Saturday, March 17, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 2) - Simply Complicated!

Here is Part 2 of our adventures as we Cut The Cord!

We are of the belief that present costs of TV programming cannot be maintained into retirement.  Almost $125 each month is way too much to pay if we intend to do other things besides watching television in our old age!  It is time for a change ... how close to FREE can we get?

Our Watching Habits Changed Over Time

Both my satellite provider and the cable company have been bombarding us with junk mail recently, offering Internet-based streaming services with no contracts and prices as low as $21.95 a month for a limited channel offering of live programming from all the major networks and several popular cable channels.  Could a streaming service, coupled with a "Smart" TV or other device, be the answer?

Checking into it a little further, I found a major drawback to these offerings:  no DVR service is presently available with these packages, and DVR is a must-have for our television lifestyle!  (I have learned that my satellite provider has a DVR in beta testing, but I don't know when or if it will be available and how much of an extra premium it will be.)

Lack of DVR ability made me stop and realize how much our television watching habits have changed over the years.  Mindy's job at the hospital requires her to work various shifts and schedules; my self-employment and music gigs can also compound our "together time" in front of the "boob tube."  We never watch live TV anymore ... everything is "taped" using the DVR function of the cable or satellite box!  ("Taped" - isn't it funny how outdated legacy words continue to be used in language!)  Depending on our schedules, we may spend around two and a half hours each day watching television programming, all of it pre-recorded.  We could watch as many as five shows in one evening.  And lets not forget our regular favorite, General Hospital!

Each hour of modern television contains about 15 minutes of advertising content.  By fast-forwarding through the commercials we are able to watch a one-hour show in 45 minutes, or a half-hour show in about 22 minutes.  Mindy hates commercials (I sometimes watch them when I am watching TV by myself) and prefers not to watch live TV because of them.  Therefore, all we tend to watch is recorded content, except in the case of a sporting event or breaking news.  We usually don't watch today's shows until at least tomorrow or the next day, and always have something of interest recorded so we never experience "there's nothing on right now" syndrome.

Occasionally, though, we do want to watch today's episode of certain shows.  When we do, we just delay watching it for at least 10 minutes for a half-hour show or 15 minutes for an hour-long program.  We then start watching the recording and are still able to zip through the commercials!  We even have a term for that ability ... we call it "gas!"  Sometimes, if we start watching too soon we will catch up with the live feed and "damn it, we're out of gas" is the usual expression!  We then pause the program, take a bathroom break, grab a piece of fruit or other snack, and return to the show with enough "gas" to get us through the commercial stop set, and hopefully the next one as well!

We schedule our recordings so that favorite series record automatically.  When we see an ad for a special show or event, we manually set that to record and never have to worry about missing a show we want to watch.

Analyze Your Watching Habits To Identify Your Needs

Since we watch almost every program as a digital recording, live TV is not at the top of our requirements list.  Live shows need to be watched on the network's schedule, not your own.  Get scheduled to work on Thursday evening and you're going to miss Grey's Anatomy.  And what about when two different shows air at the same time?  We need to be able to record shows for playback later.  The only time we actually watch live TV is during a major news event, and of course during baseball season when the Red Sox game, if not watched live, is checked every half hour or so for the score!

Most of our regularly-watched shows are on a small handful of networks.  We record shows from CBS, ABC, FOX, HGTV, History, CMT, and Discovery.  Mindy likes horror movies from SyFy and "chick flicks" from Lifetime.  I also like programming from DIY but have never had it available on our cable or satellite packages except for "free preview" promotions.

With the exception of my beloved Red Sox, I watch very little in the way of sports programming.

We started our process by making a list of every show that we regularly record, and the network or cable channel that it airs on.  This list proved to be very useful in selecting which streaming services we needed.

If you are one that can't live without sports programming, streaming packages that include national and/or regional sports networks will be required, and will add to the monthly cost of programming.

