough (or brave enough) to jump on the roof and install and outdoor antenna. I’ve tried reading some online blogs/instructions but everyone talks WAY above my technical knowledge level. Not sure what to buy, how to aim etc. Do you know of any company that will set you up?? I would think this would be a popular service, but I haven’t been able to find one in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area. Thanks!

  27. Update to my comment 10 months ago. This past weekend I finally moved my little disc antenna from under my TV where it got me HD reception for CBC, CTV, GLOBAL and sometimes CITYTV, to up into my attic where I now get far more channels in HD than I care to watch! Hello Buffalo…I can see you clearly now for ABC, NBC and CBS! I now get TVO in HD too which makes my kids much happier on Saturday mornings. Sadly, I now also receive FOX but have been able to program it off my channel list. In total we now receive 10 channels in HD for $0/mo.

  28. I updated my #cuttingthecord post from last year with some updates to my experience and some new additions to my system. cc/ @ryancoleman @geoffreywiseman

  29. If you live in S ont wise up and save money cut the cable.With an outside ant here’s what you can potentially get depending on where you live.Here’s what most will get in Essex County.Fox 2.1NBC 4.1THIS movies 4.2ABC 7.1Live Well Net. 7.2Bounce TV 7.3CBC 9.1CBS Toledo 11.1ME tv classic tv 11.2ABC Toledo 13.1Live Well 13.2Weather Now 13.3TCT religious 18.1-4MY tv 20.1Global 22.1Daystar religious 23.1NBC Toledo 24.1Retro tv classic tv 24.2CTV 2 26.1PBS Flint 28.1-3PBS Toledo 30.1-.3TVO 32.1WADL 38.1Antenna tv classic tv 38.2-3The CW 50.1PBS Detroit 56.1-3CBS 62.1NOT BAD for FREE!!!!!good Bye cable/sat

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