Back in 2009, I was paying $55/month for cable television and felt that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. As an experiment, I decided to have my cable disconnected for three months to see if I could exist without it, or if its absence and resulting stimulus deprivation would cast me into the throes of despair. Today, it’s still disconnected, and frankly, I don’t miss it at all. The adjustment to life without cable television was much easier than I thought it would be. Here’s how I’ve been managing since cutting this metaphorical umbilical cord:
The first thing I did was locate my disused “rabbit ears” antenna and hook it up to my (CRT) television. Since my apartment is in a direct line of sight to the CN Tower, I was able to receive several local Toronto channels as well as a couple of stations across the lake in Buffalo, New York. This was pretty much the same experience I had growing up at home, yet it now felt (to quote The Love Boat theme song) “exciting and new” because now I no longer had to pay for these channels!
After a few weeks, I began to think about how to manage my time more wisely. I decided to dig up my old three-inch portable television that receives over-the-air (OTA) signals. I placed it on my desk beside my computer monitor, and used it to watch the nightly news. It’s a surprisingly efficient arrangement – much better than sitting in the living room watching television – because I can do my work on the computer and listen to the news at the same time. If a news story sounds particularly interesting, then I’ll just turn my head slightly and glance at the portable TV.
In May 2011, I finally took the plunge and bought a flat-screen television. During the past several months, my 12-year-old CRT television was deteriorating quickly. It had a faulty voltage regulator and the screen image would compress and expand horizontally, according to the brightness level of the picture. It eventually became all but unwatchable, and repairs would have cost almost as much as a new television. My rabbit ears worked perfectly with the new flat-screen television, and I was even able to receive a couple of additional stations. Don’t let salesman tell you that you need to buy a special “digital” antenna for your new television set – it’s all a marketing ploy, and your regular antenna will work just as well.
August 31, 2011 marked the end of OTA analog television signals in Canada. My three-inch Casio portable television was now a paperweight. My main TV also stopped receiving analog channels, but all I needed to do was re-scan the channels again – the digital tuner automatically deleted the analog channel assignments and replaced them with their digital equivalents. Looking back, it was a good thing that I decided not to repair my old CRT. It didn’t have a digital tuner, and would have also become a paperweight on August 31.
During the summer of 2011, after doing an abundance of research, I bought a Boxee Box streaming media player. It’s similar to an Apple TV, but in my opinion is far superior. All the the Apple TV seems to do is encourage you to buy content from iTunes – which is a wonderful business model for Apple, but not quite as endearing for the consumer. The Boxee provides an abundance of content for free, and allows you to set up and stream content (wirelessly) from your own media server. Once the Boxee Box was installed, I created a rudimentary media server on my PC and added my DVD collection to it. Boxee indexed everything, and then added cover art and episode summaries. Now I could watch any DVD I owned without having to get up from my chair.
The Boxee interface also has a television section of its own, with 200 different TV series to choose from. The 5-6 most recent shows in each series are available for on-demand viewing. These do contain commercials, but there aren’t as many of them as there are on broadcast television – typically one 30-second commercial per break. Boxee also has a movie database, but the offerings are less than impressive – I hadn’t heard of any of the films, and there didn’t seem to be that many in English.
However, there was one promising section called “Apps” – these are specialized video channels on a variety of subjects. There are a handful that require a paid subscription, but the vast majority of them are free. There is also a section with movie trailers. I’m very happy with this set-up – there are no monthly fees, and your own content is integrated seamlessly. I can watch TED Talks, YouTube videos and dozens of other offerings. It’s also recognized as an AirPlay device so you can use it to stream photos, videos or music from your iPhone or iPad to the television.
Public libraries are a surprisingly good source for DVDs. They don’t have recent movies, and their TV series selection is not as extensive as I’d like, but they do have a lot of interesting items in their collection that aren’t generally shown on television: classic movies, fitness workout videos, travel guides, PBS and CBC documentaries, and dozens of programs on a broad range of subjects: lampshade making, gardening, nutrition and restoring antiques. I visit mine whenever I’m in a serendipitous mood.
I was planning to subscribe to Netflix as soon as I became bored with my current video offerings. Five years later, this still hasn’t happened. I now have so much content at my disposal – YouTube channels, Internet-only programs, movie trailers, Boxee’s apps and television shows, library DVDs, and my half dozen over-the-air television channels – that Netflix is not necessary.
Observations and Conclusions
- Once my cable was disconnected, my media consumption changed from a “push” model (one in which the stations push content to the consumer, according to their broadcast schedule), to a “pull” model (where I select the programs I want to watch, according to my own schedule). In my opinion, the pull model is clearly superior. I can watch what I want, when I want, and I no longer have to wait until a certain day of the week to watch a specific show. If I get behind on a series, I know that the last 5-6 episodes are available from the Boxee Box, so I can catch up whenever I like. Of course, you could do this with a TiVo, but that would mean remembering to set the machine to record each program, and hoping that its hard drive doesn’t fill up.
- I now receive TV and movie recommendations from my friends and from IMDB, instead of television spots promoting other programs. These two sources will let me know what’s worth watching and what is a total waste of time.
- My monthly fees have dropped to zero. While there was an initial outlay for the Boxee Box ($189), its content is free, and so are the over-the-air stations. In fact, the Boxee paid for itself within four months.
- OTA broadcast television offers a superior picture over cable, because the signal isn’t compressed. In what is certainly a delicious irony, most people are paying money to cable companies in order to receive an inferior television signal!
- I no longer waste time channel surfing just to see if something interesting is on. My television watching is now deliberate. I turn on the television only when there is something specific that I want to see. This is actually quite a time-saver – how many hours have you spent languishing in from of the television set, watching it without a clear goal in mind?
In conclusion, disconnecting my cable was one of the better decisions I’ve made, because it’s allowed me to discover the utility of the “push” paradigm as well as entirely new ways of consuming media. Spend a few minutes and add up what you’ve spent on cable television during the past twelve months, and ask yourself what you’ve gained from that expenditure. Step out of your comfort zone and try this three-month experiment, like I did, and then decide whether you can live without it. I’ll bet that you can!