I Tried Legal Cord Cutting: Which Services Are Worth It

I am a cord cutter. One of those people who refuses to subscribe to dish or cable and instead gets her TV from over the air or via the Internet. Over the past 10 years, I've tried it all. I've embraced Apple TV, subscribed to Netflix when it was still just discs in the mail and borrowed family members' HBO GO login info to catch up on Game of Thrones. I've even flirted with BitTorrent and Usenet -- where you can download shows for no cost. That's certainly better than the exorbitant $180 my roommate pays per month for Time Warner Cable. Though that cost does include HBO, Showtime and Starz, a Roku app, and all the on demand TV she can consume.

While grabbing shows from BitTorrent is easy and free, it's also copyright infringement. Seeking to avoid lectures I could face from my family at Thanksgiving -- and determined to exist in a world where the specter of the IP police would never loom -- I walked away from piracy's siren song and embraced legal cord cutting. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Compared to piracy, cord cutting is expensive, complicated and as bad at nickel and diming as traditional cable. However, I found a few services that are worth the premium.

All TV Becomes Appointment TV - Hulu

I was already paying $16.24 a month for Netflix and Amazon Prime, and both were appealing, but neither offers same-day or next-day streaming of TV shows -- and this TV-aholic can't wait six months for a whole season to pop up. That led me to Hulu. It would allow me to keep most of my viewing limited to appointment television, and for a reasonable $7.99 a month it supplies you with programming from nearly every major cable and network channel.

Unfortunately, different networks have different release dates for their shows on Hulu, and I found myself being one or two weeks behind on some programs and completely missing out on others. For example, the popular Cartoon Network program Steven Universe is more than a season and a half behind the live airings on Hulu. Worse, at least for this Steven Universe fan, was the new episodes being hidden behind a paywall on the Cartoon Network site. Without a cable/dish subscription I was bound to be Steven Universe-free.

Between Reddit and Tumblr, I found streaming copies of each episode, but they would disappear after a few hours due to takedown notices from Cartoon Network. That meant I had to adhere to a rigid schedule, just like Live TV viewers. It also raised an important question for me as I sought to avoid a life of crime: is watching streams online legal?

Jim Gibson, founder of the University of Richmond School of Law's Intellectual Property Institute, says that is the real gray area of TV copyright infringement. "It’s not clear that the person actually doing the watching is the one who's committing the copyright infringement."

If I didn't want to cheat or sit there in the gray, I would need an alternative. Sling TV is just that. For $20, I'd have legal access to a whole slew of channels currently unavailable via Hulu, including Cartoon Network.

Sling TV Is Not Cord-Cutter Paradise

Dish unveiled Sling TV to much fanfare last year and claimed it was the answer to the problems of every cord cutter. All that live TV cord cutters refused to pay for, but for half the price of cable.

Unfortunately, Sling TV requires viewers to travel back to an age before DVRs or VCRs (colloquially known as the '70s). You can't record what airs on Sling TV or watch it later. It can't even be used to get past those pesky paywalls that require a cable/dish subscription.

For $20 a month, you get the privilege of watching a handful of cable channels live. That's it.

With a heavy sigh, and a need to see what was happening to Steven and his pals the Crystal Gems, I subscribed and made plans to be home in time for the reruns after work. Goodbye drinks with friends and hello Thursday night on the couch watching a show intended for 7-year-olds.

The worst part of Sling TV? The commercials. The terrible, awful, no good and very bad children's commercials - at least for the kids' shows I watch. From cereal and dolls to games that no adult would ever want. Those suckers had me seriously testing my no-piracy pledge.

Then I realized I had AMC and wouldn't have to forgo Halt and Catch Fire or Humans. Suddenly, the service was a little more worth my time and money. Currently, Sling TV is the only way a cord cutter can legally access AMC's programming. Hulu recently acquired the rights to stream AMC content, but that program didn't start until Aug. 23, weeks after my initial experiment.

MORE: What Is Sling TV Online Video Streaming?

For an additional $15, Sling TV also gave me access to HBO, but, again, it was only the live- streaming version of the channel. If I wanted to watch HBO On Demand I was going to have to plunk down an additional $15 for HBO Now or call my friend and ask for her HBO Go password. Sharing HBO Go passwords is technically a violation of cable users' Terms of Service and could constitute piracy. Nevertheless, even HBO's CEO has said that sharing passwords is a “terrific marketing vehicle.”

But I was trying to step away from the gray area of TV watching while also keeping as many of my viewing habits as possible. Therefore, with much reluctance -- and pain to my wallet -- I opted for HBO Now.

The Premium Cable Racket - HBO Now and Showtime

The biggest problem with HBO Now is that it isn't anywhere close to the same service provided to HBO subscribers via cable and dish. For $15 per month, a traditional TV watcher gets up to 15 channels of HBO and HBO's entire library on demand via HBO Go. You can access all that swell content via a PC, tablet or phone, and a number of streaming boxes -- including the very popular Roku.

To get near the exact same experience as a cord cutter, I had to pay twice that price. Fifteen dollars for a single channel of HBO on Sling TV and another $14.99 to access their library on demand on my mobile devices. As a Roku user I was less than enthused. HBO Now isn't available via Roku so if I wanted to watch True Detective on my TV I was stuck watching it live via Sling TV.

Showtime has a different and just as confusing offering for cord cutters. Like HBO Now, it provides on demand access to the premium cable channel's entire library. Yet how many devices you can access it from depends entirely on how you choose to subscribe. I was already a Hulu Plus subscriber and easily added Showtime for $8.99 a month. That gave me access to Showtime on every single device I had Hulu on.

Unfortunately, if I hadn't had Hulu, or had tried to subscribe from my Roku box, I would have been forced to pay $10.99 a month for Showtime and only have access on my Roku devices. I would have had a similar problem if I tried to subscribe on my iPad ($10.99 a month and only available on Apple devices), or if I'd used Sony's PlayStation Vue service ($10.99 a month and only available on the PlayStation 3 and 4).

MORE: Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More

Thank goodness, I had already subscribed to Hulu and possess an uncanny ability to read even the densest of fine print. Both HBO and Showtime lean a lot on their names to sell these offerings but they do very little to inform consumers on what precisely they're getting for their money.

Bottom Line: The Services I Picked

If you want to be on the right side of the law, you're gonna have to pay. While copyright infringement is simple, free and extraordinarily convenient, it is also the virtual equivalent of shoplifting. You might not go to jail for it, but you are still breaking the law. And you could open yourself up to thousands in damages (or more) if irate copyright holders decide to pursue you.

I've found full-on legal cord cutting to be an exercise in tedium, but I have to admit that being on the up and up has left me feeling liberated. I’m not looking over my shoulder waiting for surly emails from my ISP or notices from offended copyright holders. But the price of legality feels almost as steep as cable without the multitude of benefits that cable can provide (DVR, seamless, cross-platform viewing, etc.).

Trimming a lot of the fat, I settled on one very cost-effective setup. There was still the subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime, but for an additional $16.98 I get Hulu Plus and Showtime. That covers 90 percent of my needs, is totally legal, and has the bonus of giving me all the Korean dramas, Japanese anime and Latin telenovellas I can consume. As for the other 10 percent? I guess I'll just have to live without it.

It's better than being tethered to a cable company or half a dozen streaming services.

Alex Cranz
Alex Cranz is the Associate Reviews Editor at Tom’s Guide. She spends her days developing and implementing new benchmarks and playing with 4k displays. Her evenings are devoted to Destiny, Xena and building the ultimate Plex server.