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A Nebraska Football Fan’s Plan For Cord Cutting

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You want to cut the cord and save some money? Good luck with that....

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Wheat Field

I have decided to try cutting the cord, or more specifically, the satellite dish, as our household has had Dish Network for many, many years. I have enjoyed the service over the years and felt that they've done a very good job, and that includes keeping costs consistent and offering programming that wasn't too expensive. Before I cut the signal, however, I decided I needed a plan.

It's pretty easy to eliminate your cable bill – you simply call the cable company and tell them to end your service. This, however, does not fit with my goal which is to maintain my level of service but lower my costs. I'm not going to live without my live sports, especially college football.

Defining Goals

Let's say I live in a household that contains people from age 6 to 60. The people in the household would have a variety of programming tastes; probably quite a different assortment of TV shows they like to watch. For fun and games, and to make sure that I'm making the Mrs. happy, I asked what TV shows I would need to provide to keep everyone in touch with their favorite program.

Here is a list of shows currently enjoyed by members of my household:

  • Madam Secretary – CBS
  • Law & Order SVU – NBC
  • Chicago Med - NBC
  • Scandal – ABC
  • Archer – FX
  • HGTV - Everything on HGTV

The list above is not a huge selection of television. If it weren't for the person in my household who had to have live sports, our satellite service would be discontinued and replaced with an over the air antenna. We would have close to zero costs unless the Mrs. decided that she had to absolutely have HGTV.

We have Netflix. Netflix is good for watching seasons of past TV shows, but it's rather difficult to find really good popular movies. There is tons of cheese, and a lot of mediocrity. Netflix’ original programming has been getting much better, and it would be a good minimum option for anyone wanting the lowest-cost option for quality programming. (I have only sparingly used Amazon Prime. I don’t think their programming matches Netflix, but the next couple of years will be interesting.)

Technically, an antenna picking up broadcast channels does not meet the same level of service as we currently have. We have two DVR's in the house to go along with our two large-screen TVs. Once you have gotten used to a DVR it's very difficult to live without one. There is the ease of recording your favorite shows, which allows you to watch them whenever you want, and allows you to skip all the commercials.

After plenty of research, I’ve discovered that what I need are the following:

  • A decent antenna to pick up Over the Air (OTA) channels
  • An OTA DVR that will allow the Mrs to record her favorite shows, then watch them when she desires
  • A streaming service that will provide all the channels for all the football games that I want to watch this fall
  • A device that will allow the DVR to play on a second TV

Antennas and Over the Air Channels

If you're going to get over the air broadcast channels, you're going to need an antenna. There are all sorts of antennas out there and it may be confusing as to what kind of antenna you need. The first thing you need to do before buying an antenna is to check the availability of over the air channels in your area, how far and what direction they are from your house. I live in an area where all of the TV channels are in the same direction from my house and range from 20 miles to 50 miles away.

To find your over the air channels go to a website such as antennaweb.org - or TV Fool - and enter your zip code. If you’re in Gretna, for example, what you’ll find is 37 channels under 50 miles away, but in different directions from your house. In this case, what you’ll need is an omnidirectional antenna - I ended up purchasing from Mohu - another site where you can enter your zip code and they will give you the channels you can pick up in your area along with a recommendation of which antenna to buy.

I bought the ReLeaf, which is made entirely from recycled materials. It was inexpensive, and installation consisted of plugging in into the TV and thumb tacking it to the wall. Since I'm a lazy guy it was the perfect choice. (I notice the ReLeaf is no longer available on their web site. In that case, I’d get the Leaf 50 for $60.)

Mohu ReLeaf Antenna - hand for comparison

If you’re not a lazy guy like me, you could make your own antenna and save even more money.

I am glad that I bought the antenna and can now pick up OTA channels. There is really some weird stuff out there. First movie I saw when I hooked it up was on Comet TV, and it was “Avalanche Sharks”. That’s some quality stuff, right there, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

The DVR

There are numerous options for over the air (OTA) DVR's. These DVR's will plug directly into your OTA antenna and then provide an output to your TV. They typically have an ethernet or wireless connection to the Internet so that they can download a TV Guide so that you can automatically schedule which programs you want to record. Many of them, such as those from TiVo, require a monthly subscription fee for the programming information. You can typically purchase a lifetime subscription with a device at a higher cost.

TiVo makes two models of DVR that will work with over the air channels; the Roamio and the Bolt. Both come with different size models depending on how many hours of shows you wish to record. TiVos monthly subscription rate is $14.99 per month, but you can spend more to purchase a lifetime subscription with your device.

Channel Master makes a 16 GB DVR that does not require a monthly subscription, but does require that you buy an external hard drive to record more than two hours of TV shows. The Channel Master 16 GB version is $249. Add an external drive for a rough cost of $100, and you’re at $349.

I did not see an option that would allow use of the OTA DVR between multiple TVs (without having to physically move it around, anyway). This is a big problem in a household with multiple TVs.

The other problem with purchasing the OTA DVR is that if you decide you have to go back to cable or satellite to get real-time sports that you've basically wasted your money on the equipment.

