Sixty-two dollars a month. That’s the typical amount that viewers pay nationwide for a midlevel cable TV package. No wonder a growing number of consumers—twice as many in the past year as in 2012—have decided to forgo cable altogether, according to a new report by the industry-analysis group MoffettNathanson Research.
Why now? "It’s simply more than what some people are willing to pay," says Ian Olgeirson, an analyst at the media-research group SNL Kagan. Another major reason for the drop is the proliferation of streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, and downloading services, like iTunes. These services can cost far less than cable (about $8 a month for Netflix, say, and up to $6 per TV episode through iTunes), and they’re accessible on devices ranging from laptops to Web-connected TVs.
Still, getting rid of cable isn’t a complete no-brainer. Before you make that move, ask yourself the four questions on the following page.
1. What Do I Like to Watch?
Make a list of your favorite shows. Are they on network TV or cable? If you can’t live without shows on the four major networks (like CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and NBC’s The Voice), you might be able to get by with a basic digital antenna (a pair of rabbit ears is only $8) or an outdoor antenna (from about $50). However, Chris Morran, the deputy editor of Consumerist.com, notes that this is not a fail-safe option. In big cities, other buildings could interfere with your signal. In less populated areas, you may get just one or two local affiliates rather than all the big networks. (Input your ZIP code and address at antennaweb.org to get a sense of how strong the reception is for major networks in your area.)
On the other hand, if you generally prefer cable shows, then streaming or downloading may be up your alley. But you’ll need to do some homework to figure out where (and if) each show you like to watch is available via these services. Some programs, like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, are accessible via multiple outlets (for example, the Comedy Central website and standard Hulu, both of which are free), whereas you’ll have to pony up $3 an episode to download Showtime’s Homeland from iTunes.
One caveat: If you’re a die-hard sports fan and can’t live with purely network offerings, you may need to stick with cable. Live-streaming options are limited.
2. When Do I Want to Watch my Favorite Shows?
Just as you can’t watch breaking news on Netflix, you may not be able to order up the hit show that everyone at the office is glued to. "Don’t get rid of cable if you care a lot about what people are talking about at the watercooler," says analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research. In some cases, you may have to wait several months, says Moffett, or up to a full year for a show to be available online (as with the aforementioned Homeland, for example). And remember: Avoiding spoilers on Twitter and Facebook or in the media can be especially difficult if you love shows that are prone to cliff-hangers (think HBO’s Game of Thrones or FX’s The Americans).
3. How Do I Want to Watch TV?
Switching to streaming video requires both a good broadband Internet connection and a device that will receive it, which doesn’t necessarily mean a TV. It could be a computer, a tablet, or even a smartphone. "So ask yourself, What devices do I own today, what devices do I plan to own in the next year, and how am I going to consume content? And make sure you have the right option for you," says Shawn DuBravac, the chief economist and director of research at the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. While you may be accustomed to watching a few favorite shows on your laptop, you may not feel comfortable watching solely on that one piece of equipment.
If you want a more communal viewing atmosphere in your home (not everyone watching on a separate device), consider purchasing a Web-connected TV. You may also be able to hook up your laptop to your TV. Or employ a device that offers streaming services, like a Roku, a Blu-Ray player, or a video-game console, such as the Xbox 360, which can stream to the TV set you currently own.
4. What’s All This Going to Cost?
Time to do a little math. First add up the monthly prices of the streaming services you want and estimate how many show episodes or season passes you plan to purchase each month (if any). Then compare that total with the amount you are charged on your monthly cable bill.
Take note: If your provider bundles cable with Internet and phone services, call to learn what your bill would be if you dropped cable. Then subtract that amount from the total to get the most accurate assessment of your cable costs.
If you determine that your overall outlay will be lower and you can accept the lifestyle change that comes with losing cable, then do it. But if the cost is roughly equivalent or you don’t want to stream shows à la carte, you may find it worthwhile to remain tethered—at least for now.