Unbundling: Mad you can't get WRAL or WRAZ on cable? Cut the cord.
Posted September 17
Updated September 18
WRAL and FOX 50 are currently not airing on AT&T U-verse. Viewers are understandably annoyed and inconvenienced by this recent development. Capitol Broadcasting Company, who owns those stations and employs me to talk on the radio, is currently negotiating with AT&T to resolve the carriage impasse.
Now, you might being asking, "Why are y'all being so greedy, Joe!?"
Look, all that is above my pay grade. I'll let my bosses work all that out. However, I can tell you these battles over revenue share rates between pay TV providers and programming providers are not new. Given the entire industry is dealing with media distribution disruption, thanks in large part to that new-fangled internet you may have heard about, these games of chicken will play out publicly for the foreseeable future.
You're probably saying, "But what about my sports, Joe!? I'm gonna miss football!"
Chill out. I got you, but it's going to require a very bold decision. You'll have to cut the cord. But don't sweat it, you're not alone! Research estimates 22.2 million U.S. adults will make a clean break from traditional paid television services by the end 2017.
So, let's get started.
Antenna is the new vinyl
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 a handful of Thursday night games 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 season. The cable-only exception arrives on Nov. 13 against the Miami Dolphins. If you're desperate, 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).
OTT services aplenty
So you've decided to cut the cord and you're presented with a choice: which over-the-top internet television service provides the best bang for your buck?
Sling TV. PlayStation Vue. DirecTV Now. YouTube TV. Hulu with Live TV.
While slightly overwhelming at first, digging into each service reveals the differences between these OTT options are ultimately negligible. They all offer different tiers of bundled networks that can be streamed to various screens at various price points without a traditional contract. Sling TV offers the cheapest option priced at $20 a month, while PlayStation Vue offers an "Ultra" tier priced at a very cable-like $75 a month. One service might have more simultaneous logins than the other services. Some of these OTT options, like Vue and Hulu, have a cloud based DVR. However, they come with restrictions (mainly on Disney-owned channels) not found in a traditional cable or satellite DVR package.
CNET has a complete breakdown of channels available on every over-the-top internet service and their various tiers.
It's important to point out OTT is not meant to replace traditional cable and satellite services. AT&T would rather you sign up for a proper DirecTV bundle with all the bells and whistles. Same goes for Dish. And since you're paying discount prices, there will be channel trade-offs. For instance, regional sports networks are an iffy proposition based on where you live. Same goes for local broadcasts of ABC, NBC and FOX. But if you're thinking about doing a little cord shaving with a skinny bundle, these companies would rather you do it with them than with someone else. And in the case of AT&T, what they really want is for consumers to use their data networks. The key differentiator of DirecTV Now versus competing products is its "zero rating" on AT&T wireless and broadband, meaning any use of their OTT service won't count towards your monthly data allotment.
Another of benefit of OTT is the hassle-free nature of signing up or canceling. I've never spoken with a phone representative or needed to wait on a technician to set anything up. Everything is done online and instantly available if you have the necessary digital streaming box or mobile device with the appropriate app. If you're not satisfied with the product, there are no contracts, and you're a few clicks away from canceling instead of going through phone menu selection hell just to talk to an actual human who might pass your call on to another human who works the "retention desk."
Consumers can also acquire free hardware, such as Roku or Amazon Fire TV, when you prepay for a few months of service. For instance, I signed up for three months of DirecTV Now at $35 a month to get a 4th generation Apple TV and would have come out $45 ahead had I decided to cancel service at the end of the term.
Bottom line: there are deals to be had, and companies have priced their services in such a way that you'd at least give them a shot.
One size does not fit all and your savings may vary
As with most people who wade into unbundled waters, the clear motivation was to save money. Between an over-the-air HD antenna for local channels and collection of apps, I'm watching less television, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything crucial. Thing is, what works for me might not necessarily work for you and vice versa. Or worse, the sports and shows you really enjoy still live in the walled garden of traditional cable.
If you're the type of viewer who has a handful of favorite shows and only watches big sporting events on ESPN, you'll save a considerable amount of money using basic OTT plans.
However, these OTT services start looking an awful lot like the bundles folks are trying to avoid in first place once you get into the premium tiers. Careful reading of the fine print will also tell you rates are subject to change. As an example, here is what I'm paying for all the services, per month, at this very moment.
- AT&T Fiber 1000 = $70
- Hulu with Live TV (no commercials) = $43.99
- Netflix = $9.99
- HBO Now = $14.99
- Amazon Prime = $8.33
All told I'm spending $147.30 a month for all these products, which isn't much different from the $150 I was initially spending for U-Verse. However, AT&T Fiber broadband service is essentially a utility. I could also throw out the cost of Amazon Prime because it's real function in the Ovies house is for free shipping and Kindle books.
But you get the point. It starts to add up quick and creeps dangerously close to what you might have been paying before. Keep this in mind if you're the type of viewer who enjoys flipping through a bloated channel guide. It'll likely make more sense to stick with cable or satellite.
My experiences with Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now have been far from flawless.
When I signed up for DirecTV Now during its first week of availability, trying to watch ESPN resulted in multiple errors saying I had reached a max allotment of streams despite the fact I was the only user. After several months of working out the kinks, DirecTV Now easily had the best picture quality, with TNT and ESPN's coverage of the NBA Playoffs running at a smooth 60-frames-per-second.
Switching to Hulu with Live TV's beta, I've gone back to experiencing buffering, time-outs and ESPN's frame rate appears downgraded to 30-frames-per-second. However, that's what I get for trying out a product still in beta.
Hulu with Live TV is also the first OTT product that blurs the line between on-demand video services and offers a truly unique viewing experience. Rather than using a horribly antiquated channel guide with rows of linear networks, Hulu presents live television within the same categories as on-demand shows. This is best represented when browsing the sports or news categories, which show you what's currently on rather than the channel itself.
Streaming sports on OTT also comes with a considerable time lag compared to over-the-air and cable, although DirecTV Now was nearest to "real-time" I've experienced. This isn't much of an issue if you're off social media during games. Otherwise, fans end up having big moments spoiled for them on Twitter upwards of a minute ahead of the stream.
The problems listed above aren't meant to discourage you from experimenting with OTT products, I'm simply being upfront about the potential issues of fledgling technologies. The financial benefits of switching to streaming will help pad your patience for any potential glitches as it did for me. And if worst comes to worst, the cable company will happily take you back with their latest and greatest introductory offer.