Streaming Service

The key for Nebraskan football fans is to find a streaming service that includes the Big Ten Network. Sling does not. PlayStation Vue does. In fact, PlayStation view has a "Core Slim" programming option for $34.99 per month that includes BTN, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports 1, and Fox Sports 2. You have to go up a level and purchase the "Elite Slim" for $44.99 to get FOX Sports and other Fox regional sports channels, at least at the time of this writing.

We own a Playstation IV, and a Playstation III (and somewhere, a Playstation II), so that’s not a problem. I would need to get a device to support streaming on a second or third TV. After some research, the best option I found was the Amazon FireStick at $40.

One of the best things about the streaming services is that they do not require a long commitment. You buy into Dish Network or DirecTV, and you must make a minimum commitment for as least as long as it takes to pay off the equipment. After your commitment is up, most of the time, your prices go up.

The worst part about streaming services is the “last mile” of your Internet connection. The "last mile" is a phrase used to designate the connection between your home and your Internet service provider (ISP). I have Comcast as an ISP. I'm sure many of my neighbors have Comcast as well. Comcast, Charter, and Cox are three cable providers that between them provide a massive amount of the Internet connections to homes across America. (I'm not going to go and percentages right now, that's for later.) I'm not aware of a consumer cable contract that guarantees bandwidth (Comcast Business lines are guaranteed a level of service). That means that your Internet speed will vary between what they tell you and what you might get, which is highly dependent on how much bandwidth your neighbors are consuming at the time at which you’re trying to watch a live sporting event.

What might happen is you experience buffering. Your ability to handle this is highly dependent on how fanatical you are. I am highly fanatical enough that they might some day name a mental illness after me. I have zero tolerance for buffering, but I’m also cheap.

The second worst thing about streaming is that there's bound to be delay. I'm not talking about buffering, where the stream has to pause a bit to catch up. I'm talking about a delay between the live-action and what you see on your television and that delay being long enough the people on social media have already reacted to the game. Or worse yet, Corn Nation members will have already reacted to a play before you see it on your TV. If you're going to stay off social media, or stay off our game threads then you probably don't care. I don't have that option.

That's why right now this is only a plan and hasn't been executed. I know that PlayStation Vue has a short trial period, but there are no live sports on right now that I care to watch. And I can’t exactly run a game thread to see what will happen with the live sports. My plan right now is to try the PlayStation option in the fall when we're actually watching the game and having a game thread, so that I can see what actually happens.

Cost Comparison and Savings

Our Dish Network bill runs around $105 per month. That’s for their “America’s Top 120+” plan, which is $75, plus an extra receiver, and the DVR service for $15 per month. Our bill is less than what I hear most people paying for their TV who are also sports fans. We’re paying $1,260 per year for television.

As I previously stated, the PlayStation plan is $35 per month. The OTA antenna was $60. A DVR runs $350, and the Amazon Firestick is $40. The question is - how many months will it take to pay back the equipment, and start actually saving money? Your first monthly cost on Vue with all this in place will be $485 ($450 for equipment plus $35 for Vue), so your payback is about six-seven months.

Notice that I’m not including the cost of Internet in here, which is around $60/month. That’s because having Internet is required, and I’m not an economist. I also haven’t included the cost of a Playstation IV for the same reason. IF I have to increase my internet connection, then I’d include that cost increase in this estimate.

That’s not a bad pay back period to save $70 per month. At $7.99 per four pack of Guinness, $70 per month equals approximately 8.7 more four packs. That sounds worth it, right?

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE.

I stayed up late writing this, and while I was doing it, it’s been announced that Playstation Vue has raised their prizes by $10 per month, so the Core package is now $45 per month. Okay, that’s still a savings of $60 per month, BUT what makes me nervous is the obvious instability in the market. The one reason I’ve stayed with Dish Network for years is because of how stable they’ve been, and that their cost has been relatively the same over a fairly long period.

BUT WAIT THERE’S EVEN MORE!

I earlier mentioned we’re paying $1,260 per year for Dish Network. This isn’t true. Dish has a feature where you can ask them to “pause” your service, so I “pause” the service when there isn’t live sports on I want to watch. That would be June, July, and August. During those periods, Dish costs us roughly $6 per month. (Note that if you’re on an equipment contract, those months will not count against that contract.)

So, really we’re paying $945 per year for my live sports problem. That still sounds like a lot when I write it like that - I’m not even going to calculate that in Guinness four packs, it might be too depressing.

Conclusion

After looking at all this, I’m honestly very reluctant to make any changes. It’s not like I’m going to cut the chord completely and GO WITHOUT HUSKER FOOTBALL. I’M NOT A BARBARIAN, DAMMIT.

One of the other things I didn’t mention is that I tend to watch football with the main game on the telly, my laptop on my lap, me involved in our game threads and on twitter, and at least one other game going on a tablet (unless the Nebraska game is on, then it’s the ONLY game and the tablet is set aside for later). Would all that still work properly? I don’t know! It’s easy to plan, but there are too many variables! I won’t actually know until I try it live.

We’ll try that this fall.