Say Goodbye to Cable and Hello to Free Digital TV!

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Are you tired of paying for cable or satellite TV?

Would you like to get digital quality TV and most of your cable channels for free?

If you answered yes to these questions, June 12, 2009 is your lucky day. June 12 is the deadline for broadcast TV stations to switch from an analog to a digital signal. This switch from analog to digital broadcast television is referred to as the digital TV (DTV) transition. As of June 13, 2009, full power television stations will only broadcast digital, over-the-air signals. Many local broadcasters (42% to be exact) have already made the transition.

For those cable and satellite customers that would like to stop paying the TV each month, this article will walk through each step of the process. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. Cable versus free digital TV picture quality
  2. Digital TV converter box (do you need one and where to get it)
  3. Reception quality
  4. Access to cable TV shows
  5. Alternatives to the digital video recorder (DVR) provided by cable companies

Cable versus free digital TV picture quality

Free digital TV picture quality is as good or better than cable and satellite. One of the reasons is that over-the-air digital TV is less compressed than cable, which often results in better picture quality. Keep in mind that there are three types of digital TV:

  • Standard Definition TV (SDTV) – SDTV is the basic level of quality display and resolution for both analog and digital. Transmission of SDTV may be in either the traditional (4:3) or widescreen (16:9) format.
  • Enhanced Definition TV (EDTV) – EDTV is a step up from Analog Television. EDTV comes in 480p widescreen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV. Enhanced Defintion Television
  • High Definition TV (HDTV) – HDTV in widescreen format (16:9) provides the highest resolution and picture quality of all digital broadcast formats. Combined with digitally enhanced sound technology, HDTV sets new standards for sound and picture quality in television. (Note: HDTV and digital TV are not the same thing — HDTV is one format of digital TV.)

Free digital TV can transmit each of these types of digital TV.

To find out which TV stations have converted to digital TV in your area, you can use this lookup tool from dtv.gov.

Digital TV Converter Box

Whether you need a digital TV converter box depends on the kind of TV you own. Fortunately, converter boxes are inexpensive, and you can get a $40 coupon.

As of March 1, 2007, federal law required all TVs to have a digital tuner. If you bought your new television after March 1, 2007, you won’t need a converter box. For those TVs purchased earlier than March 1, 2007, markings on the TV or in the manuals should indicate whether it has a digital tuner. These labels may contain the words “Integrated Digital Tuner” or “Digital Tuner Built-In.” Keep in mind that “Receiver” may be substituted for “Tuner,” and “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” may be substituted for “Digital.”

Also keep in mind that digital TV and HDTV are not the same. You may have a digital tuner but not have an HDTV. If you want to watch HDTV, you will need a high definition television, and that’s true whether you have cable, satellite, or free digital TV.

If your TV does not have a digital tuner, you need to do two things. First, you need to get the government sponsored $40 coupons for the digital converter box. Each family can receive two coupons, and they can be obtained through the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Coupons are generally mailed a few days after a request is submitted via the Internet.

digital-converter-box

Second, once you have the coupons, you need to buy a converter box. You can find a wide selection at just about any electronics store. You’ll also find a wide selection of converter boxes at Amazon for reasonable prices.

Reception with Digital TV

Reception will vary depending on your location and antenna. In urban areas, a set-top antennae will likely be sufficient. There are tools to determine the reception quality in your area. The place to start is AntennaWeb.org. This website will tell you which TV stations have switched to digital TV, what the signal strength is, and the type of antenna needed to get a clear reception.

Keep in mind, however, that antenna web focuses on outdoor antennas. With set-top models, it may be best to simply buy one and try it out. Reasonably priced models can be found at electronic stores, and they are easy to use.

Getting Free Cable Channels

There are now several ways to get cable channels without cable. These options are via the Internet, so you’ll need to connect your computer to your TV or get a special device (like TiVo). But if there are cable shows you can’t live without, check out these resources to see if they are available without cable:

NetFlix: This is my first choice, and what we are going to use as soon as I get our antenna set up. With the NetFlix unlimited plan ($8.99/month), you also get over 12,000 movies and TV shows (including current season episodes) to watch instantly on TV. You can connect your computer to your TV to stream these shows.

