When was the last time you looked at your cable or satellite TV bill? When I looked at my bill a few years back, I was disgusted to be paying $70 each month to sit on the couch and zone out.
Cheaper cable alternatives give you the same entertainment for a lot less money, and you may even discover you like them better.
I cut the cord in January 2011, and have since saved well over $8,000 that would have gone down the tube! Even better, I watch TV less than I did before and enjoy the time I spend watching my favorite shows much more.
If you want to join in saving $100+ per month on TV, follow along with this guide featuring the best tips and tricks from Living on the Cheap writers to save big getting rid of your cable bill, while still enjoying shows you know and love without breaking the bank.
In this article we’ll cover alternatives to cable TV, including 1. how to watch TV free over the air with an antenna 2. some inexpensive streaming hardware you may need or want 3. some of the most popular streaming services, along with what they offer and how much they cost. In many cases, you can even start with a free trial of streaming services to ensure you’ll love the one(s) you choose.
(Prices listed were correct as of the time the article was written but are always subject to change.)
Exchange your old cable box for inexpensive, modern hardware that will help you cut the cord. Here are some options you might want/need to get started.
Digital TV Antenna
Before cable, everyone had to use rabbit ear antennas to get their TV shows over the airwaves. In 2009, the FCC led the charge to pull the lever and turn off old analog signals, now replaced with over-the-air digital TV.
Virtually all modern TVs can transcode digital TV. All you need is a digital antenna and a cord to plug it into the back of your TV. An indoor antenna will pick up your local UHF and VHF stations if you are in range.
The big drawback is that while old analog antennas could deliver a low-quality signal, digital TV requires a near-perfect signal to work. Thanks to the internet, however, you don’t need to rely on your antenna for much more than local TV news and shows from big broadcasters like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and CW.
An antenna ranges in cost from around $10 to $100-plus. The average price for the most popular digital TV antennas on Amazon falls toward the lower one-third of that range. In most cases, there are few, if any, benefits to a more expensive antenna. However, higher-end antennas may provide a signal boost that can help bring additional channels to your TV.
You can easily watch streamed video on your computer, but if you want to watch it on that big flat-screen TV, you’ll need to connect your computer to your TV or buy one of a growing number of streaming players. Some TVs have streaming capabilities built-in, so check your manual (or do an Internet search for your TV make and model) before you go out and buy a streaming player.
The pioneer in this technology is Roku, which offers several boxes and streaming sticks to choose from. Additional options include Apple TV and Chromecast. I use a Chromecast myself, which is compatible with YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Google Play, and local media players Avia and Plex. A Chromecast can also stream anything from a tab in the Chrome browser or any screen on an Android phone, opening up virtually the entire world of streaming video with a $35 HD streaming stick. (There are also ways to stream from an iPhone using Chromecast, but it’s not as seamless as streaming from an Android phone.)
If you have a teenager in the house you might already have a gaming system. Most of them support streaming video without the need for any third-party hardware. Some Blu-ray players also have streaming capabilities built-in.
Here is a listing of some of the best streaming player options today:
The original streaming box, Roku now comes in several shapes and sizes and is even built in to some smart TVs. The Roku streaming stick plays a long list of “channels” including Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu and others. The streaming stick currently costs around $39 while the 4k enabled Roku Ultra runs around $90-$100. Both are available at Amazon and other retailers.
On a personal note, I used to use Roku players on both TVs, but have since replaced them with Chromecasts.
Android and Chrome Browser users will love the easy streaming options provided by Chromecast. This $30 HD streaming stick hides behind your TV and has native integrations with Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu, and many other services. A 4k version, called Chromecast with Google TV, is available for $50. In addition to natively supported services, Chromecast can be voice controlled with a Google Home.
You can stream literally anything that works on the web with the Chrome browser “cast” button. You can also cast your screen from Android phones right to your TV. (Chromecast will work with iPhones but not as seamlessly.) I use a Chromecast on both of my TVs.
Apple TV is a streaming box that plugs into your TV. It has a great integration with iTunes, and supports many additional services including live TV stations through DirecTV Now. Apple TV also works with tons of services including Netflix and SlingTV. Expand on your entertainment with this device’s gaming capabilities, including the ability to work with an external gaming controller. Apple TV comes in two versions that cost $149 and $179.
