With new Internet-based video-viewing alternatives springing up almost weekly, an estimated 1.5 million dissatisfied cable and satellite-TV subscribers this year will "cut the cord." An additional 2.4 million will downgrade their service, according to a recent survey by Digitalsmiths.
Big brands like HBO, CBS, Dish Network, Sony, Showtime, Apple, and Verizon are jumping into the fray with Web-delivered subscription-TV services, joining biggies Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video, now in two of every five U.S. homes.
Clearly, the concept of "make your own video sundae" with just the ingredients (or channels) you like to nosh is appealing. Ninety percent of us watch only 10 channels (or fewer), said the study, commissioned by TiVo, Digitalsmiths' parent. And half of those faves are broadcast TV channels.
Why pay for more?
While certainly "skinnier," Dish's new Sling TV and Sony's just-launched (in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago) PlayStation Vue subscription-streaming services aren't as fine-tunable, as pure à la carte, as some would like.
These newbies are more focused on attracting "cable nevers" than "cable cutters." That is, pitched to bargain-hunting millennials who might not own a TV; who are used to pulling down video to smart devices from many sources, some legal, some not; and who don't mind some inconvenience.
But don't despair. These services can work, satisfy, and save moola, even if you aren't age 18 to 34, if some rules are applied.
First thing. Support free TV. Pick off local broadcast channels with a rooftop antenna (UHF/VHF) connected to the digital tuner now sleeping inside your flat-panel television. In most areas, picture quality will be great. If desired, store or time-shift shows on a broadcast TV recorder - such as the $250 Channel Master DVR+, or the $49.99 TiVo Roamio OTA recorder, priced low because it then requires a $15-per-month guide service.
Now that you've made a solid base for your video sundae, layer on a Web-streamed topping, such as the film/TV-series riches of Netflix ($7.99 to $11.99 a month) or the soon-launching HBO Now ($15) stand-alone service. Both are binge-worthy, but relatively low-cal, easily slurped through your home Internet connection and a hockey-puck-size $50 to $100 receiver such as an Apple TV (getting first dibs on HBO Now), Amazon's Fire TV, or a Roku LT or 3, then on to the TV.
Apps also make these services streamable on computers/tablets/phones, smart TVs, game consoles, and Blu-ray players.
The bundled price that Comcast or Verizon offers for cable and Internet (and phone) is often a deal we mortals can't match if buying the services separately, when Internet alone costs $50 to $60.
And here's a curious coincidence: The cable guys have just cut the price of their multichannel HBO offerings - Comcast to $15 (from $18.95) and just $10 if ordered online. Verizon has extended a $9.99 HBO promotion from six months to a year.
Still, there are workarounds to shrink or eliminate a stand-alone Internet service charge.
Homeowners' associations, condos, and college dorms can legally bulk-buy high-speed Internet and pass the savings to you.
Consider hanging out and watching streaming shows where Wi-Fi is strong and unlocked. Say, at a library or coffee shop.
In-range neighbors are known to share Wi-Fi signals and passwords or (better) hardwired Internet connections. C.Crane.com sells long-range Wi-Fi antennas ($35 and up) for that. Outdoor-rated Ethernet Cat5e cable, about 25 cents a foot at Home Depot, can maintain a robust signal up to 330 feet. But be aware: That Internet Service Agreement you never read nixes such arrangements. And you're opening up a can of squirmy worms about privacy, security, and bandwidth hogging.
The new options. While just $20 a month for its starter set of 20-plus channels with no long-term contract, Sling TV could satisfy many a sports fan with its marquee offerings of ESPN 1 and 2. Padding out the package are basic-cable faves like A&E, AMC, Disney, HGTV, Lifetime, TBS, and TNT (but no Philly locals).
Also priced right ($5 a pop) are themed Sling TV add-on bundles of channels focused on family fare, sports, news, entertainment (such as commercial-free Epix movie channels).
And just last week, HBO joined the Sling TV lineup as a $15-a-month option. With services (like HBO Now) launching in time for the new season of Game of Thrones (next Sunday), subscribers will enjoy the main HBO channel, plus on-demand offerings.
Sling TV runs faultlessly on my Roku 3 and Fire devices and iPad Air2, so deftly coded that it can get by with as little as half a megabit (per second) of signal and looking super sharp at 1.5 Mbps - thus, ripe for nabbing at public hot spots.
Be warned. While a Sling account can be linked to many devices, only the latest to sign on is "live" at any time. That's likely to discourage pass-code sharing, an ethically challenged way to pick off Netflix and HBO Go.
The new Vue. Sony's PlayStation Vue also has a sports-first agenda, boasting our homegrown Comcast SportsNet channel, still not available on DirecTV or Dish. Comcast has long enjoyed a corporate friendship with Sony. But the "deal" made here - placing SportsNet only in 60-plus-channel, $60- and $70-a-month packages - undermines Vue as a "value alternative" to Comcast Xfinity or Verizon FiOS service (which also offers SportsNet).
On the upside, Vue bundles (starting at $50) also include some local live channels (CBS, NBC, and Fox) and a sweet mess of Viacom channels (Comedy Central, MTV, Palladia, etc.) not found on Sling TV.
Vue also boasts "cloud-based" recording and storage of shows at no extra charge (unlike cable).
Best of all, you can buy Vue month-to-month, say, just for the Phillies. There are no house calls, returns, or penalty fees for disconnecting/reconnecting.
Requiring a minimum 10 Mbps connection (hard to find in public Wi-Fi zones), Vue has streamed super-smoothly and -sharply with robust stereo sound on my PlayStation 4, with an occasional hiccup on the less-powerful PS3.
Not a game-console-user? Vue is "coming soon" to iPads, then to "other devices."
Bottom line. Streaming-video services all offer a free trial - minimum one week. So try before you buy.