There are several really good features with NetFlix.

  1. Instant TV + DVD rentals: With instant movies and TV from Netflix’s unlimited plan, you can still check out up to three DVDs at a time throughout the month. So you get the best of both worlds, and the instant TV/movie feature doesn’t cost anything extra.
  2. Set-top device options: If you don’t want to connect a computer to your TV, there are several alternative devices (NetFlix calls them Instant Devices) that can stream the TV/movies. These Instant Devices include the following:

    TiVo HD DVR: With TiVo, not only can you stream NetFlix, but you can also record TV shows for playback later. If you chose this option, make sure you get the HD DVR version (retails at $299, but is currently $30 off from Amazon), which is required for digital TV.

    Xbox: If you have a gamer in the house, the Xbox can also steam Neflix video.

    Roku: The Roku digital video player is designed specifically to stream NetFlix video. The box costs $99.

    Blu-Ray Players: Both LG and Samsung blue-ray players can stream NetFlix video. According to NetFlix, look for LG models LG BD370 or LG BD390 and Samsung models BD-P1600, BD-2500, BD-P3600, BD-P4600.

Hulu.com: Through Hulu you can watch hundreds of shows and moves for free. Shows include:

  • The Daily Show
  • The Colbert Report
  • The Office
  • House
  • 30 Rock
  • The Simpsons

There are other options as well, such as iTunes or Amazon Video.

TiVo or DVR without Cable

We currently rent a DVR from our cable company and pay a monthly fee. Total monthly cost is $20. Without cable, there are two good options–TiVo and MythTV. We have chosen TiVo for several reasons, but MythTV is an interesting option, particularly if you like to build things.

TiVo: The TiVo box comes in three different models: TiVo Series2™ DT DVR, TiVo HD DVR, and TiVo HD XL DVR. For those that want high definition TV or to record over-the-air transmissions (which we do), the TiVo Series2™ DT DVR is not an option. We are going with the TiVo HD DVR because it offers everything we need at a reasonable price:

  • Save up to 20 hours of HD programming (or 180 hours of standard definition) at one time
  • Record two shows at once
  • Works with cable and antenna; does NOT support satellite
  • Use CableCARD decoders from your cable company to replace your cable box
  • Supports high definition TV

The TiVo box costs $299, but is currently $30 off from Amazon. The XL model can record up to 150 hours of high definition TV. But with a price tag of $599, it’s just not worth the money for us.

You also have to pay for a service plan with TiVo. The lifetime plan is $399, which is likely the option we’ll pick. You can also get a 3-year plan for $299, and they offer yearly and monthly plans as well. At these costs, it will take us a little over two years to recoup our money. But add in the savings from not paying for cable, and the time period shortens considerably.

MythTV: MythTV is open source software that allows you to build your own digital video recorder. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re comfortable with source code and tackling big projects, it can be a money-saver.

If you’ve made the switch from cable to free digital TV, please share your experience and any tips or tricks you learned.

Published or Updated: March 11, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Lorne says:

    I just dropped my cable company (Charter) a few months ago and switched to over the air digital broadcast using a TiVo HD DVR. It’s been great so far, not to mention that we’ll be saving about $1000 per year. We receive NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and PBS in HD and they look great. We also use the Netflix and YouTube streaming capability that are built into the TiVo DVR and subscribe to several podcasts like Diggnation. It would be great if TiVo would partner with Hulu :)

    • Valerie says:

      If I were to purchase the tivo dvr will I be able to watch tv in any room in the house from that one source? I try to keep up with technology but cable prices are so ridiculous! Thanks

  2. DR says:

    Lorne, that’s exactly what we are in the process of doing. I’m curious what type of antenna you are using. Is it a set-top or outdoor antenna?