Take A Test Drive Before You Cut

Before cutting the cord, you should familiarize yourself with the streaming process and how it changes your personal interface with the television set.  In my case, my 18-month-old Visio TV has built-in WiFi, and came with some streaming service apps installed.  Since Hulu was a service I was familiar with (I had a free account years ago) I gave that a try.  I logged in using my old account credentials, and was surprised that they still worked!  I was given the opportunity to start a free 30-day trial, with the ability to cancel service anytime before the month was up.  So it began!

I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to navigate the Hulu app.  Not as easy as turning a rotary dial on a 1965 set, nor as easy as selecting the guide button on the satellite remote and choosing a program, but fairly easy none the less.  If you are accustomed to the look and feel of smartphone or tablet apps you will feel right at home.
My biggest amazement (after the overall program selection) was the quality of the picture and sound.  It was every bit as good as any digital HD obtained from either my former cable or present satellite provider!

One key to high-quality streaming is your Internet connection.  HD video requires at minimum a 3Mbps download stream, which some older phone company DSL lines cannot provide.  My cable-based Internet service, at 20Mbps, proved to be more than adequate for this task!

Invest In A Streaming Device

Although my TV has built-in Internet capability and apps, they are limited and are not easily added to or upgraded.  Streaming devices, on the other hand, provide the interface between the Internet and the TV, and are regularly updated by the device manufacturer.  New apps are easily added from within the device's built-in interface.

Streaming devices are available from Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick, and others.  I chose Roku, which is available (March 2018) from WalMart starting at $29.00 and is a strong basic device.  Apple TV, at $149, also comes with the inherent connectivity to all Apple i-devices.

All streaming devices use HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connections to your HD television set.  If you have an older set that does not support HDMI, the Roku Express+ supports composite video, but none of them support direct "antenna" connections.  If your TV is that old, you should consider upgrading before cutting the cord!

I chose a Roku Express, the lowest-price option, available at Wal-Mart, for $29.  I am favorably impressed! 

Stay tuned for the next installment, as we actually cut the cord and have a really bad Customer Service experience!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 1) - Free TV and Rising Cable Costs

With retirement on the horizon, we want to explore ways of reducing our living expenses so we can spend winters in a warm place and not be stuck in the frozen northeast for all nine months of winter!  This is part one of a multi-part blog documenting our journey back to television service that won't break the bank or wreck the budget!  Join Mindy and me as we "Cut The Cord!"

Free TV - How It Used To Be

Television used to be free, and some claim its value was exactly equal to its price!  Growing up in the 1960s, my television experience consisted of a black-and-white picture, low fidelity monaural sound, and three channels to chose from.  The remote was my sister, on those occasions when I could convince her to get up off the couch, walk across the living room, and change the channel or adjust the volume for me!  Three broadcast networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC provided 100% of the content.  (A fourth network, DuMont, was the first television network launched in 1946, but failed in the mid '50s and finally went off the air in 1956.)  Independent stations that had no network affiliation, and non-commercial educational channels (which would become PBS) were only found in urban markets; they generally did not broadcast with as much power as the "network" stations did.

The best part about those three-network days, however, was the cost.  Television was totally FREE back then, that is, once you purchased a television set, put up an antenna, and committed to improving and maintaining it!  My father was always trying to find ways to make our picture clearer with less "snow" and reduced static in the sound.  Buying newer and bigger antennas, or adding another six feet to the pole to raise it higher were constant events in the Bradford household!  The signal was delivered from the antenna to the TV by way of special un-shielded 300-ohm wire.  Antenna wire was flat with two conductors spaced about a half-inch apart, and was responsible for over half of the signal loss and interference failures experienced back then!

Obtaining (and maintaining) high-quality reception was almost a full-time hobby for my father and me back then!  It seems we were always adding or fixing something on the antenna and wires, all for the sake of receiving the essential three television channels that we watched on our old B&W set.

