Though many of us rely on our TV sets and cable or satellite to keep up with our favorite television shows, a growing number of people are turning to other options (some legal, some not) for their programming. In fact, you don't really need a television set to watch television these days.
Before you cut the cable/satellite cord, consider the pros and cons. The biggest advantage is skipping the monthly bill, which seems to grow larger all the time. But a major con is that without cable or satellite, you may miss out on a lot of live sports and live news coverage (though more network websites now stream coverage of major events). And you lose the ability to record shows to watch later. Also, according to media experts, the more people abandon subscription services to go to online viewing, the more expensive Internet access is likely to become. So either way, you're going to pay.
It all comes down to how much television you watch and how much you value the convenience and considerable perks that come with cable or satellite. Would you be lost without your DVR? Are you addicted to On-Demand? Or do you rarely turn on your TV?
Whether you're thinking about freedom from your set or just looking for ways to catch up on good stuff you've missed, we've put together a guide to the best television content options out there.
One thing is for sure: If you make that cut, you're definitely going to need a good computer and a hearty Internet connection.
Network TV websites
What you get: If you're looking for fairly current episodes, this should be your first stop, because whatever you find will be free. All of the major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox) show at least some of their shows online. They offer full episodes of dramas and comedies.
It's an especially great way to catch episodes of late night talk shows and soaps. Some of the cable networks also offer free content. TNT and USA post full episodes of many of their original dramas on their websites, usually about one week after they air on TV. AMC posts episodes of shows currently airing, about a week after they air. Right now, that means you can watch "Breaking Bad" for free, if you don't mind being about a week behind everyone else. Premium cable sites such as HBO and Showtime do not post free episodes.
Cost: $7.99/month for discs and $7.99/month for streaming.
Good and bad: The biggest limitation with Netflix is that a TV show must be on DVD to be viewed at all, which means waiting several months after a season ends to queue up for the discs. Streaming comes even later, and there's far less content available for streaming than on DVD (still, Netflix offers about 20,000 movie and TV titles for instant viewing). Before the new Netflix price structure was announced, you'd use DVDs in combination with streaming to get the broadest access. But if you don't mind waiting a bit, this is probably your best value. Also, there are no commercials.
Skip it: Hulu.com content isn't tied to DVD releases, so you can get shows more quickly (typically there's a lag of a few weeks up to a month), but figuring out what is available and when is beyond frustrating. The website has some free content, but it's very limited. For instance, Hulu typically offers two episodes from the current "White Collar" season (USA Network), but they will be about 30 days behind and the episodes expire quickly. You'll mostly find shows from NBC, ABC and Fox, as well as their affiliates (Bravo, USA, etc.), but it's very hit and miss. And there are commercials, which can't be skipped.
More options: For the subscription price, you get much more content (full current seasons of available shows, plus a greater number of older episodes) and the shows are available sooner and for longer. And you aren't limited to watching on your computer, you can stream to your TV through a Roku or gaming device or an Internet-ready TV set. You can also watch on a mobile device such as an iPad. One problem is that even with the subscription price, some shows must still be watched online (on the computer), so there's a lot of going back and forth from regular Hulu to Hulu Plus, which is frustrating. Also, you still have commercials and many users report unreliable service.
Cost: pay per episode, ranging from 99 cents to $2.99
A big bite: iTunes has thousands of TV shows available for download and the episodes are available right after they air on TV. For instance, the newest episode of "Breaking Bad" is available right after the episode airs - but for $2.99. You can also buy an entire season of "Breaking Bad" (13 episodes) for $29.99, which is a bit cheaper, but if you want to watch a lot of shows, that can add up fast. More reasonably priced "White Collar" episodes were $1.99.
iTunes will usually have all available seasons of shows too, so you can catch up on any series you've missed. You can watch on your computer or Apple device (iPad, iPhone, etc) or pay $99 for an Apple TV box which will stream to your set.
Cost: pay per episode, ranging from 99 cents to $2.99
A la Apple: This is very similar to the iTunes model. Amazon also has thousands of movies and TV shows available to stream to your computer or to your TV through a device (such asRoku) - or directly to your streaming-compatible TV or Blu-ray player (some newer models offer this feature). They are available just after the episode airs on TV, same as with iTunes. There's a 5 percent discount if you buy a show's season pass. But since the interface is Flash, you can't play the shows on your iPad or other mobile Apple device.
Cost: $79 annually
Hidden gems: Amazon customers likely signed up for Prime service to get unlimited free two-day shipping on every order. The fact that Amazon tosses in more than 9,000 free instant streaming movies and TV shows - without commercials - is a bonus. You have the same streaming options as with all Amazon Instant Video, but you won't find a lot of brand-new stuff here in the free Prime section. In fact, it's mostly movies, and the TV shows available seem to be predominantly sci-fi and British. But there are some gems. We found the first season of the stellar PBS series "Downton Abbey" and ABC's wonderful "Pushing Daisies," plus "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" (both from BBC).
Cost: Less than $50, one time
Better than rabbit ears: HDTV antennas boost your ability to pick up free HDTV signals floating around out there, like extra WRAL or UNC-TV channels. One of the best, according to HDTV Magazine, is the Mohu Leaf, about $45. It's made in Raleigh.
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