Stream Time is where Tom's Guide dives into the big choices we make about streaming media. We tackle it all, from the best and worst streaming services and devices, to the never-ending list of shows to watch.
After years of shelling out thousands of dollars for cable television, I’m finally ready to stop the madness.
I’m cutting the cord.
I made the decision after receiving my most recent statement from Spectrum (formerly Time Warner). My monthly bill had rocketed up to nearly $200! Considering how my cable usage has diminished over the last few years — in favor of streaming Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, etc. — it was ridiculous. I knew I had to cut the cord. But what would be the best way to go about it?
I’ve read other cord-cutting guides and first-person accounts, including one by my colleague Henry T. Casey. But everyone has their own individualized needs and preferences when it comes to television consumption. So, I decided to recount my own cord-cutting journey and hope some readers find it helpful.
Cord cutting is a multi-step process involving quite a lot of research. The first step is a thorough account, not just of the financials but of your actual viewing habits.
What am I actually paying for cable?
I downloaded my latest Spectrum bills, just to make sure there weren’t any one-time fees to muddy the waters of consideration. Here is a real-numbers breakdown of what I’ve been paying.
The total for the month of May was $199.03. That included a voice service I had never used, which I canceled immediately. I’d also been paying for the silver TV package, which added a bunch of channels I never watched, plus HBO/HBO Max and Showtime. I decided to downgrade immediately to the basic package but keep HBO.
My new total for June was $185.08. It broke down as follows:
- TV: $88.97
- Internet: $73.99
- Broadcast TV surcharge: $17.99
- Partial month comp: -$3.66
- Taxes: $7.79
So, I’m still paying $107 for cable, DVR and broadcast. That’s really $92, taking out the HBO price. I'm removing it from my tallies because HBO Max can be added separately at the same price.
Am I really getting my money’s worth? Could I find a way to mimic my cable experience for less than $92? I needed to figure out what I actually watch on cable.
What am I watching on cable?
After looking at my DVR, and removing the shows that have been canceled and adding upcoming titles, I figured that I watch about two dozen series on broadcast and cable on about a dozen channels, everything from This Is Us and Grey's Anatomy to 90 Day Fiancé and Top Chef.
That doesn’t include one-offs, specials and sports events on a handful of other networks. I don’t watch a ton of sports, which is a much bigger consideration for other people — maybe even the biggest. I enjoy catching college basketball, tennis and global events like the Olympics or the World Cup, but access to sports isn’t my top priority.
Armed with this list, I categorized everything into must-have and nice-to-have channels:
Must-have: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The CW, AMC, BBC America, Bravo, Lifetime, TLC
Nice-to-have: CNN, ESPN, Freeform, FX, MSNBC, MTV, TBS, TNT, USA, VH1
With this in mind, I looked at all the best cable TV alternatives that function as live TV streaming services. Most, but not all, of them offer these channels in their base-level packages. Could I get all of my must-have and nice-to-have channels for a lower monthly price than $92?
What do I want from a cable TV alternative?
Besides all of the channels listed above, I came up with a couple of important characteristics I want from a cable replacement. First, I need a cloud DVR service to record shows and watch them. Second, I’d like a seamless experience — all of my channels and DVR recordings in one place.
Those last two considerations forestall cobbling together a cheap live TV service like Philo for cable networks with a TV antenna or Locast for the broadcast channels. Locast is a free service that streams broadcast TV over the internet in select cities. Luckily, I live in one of those cities, but the Locast app doesn’t have a DVR and I’m certainly not about to park in front of a television at a certain time to catch a certain program. OK, so that knocks out the combo of Philo + an antenna or the Locast app.
Next, I looked at Sling, our top pick for the best cable TV alternative. The Sling Orange + Blue package has all of the cable channels I want at an affordable price, $50 per month. However, Sling doesn’t stream all the broadcast channels (only NBC and Fox), which are must-haves for me. I would need to get one of their AirTV devices, which pull in the broadcast networks and display them right in the channel guide. All of the various AirTV options are heavily discounted when you pre-pay for a few months of Sling.
Then, I checked out the three major all-in-one cable alternatives: Fubo, Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV. They get all of the broadcast and most of the cable channels I want (though each one is missing a few). They all offer cloud DVR service. And all three cost $65 for their lowest tiers.
With any of these live TV services, I will also have to pay $15 per month for HBO Max, so I have to factor that price into my deliberations. If I get one of the latter three all-in-one’s, I’d really only be saving $12. It’s not nothing, but I was hoping to save more through cutting the cord.
This is a tough balancing act, trying to save yet get as close to the cable experience I’ve always known. For too long, I’ve taken the lazy route of just paying my Spectrum bill without really crunching the numbers. Now that I have, I see that I can cut the cord and at least shave off enough for a fancy cocktail every month. Again, it’s not nothing!
- Next: The best streaming devices to watch your favorite shows