Amazon’s Fire TV is the retailer’s foray into TV connected devices. Fire TV is an external box that supports 4k video and integrates with Alexa. In addition to Amazon’s streaming video service, it supports Netflix, Hulu, SlingTV, HBO Go, and many more.
In my experience, Amazon devices are great for those entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem, but the user interfaces are not as friendly as competing devices. Fire TV streaming devices are available at a wide range of prices from Amazon.
Popular Streaming Services
The company that brought online television to the mainstream, Netflix offers a massive library of more than 13,000 titles. You can instantly stream anything from Netflix right to your TV using a web-connected TV or a device like a Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, or Apple TV.
In addition to the thousands of movies and TV shows from major networks, Netflix produces many of its own exclusive movies and shows that are not available anywhere else, and all shows are commercial-free.
Plans cost between $8.99 and $17.99 per month depending on the number of screens and quality you want. If you’re super old school, you can still add a Netflix DVD subscription too.
Verdict: A cable-free-life necessity.
Disney, ESPN, and Hulu
The Disney empire owns the Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN streaming services.
Hulu is the home of many shows from A&E, ABC, AMC, Bravo, Cartoon Network, E!, Fox, FX, FXX, Lifetime, NBC, TBS, TNT, USA, VH1, and others. You can also pay add-on fees for premium networks like HBO and Cinemax.
Disney+ gives you everything under the Disney sun including classic movies, oldies from The Disney Channel, and the full Star Wars and Marvel Universe movies and shows. ESPN+ gives you the sports you get from the full ESPN Network of channels.
On their own, you can get Hulu for $5.99 per month after a 30-day free trial or for $64.99 per month including live TV. Disney Plus costs $8 per month or $80 per year. ESPN+ costs $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year.
You can subscribe to each service on its own or buy all three together for $13.99 per month. If you want the full bundle, including Hulu + Live TV, Disney+, and ESPN+, your price goes up to $72.99 per month, which kind of defeats the purpose of cutting cable TV – except that you might be getting a lot more shows for that price.
Verdict: Depends on your favorite shows; sports fans and families will probably like this bundle.
Dedicated Amazon customers have the option to purchase Amazon Prime, which includes free two-day shipping on most orders, access to a free Kindle book lending library, Prime Music, and, most importantly for this purpose, Prime TV.
Prime TV works great with the Fire TV and other Amazon devices and the Roku, but is trickier to use with platforms like Chromecast, as Amazon prefers you buy its own competing product. Nonetheless, it offers a wide range of shows for free, plus you can pay to watch almost any movie or show you can think of for a rental or purchase fee.
They do offer some exclusive shows, like the prior mentioned competitors. The Amazon original library is not as big as Netflix, but does include some great titles including Catastrophe, Bosch, Transparent and the critically acclaimed Man in the High Castle. Amazon also does a great job bringing popular children’s shows to streaming.
Amazon Prime Video currently bills per year and is included with an Amazon Prime membership, with no monthly subscription option. Also, you can add on other subscriptions, like Showtime, for a little less than it would cost to subscribe directly to Showtime. Prime TV has a huge variety of other channels you can subscribe to just long enough to binge-watch a season of your favorite show, then unsubscribe from when you’re done. Learn about the “add-on” options.
Verdict: Great if you find value in the rest of Prime’s offerings. Not needed if you already have Netflix and Hulu.
Until recently, you needed a cable or satellite TV subscription to unlock the goodness of HBO. No more, however, as you can get the entire HBO library from HBO Max, which has plans starting at $9.99 per month.
While you can get much of HBO’s older content library included with Amazon Prime streaming, the newest stuff is only available with an HBO subscription.
The cost is more than competing streaming services and comes with a smaller library, but some HBO shows are so good that you can’t live without them. If you feel that way, it is completely worthwhile and still a lot cheaper than cable.
Verdict: A go-to for serious fans of HBO shows or boxing. If you can wait until they are available on Netflix or Amazon Prime, you can pass on this and save the money.
Paramount+ comes from Viacom, owner of CBS, Paramount, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, and Smithsonian Channel. You also get originals like Star Trek Picard.
Paramount+, formerly CBS All Access, starts at $4.99 per month.
Verdict: Worth the cost if you are dedicated to shows on these networks.
