Cutting the Cable/Slicing the Satellite

Several people have asked me for information about living without cable or satellite. When I got my HDTV in 2006, I got Dish Network to go with it. We started big, with a bill over $100 a month, with an abundance of channels. Over time, we cut the bill down, until finally paying less than $40 for a basic package. We really weren’t watching much other than local channels. In August 2011, we cut the satellite out totally, eliminating the bill while still having plenty of TV to watch and even recording capabilities. We’ve been very pleased with this arrangement and I would be very surprised if we ever get satellite or cable again.

Our requirements for TV watching were simple: DVR was a must, as was HD capability. We also wanted to be able to record at least two shows at the same time. We watch TV mainly in the living room, but wanted access to recordings and live TV in other rooms as needed. There are three basic parts to a setup that meets these requirements: a good antenna, a recording method, and devices to stream to other rooms.

We live more than 40 miles from the largest cluster of TV towers in our area, so a good antenna was a must. After research, I purchased this antenna. We have been quite happy with the reception. It isn’t affected by weather as much as the satellite dish was, though we’ve had issues with severe icing a handful of times. Rather than mess around on my roof and/or crawl space, I used an electrician to mount the antenna on the roof, and do all the wiring (which wasn’t bad considering the satellite runs were already in place). If you live closer to your TV towers, you might be able to get away with an indoor or attic antenna.

I chose to use Windows Media Center for our recording method. This program is free in Windows 7 (and might even be built in, I can’t remember). WMC gave us a channel guide, DVR capabilities, and even a few extra bells and whistles. I used my primary home desktop PC for this. It had a 500 or so gig hard drive partition which has done just fine for us, holding many hours of HD video. We’ve never had issues with filling up the hard drive with shows.

Of course you need a method to get the TV shows from the antenna to your computer, and that means a capture card. I wanted to be able to record two shows at once, so I went with this one. It was very easy to install and works well, but does require taking your case of and all that so be aware. There are USB options out there as well if you don’t want to mess with it. The capture card was detected by WMC with no problems, and, once hooked into the coaxial cable the electrician installed in my office, we were quickly up and running.

Another major benefit of Windows Media Center is the ability to stream from my PC to other devices on our network. Specifically, in our case, we stream to the Xbox 360 in the living room. When Brandon still lived at home, we could stream to his Xbox 360 as well. There’s a bit of setup getting the PC and the Xbox 360s talking to one another, but it wasn’t too bad at all. Of course, we can still watch TV on my computer at any time too. WMC records to the WTV format, and puts the recordings wherever you want, so you could save to a network drive and stream to any attached device if you like. We’ve even copied shows to a laptop to take with us on long car trips. It’s your media, you can do what you want with it. Very, very nice and unlike what happens with cable or satellite.

For us, the big swap was fairly cheap. We already had the PC and Xbox 360s. The only costs were the capture card, antenna, and the electrician’s work. Within just a few months, it had paid for itself. If you can live with TV in just one room, you can get away with just connecting your capture PC to your TV, and skip the Xbox 360s. I have no experience with a Roku or other streaming gadget; some may be able to read the recordings, some may not.

We have 12 channels available using just the over the air antenna. This includes NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, PBS, and more. A note to readers in southwest Missouri: the local FOX affiliate uses several smaller antennas instead of one large one. It is notorious for having a poor signal. We were unable to receive FOX without using a secondary indoor antenna and another capture device. The good news is, this didn’t interfere with the other antenna or WMC at all. The bad news is the cost of the second device and another antenna. Your mileage may vary. It’s not a deal breaker but something to be aware of for TV watchers in the Ozarks. You can get some good insight into what your signal strength might be like at TV Fool.

There are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, you only get local channels. If you are a huge fan of a channel that is only on cable or satellite, and are unwilling to wait until the show hits Netflix, Hulu, or even DVD/Bluray, cutting the cable might not be for you. Fans of sports should be very careful as well. It about killed me to lose Monday Night Football on ESPN and Thursday Night Football on NFL Network… at first.  But I can still record 4 football games a week on the local channels. There are also legitimate online streaming options to watch games after they have aired. Sports fans should do the research and decide for themselves.

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and similar services make a great compliment to over the air recording. There are thousands of movies and TV shows available, very reasonably priced when compared to expensive cable or satellite. Throw in a couple Redbox movies at $1.50 a pop here and there, and you have lots of entertainment value for your dollar. I have been very pleased with using only the over the air antenna for TV. We have saved lots of money but still have plenty of options available to us at any time. Hopefully this guide has been helpful to those who are considering making the switch like we have. If you have questions, please let me know by leaving a comment below.