Pay-TV: Breaking the habit isn’t cheap

An experiment in pulling the plug on the 500-channel cable universe in bid to save money boomerangs

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One year ago, the Stevens household made a huge decision. We were sick of paying for TV each month, especially given that we were paying the cable and satellite companies, with their mandatory equipment rental, long-term contracts, activation and installation fees, and charges on surcharges. No wonder they’ve got customer-satisfaction ratings that make the IRS look beloved.

Particularly galling, of course, is the practice of bundling channels, or forcing consumers to pay for many channels they don’t want. Anyone who has ever flipped past Lifetime, Logo, Bravo, WE TV, Oxygen, and SoapNet while looking for a football game can attest to how annoying it is.

Besides, as any nerd will tell you, giving up cable is cool these days. Paying for programming is passe — a 20th-century relic, like rotary-dial phones and men who remove their hats at dinner. Today’s tech-savvy, early-adopter-types are supposed to get their TV for free — by any means necessary. Free is good. We do live, after all, in Times Like These. So the whole Stevens clan, all three of us, held a vote on if we should give up cable. The measure passed. The count was 1-0. Both of the dogs abstained.

After the taxes and surtaxes, and the flim-flammery about introductory rates, a basic package works out to around $50 per month, regardless of provider. Throw in high-def channels — otherwise, why even have a flat screen? — plus the DVR, a few premium channels, and an occasional pay-per-view movie. Our bill was closer to $200. By ditching the decoder box, therefore, we figured on saving over $2,000 a year. Or, rather, that’s what I figured. The dogs aren’t too good at math. What none of us knew, though, was just how expensive saving all that money would be.

Yes, there is such a thing as free television. Kind of. If your TV has a built-in HDTV tuner, all you need is an HD antenna. (They start around $30. Unless you live far from the city, where you’ll need good antenna, which can cost 10 times as much.) Then you will have ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, religious channels, and probably a few local independent stations that air Nick-at-Nite type reruns. Beyond that, there’s home shopping. Lots and lots of home shopping. A home shopping channel somewhere is serving the American people’s unquenchable thirst for hand-painted porcelain kitty figurines 24/7/365.

To watch anything else, you’ve got to go online. There, yes, some programs are streamed for free, either at the show’s home page, or sites like Hulu.com. Some programs; not all.

Watching said streams, you might also notice that the aesthetic experience of doing so, put bluntly, stinks. Out loud, like dead fish. Browsers crash, pictures freeze. The sound goes out of sync. The buffers won’t stop buffering, whatever that is.

Downloading shows for home playback, from sites like Amazon.com or Apple’s iTunes, makes for a much better viewing experience, certainly. That stuff, however, will cost you. Episodes of the 15th season of “South Park” on iTunes, for instance, currently run $2.99 a pop. And for the really top programming, like the water-cooler-worthy latest on HBO, you’ll still have to wait for the DVD — renting from a service like Netflix or Blockbuster on Demand. Also, by the way, not free. Worse, you’ll be that guy — the one who comes to work psyched to talk about the “Game of Thrones” from last night that everybody else watched and talked about six months before.

Streaming or downloading — either way, you have to watch on a monitor or laptop unless you buy more stuff. Depending on the computer, it’s possible to get an adapter, and run a cable straight from the computer to a TV set — a slick bit of decor, for sure. But storage and the interface can get clunky. The solution is yet more equipment — one of those set-top media receiver/extender box things with a name like the CiragoTV Platinum CMC3000 that can stream directly from Netflix, HuluPlus, Google TV or Blockbuster on Demand and give you room to store hours of programming to watch later.

Sports, though, can’t be watched later. The whole point is that it’s happening live. So, once more, pay. Pay for MLB.TV, the NBA League Pass Broadband, and NHL Game Center Live. Hunt up a pirated stream of the NFL Sunday Ticket, if you don’t mind the malware. It’s all a monumental pain, and wildly unsatisfying, and none of it address the core problem facing any sports fan without pay TV. Namely, life without ESPN may not be worth living.

Ultimately, I ended up watching tons of games at a local sports bar, and spending at least $20 on beers several times a month to rent the barstool. That outlay, plus every other expense incurred over the last year meant that we spent about $5,000 to save two grand. But hey, at least there was less convenience and low quality.

Last week, the dogs and I voted again. Then we called the cable company. Two weeks later, when the jerks came between noon and 5 p.m., we waited with open arms.

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