Unbundling: A beginner's guide to sports without cable
Posted April 29, 2015
First in a series of posts chronicling the adventures of ditching cable in favor of alternative methods for watching television. Joe Ovies provides the basic needs for making the switch.
Deciding to ditch cable and satellite
In March, my AT&T U-verse promotional rate expired. It happens to everyone who has a cable or satellite package. That great introductory price or new negotiated rate vanishes from your bill, and suddenly you're getting charged a bunch more for the same stuff.
It's not the first time I've dealt with a price hike for a bundle of cable channels and broadband Internet access. A few years ago, Time Warner Cable's reluctance to work with me on a lower rate after their "price lock guarantee" ran out kickstarted an interest in other services. As it turned out, AT&T was the new kid on the block. The company literally had representatives going door to door offering incredible introductory prices for more channels and better bandwidth than I was getting from Time Warner.
The bundle, dubbed "U450," was great. Sports? No problem, I had just about everything with the exception of out-of-market league packages. HBO, Showtime and all the other movie channels? Got those, too. Along with decent Internet access, AT&T's promotional deal cost roughly $150 a month for 12 months.
Satisfied with AT&T's service, I had no problems signing up for additional contracts. However, each new deal had a slight increase and my monthly bill climbed to $175 a month in 2014. In August, I managed to get AT&T down to $165 a month for six months. When that deal ended, my non-promotional charges for U450 and Internet access skyrocketed to $207 a month.
My choices were to play another game of chicken with a service provider, change to a smaller U-verse bundle without a contract to save $10 a month, actually cancel AT&T in favor of another company or cut the cord like so many other television watchers have done in the last few years.
The decision, for various reasons, was to cut the cord.
The main rationale was to save money. A combination of AT&T's Internet access with downstream speeds up to 24 mbps, HBO Now and Hulu will initially save me $140 a month. The money saved from the first month alone made it easy to buy an over-the-air HD antenna for local television stations.
The other motive was to conduct an experiment with sports and television. I was curious to know if the average sports fan could ditch their expensive cable or satellite bundles and still have a satisfactory experience. The plan is to chronicle my undertaking in a series of posts on WRALSportsFan.com. I want the average consumer to have a better understanding of what to expect if they ever decide to take the plunge.
A quick word on media servers, illegal streaming and shared accounts
If you're experienced with tech, like to tinker with hardware such as Raspberry Pi, or curious about building a home media solution with open source software such as Kodi – stop right here. The goal of this guide is to keep it simple and not get lost in the weeds. Tutorials on how to watch television through any number of DIY projects are readily available through a Google search.
Same goes for illegal live video streaming, which can be found at your own risk in the darkest corners of the Internet.
Sharing account information for streaming services such as WatchESPN or Netflix will be discussed in a later installment. "Borrowing" a login from a family member or friend, while technically viewed as a violation of terms, has become a grey area. According to Consumer Reports, each service has a varying number of allowable concurrent streams. WatchESPN has no stated policy on how freely a login can be distributed.
HBO CEO, Richard Plepler, told BuzzFeed in 2014 that account sharing was "not material to our business, number one. It’s not that we are unmindful of it, but it has no real effect on the business.” In Plepler's opinion, folks who piggyback on somebody else's account will eventually turn into paid subscriptions.
However, HBO's opinion changes when fans of their shows start using apps such as Periscope to illicitly stream content.
First order of business - HD antenna
Out with the rabbit ears and large arrays perched on a roof, in with sleek indoor antennas that can be hidden behind a television or hung on a window. For most consumers, a modern omnidirectional antenna is the most versatile and affordable option for free over-the-air television since it allows households to pick up channels from different geographical sources.
Websites like TV Fool will help you find out what's available and signal distances. Folks living around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill should be good with indoor antenna ranges from 30 to 50 miles. If you live further away, rooftop and attic mounted omnidirectional antennas with a 150-mile range are available.
The HD Frequency Cable Cutter and Mohu Leaf are two of the most highly rated indoor antennas on the market. I went with the Mohu Leaf 30 because it was $40, made by a local company based in Raleigh and somewhat inconspicuous hanging on the wall behind my TV. Setup was relatively easy, but I did have to play around with the Leaf's placement in order to program all available channels.
