Cutting the Cord

Cutting the Cord

"Television is a medium because anything well done is rare." - Fred Allen

It's official. After almost a lifetime of cable and satellite TV subscriptions, we are now cord cutters.

I'm old enough to remember having one TV in our house. A 13" black-and-white set. It got channels 2 through 13. To be more precise, it got 7 channels, all of which were between channels 2 and 13 (inclusive).

I think I was in 4th grade when we finally got cable TV (and a color TV set at some point before). I then lived most of my life with cable. At that point, cable was pretty much "the norm".

In 1998, shortly after getting married and buying our first house, we became satellite TV subscribers through DirecTV. The driving force behind that decision was that I was a New York Giants football fan living in Arizona. DirecTV had the Sunday Ticket, which was (and as far as I know, still is) the only way for out-of-market football fans to see their favorite team play.

The Dilemma

Over the years, I'd wrestled with the notion of dropping DirecTV a number of times. Not that I ever had any particular problems with the service. It was just a matter of justifying the cost. Recently, a few things have changed that made the justification that much more difficult. First off, I've started to care much much less about football. On top of that, money and bugeting have become much higher of a priority for us lately. I just couldn't justify $80 a month for TV. And that's before the additional cost of the Sunday Ticket spread over 4 months each year.

What helped make the decision easier is also the fact that we have Netflix, and find ourselves making use of it pretty frequently. When we sat down and really thought about how much live TV we watch, we realized that most of it was on over-the-air (OTA) channels. My wife and kids like watching Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and as a family we all enjoy Arrow and The Flash. As long as we got ABC, NBC, and the CW, we'd be OK. And these are all channels that should be freely available.

The call to DirecTV was placed. Their retention department did an admirable job of offering me incentives to stay. But I'd played that game before, and really just wanted to be done with it. One early termination fee later, and DirecTV was no longer coming into my home.

There were two things that we'd need, though. First, a good OTA antenna to pick up the stations. And second, a DVR. With the hectic schedules in a family of 5, there's little to no chance that we'd be able to be in front of the TV for our shows when they aired. The convenience of a DVR was a must.

The Antenna

I'll just say it up front. I went through four different antennas before finding one that worked well enough.

I learned that before buying an OTA antenna, it's important to know how far away from the towers you are. Enter TV Fool's TV Signal Locator. I think I'm pretty fortunate in that most of the stations I'd want are within a 20 mile radius of my house.

My TV Fool Report

We're fortunate to have so many green rows.

Not knowing specifically what that all meant, I first purchased a Mohu Leaf 50. It boasted a 50 mile radius, which should have been more than twice what I needed. And the flat design would've made it easy to hide. Attached it to the TV, and spent the next several hours moving it about trying to find a spot that got all of the channels. It was an exercise in futility. I was never able to successfully get PBS, NBC, and FOX at the same time.

I posted to /r/cordcutters on Reddit and immediately got a response that the flat antennas are notoriously bad at picking up VHF signals (anything under channel 13). Made sense, as my PBS is 8, NBC is 12, and FOX is 10. They suggested that, based on my TV Fool report, a set of standard rabbit-ears should work fine.

With that, I headed out to my local Best Buy and picked up an RCA amplified antenna for $30. It turned out to be just as finicky as the Leaf. Back to /r/cordcutters, where they said that nothing in my TV Fool report suggested the need for an amplified antenna, and to just pick up a $10 antenna.

Over to Target, where I picked up a $10 GE set of rabbit ears. But again, found it to be quite difficult to get all of the channels that I wanted to get. I was constantly moving the antenna around, and at one point even sank so low as to put aluminum foil balls on the ends.

I'd now gone through three different antennas, ranging from $10 in price up to $75. None of them worked as well as I expected that they should work. Granted, I'm new at cord cutting, but I was pretty sure that if we could land a rocket ship on a moving comet, I should be able to pull in TV signals from 20 miles away. I went back to /r/cordcutters and asked if there was any particular science behind antenna placement. One redditor suggested that I check out the Winegard FreeVision FV-30BB HDTV Antenna. Reviews looked promising, so I placed the order.

I'm now on day 2 with the Winegard FreeVision, and it looks like we have a winner. The antenna is sitting on top of the wall unit that houses the TV. I'm getting every station with pretty decent signal strength. I'm even getting a few stations that are in the "red zones" on the TV Fool report, with towers 70 miles away. At some point I may mount it outside, where our now-defunct satellite dish sits, and tie into the existing coax run in the house. But for now, the FreeVision works wonderfully, and cost less than $35.

