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Cutting the Cable

Vintage TV

Image used under Creative Commons license; Some rights reserved by the Sofa

As we’ve previously mentioned, one of the best ways to afford the finer things in life is to stop spending so much on the ordinary things. One of those monthly bills that always seems to be creeping upward is the TV; whether it’s cable or satellite, it seems the bill goes up a little every month, and before you know it, that $18 package has crept up to $74, and that’s without any premium channels or movie packages.

If you happen to live somewhere that gets decent reception and have switched over to a digital TV or converter box, you may not pay for TV at all; if so, this article is probably not for you. But you may be in a location where the signal is spotty or the broadcast channels are few, or you may be a fan of some shows that are only found on the non-broadcast networks, whether it’s Mad Men or Walking Dead on AMC or something on the Food Network or the one-two punch of the Daily Show and Colbert Report on Comedy Central. (I fervently pray it’s not any of the train-wreck television on TLC; if you’re spending money to watch Toddlers & Tiaras, I don’t want to know about it.)

We’re all hooked on Mad Men at our house, and our son likes Walking Dead, so we had AMC as one of the key channels we watch. Because of our work schedules and preference for watching TV at random times, we have a DVR so we can watch what we want when we want. For a while, we were with DirecTV, but after a while they nudged the bill up high enough that I felt it was too much. I looked around and found that Dish had a package with the channels we wanted for only $17 a month, so we made the switch. Of course with the extra charge for the DVR and a few other add-ons, plus the usual tax-title-license-prep-and-just-because-we-can fees, that $17 turned out to be more like $24. Still a big savings over the $78 DirecTV was getting.

A year later, I found that Dish has also done some “channel line-up changes” that resulted in our package going up to $74, so we were back in the same boat. I called them up and told them I wanted to cancel; the guy in customer service immediately went into “salvage the account” mode and told me he could give me a different package that had the channels I wanted for $34 a month (including all those extras). We ended up losing a few channels that I had forgotten to mention, but it was tolerable.

But now Dish has eliminated AMC and a few other channels owned by the same company. This is really inconvenient, but it does push me to make a move I’ve been considering for a long time.

I’m currently in the process of building a PC-based media center that will feed Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, iTunes, YouTube and just about any other video feed to our TV, which will eliminate our satellite dish and reduce our already-spartan TV costs to almost nothing.

The system is built on an old Dell Optiplex 745 that I picked up from Ebay for about $70 ($40 for the box, $30 for shipping); I added a Radeon video card for another $14. The next thing I need to add to the system is a remote control so I don’t have to have a keyboard and mouse sitting out. There will be a keyboard & mouse available, I’ll just keep them put away most of the time; Big Lots has a wireless set for $20. I’m still finding and installing the software and figuring out how to configure everything, but when it’s done, our monthly TV bill will consist of $7.99 for Netflix and $7.99 for Hulu Plus; there may also be the occasional small charge for movies or other content from iTunes or Amazon, but basically, we’re below $20 a month again.

To complicate matters, Warner Brothers recently sent me some movies to review (the Lord of the Rings extended edition, the boxed set of the Terminator movies, and the re-release of two election year favorites, Dave and The American President; reviews will be here eventually), all of which are in Blu-Ray format. We don’t have a high-def TV, so there has been no reason to spring for a Blu-Ray player. I thought about adding an internal Blu-Ray drive to the computer, but in pricing them, I found that a stand-alone unit is only a few dollars more than a drive, and it would be simpler for everyone else in the house to operate than dealing with the computer. So we bought a Panasonic Blu-Ray player on sale for about $65, and it turns out it comes with wifi and ethernet and is configured to access Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and two on-demand movie services. I could have gotten 85% of what I want without the computer. But I still need the computer to get all the other web-based content, such as feeds from the networks’ websites and iTunes and Amazon Prime video.

If you want to set up a similar system of your own, check out the tutorial on LifeHacker. You can also get a ready-to-go TV box like Roku or others, probably for less money, but I like the idea of also having a viable work station computer in the living room. Your mileage may vary.

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Jim

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