An over-the-air HD antenna is crucial for watching the NFL since all of the league's major games are televised on CBS, FOX and NBC. With the exception of Monday Night Football and half of the Thursday night slate carried exclusively on the NFL Network, you're really not missing out on much. Once the playoffs start, every contest is over-the-air.
The Carolina Panthers will play on FOX, CBS or NBC for 15 of their 16 games this upcoming season. The cable only exception arrives on Nov. 2 against the Indianapolis Colts. If you're desperate to watch the Code Bowl between Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, crash at a friend's house with an offering of wings and beer.
You'll be able to watch other major sporting events carried by CBS, FOX, NBC & ABC. For instance, I watched The Masters through a combination of their official website and CBS. Regional telecasts of college football and college basketball are available, but you'll run into issues when the games go to cable. The College Football Playoff is on ESPN, while certain NCAA Tournament games have been spread across TNT and TBS (including the Final Four).
Sling TV provides ESPN channels and Turner Sports
The Final Four was on TBS this season. The NFL Draft will be on ESPN and the NFL Network. The NBA Playoffs are on ESPN and TNT, with a handful of games on ABC until the network takes over the NBA Finals. There is now a legal and relatively cheap way to watch these cable networks thanks to Sling.
Sling is a service operated by Dish that provides "over-the-top Internet" live television. Unlike on demand apps such as Netflix or Hulu, Sling basically acts like a no frills Internet tuner for cable channels. It doesn't have DVR capabilities, but Sling does allow users to pause, rewind and catchup on programming.
ESPN, ESPN2, TNT and TBS (along with several other networks) are available for $20 a month. A "Sports Extra" package that includes ESPNU and the SEC Network is available for an additional $5 a month. Sling is currently available on desktops, iOS and Android devices. It can be streamed to your television through Roku, Amazon Fire TV and XBox.
While the service has no contract and can be canceled anytime, I signed up for Sling's offer of a free Amazon Fire TV Stick with three months of service prepaid in order to watch the NBA Playoffs.
Sling isn't perfect. The web TV service struggled during its first real high-demand test during the Final Four, with users complaining about the inability to watch or constant buffering. Sling admitted as much, saying they were overwhelmed and misjudged demand.
Get a hockey puck with streaming apps
Televisions are now hybrid devices. They're able to connect to the Internet, come preloaded with basic apps like Netflix and other digital media options. That's all well and good, but the interfaces can be sluggish or unintuitive. To truly unlock the power of digital media, you'll need a dedicated streaming device.
If you already have a modern gaming system like the XBox One or Playstation 4, most streaming apps are available to you. Even league packages such as MLB.tv, NBA Game Time and NHL GameCenter can be purchased within the game console's operating system.
However, games consoles aren't cheap and you might have zero interest in the latest Call of Duty. That's where the sub-$100 digital media players come into the equation.
Options include Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. Each device has their strengths and weaknesses. CNET has a fantastic breakdown of each digital streamer currently on the market.
Considering I live in Apple's walled garden, purchasing an Apple TV a few years ago made sense. The device has morphed from a way to watch iTunes content on your television into a robust streaming hub. And chances are you have an iPhone, which plays nicely with the other devices, but there are a few tricks only Apple products can pull off together. The key features are AirPlay, which allow users to throw content to an Apple TV, and mirroring. Mirroring an iOS device on an AppleTV is essential since some apps are not enabled with AirPlay.
Rumors indicate Apple is preparing to launch an updated AppleTV in June, which could feature a packaged television service similar to Sling TV.
One month in...
Ditching cable made me realize how AT&T, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV and other providers hook you on convenience. One box with one remote – all I had to do was turn on my television, find my channels or fire up the DVR. Blowing it all up in favor of a more à la carte model was intimidating.
It has fundamentally changed the way I watch TV. However, it didn't take long to fall into a new routine and there haven't been any issues watching desired content. Even though there are DVR options for HD antennas from TiVo and others, I've found Hulu to be a suitable replacement for time-shifted network television. HBO Now offers all their shows and select movies on demand, so I'm set on binge watching in the summer. Netflix is on deck if I manage to deplete HBO's content before the start of football season.
The first stress test for television without cable arrives in September. I'll be good watching football with an HD antenna, but will Sling TV manage to keep up with the demand of college football on ESPN? And how am I going to watch the Carolina Hurricanes? Those questions will be answered in due time.