In the previous installment of my Cutting the Cable Cord series, I talked about how you can get free broadcast TV shows over the air using an antenna. In this post I’m going to discuss how you can use streaming media devices to get access to programming on other channels if you don’t have a cable or satellite TV subscription.
Note: I’ve previously written a series of posts about streaming media devices that goes into a lot of detail about how they work and comparing four of the most popular devices: Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Google Chromecast. I’m not going to repeat all of that information here so if you do need that level of detail, you can check out those posts or the Frequently Asked Questions one.
What is streaming media?
Streaming media is any content that is delivered over the Internet—TV programs, movies, games, videos, music, photos, etc.— For this post’s purposes, I’ll be focusing on the TV shows you can access through streaming if and when you decide to cancel your cable subscription.
Note: In the vast majority of cases, any TV programming you watch through streaming media will NOT be when they are originally aired. Depending on your choices, you may be able to see them the next day or not until the current season is over.
What is a streaming media player?
A streaming media player, or device, is a piece of equipment that takes the streaming content from the Internet and plays it on your TV. Without one of these players, you can only see the content on a computer or mobile device like a cellphone or tablet.
In addition to the Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Google Chromecast, some Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, set-top boxes, and home theater systems can be used to stream content to your TV. Also, smart TVs have the streaming functionality built right into them.
Where does the content come from?
The players themselves do not have content on them. The companies that make the devices have contracts with various providers to get access to their streaming content.
I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy and the best I can come up with is that the device is like a web browser and the content providers are like websites. (If you have a better one to share, feel free to pass it along!) A browser by itself doesn’t have anything to show you; it just takes web pages from the Internet and makes them available for you to read on your computer/mobile device. Likewise, a streaming media player just takes videos and other content from the Internet and makes them available for you to see/hear on your TV.
Who are the TV content providers?
The programs originate with the TV networks of course and some of them have their own streaming services that work directly with the players. For example, HBO, Showtime, ESPN, PBS, and The Disney Channel all have their own services.
Other networks license their content to third-party providers like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu. When you want to watch them through your player, you first go to the providers’ channel or app and then select the show you want to watch.
Some networks have both their own service and license some of their shows to third parties. HBO and CBS both fall into this category and I suspect more will start doing this in the future.
Note: To add even more complexity to the mix, most networks also stream a lot of their own content on their websites. There are ways to watch some of this content on your TV and I’ll be discussing those in the next to posts about PlayOn and mirroring.
So can you watch any show from any network through any service on any player?
Not even close. One of the things that makes this whole topic so complicated (and highly frustrating) is the crazy number of combinations and permutations of ways that you can (or can’t) watch various programs. That’s why before you decide if you can cut the cable cord or not, you should:
- Make an inventory of the TV shows you watch and prioritize them
- Decide whether it’s important for you to see the shows when they first air
- Find out which content providers, if any, have those shows in their catalogs
- Find out which players use those content providers
- See whether you can access those shows on those players without a cable subscription (see next section)
What’s this about the cable subscription?
Cable subscriptions are expensive, which is why we’re having this entire discussion about cutting the cord. And a lot of people don’t see why they should have to pay for a bunch of networks and shows they don’t watch just to get access to the ones they do watch.
However, most networks still get the bulk of their revenue from their contracts with cable and satellite companies. So if they made all their most popular content available on a standalone basis, more people would cancel the subscriptions and the cable companies would not be thrilled with the networks.
There’s a lot of jockeying going around right now between all the players in this space as to how to give viewers what they want without damaging the business relationships that are making them the most money. So the cable companies are able to make rules that can affect whether or not you can access content without a subscription.
The most commonly cited example of this is HBO GO, HBO’s own streaming service. HBO would love to sell direct access to their shows to anyone who wants it and there are a lot of people who would be happy to pay for it. But to keep cable companies happy, HBO never allowed that before. The only way you could get access to HBO GO, whether on your TV, mobile device, or streaming media player, was if you logged into your cable company’s website to authenticate that you had HBO in your package. A lot of people get around this by using a friend’s login info, but technically that’s illegal.
