There's a scene in Back to the Future Part II
where Marty McFly's future son walks up to his massive 2015 wall mounted television and watches six channels at once ("OK, I want channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87 and the Weather Channel"). Twenty years ago, with the rise of cable television, this is how we imagined television of the future: all at once with too many channels to choose from. But like most of the future tech in 2015 Hill Valley, real technology didn't quite go in that direction.
Here in 2009, the way we watch television is developing around a collective desire to trim some fat from our monthly budgets. Some are canceling magazine subscriptions while others skip out on that $12 movie ticket to another Terminator
movie, but one target that many people hesitate to eliminate is their monthly cable bill. Parting ways with cable may seem like a painful prospect, but exercising the burden of these morally shaky, semi-monopolist media conglomerates frees you from more than just a fat monthly fee. It slows the endless stream of abrasive advertisements, loosens up constrictive scheduling and clears away unwanted media muck.
The average cable bill costs $71 dollars a month, up 7.5% since the second half of last year. In a survey from January, the Federal Communications Commission found that 2008's average price for cable packages had risen 122% since 1995. By contrast, the average broadband bill stands at roughly $39 a month (up from last year's $34.50), and despite it being cheaper than cable, many people still pay for both internet and cable in pricey package plans. Cutting cable for one year could save over $800 for the average cable TV user--an amount of cash that can pull in an undeniably large number of junior bacon cheeseburgers
Going back to broadcast television isn't as dreadful as it used to be. With the much harped upon digital conversion that finally took place in mid-June, high definition television has become the national standard for broadcast. Rabbit ears 2.0 don't have the fussy fuzz of an analog signal, and the digital signal suffers from only the occasional pixilated hiccup. While your channel count may seem rather arcane (six!), the picture quality will be comfortably modern--for free, to boot.
After cutting yourself off the cable, there are many ways to recoup all of those lost channels via the internet. Through streaming video and increasingly powerful broadband connections, it's easy to stay in touch with popular cable shows for free. Most networks stream their shows online with limited commercial interruption through their own websites, like SouthParkStudios.com
which offers the entire back catalogue of "South Park
" to users, many of them uncensored. Other websites like Amazon Video On Demand and iTunes offer HD streaming video for a small fee (usually $2 or $3 per episode) that includes shows ranging from FX's "Rescue Me
," to premium network programs like "Weeds
" or "Dexter
Image © CBS Corporation
If free is more your speed, then there's always Hulu. Hulu.com has grown significantly over the past year and boasts affiliations with several cable networks like USA, Bravo, Sci Fi, FX, E! and others. It allows users to build media playlists that update with new episodes automatically, so users can easily follow up "The Daily Show
" and "The Colbert Report
" with four solid hours of "House Hunters." Hulu also offers material that isn't available anywhere on television, like the British comedy "Peep Show," which frankly, you should be watching right now. Of course, Hulu isn't the only site in the free TV racket, CBS has TV.com which offers an equally wide range of shows as Hulu, and Youtube has its own selection of full length episodes.
Where streaming sites fail, subscriber services have you covered. Online video rental services like Blockbuster and Netflix have the deep range of most everything that's been released on DVD with payment plans that go for less than $10/mo. Netflix especially sweetens the deal with its Watch Instantly feature, which grants Unlimited users access to over 12,000 streaming titles at a starting price of $8.99/mo. Along with a high number of quality films, Netflix also offers several television series, but pulls some trickery by restricting important episodes. So, if you're eager to find out if Sam Beckett ever leaps home on the last episode of "Quantum Leap," you'll have to get the DVD.
The most common argument against streaming video is that people don't want to sit in front of their computer screens. Cable is on television, it doesn't burn your legs if you keep it on your lap for too long either. But televisions can easily act as a second monitor for your computer through an S-Video or composite cable. Most of the applications above already have methods that make watching the internet on your television easier Netflix Instant has a number of ways to link the service to household devices like Blu-ray players or through Xbox Live (Click here for a full list
). Hulu is also developing Hulu Desktop, an application uses Windows Media Center or Apple remote controls so you can watch Hulu without getting up--the way God intended us to watch television.
Living without cable does come with its sacrifices. The internet doesn't have much to offer in terms of live coverage of sporting events. ESPN has ESPN360, a kind of sports Hulu that streams a selection of games every day, but because of its large bandwidth requirements it's not supported by some internet service providers. The tech for affordable live streaming is improving but should be adequate for the casual sports fan (ESPN360 covers everything from the Major League Baseball to the Rugby League World Cup), but it doesn't offer the near obsessive coverage of cable sports packages.
For the most part, cutting cable out of your life puts complete control of what you watch back in your hands. With the likes of Hulu, Netflix and the realization that your TV and computer aren't mutually exclusive, watching HD video of what you want whenever you want on your TV no longer requires the expenses of cable, OnDemand and DVR. It's an affordable leap forward for the media obsessed and available for anyone with a broadband connection.
Story by Kris King
Starpulse contributing writer