About 1966, my father added another piece to our maintenance challenge, a rotor system which could turn the antenna and orient it to obtain the strongest signal from the broadcast tower.  A control box sitting on top of the TV was used to point the antenna to the desired compass direction.  At that time we were living in Norwich, CT and received our TV signals from three different cities.  The ABC station, channel 8, was from New Haven.  The CBS station, channel 3, was from Hartford.  Our NBC programs came from Providence, RI, on channel 10.  Changing channels on the TV tuner also required turning a dial on the rotor control box which sent power to a motor mounted on the antenna mast which in turn pointed the antenna to the correct city.  It could take as much as a full minute to rotate the antenna from one direction to another, with the control box making a loud "hum-click" sound every two seconds or so while the antenna was rotating!

Pay TV - Changes On The Horizon

There was this thing coming along back then that people called "Pay TV," and according to an article in the newspaper, it was soon going to be available in Norwich!  CATV (Community Antenna TV) was envisioned as a way for people who lived outside of urban areas to share common antennas (located high on nearby mountains or hills) and therefore enjoy better reception.  Shielded cable was used to deliver the amplified signals to subscriber's homes, and the cost would be shared among the subscribers.  My father said Pay TV was wrong and that he would never pay for something that we could obtain for free!

Once we moved to northern New Hampshire in 1970, however, things changed! With only two stations available over the air (one a very weak CBS signal from Burlington, VT, and the other the Mount Washington based ABC affiliate, WMTW) my mother put her foot down and decided we were going to have cable TV!  The days of putting up antennas and maintaining them were over!

We were then enjoying ten channels (three of them from Canada with one in French) and the clearest, most interference-free picture we ever saw!  Changing channels was so easy ... all we had to do was get up and turn the tuner dial!  No more noisy rotor box!  If I remember correctly, the monthly charge from Paper City TV Cable at that time was well under five dollars. Quite a deal by today's standards!

For the first few years of my married life I was living in the Boston, MA television market with several over-the-air channels available.  After my Army service I returned to Lancaster, still with only two broadcast channels available.  A year or so later Kim (my wife at that time) insisted that we get cable so she and our two young sons would have more entertainment during the day.  We paid about $7 a month for 12 channels.  TV was entirely analog in those days, and 12 channels was the limit for the old VHF (2-13) broadcast band.  Soon the local cable company was purchased by Warner Bros. and started offering more channels by using a set-top tuner box.  The TV was tuned to channel 3, and a dial on the box was used to select the desired cable channel.  "Basic" cable was still available, but for just a few dollars more the new enhanced cable became the up and coming thing.  Special cable-only channels like CNN and MTV, along with "Superstations" and more made basic cable seem so ordinary!  Extra cost movie channels were also available that brought recent theater presentations into our living rooms and would add several dollars to the monthly fee.

Sky High and Climbing

As years progressed, cable TV channel offerings continued to grow, along with the monthly charge!  According to a report issued by the FCC in October, 2016, a study conducted between 1995 and 2015 shows that the average prices charged for various cable packages has risen at over twice the rate of inflation!  In 1999 I was paying $33.01 a month for cable.  In 2010, when I switched from analog cable to digital service (with phone and Internet) it was up to $58.07  After the programming portion of the combined package rose to over $100 in 2013 I switched to a satellite provider at $61.99 per month.  Now, five years later in 2018 that same TV package is costing us $123.82 each month.

Television has become our fourth-largest monthly household operating expense, after groceries, heating fuel, and electricity.  Just think ... it used to be less than $10 a month!

Living where we do in northern New Hampshire, we no longer have over-the-air options.  WMTW (Portland, ME) stopped broadcasting from the top of Mount Washington in 2002 in preparation for digital broadcasting.  WCAX's digital signal is not watchable this far away from Burlington, VT.  An analog repeater station 20 miles away in Littleton, NH provides NH PBS programming for that community, but terrain issues make reception impossible here.  Broadcast TV is simply not an option in Lancaster!

We'll be back (after station identification) with Part 2 of our adventure as we Cut The Cord!