  3. ring master says:

    just having cable in the first place, if that’s an option, definitely simplifies things

  4. Scott Curtis says:

    If you have a PS3, XBox 360 or other compatible UPnP device, there is a great little piece of software called PlayOn that lets you watch Netflix Streaming, Hulu, CNN, ESPN and a number of other sources on your television. The software installs on your PC and runs in the background. When you want to watch something, just turn on your PS3 or other device, click the PlayOn icon and navigate to what you want to watch. PlayOn passes commands from your device to the web site and transcodes the video from the website to a format your device and use. It works flawlessly. My family has spent untold hours sitting on the couch watching free programming on Hulu. That software was probably the best $40 I ever spent (no I don’t work for them).

    • saundra says:

      hello,

      you don’t need play on to view streaming video on your tv with netflix through your wii or ps2 or xbox. they all have wi-fi. all you have to do is go to the manufacturer’s website of your system and download the software. they explain how to set it up.

      i watch all sorts of instant movies and shows through my wii…pluse the picture quality and connection speed is way better than play on and it’s free.

      saundra

  5. Patrick says:

    I’m looking into this option. Our cable just went up again, and we pay about $50/ month for the basic package. But we also bundle our internet to save there. The cable internet is the best performing option where we are, so I don’t want to drop it. Technology is wonderful. :)

  6. Tessa says:

    You say that the Tivo is $30 at Amazon but it seems to be 240. When was it $30 and why was it so low when you looked?

  7. Tessa says:

    Oh I see what you are saying now. $30 OFF. So when you have the Tivo and the antenna can you get any channel or just the low ones/basic channels?

  8. Lisa says:

    So, am I understanding correctly…If I purchase the TiVo HD DVR and subscribe to the NexFlix for $9 a month…I would be able to get cable programs as well as on demand movies without having my computer hooked up to the TV. I refuse to pay for cable and have not had it for 4 years, but with the analog to digital switch, I barely get anything anymore. It seems like my cheapest cables options through a company are running about $45 a month. I have Fios so my interent is great. Will the TiVo work wirelessly? What about the Apple TV?

  9. Harley Axtell says:

    I have an analog TV and am perfectly happy with it. I have Charter cable. It costs me $60./ mo. What can you suggest?

    Thank you, Harley

  10. Boomstick says:

    “Tessa June 18, 2009 at 3:49 pm
    You say that the Tivo is $30 at Amazon but it seems to be 240. When was it $30 and why was it so low when you looked?”

    The article said “$30 OFF from Amazon”, not $30 total.

  11. R C E says:

    We spend over $200./mo. for our cable but, it is bundled with comcast. I firmly believe we are being taken advantage of. I am going to look into your option. Thank you!

  12. Pam says:

    I have the Cox bundle, but I am going to get rid of cable. It seems to go up every month. I have cut back to basic cable, but for what you get for that, it isn’t worth it. Netflix is awesome! You can watch movies instantly, and watch alot of the regular TV shows, after the fact, online. Which I am fine with…I’m canning cable!

  13. Alan says:

    I dropped DirecTV and ordered the TiVo HD DVR. The $12 a month for TiVo Service, is much better than the $80 from DirecTV. I already have Netflix. Satellite and Cable companies are double dipping when they charge you for TV with commercials. Commercials pay for the programming on cable/satellite just like they do for your local stations. Now that we have Free HD, it makes no sense to continue to pay a second time, for what we already pay for by watching commercials. What we will begin to see is more ‘content’ from the cable networks/shows, showing up on our local HD stations. They will follow the viewers for the advertising dollars. For now, it’s Free HD and I get my Discovery Channel and BBC shows sent to me via Netflix or watch them instantly on my PC and 30 inch widescreen monitor. Can’t wait until the TiVo HD DVR arrives.

  14. Brad Stewart says:

    Hello,

    My name is Brad Stewart. I am a student at Northwestern University in the Medill School of Journalism. For my final project, I am reporting on cable, satellite, and online television. I was hoping to speak with someone who has experience canceling their cable subscription briefly for the story. If interested, please email me at [email protected]. It will only take ten to fifteen minutes of your time and will be extremely valuable for my story.

