Cord Cutting Thoughts

The Markel home has been free of traditional pay TV for about a year-and-a-half now, and we’re hoping not to go back anytime soon. Historically, we have bounced between having it and not having it, but I’m hoping that we’re at least close to done with it now.

We have some basic family desires for paid TV service. They are:

  • Baseball.1
  • Hockey.2
  • The Olympics when they come around.
  • A couple of shows here and there.3
  • Access in both rooms where we have TVs.

Right now, we’re able to manage all of this. I wanted to take a bit and break this down to show what we are paying, why we’re using each service, and show some of the frustrations with cutting the cord and dealing with new ways of watching content that are still constrained by antiquated business practices.

Pricing Pay TV

Point to make first: I do not care about home phone service. I am not interested in home phone service. Triple Play bundles are stupid and I do not want them.

OK, so to get the service for two televisions in my home (assuming that DVR service and HD are necessary), here’s what I need to spend with Charter, who is my internet provider:

  • $19.99/mo for DVR service
  • $13.98/mo for the second set top box
  • $59.99/mo for the actual channel package, that covers the things listed above

So to get what I want, I’m paying $93.96/mo, and I’m pretty sure that price is a promo for twelve months. The total cost for a year would be $1,127.52, and I would guess there will be taxes and franchise fees and whatnot adding to that as well.

Services

I try to cover the above bases with a set of streaming services. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there. Here’s what we’re using:

  • $5/mo for Unblock Us, which is a service that allows me to evade geolocation blocks on content by using their DNS network. This solves the problem of blackouts on sports streaming sources and gives me access to things like BBC streams, which enables me to watch things like Olympics coverage.
  • $129.99/yr for MLB.tv, which when combined with the aforementioned blackout dodging allows me to watch every baseball game of the season.
  • $149.99/yr for NHL GameCenter, giving me access to hockey (blackouts nonsense applies as well).
  • $7.99/mo for Hulu Plus, which covers the ABC and Fox shows I’m interested in, with some added bonus stuff, like the best available streaming library of classic Doctor Who and some other British oddities that they bring over.
  • $7.99/mo for Netflix, which we hadn’t had for around a year until last week, when they made their announcement regarding Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Netflix also has a few TV shows that aren’t covered by Hulu.
  • $59.99/mo semi-annually for (at least for six months) the WWE Network, which I’m choosing to support because they are actually trying to disrupt the existing pay TV model by pricing themselves in direct competition with cable providers for PPVs. Their streaming offering is also being assisted technologically by MLB Advanced Media, which is a weird but very interesting alignment.4
  • Absolutely nothing for the aerial antenna I have in my attic, which gives me OTA HD for my local networks. This covers news and weather.

My grand total for this setup is $651.72 per year, which is still a decent chunk of change but around half what I would be paying for traditional pay TV through Charter, and has the added bonus of putting more things in an on-demand relationship rather than needing to manage DVR space, which is almost always a fruitless effort.

Most devices that are out there can manage these streams, but admittedly, I have to do some gymnastics to get everything where I want it. Let’s talk about actually watching these things.

Devices

I have two televisions in my house: one in the main family room and another upstairs in our bedroom. The device layout is as such:

  • Family room
    • Apple TV
    • Mac mini
    • Xbox 360
    • Xbox One
    • PlayStation 3 (currently unhooked)
    • PlayStation 4 (currently unhooked)
  • Bedroom
    • Apple TV
    • Xbox 360
    • PlayStation 3

The sad thing is that even with all this, I don’t yet have the perfect media device, which I find personally pretty annoying. In reality, in end up using the Xbox 360 units and the Apple TVs about even amounts of time. With a little more work, the Xbox One is going to end up being the device I use the most. Here are some thoughts on devices:

Apple TV

Super-simple to use. Covers all the services that I subscribe to; if I ever switch to using Amazon Video, then it won’t be the device of choice anymore because it doesn’t have a client for that. It has clients that work for everything, but they tend to be the least fully-featured versions available.

My music and a lot of TV and movies are in my mammoth iTunes library, so I would be using this anyway because Home Sharing is boss.

Mac mini

My best friend during the olympics coverage; hook it up to an HDTV using HDMI, then full screen video you want to watch. Can watch anything with a web interface; navigation is done using VNC. Otherwise, a giant pain in the neck to use because it takes longer than the rest of the stuff to use.