To make matters worse, even if you had a cable subscription that included HBO, some cable companies would only let you access HBO GO through some streaming media players, but not others. For example, Comcast would let you access HBO GO on your TV through an Xbox, but not through a Roku. (One of the main reasons I switched from Comcast to Verizon FIOS last year.)
Given all of the above, it was HUGE news when HBO announced in October 2014 that they would launch a standalone streaming service in April 2015—no cable subscription required! (Coincidentally (?), Comcast announced in December that they would now allow subscribers to get HBO GO through a Roku.) The details of how this standalone service will work, what it will include, and how much it will cost have not been released yet, but it’s likely this will be the tipping point for some people to cut their cable cord.
Although HBO GO is the most commonly cited example, it’s by no means the only one. For example, I recently discovered I can’t get access to the Nat Geo channel on my Roku because Verizon doesn’t allow it. Also, some networks like the History Channel make some content available to anyone but require a subscription for some of their most popular shows. That’s why it’s so important to do the research I mentioned in the section above to make sure you don’t lose out on anything really important to you.
Note: This entire section only refers to networks that provide their own streaming content. If you subscribe to a third-party content provider, you won’t need a cable subscription to see them on your TV if your player supports them.
What shows can you get through the Big Three third-party content providers and how much do they cost?
By Big Three, I’m referring to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu. They all work very differently, but here’s a high-level description of each of them.
Netflix uses a monthly subscription-based model. They have different plan levels. For $7.99/month, you can watch a show on one screen (TV, computer, phone, tablet) at a time in standard definition. For 8.99/month, you can watch on two screens at a time and in high definition if the show is available in that format. $11.99/month gets you four screens plus ultra high def when available.
For the monthly fee, you can access an unlimited number of shows a month. And they have a good inventory of popular ones, however they generally don’t include the current season. So they’re a great way to binge watch to catch up on a show but not to see the latest and greatest episodes.
You can’t see what shows they have in their inventory without an account, but you can sign up for an account without subscribing. They have a 30-day free trial of the service and you can pause it at any time without deleting your account.
Finally, Netflix produces its own original programming, including House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. (House of Cards Season 1 is also available on Amazon Instant Video. I’m not sure about about all the other programs.)
Amazon Instant Video
Amazon Instant Video is a per-use model. You pay for the individual episodes of the shows you watch and you can usually get a full season at a discount. There’s also a different price depending on whether you buy it in standard or high definition (usually $1.99/$2.99). And you’re buying the episodes so, once you’ve paid for them, you own them and can watch them as often as you want.
Amazon’s inventory includes the current season of shows and they have something called a Season Pass, where as soon as a new episode is available (usually the next day), you’ll be charged for it and it will be added to your library. The cost of the episodes is less with a Season Pass than if you buy them as one-offs.
If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you also have access to the Prime Video library. These are movies and TV shows you can stream for free, but you don’t own them. If you’re not a member, you can try it out for a month for free.
Amazon has also gotten into the original programming game, with shows like Transparent, Alpha House, and Annedroids.
The free version is a streamlined version with fewer offerings available for less time and the only way you can watch them on a TV is using a screencasting or mirroring system (posts to come).
This article from the Hulu website explains what comes extra with Hulu Plus, including current episodes, full seasons of shows, and more devices to watch them on.
Hulu Plus has a lot of programs you don’t get on the other services, like morning news and late-night talk shows.
One of the biggest differences between Hulu Plus and the other two services is that the shows include ads. Here’s their explanation as to why.
But like the other two providers, Hulu also has its own original programming: Misfits, The Wrong Mans, and QuickDraw among others.
So now you can see that with an antenna and a streaming media player, you can replace a lot of the shows you would lose by canceling your cable or satellite subscription. But there will still be some gaps, and I’ll cover those in the next two posts.