    Thanks,

    Brad Stewart
    Medill 2013

  15. Tek says:

    I made this switch one year ago. I was paying $120 a month for digital cable, HBO, Encore and Stars plus internet. My introductory period ended and they wanted to up me to $180!!! And yes I know the whole “lower my rate or I’ll cancel” gambit and have used it for years but this time they called my bluff. Turn out I wasn’t bluffing.

    I got high speed DSL for $30 a month and the basic netflix for $10. I also setup a pc server to stream stuff via PlayOn (Sale price $30). I can watch HULU, YouTube, Netflix, and about 20 other streamed sites plus local HD broadcasting. I have saved over $1,000 in the last year and I don’t miss cable at all!!! Heck I can play video games on the TV while my wife watches her shows on her laptop! I just setup an old pc in the bedroom to a 24″ lcd monitor and we can now watch everything in there as well!!!!

    I’ve helped almost all of my friends do the switch sense then. If you have any questions or need some help shoot me an email. I’ll be happy to help if for no other reason then to see those idiotic greedy cable companies loose yet another customer!!!

    • George Duran says:

      Tek can you tell me how to do the setup with the TiVo?

      Thanks

    • Steve McCuch says:

      I need help setting up a pc server to stream stuff via PlayOn…thanks.

    • Tara says:

      Tek,

      My main concerns are the Disney, Nickelodeon, & other childrens channels, National Geographic & History Channels, News Channels, Speed Channel & Nascar Racing, as well as an international channel that comes through on my Direct TV which is known as Caracol. I desperately want to stop paying rediculous charges for Direct TV Cable. How can I do this at $20 a month or less without having to purchase equipment for hundreds of dollars? I still don’t understand the steps to take. Can I expect to receive these channels via the methods you took?

    • Carrie says:

      Tek, if you are still reading your replies, I would so appreciate it if you could tell me how to contact you. I need help finding an alternative to cable, and my cable bill is due today! Thank you very much.

    • Linda says:

      If I cancel cable can I have instant access to local tv shows, or do I have to wait awhile for them?

  16. flightyten says:

    Tek…you offered to help and I will need it, because I have decided on no cable, because of the rip-off costs!

    You left no info as to how to get in touch… so set me up here. Thanks!
    randa

  17. carly says:

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to view sporting events? My son loves watching the Yankee games and wondering how we could work around it if we dropped cable?

    Thanks!

    • Cody says:

      Carly, not sure if you have tried this yet but it works perfect for me, mainly because Comcast has blacked out my hometown team. Try this site: http://www.wiziwig.tv/competition.php?part=sports&discipline=baseball

      That goes straight to baseball. You might have to download the Stream Torrent player, but it has worked perfect for me this year.

  18. saundra says:

    hello,

    you don’t need play on to view streaming video on your tv with netflix through your wii or ps2 or xbox. they all have wi-fi. all you have to do is go to the manufacturer’s website of your system and download the software. they explain how to set it up.

    i watch all sorts of instant movies and shows through my wii…pluse the picture quality and connection speed is way better than play on and it’s free.

    saundra

  19. Cindy says:

    I’ve just moved to New Hampshire where options are limited. I can’t get access to cable TV, Satellite TV and internet is not going to be available from the cable company – the area is too rural. Any suggestions for obtaining internet and TV via independent contractors?

  20. tania says:

    hi please call me so i can server thanks

  21. Ernie says:

    Just switched from DirectTV ($70 month) to Broadcast digital TV. DirectTV was standard def. They wanted extra monthly charge for High Def, and another extra monthly charge for DVR, and despite what I was paying, every channel I liked to watch was packed with Commercials.
    Now with broadvast TV (rooftop antenna I aquired free), I get more than 20 channels, including all the main networks in HD. I use a window media center PC with TV card, thus DVR is built in. Can watch Hulu and other services online with a few extra mouse clicks. Boycott the greedy Cable/Satellite companies…..

  22. Bucky says:

    Good article. Very informative and helpful.