The DVR

I looked at a few different "cord cutter" options. The first was Simple TV, which sounded pretty great. But upon reading a number of negative reviews, it seemed that the product wasn't quite ready for prime time. A friend then suggested TiVo. TiVo, of course, has been around forever. So my initial thought was that whatever service they offered would be dated and stale. But to their credit, they seem to have kept up with things pretty well.

I wanted to try and find a used box with lifetime service, so as to avoid any sort of monthly charge. But most of the boxes I saw on ebay that had lifetime service, and were within my price range, were much older boxes. I really wanted something newer with some bells and whistles such as "Whole Home DVR" or the ability to stream to phones and tablet devices. While researching the various devices and asking questions to @TiVoSupport on Twitter, I landed on the Roamio OTA.

Before going into more detail about the Roamio OTA, I have to give credit to the people behind the @TiVoSupport twitter account. They answered every question I threw at them. And I threw many. Not only did they answer each question thoroughly and accurately, but they did it in a timely manner each time. I'd say that I had a response within 5 minutes of asking each question. Any reservations that I might have had about going with TiVo were eradicated at that point.

The Roamio OTA is "priced right" at $50. I was looking at $150 for the standard Roamio, which is the next model up. The only real difference between the two, as I understand it, is that the standard Roamio has a slot for a cable/satellite card, whereas the Roamio OTA does not. Lower cost of entry is good, but there was one drawback to the Roamio OTA. Unlike other Roamio boxes, the OTA does not offer the option of lifetime or annual pricing. Lifetime pricing wasn't something I was going to be able to do on a new box. But the annual subscription at $149 a year sounded good. That's essentially two months of a satellite TV bill, and averages out to $12.50 per month.

The Roamio OTA only has a monthly pricing option, at $15 a month. That's $30 more per year than the annual subscription. But as I'm saving $100 up front on the box, it'll take 3 years before I feel that cost. So I bit and ordered the Roamio OTA. The low entry cost is a huge plus. While the lack of annual subscription is a small drawback, it does allow me to test out the service without paying for a year up front. It's also extensible. With the purchase of a TiVo Mini, we'll have "whole home DVR" capability again. And if we wanted to, purchasing a TiVo Stream would allow us to watch our shows on our iOS devices both at home or on the road. As with most of their other boxes, the Roamio OTA also allows an external HD to be used for additional storage. Given that we're only going to be DVR'ing a few OTA shows, we may never need it. But it's nice to know that if we do, it'll be available.

The device was rock simple to set up. Plug it in, let it scan the channels and download guide information, and that's it.

As with our DirecTV DVR, it offers the option of a "Season Pass", recording all episodes of a show. The guide is as good as the DirecTV guide, if not better. As a bonus, the unit includes a Spotify app, which is a service that my wife and I subscribe to anyway. So we can now get our music over the home theater system. Additionally, the Roamio allows us to access Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. We already had Netflix access with our Apple TV unit. But to watch Amazon Instant Video, we've had to use our iOS devices to "airplay" over the Apple TV. This works, but it's hardly convenient. Having easier access to Amazon Prime Instant Videos is a big plus.

I expect that we'll be big fans of our TiVo Roamio. I hope that at some point down the road, the option of an annual or perhaps even a lifetime subscription become available.

In Conclusion

We've only just begun our cord-cutting journey. And while so far, most of it has been a learning experience, I think that we're finally ready to sit back and enjoy being cable and satellite TV free.

Up front costs were a $200 early termination fee to DirecTV, $50 to TiVo for our Roamio OTA, and $35 for the Winegard FreeVision antenna. But month-to-month, we're paying $15 for the TiVo service whereas we were paying $90 for DirecTV. Sure, we got more with DirecTV, in the way of over 200 channels. But of those 200+ channels, we only watched a handful. What we really want, which is a few TV channels that we watch and DVR service, we are getting now for substantially less money each month. We'll recuperate our up front costs within the next six months.

I think that we're going to enjoy the monthly savings. It feels good knowing that we're paying for what we want, rather than paying so much more for a product of which we were only using a small portion.

Charlie Griefer

Charlie Griefer

Just another ghost driving a meat-covered skeleton made from stardust.

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