Cutting The Cord

Why we walked away from cable TV for the first time in 30 years.

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minnow gave a famous speech bemoaning the state of television. While at the time he was criticizing “game shows” and “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families,” among other things, I would argue that his statements are even more true now than they were in 1961.

I remember when cable TV first came to my family. We were living in Florida in the 1980s, and suddenly we had more choice than just four channels. Although it couldn’t have been more than 30 or so channels, there was now choice and and endless stream of things we could watch.

Throughout the 90s, we always had cable through all our moves. When I left for college, we had cable in the dorms. When I moved out, I got cable. When I moved to Huntsville, I got cable. When I bought my first house, I got cable. When we moved in 2012, we moved our cable too. The vast majority of my life, I have had cable.

And today, for the first time since I was a kid in 1980s Florida, I walked away from cable TV. We cut the cord, and went back to just a standard antenna and an Internet connection.

This has been something that has been a long time coming. It’s something we first seriously started considering in 2012 when our daughter was born and we stopped watching a lot of TV. But even then, my dissatisfaction with the ever increasing price and decreasing quality of cable TV had been building since the mid 2000s.

So this is why I decided to cut the cord and cancel my cable subscription.

Reality TV Destroyed Television

Once upon a time, a channel actually meant something. And if you watched a channel, you could count on a consistent type and quality of programming. I could tune into Discovery Channel and watch good documentaries on a wide variety of programing, or the History Channel for history programming. Sci-Fi Channel had science fiction. MTV played music videos.

Then came reality TV. And reality TV has destroyed television.

When was the last time you saw a good documentary on Discovery Channel? History Channel has shows like Cajun Pawn Stars and Ancient Aliens. TLC showed Honey Boo Boo. MTV hasn’t played a music video in years. And, while to their credit they are now trying to get “back to their roots,” Sci-Fi changed their name to “SyFy” and started showing wrestling and other non-sci-fi content.

Even the Weather Channel is showing reality TV!

They have all been completely overrun with worthless reality TV garbage. It’s the entertainment equivalent of a Big Mac - cheap, unhealthy and destroying you.

Ultimately, the vast majority channels don’t mean anything anymore. They’re all blending together into giant melting pot of suck, all showing virtually identical programming.

Too Much Choice

Do I really need 500 channels? Really? Especially when they’re all nearly indentical?

There is a such thing as too much choice.

Try this out next time you’re out: walk down the toothpaste aisle at your local grocery store and try to find a tube of toothpaste to buy. Chances are, you are confronted with a wall of boxes, all looking so very nearly identical that you have to stop and think very carefully about which one to buy.

That is choice overload. And cable TV is exactly the same thing. Sure, I had 500 channels. And most of them are very similar with no obvious differentiation between them. This may be why the average American only watches 9% of the channels available to them, all while paying for every single one of them.

So in a way, I’m actually okay losing 500 channels of choice. It’s overkill. I don’t watch most of them by far anyways, so I won’t notice them being gone.

There Is No Price Ceiling

When I first got cable in Madison, my bill was about $120, for cable TV and internet. Not cheap, but still affordable.

In the last eight years, my bill has nearly doubled. It was $230 a month last month when I finally decided to call it quits on cable. Between October and November of last year it went up $20 at once.

First, Knology made me upgrade to the top tier package by moving the decent channels (they call them “speciality channels”) that I actually wanted to watch (like Science Channel and BBC America) to the most expensive package.

Then, they transisitioned everything to “digitial cable,” which means where I once only had one box for the main TV in the house, suddenly I needed cable boxes for EVERY TV in the house. And even the cheap DTV adapters that don’t have program guides or any advanced functionality were $5 a month. So there ~$25 a month.

And then it will just randomly go up for no reason, like it did in October. Hey, here’s an extra $20 on your bill for no reason at all. Enjoy!