Discover+ contains more than 55,000 episodes from channels including HGTV, Food Network, TLC, ID, Animal Planet, OWN, Discovery, A&E, Lifetime, History, Trvl Channel, Sci, DIY Network, and others. If you love reality TV, this one is a no-brainer.
Verdict: Worth the cost for reality TV fans into this family of networks.
Verdict: Like HBO, it makes sense if you are addicted to a few Showtime shows. However, many eventually become available on other streaming services. If you are patient, it is a pass.
Google Play and iTunes
If you want to supplement your subscriptions with new episodes of TV shows and a combination of new and classic movies you can’t get from your subscription service, Google Play and iTunes both offer an extensive library of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase.
Much of the library to buy or rent overlaps from these sources the comparable option from Amazon. If you find yourself dedicated to the Google, Apple or Amazon ecosystem, these are excellent supplements to fill in what you can’t get at Netflix or Hulu.
Old movies and shows can be a bargain here, or can cost similar to buying the DVD from a retail store like Target or Walmart.
Verdict: There is no subscription, so if you really want to watch the new Star Wars, you can pay a one-time fee to watch it here.
Services for traditional TV
Streaming TV service Sling offers an impressive list of channels without cable through Sling Television. The Orange + Blue plan includes ESPN and NFL Network, along with many other channels such as Fox, Fox Sports, NBC, NBC SN, and ESPN2.
If you’re into sports, Sling TV is the one you want to get.
If the shows available streaming services like Netflix and Hulu aren’t enough for you, consider PlayOn. It’s another streaming video service with more than 60 channels, including Disney, ESPN, Comedy Central, HGTV and many other popular channels. It works with Roku and most of the other streaming video players. PlayOn has frequent “lifetime license” sales where you can get a lifetime license for $39.99, and you can record anything for playback later — even streaming content. (Reviewed by Jody Mace)
Sports without cable
Sports fans are the last holdouts to cut the cord, because they fear missing out on being able to watch every single game of the season from the comfort of their own living room.
Like their holdout fans, major sports leagues are happy bringing in a zillion dollars from lucrative TV contracts and have not rushed to bring live games to the web. However, there are some newer options for sports fanatics to keep up with their team without cable.
For more detailed information, check out our dedicated article on watching pro sports without cable.
ESPN+ allows you to stream live sports like college basketball, UFC, NHL, PGA, NHL, etc. and ESPN+ originals. It’s only $6.99 per month, but you can get a deal on ESPN+ packaged with Disney+ and Hulu. An antenna comes in very handy here to watch the home teams.
Many games are available at no charge at NFL.com. I watched the last few Super Bowls on my laptop at the NFL streaming homepage. The NFL Game Pass gives you access to pre-season games live, and replays of all other games.
For the live streams of every game, you can order the NFL Sunday Ticket from DirecTV without a satellite subscription. Depending on where you live, you may have another option with NFLSundayTicket.TV.
The NBA League Pass and gives you full access to stream all NBA games, though blackout rules may apply. The total package costs $199.99 per year for all teams, with price drops at selected times. Upgrade to a no-commercial version for $249.99 per year. If you just care about a single team, it’s $119.99 per year for a single team subscription, but your local team is subject to being blacked out, meaning that you can’t watch it.
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball offers streaming at MLB.TV. Costs can vary depending on when in the year you sign up. At the time of this writing, for $105.99 per year or $24.99 per month, you can watch every out-of-market game for the seasons. MLB.TV single-team seasons cost $89.99, but there are some blackout markets, so every game for every team may not be available.
Hockey fans can stream their favorite sport on ESPN+ beginning with the 2021-22 season. (See the section on ESPN+ above for pricing and more details.) The package includes access to more than 1,000 out-of-market NHL games and 75 exclusive games per season.
NCAA College Sports
Check out this detailed article on options to watch college sports without cable TV.
If you prefer your sports entertainment to include tables, ladders, and chairs, WWE Network brings your favorite sports entertainment broadcasts to your living room for $9.99 per month.
WWE Network includes live access to Monday Night Raw, SmackDown!, all pay-per-views, and a library of reruns and WWE specials.
If you liked this article, you may also like:
- Getting TV shows you love without cable
- Watching college football without cable
- The ultimate guide to saving money by cutting cable
- Watch pro sports without cable
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- Simplify your life in 3 easy steps