Everybody's looking forward to the day when we can cancel our cable TV accounts, and it's getting easier and easier to make that call. But there's one whopping big question that nobody's asking: Can you replace cable with streaming Internet TV and get the same experience — and save money? After all, if you can't make the switch without missing your favorite TV shows and saving money, then what's the point?
Cord-cutting is a complex issue because every content provider out there is approaching it in a different way. Just getting your head around the whole thing can leave you exhausted. The only way we can come up with any kind of answer to this question at all is to simplify it, so we've come up with three ways of bringing this messy landscape down to a reasonable size.
First, we've focused on three main issues: content provider, what content they offer, and pricing. These determine value, which is our overall barometer.
Second, broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, etc.) are not part of our equation. Why? Because a cable subscription is not required to watch broadcast TV. There are other methods of getting those channels, such as a digital antenna or watching them online, either via a network's own website or a service like Hulu. Likewise, pay-cable networks like HBO and Starz aren't included because you're always going to have to pay for them no matter what.
Third, our compiled list represents only the most popular cable networks. The question at hand raises a mighty difficult problem: With hundreds of cable channels available, how could we ever hope to satisfy every viewers while keeping our list manageable? Our solution was to whittle it down to the most popular networks. We cross-reference the top cable networks of 2014 (by their viewer number according to Nielsen Ratings) with a list of the most-watched cable shows of 2014 (and 2015, so far). That gave us the following list of 25 cable networks that we believe covers the majority of what viewers watch.
Nick at Night
As far as pricing goes, we calculate that the average rate for cable or satellite (from the likes of Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) on the most basic package that includes most or all of these channels, is around $47 a month.
Not one of the 25 networks we identified above offers standalone subscription-based streaming services. What they do offer is one of two options for free streaming online:
1. Free Streaming On-Demand
Several of our top 25 networks offer free streaming of their most recent episodes and archived classics right on their websites or from a dedicated app for iPad and other devices. They are:
• Adult Swim
• Comedy Central
• Discovery (limited episodes)
• Food Network (limited episodes)
• TV Land
Check the websites of your favorite networks to find out if they stream episodes online for free.
2. Free Streaming With Cable Subscription
Most cable networks that offer live TV streaming (and/or archived shows) require you to have an existing contract with a cable or satellite provider such as Comcast or DirecTV. Unfortunately, this defeats the purpose of cord-cutting. The streaming networks from our list that are still dependent on a cable subscription include: A&E, ABC Family, AMC, Bravo, CNN, Disney Channel, E!, ESPN, Fox News, FX, History Channel, Lifetime, Syfy, TBS, TNT and USA.
Unless you have a really nice friend or family member willing to give you their cable or satellite login information, none of these will be useful after you cancel cable.
That said, several networks offer recent episodes on Hulu. Also, don't forget that most modern networks make entire seasons of content available on Netflix ($9 a month), Amazon Prime ($100 a year) or Hulu Plus ($8 a month). The only catch is that you lose the immediacy of being able to keep up with your favorite show when it first airs (if everyone in your office watches The Walking Dead each week but you have to wait until the end of the season to catch it on Netflix, good luck avoiding spoiler-y watercooler conversation).
There's also the 100 percent a la carte option known as iTunes. Apple's digital content store offers pretty much every TV show known to man, but you have to buy episodes piecemeal (usually $3 a pop) or purchase a season pass to get new installments of your favorite show delivered to you the day after they air. Season passes usually run around $20. It's probably not the most cost-effective method, but on the other hand, you get to keep the shows you buy forever.
Also, don't forget HBO, home of some of TV's most popular programming right now, including Game of Thrones. Its standalone service, a "Netflix killer" called HBO Now, launches in April and will cost $15. Factor that in if interested.
Currently, Internet TV bundles are still in their infancy. Only a handful of companies have begun the process of putting them together in package deals.
Dish Network's Sling was the first to take that plunge, and its approach is probably the smartest. For just $20 a month, you get a decent little lineup of cable networks, with four add-on packages available for $5 each that give you more sports, news networks, kids shows or movies. Max it out and you're paying $40 a month, which is still less than the standard cable subscription.
Sling's downside is its limited selection. For the basic $20 package, you get just 17 channels, a mere 12 of which are on our list of the 25 most-watched. That number jumps to 47 total channels for the maxed-out package, but too many of those are highly specialized networks that you've never heard of and will never, ever watch. So we'll stick to the basic package. Another minus for Sling is that the number of devices it runs on are very few. There's no Apple TV, no Google TV, no PS4, and no last-gen game consoles at all. You also can't record anything, which is kind of a big deal.
|Sling Report Card|
With Sling, you get approximately 48 percent of the channels you want, but you pay less than 43 percent of the average cable/satellite monthly bill. We assume that Sling will add more channels in the future, but for now, Sling should be treated as an auxiliary service to enhance or add to your existing coverage.
The second major player in this burgeoning race is the just-launched PlayStation Vue. Sony's Internet TV offering, at first glance, is pretty disappointing because it looks identical to cable. It's available at three tiers of service, the smallest of which gets you a little more than 50 channels for $50 a month. The biggest package goes up to $70.
Sony is promoting Vue with things like "personalization features" and the fact that you don't have to sign up for any kind of long-term contract, which is nice. If you own a PS3 or PS4, you're already good to go, hardware wise; nothing else is required.
Of Vue's 50+ channels on its Tier-1 "Access" package, only 16 are on our most-watched networks list. That's more than Sling has, yet it means that the majority of Vue's channels won't appeal to most viewers. What's more, the nationwide most-watched cable network right now is ESPN, and Vue doesn't offer ESPN at all. Not even for its $70 service.
|Vue Report Card|
64 percent of the channels you want the most are on Vue, which isn't terrible. The problem is the $50 price tag, which is higher than the $47 cable average. If Sony wants Vue to last, it needs to get more networks to sign on, and fast.
|Go figure: Of the many channels offered by Sling and Vue, only seven are offered by both. This means that if you've got the budget for it, they complement one another nicely. You'll get about 66 different cable channels, but you'll pay $70 a month for them.|
The last major player that we currently know about is Apple. Although the company has yet to officially confirm its streaming TV subscription service, it's believed that the technology titan will launch it sometime in Fall of 2015, with about 25 channels at the outset (and, given the cushy relationship between Apple and Disney, it's safe to assume all of Disney's many networks will be part of it, including ABC, ESPN and the many various Disney Channels).
If Apple is smart (and it usually is), its streaming TV bundle will be priced aggressively. But any lineup or price you hear about it in the meantime is nothing but speculation.
Back to our big question: Is it possible to replace your cable or satellite subscription with an Internet connection and get the same experience while saving money?
Right now, the answer is no. The future for cable-less TV looks bright, but streaming TV can't reproduce a true 1:1 cable experience yet.
If your list of favorites is small, then you can save some money now. But for hardcore TV viewers, replicating your entire list of favorites will be difficult at best. It could potentially be done — if you're willing to put in the time and effort of finding all those online feeds.
But until streaming TV matures, the most cost-effective way to cut the cord is to wait until the end of a season to binge-watch it on Netflix or Amazon. Just keep a pair of ear plugs on you at all times, because man, you are never going to believe what Daryl and Michonne did last night...