  23. Kim says:

    We got rid of cable company 1 1/2 years ago and it has been wonderful. Within the last 3 weeks, we have noticed that between the hours of 6pm and 10pm our signals is back. It is almost like someone is scrambling our signal. It is very frustrating. The picture will lock up and go completely out, but then other times, it is fine, but most evenings (the times when most people would be watching tv), it is messing up. Has anyone else noticed this, is this even possible? I know it sounds crazy, but I really think a cable company is scrambling our signal due to the volume of customers they have lost in a desperate effort to get people to come back.

  24. elizabeth young says:

    well im one of the unlucky ones i guess. i live 40 miles from the mearest dtv tower and NO antenna has worked for me. be it inside or out. i only had 2 channels before and now i have none and i cannot afford cable. and the worst thing is i live in a city just outside of knoxville tenn and im still too far a way. have had no tv since 2009 and im going totally bonkers with no puter or tv or phone. oh and yes i do have converter box.

    • Suzin Rush says:

      Elizabeth,
      It’s a late reply to your Nov. 2010 post, but I wondered if you got a reply?
      If not, I can share with you everything you need to know to get free antenna hd/dtv.

      • Dave says:

        I would like that informatiion, Suzin

      • Linda says:

        I would also like that information. I have not had any work for quite awhile so can no longer afford any extras, cable had to go. I still owe them for 2 months of basic service $188.00. I buy a top-up card each month if I have the cash, for a virgin internet access on my laptop. I have 2 digital ready tv’s & 1 hd tv & I need help to get some kind of programs even local news. I have bought a $19.00 interior anntena but get about 5 channels, 2 hispanic, 1cartoon & 2 ion channels and still no local news. I could really use some help. If you can that would be great.
        Thanks

  25. JOSEPH BLAYLOCK says:

    PLEASE SEND ME THIS INFORMATION ….

  26. Sean says:

    Just dumped comcast and love the 20 free channels I get. Read in todays WSJ that there is a push end OTA broadcast to free up bandwith. Write your legislators and tell them to keep TV free!

  27. Suzin Rush says:

    Comcast is the leader of the pack of liars and had everything to do with keeping it from the public, we the people.

    The biggest trick if you will is that once you’ve made the decision to stop the bleeding, or cut the cord to pay-tv to save household spending – - it’s crucial to get the right antenna and they ARE NOT AVAILABLE IN STORES. If you want the best results and to be able to pick-up every possible channel in the airwarves, then go online. There are only a few that are powerful enough to pick-up signals and I’ve added a rotor to mine due to the fact that my channels come from all different directions and I enjoy the luxury of picking up several tv ‘markets’ – all with different programming. Winegard makes a great product, I’m using their Square Shooter 2000, and I’ve heard good things about Antennas Direct’s antennas.

    Also, antennas described as “multi-directional,” uni-directional,” and “omni-directional” do not usually have a strong or high radius. In other words, they won’t pick-up channels further away, which is important if you live in a rural area like me. I’m over 45 miles from the tv station/towers.

  28. angela lott says:

    With the free cable will I be able to watch shows like the game, that comes on bet?And what kind of equipment do I need to buy?

  29. pennie says:

    Can I get HGTV, BET, BETJ on free TV?

  30. shanna says:

    I dropped the cable co. (Mediacom) and saved hundreds of dollars a year. Also I get free internet by having a LAN device that came with my pc and I was able to access networks like rhondalovesjeff and so. I also saved hundreds again in a year’s time. Thank you for the information and it was extremely valuable.