By dropping cable TV, my bill will go from $230 a month … to $50. $180 in savings. Even if you factor in $9 for Netflix and $7 for Hulu, I’m coming out way ahead. Even if you include $129 a year for Amazon Prime (which we already have because Amazon > Wal Mart), it’s still better than cable.

They’re Killing The Few Decent Channels Left

Given the preponderance of worthless programming, ever increaing price and ever decreasing quality of cable TV programming, you would think I would have killed it long ago. I should have, but two things kept me hanging on: sports and the few channels I did watch.

Well, then Knology (or WOW!, whatever their name is this week) canned the one channel I really liked watching: BBC America.

This is a trend with them, too. They killed WGN a few years ago (not that I watched WGN, but I’m sure some people did). They’ve killed other channels too. But guess what hasn’t changed? The price.

And with college football season over, there is literally no resaon for me to continue paying for cable. I hardly watched much of it to begin with, but now I will watch zero.

And that only leaves sports. But when I worked the math, dropping cable and going Internet-only means I’m going to save about $180 a month or $2,160 a year. With that savings, if I wanted to, I could buy a ticket to every single Auburn home game and still have money to spare.

If I really want to watch a game on cable TV, I’ll go to a bar. It’s an inconvenience, but not one worth $180 a month.

The Growth of Streaming

So I don’t watch much cable. What do I watch? Streaming.

It’s amazing how quickly Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have completely taken control of what we watch, to the point where it literally is 99% of all that we watch on TV.

I can watch some BBC programming on Netflix and Hulu. My wife can stream her soap opera from CBS on her iPad. There are plenty of documentaries on both, and plenty of cartoons and other stuff for Scarlett. And especially Netflix, they have some really great original programming.

Sure, we may be delayed by a day or two, but that’s not really a problem because society has adapted to that now. There is no such thing as the water cooler discussion about shows, because we don’t assume that everyone tuned in the night before. Between streaming and DVRs, there’s no telling when you might watch something, so there’s not a urgent need to watch TV. I can make TV fit my schedule, not the other way around.

I’m also keeping a very close eye on Sling, but my opinion on it is still out. It feels like I’m trading one cable company for another. I’d still be paying for a bunch of channels I’d never watch just to get the couple that I did. And it’s still TV - I still have to tune in, not watch at my convenience like true streaming services offer. But, to be sure, it represents a new option that wasn’t available a few months ago and might be what I do during football season.

My TV showing a crystal clear picture being delivered by a $50 antenna
        in my attic.
My TV showing a crystal clear picture being delivered by a $50 antenna in my attic.

In the meantime, with a $50 antenna, I can still get the about 20 stations, including all the major networks, for free. This is primarily for weather, but has other benefits too. Most NFL and major college games will still be carried on the over the air networks, and in the event of severe weather (which is common here in the spring), I can still get the local news to watch out for tornadoes.

And I can get that on every TV in my house. No need to a special box. It just works. And now that we have digital TV broadcasts, I even get program information. Just like cable, but without the cost.


The bottom line is price. I am simply not getting $230 worth of entertainment out of cable TV a month. Not when WOW continually degrades their service by dropping channels I like. Not when content producers continually degrade their offering to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And while I will miss ESPN and some of the sports channels, it’s simply not worth that much to keep them around.

To put it another way, here’s things I could do with an extra $180 a month:

  • (As I mentioned above) Go to every Auburn home game.
  • 4 theater movies a month (assuming $40 per movie, which factors in tickets for 2 and concessions or a sitter)
  • 1-2 concerts a month, depending on price.
  • 1 extravagent meal a month at a very nice restaurant for 2, including paying for a sitter.

And those are just four off the top of my head. Or (what I will probably do) I can take that money and put it into savings or investments. Both of which would be a better use than cable TV, which is seeing a 99% waste percentage in my life.

So if you have cable TV, I would urge you to really think hard about whether or not you are getting your money’s worth. In my opinion, it’s time to send a message to cable companies, channels and content producers. There are now more options for entertainment than ever, and cable TV just isn’t providing a good value compared to those other options.

