Take a deep breath. The era of digitized content is ushering in a new wave of cost-saving viewing: From streaming-video websites to digital media providers, these alternatives to cable TV might prompt you to chuck the cable box for good.
The High Cost of Cable
For the price that many Americans pay for cable TV, they can enjoy a mini vacation. A digital cable package from Comcast, for example, costs $551.98 per year, just for the basics.
Comcast's high-end premium package -- complete with on-demand channels -- will set you back $1,277 annually. But you're likely to find much of the same programming by turning to a range of less expensive -- or even free -- options.
The first step is to take inventory of what you like to watch so that you can tune into the alternatives.
If your TV watching includes shows from the big broadcast networks, CBS, NBC and ABC offer full episodes of most of their shows online -- as do cable channels, such as Comedy Central and MTV -- all for free.
If you want a broader selection of programming from a single source, tap an online TV site, the best known, perhaps, is Hulu. The online video service offers hit shows, movies and clips from 225 content providers, including FOX, NBC Universal, ABC and PBS, as well as from movie studios like MGM and Lionsgate. And although advertisements appear during regular commercial breaks, there are much fewer ads to endure online than on television.
Other online TV sites have followed Hulu's lead, offering a different mix of content. These include Fancast, owned by Comcast; TV.com, which is owned by CBS; and Veoh, which features content from CBS, ABC, The WB and Viacom's MTV Networks, among others.
Also carrying Viacom productions is Joost, with content from MTV Networks, BET Networks and Paramount Pictures.
If you're a classic TV buff, check out In2TV for your nostalgia fix. Rabid sports fans should take advantage of ESPN.go.com, where they can access ESPN3 for live sports. While not every TV game is available online, you can watch thousands of live games and sports events (such as the World Cup) enhanced with statistics and live chat.
If these free sites don't fully feed your TV addiction, consider stepping up to pay options with wider selection and more choice. At $7.99 a month, there's Hulu Plus, where content is available via four kinds of screens: TVs, computers, mobile phones and tablets. What's more, there's a wider and deeper selection of programming. For example, every episode of a show's current season is available -- not just a handful of trailing episodes.
Also at $7.99 a month, you can subscribe to Netflix, where members watch unlimited movies and TV episodes from the company's on-demand video-streaming library. And the videos can be streamed to a wide range of devices -- including TVs (through Blu-ray players), Internet-connected TVs and Xbox 360s, as well as computers and iPads.
And once again, for sports junkies, there's MLB.tv. For $80 a year, you'll be able to stream, for example, every regular season major league baseball game -- with a few exceptions -- directly to your computer, live or on-demand.
Connecting to Your TV
By now you might be asking: "But what if I want to easily watch my shows and movies the old-fashioned way -- on a TV?"
These days, pretty much every major gaming console -- PlayStation 3, Nintendo's Wii and Xbox 360 -- allows you to stream online video to your television. Also, many of the most recent Blu-ray players should also be able to stream content from the web.
If you want to expand the breadth of content you're streaming onto your TV, consider investing in a media streaming box such as the Roku Digital Video Player for about $99. This media box allows you to stream television shows and movies from the Internet onto your television. (For the technically challenged, check out Howcast's video, "How to Connect Your Laptop to Your Television.")
Another popular (and affordable) option is Apple TV. For the upfront cost of $99, this sleek little box allows you to rent your favorite TV show a day after it airs through iTunes for 99 cents per episode. Movie rentals start at $2.99. And just like watching a DVD, you can fast forward through opening credits or pause to take a break. If you have a Netflix streaming account, you can also watch movies and television shows through Apple TV.
These services also include content from premium channels like HBO and Showtime. So if you're an Entourage or Weeds fan, for example, you can catch those shows for less than what you'd pay for subscribing to those premium channels.
There are more expensive streaming options, like the Logitech Revue -- which works in tandem with Google TV -- and the Boxee Box, but for most casual television viewers, the options above should suffice.
Let's say you...
- Pay $7.99 a month to Netflix for your movies.
- Buy three full seasons worth of your favorite cable series -- about 13 episodes a season -- at 99 cents a pop and $99 for an Apple TV box.
- Watch your network shows for free on Hulu.
- And for $80 a year, throw MLB.tv into the mix, so that that your husband can watch sports to his heart's content.
That's about $315 per year for a wide range of viewing.
That annual $1,300 cable bill is starting to sound pretty high about now, huh?