Xbox 360

Currently the best option. Good apps for NHL and MLB (with one-touch scoreboards no matter what you are watching), and a Netflix app that’s been upped to the newest experience. Hulu Plus app is still the crappy “let’s make everything work with Kinect” version (read: awful), the Twitch app is similarly horrendous, and the NHL app has a habit of not liking you logging in on more than one Xbox 360, even if you aren’t using them at the same time (I have to keep putting my password in).

Xbox One

Will be the best option once more apps have been released. No apps for NHL, MLB, or WWE (though I’m assuming there will be an MLB app coming this spring). Better app for Twitch than 360, updated Hulu and Netflix experiences. Better dashboard UI than Xbox 360 as pins are on the front rather than hidden behind an option.

PlayStation 3

Good apps; can’t be controlled by IR. Non-starter.

PlayStation 4

Ditto. They couldn’t have spent $2 on an IR receiver?

Thoughts?

I’ve been staying current with it, but in my opinion cord-cutting for the masses is still a ways off. Geoblocks, content provider exclusivities, and traditional blackout-causing TV contracts cause enough problems for most people that it’s more pain than is worth it to do such a thing.

To top it off, there isn’t currently a device that is an obvious go-to hub for this kind of digital entertainment. Right now, it’s a dead heat for me between the Apple TV and the Xbox 360, and neither of those is the perfect solution. The Xbox One has a good shot at being the best available set top solution, but it’s still missing some key apps and is still a $500 investment.

I like my setup, but I know it won’t work for everyone. I’m probably using more of these things than the average person. Do you have any questions about my setup or about these services? Feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them either here or in follow-up posts.


  1. The Cardinals. 

  2. The Red Wings, and increasingly the Blues. 

  3. Right now, this is mostly Castle

  4. I hope to say more about the WWE Network in a later post, but it’s a very interesting offering. 

7 thoughts on “Cord Cutting Thoughts

  1. Have you tried the Chromecast? We’ve been totally cable-free for about a year, and only since we got our Chromecast have I felt totally ok with being able to find and watch anything we missed or forgot to Tivo. It’s my favorite device that I’ve bought in recent memories and probably the least expensive one.

    We also finally bought a really good outdoor antenna after trying to make do with a $20 indoor antenna that I’d have to adjust any time it rained or snowed. No complaints on this new one at all.

    We are paying $8/mo for Netflix and whatever amount you want to amortize for the Tivo and lifetime service we bought with it a a couple years ago.

    • Have you tried the Chromecast? We’ve been totally cable-free for about a year, and only since we got our Chromecast have I felt totally ok with being able to find and watch anything we missed or forgot to Tivo. It’s my favorite device that I’ve bought in recent memories and probably the least expensive one.

      I haven’t, but I feel like it would be duplicating the efforts as we have Apple TVs all over the place. Is there a use case that wouldn’t be covered by Home Sharing and AirPlay?

      We also finally bought a really good outdoor antenna after trying to make do with a $20 indoor antenna that I’d have to adjust any time it rained or snowed. No complaints on this new one at all.

      The antenna in my attic is eight feet long and pointed at the city’s HD transmitters. Clear as day, all the time. :)

      • Is there a use case that wouldn’t be covered by Home Sharing and AirPlay?

        We use the tab streaming to watch anything from the networks that we missed, since almost all of them put their content online, but usually in a proprietary player that iOS doesn’t support (the last time I checked). For example, if you didn’t have Hulu Plus and wanted to watch an episode of Modern Family, how would you do that (without buying it on iTunes)?

  2. Quick question – do you point your unblock-us to overseas for mlb? And if so, what is that doing to your wwe network access? Do you have to switch back and forth? I’m not (yet) an unblock-us subscriber but was wondering about this potential conflict.

    • Unblock-Us doesn’t have an option for setting location for anything other than Netflix; for other services it selects what is the most appropriate locale. I’ve been using WWE Network for a bit now and it’s always working great. Same with MLB.tv.

  3. I have not had TV service for many years. I found the combination of Plex and Apple TV works beautifully. Plex manages my media and allows me to stream to any device, including most smart TVs.

    Most TV stations post their shows online within an hour of showing on the station. Plex reaches out and grabs them for me. The plus of this is that all media is local on your network so resolutions are always high (it will down sample for small devices or streaming over poor connections!). The minus is that you need a computer running Plex and plenty of storage. I love it and have no plans to go back.

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