Appendix: Parts List and Recommandations

My antenna mounted in the attic. Sorry for the potato quality, I was
        standing on a ladder taking this picture.
My antenna mounted in the attic. Sorry for the potato quality, I was standing on a ladder taking this picture.
  • Antenna: Channel Master CM-4220HD UHF and HDTV Antenna. Mine is mounted in the attic (due to HOA rules I can’t mount it outside, but I have no receiption problems) using some PVC pipe I had laying around. I ran a coax cable from there to my media panel and just swapped it out for the cable feed to all the rooms.

  • Receiver Box: Mediasonic HW180STB HomeWorx. Note, you don’t actually need this. Any TV built in the last 10 years will tune digital signals fine. I only bought this because I wanted to feed the antenna signal through the A/V Receiver via HDMI on the main TV. The rest of our TVs are just directly connected via coax.

  • If your signal is being split a bunch of times (like if you’re trying to feed more than 2 TVs from a single antenna), you may want to get an amplifier. Mine is an Extreme Broadband IPA1008D-RSVF. I already had this because I had signal problems with cable, so you may want to test it first to see if you really need it.

You can use AntennaPoint to find the over the air stations in your area, how far away the antennas are and which direction you need to point your antenna. Note that AntennaPoint doesn’t show all the stations. It only shows 6 in my area, but I get about 20 stations. Most are on digital subchannels.

I even get WeatherNation on a digital subchannel from one of the local TV stations, which is a lot like how Weather Channel used to be before they went full-on reality TV.

I would recommend getting an antenna with about 25% more range than the farthest station you want to get. One of my stations is ~30 miles away, and I can get it with a 40 mile antenna but the signal quality is about 50%. But this is digital, so it works fine and looks great mostly, although it does get blocky sometimes. But it’s a CW station, so I don’t really care. :)

For streaming, I have both AppleTVs and Rokus. I like the Roku’s features better, but the AppleTV has a far superior user experience, so that’s primarily what we use (seriously, Roku is such a great product with such a terrible UI). Netflix and Hulu are available on both, but Amazon is only on the Roku.

If you’re interested in cord cutting, I highly recommend checking out /r/cordcutters on Reddit. It’s a great resource for finding your options without cable.

