Somewhere along the way, cable TV was elevated to the ranks of electricity and water — a necessity, not a luxury.
But as cable companies pump up their fees and household budgets tighten, some people have begun to ask: Is cable really necessary? Might there be a way to watching great programming — minus that ghastly monthly bill?
The answer: There could very well be. It all depends on your list of must-see programming, your comfort with the Internet and comparative prices of broadband Internet access and online gadgets. But the rapid growth of streaming services that deliver video over the Internet makes the question worth investigating.
The key question to begin with: How much will you save by dropping cable (or satellite) TV service while still maintaining a broadband Internet connection to your house?
A high-falutin' TV-only package, including a few premier movie and sports channels, can easily cost you upward of $150 a month. And that's before all manner of fees and taxes have been packed on.
One major cable company charges about $80 (before the fees) for an Internet-only connection service that's fast enough to download a two-hour movie in 13 minutes. That would work out at a $70 monthly saving over the full-featured TV package.
Now you've got to add in the new expenses you might incur: monthly subscription fees to online video services and the one-time cost of special hardware you'll need if you want to watch on your big-screen TV rather than on a computer.
For instance, a Roku device, which can connect your TV to many online video services, costs between $50 and $100, depending on its capabilities. But if you already have a Blu-ray player that can do the connection job as well as play discs, you're set.
Numbers aren't adding up how you want? Consider using a slower but cheaper Internet connection. These may be fine if you can wait longer for a download to finish or if you just watch video as the bits come streaming in, rather than downloading in advance.
Before you choose a particular Internet connection service, see whether you can find a friend or neighbor who already has it. Ask how it performs with video.
Finally, you'll need to consider a non-financial issue: Although Internet video has come a long way in the last few years, some shows you just can't watch online. The Super Bowl? Forget it. If you're an avid fan of certain shows, you may find that cable is really your best option.
Below we explore six alternatives to cable or satellite service, some of them drawing on new Internet technology, some on old-fashioned stuff that can still give you a good run for your money.
1. Stream it. For a $7.99 monthly subscription to Hulu Plus, you can watch a huge selection of new and dated TV shows, including titles from ABC, NBC, PBS, HGTV and Lifetime. Check out the listings first to see whether they include the shows you fancy.
"The main thing you lose by moving to Internet TV is live TV and local news," says Andrea Eldridge, CEO of the computer repair firm Nerds On Call. "Sports fans will also find the lack of live content frustrating."
Another $7.99 monthly fee to Netflix can set movies and TV shows streaming to your iPad, iPhone, computer or TV. Other subscription options include Amazon Prime and iTunes.
2. Go to network websites. Have a look at USA, A&E, TBS, Fox, ABC, NBC or CBS. In some cases, you can watch full episodes of shows on your computer or TV, for free. The most current episodes will likely not be available, but older ones will, and if you haven't seen it, isn't it new to you?
3. Explore YouTube. The whole world is able to post videos on this huge website. "If you're super cheap, you can watch what's free on YouTube. But you're still at the mercy of what's available," says TV critic Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a Washington, D.C.-based free market think tank. Who knows, you may find you like a lot of stuff that you never knew existed.
4. Go retro — get an antenna. It sounds like an ancient notion, but there's still a lot of free TV pulsing through the airwaves, especially in urban areas. "A good antenna could get you access to network shows in HD if you're in range," says Eldridge. "I'd say it's worth a try for sure — plug it in and see what you get!" The antenna will cost you $50 to $100.
5. Rent a DVD. It's hard to go anywhere these days without passing a DVD kiosk such as Redbox, which may rent movies and video games for $2 a night. If you've missed a season of Mad Men, rent out the entire series, grab some popcorn and catch up. You can also get discs by mail through services such as Netflix and Blockbuster for about $8 to $10 a month.
6. Head to the library. Many libraries these days have well-stocked DVD shelves. You may have to wait to get hot titles, but don't complain — you'll be paying nothing to watch them. And saving money is the whole point of this exercise, right?
Stacy Julien is a staff editor and writer at AARP media.
You may also like: Get free HDTV in your home today.