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It’s always amusing to watch what happens when old media slams head first into a new world. NBC, the broadcaster holding the rights to Olympic coverage in the United States, seems not to have realized how much the world has changed since Beijing in 2008. Social media is huge now - much more so than it was then - and people routinely have access to a much larger amount of information than we did back then. Whereas most countries saw it, or could at least access it, in realtime, NBC decided to show the Opening Ceremonies on a 3 hour tape delay so they could cash in on the larger primetime audience. I actually had to turn Twitter off yesterday afternoon because I was already seeing tweets about the Opening Ceremonies from people in other countries and at least one person I know who was actually at the thing. Now, to their credit, NBC is actually streaming a lot of coverage live on their website and showing highlights for the American audience in primetime. So why not do the same with the Opening Ceremonies? Why not stream it live on the website for those of us who might have wanted to watch it in realtime, then show the tape delayed version later for the larger audience? Well, someone asked NBC that and this was, no lying, their response:  “They are complex entertainment spectacles that do not translate well online because they require context, which our award-winning production team will provide for the large primetime audiences that gather together to watch them,” the network told the Wall Street Journal. Right, because we’re all bloody mouth-breathing morons who can’t figure out what’s going on without their precious context. Is this the same “award winning production team” that didn’t know who Tim Berners-Lee was or realize the significance of the computer he was sitting at? Tim Berners-Lee is why I have a job. Tim Berners-Lee is why I’m able to type this right now, and why an economy that generates billions of dollars every year exists. The British thought it important enough to salute him in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. They didn’t even know who he was? Is this the same “award winning production team” that made cracks about Kim Jong-Il while the North Korean team was walking in the parade of nations? Yes, he was a brutal dictator and his “11 holes in one” story is laughable to say the least. But first of all he’s dead now, and second the Olympic Opening ceremonies are not an appropriate time or place to be cracking jokes about other countries’  deceased leaders. I wonder if the BBC called Mitt Romney (who was sitting in the audience) “the American Borat” or made cracks about the French president? Is this the same “award winning production team” that never mentioned that Kenneth Branaugh was playing the role of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, perhaps the greatest engineer that ever lived? Here’s a clue, NBC: anyone with two brain cells could figure out what was going on, and your “award winning production team” was annoying. Not to mention the advertising EVERY FIVE MINUTES during the parade of nations got really, really old.
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As a college football fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least have some thoughts on the biggest scandal ever to hit college sports. I remember when this first started to surface last year. I was very cautious at the time as everyone around seemed to be out for a pound of flesh. I generally try to avoid mobs and witch hunts - what I most wanted was to let the investigations play out, and find out who knew what and when did they know it. Because only once we know the facts of a case can we truly sit in judgement. Well, now we know the facts, and it’s worse than I could have ever imagined. Now, I haven’t read the Freeh report - I really haven’t had time (or desire) to digest a 227 page report detailing the actions of a child molester and the people who enabled him, even after they knew. But the report is the probably the single most damning thing ever to land on a college athletic program. It eclipses Kentucky’s point-shaving in the 50s. It eclipses Louisiana-Lafayette’s academic shenanigans in the 70s. And it most definitely eclipses SMU’s “Pony Excess” in the 80s. This is, without a doubt, the worst, most rotten thing I could possibly imagine. I don’t think this would have even been imaginable 15 years ago. And yet, here we are. All of those cases pale in comparison to what happened at Penn State. As the report details, the problems at Penn State were wider than just the football program. Many, many people, from the President down to janitors, knew what was going on … but nobody said anything. A culture of silence and, more importantly, a reverence for athletics beyond all reason, pervaded everything that happened in State College. Nobody would go against, or risk threatening, the almighty sacred golden calf that was the Penn State football program. For all intents and purposes, Penn State football and Joe Paterno were sacrosanct and any attempt to confront them would elicit the highest orders of outrage. What happened to those kids was terrible - and the justice system will see to it that those responsible are held to account for their crimes, as will the completely justified lawsuits which are sure to follow. But there are some other points surrounding this whole thing that I think are worthy of pondering here as well. For the longest time, I held Joe Paterno and Penn State as the paragon of stability that all athletic programs should strive for. I mean, here was a guy that was head coach for 45 years. In that same time period, Auburn had six coaches and Alabama had eight. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if that same stability allowed a culture to flourish that enabled something like this to happen. Is it good for one person to be allowed to accumulate so much power and hold it, unchecked, for so long? Would a few changes in administration have helped deter this situation? I would like to think so and, in truth, it may. But think the problem is bigger than Penn State and cuts right to the heart of the worship of college athletics in the United States. This same “athletics can do no wrong” culture can be seen at many major Division I schools. I mean, in my heart I would love to believe that something like this could never happen at Auburn. But I also cannot discount the power that the athletic department holds. The same can be said for Alabama, LSU, Oregon (whose program I think is absolutely rotten to the core on so many levels) and so many programs. Can I honestly believe that a janitor who sees something like that janitor at Penn State saw and has to decide between his job and reporting will do the right thing? And even if they keep their job, would have to constantly be on the lookout for some crazed “fan” much like we hear every week on Finebaum to do something insane? That’s the thing about this whole sad situation that I don’t think is getting enough discussion. This scandal is an indictment of the worship of athletics that pervades colleges across the US. Penn State just took that same worship that happens at every Division I program and turned the knob to 11. As a result, a culture of silence allowed a child molester to run rampant for years with the full knowledge of many people, who placed covering up for the name of the Nittany Lions above doing the right thing. This. Has. Got. To. Stop. The thing that is so damning about all of this is that it’s not the oh so loved “lack of institutional control” that we usually hear about when it comes to sports scandals. In this case, the institution was in such complete control of every aspect of Nittany Lion culture, that no one would dare go against it. This is unique, uncharted waters for college athletics. Now, I don’t know what the NCAA will do, if anything. Frankly, my opinion of the NCAA is right down there with the UN in terms of being able to do anything useful. But if there’s any justice in the world, the NCAA will drop the hammer on Penn State and end the program. At least for a couple of years. And if the NCAA doesn’t do it, Penn State should, for once, do the right thing and pull the plug themselves. Shut everything down, cool everything off and, in a few years, return with a new focus on what is really important. Because even though all the people responsible are gone, the culture is still in place. You have to change the culture. Yes, I said it. I’m talking the Death Penalty. A slap on the wrist - a few scholarships lost, a TV or bowl ban - would be insulting. To do anything less in this situation is to condone the very attitude that allowed Jerry Sandusky to molest children for years. A message needs to be sent, to universities and fans across the nation that there is a line of acceptable behavior and culture when it comes to college athletics, and that Penn State flew over that line at supersonic speeds. There must be accountability. SMU paid some played. Kentucky shaved some points. But at Penn State, a culture of silence and reverence for athletics enabled a child molester to go unchecked, with full knowledge of the administration, for years. If that’s not worthy of the ultimate penalty, the entire NCAA is s sham and should itself be disbanded. For the average college football fan, this should be yet another sobering reminder of the dark places that operate at some of alma maters. For as much as we would like to believe in the purity of sport, this scandal - perhaps the saddest and worst ever - indicates of the depths to which evil can spread.
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About ten years ago (summer of 2002), while I was working in Yellowstone National Park, I took a lot of time that summer for personal reflection. The the rocks beside the Snake River and the roof of the cabin where I lived became close companions of mine. I took a lot of time to examine where my life was at that time, and there were a lot of things that I didn’t like. Towards the end of the summer, based on my reflections, I started writing a short series of notes to myself. I titled these “Personal Initiatives” and set out what I wanted to change and how I was going to go about doing it. There were probably 50 or so entries. Some of these were fairly arcane and maybe even silly. Among them: Get rid of my acne by washing my face twice a day. Wear contacts any time I’m not at home. Take better care of my teeth. Get in better shape. Pursue financial independence and keep a budget. Get better grades and get at least a 3.0 from that point out. After I returned to Auburn that fall, I looked over my Personal Initiatives from time to time. And it occurs to me what a good motivation this was for me. As evidenced, my near term goals in many of my initiatives I achieved within the next 3 years. I never earned less than a 3.0 after that fall. I was financially independent in 2004. I’m in better shape now than I was. Not only that, but my plans gave me goals. Even the arcane ones (“wash your face every day”) gave me little things that I could do to feel like I had accomplished something every day. Not every goal had to be in outer space - I could accomplish 5 things just by walking out the door each morning. Of course, some of them I completely blew too. There were a lot of entries about future planning that involved me becoming a pilot. Some other entries concern wanting to have a family (not there just yet…). But overall, I would say my success rate for my personal initiatives in 2002 to today is probably close to 75%. The reason I’m thinking about this is that I kind of feel a bit like did in the summer of 2002. Lost. Listless. Unsure of what I want in my life but unhappy with where I am. And without a plan. Every day I get up and go to the same job and do the same things I’ve done for the last five years. Then I go home and do the same thing each night. The cycle usually never varies. Now, to be sure, my life is much better than it was in 2002. I’m married, a homeowner, active in my community. But that seem creeping, nagging unhappiness is still there. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of taking an entire summer off to work and reflect on my life. But I’m seriously thinking that it might be time to write down some more personal initiatives. Having passed 30 now, I can’t help but feel that I’ve entered a new stage of my life and, if I don’t want to spend this entire decade listless and unhappy, that I have to begin to plan some things out and set some goals for myself. Yes. I think it’s time for some more Personal Initiatives.
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