  31. Augie says:

    I will have realized a savings of over $800.00 this year. How?
    Previously, my bundled cable, internet and phone bill was $180.00 per month.
    I cut pay cable tv (which dropped my bundled bill to $79.00 a month) and installed a Terk Digital omni-directional antenna which allows me to view all of my local tv broadcasts with crystal clarity.
    I then purchased 2 Roku boxes and now stream Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and a seemingly endless array of online content.
    My Terk Antenna and C6 cable cost $80.00 (One time cost)
    Netflix $7.99 per month
    Hulu Plus $7.99 per month
    Crackle FREE (no monthly charge)
    All other online content FREE (no monthly charge other than
    internet fees)
    I am free from the cable shackles and loving it :)

  32. krisi says:

    I live in a small town where even roof antennas only work for people outside of town i have tried different types none work i cant afford cable i do have netflix and a wii but i cant afford even another 20$ netflix is great but i have found that u can only get previous season shows as far as tv goes am i missing something with netflix i should b taking advantage of

    • DR says:

      Krisi, we use Netflix a lot, too. But I think you are right that you can only get previous seasons. Have you tried Hulu?

  33. Haydee says:

    Hey there, what about having an HDTV and a BlueRay? Can I still watch hd tv without having to pay Cable svce? Or do I have to pay at least for basic cable or just install an antenna on the roof?
    The info is very informative and usefull for people like me… tired of these nonsense cable/sat bills.
    Thanks!!!

  34. Haydee says:

    Hey there, what about having an Wifi HDTV Tv and/or a Wifi BlueRay? Can I still watch hd tv without having to pay Cable svce? Or do I have to pay at least for basic cable or just install an antenna on the roof?
    The info is very informative and usefull for people like me… tired of these nonsense cable/sat bills.
    Thanks!!!

  35. Haydee says:

    Hey there, what about having a Wifi HDTV Tv and/or a Wifi BlueRay? Can I still watch hd tv without having to pay Cable svce? Or do I have to pay at least for basic cable or just install an antenna on the roof?
    The info is very informative and usefull for people like me… tired of these nonsense cable/sat bills.
    Thanks!!!

    • DR says:

      Haydee, you would still need either cable or an antenna. The wifi blueray could be used to get Netflix, but your streaming options for tv shows would be very limited.

  36. dee says:

    We too have cut our cable. We have an antenna hooked to our tivo. Tivo will give you 9.99 month rate if you just use antenna (have to ask for reduced rate) and the tivo streams netflix and hulu+. we were paying for netflix with cable before so really it’s only 18.00 for us versus 100.00 (we dropped cable and phoneline). Our equipment costs were: for living room tivo and clearstream antenna package at best buy 100.00 and tivo wireless adapter amazon 60, for bedroom tv digital converter box 50, antenna 40 (didn’t want to run wires from clearstream), and roku box 60, =4 months of savings, after paying equipment will save 656.00 this year…worth it for us. (we could have saved 60 on the roku if i had researched tivo before bought the roku, because I could have moved my bluray player to bedoom..it streams netflix and huluplus, oh well, you learn as you go).
    You can do it cheaper….hooking our laptops in wasn’t an option as we are on them for work all the time…..or go without tivo…but I really like our tivo…with the tivo will mostly likely cancel hulu+ but watching some shows currently.

  37. Tricia says:

    I looked into Tivo, but this works with your current cable service or antenna. But, I’ve tried an antenna, and it’s too unreliable, we have netflix streaming through our Wii, and it looks like the Wii now has a channel for Hulu. A few of the posts were complainging about Direct TV, but they now have basic cable for 21 a month, and you can access facebook, twitter, youtube and pandora directly through their interface. We also have a laptop connected to the TV so we can watch new shows that aren’t on Netflix yet.

  38. Diana says:

    How can I connect my converter box to my tv without an antenna please

  39. Dan says:

    At first I couldn’t switch over to digital because my first antennas couldn’t pick up fox and abc down in homestead Fl. I found this dtvgreendish and got it. I feel it works reliably. so now I can watch my favorite like Modern Family, Simpsons and other comedies they have. I guess if you are looking for digital tv and it looks like you arent getting much, try the greendish, I am getting 72 channels so far. I have the locals from south florida and FOX 29 and the ION channels from est palm beach. If this helps anyone. See you.

  40. stream live Sports says:

    I just saw something about this on television. It spoke the same
    things you wrote about.
    I go to college in Canada and we just learned about this in the classroom.
    Thank you for helping me with the final part of my report.

    Thanks for the outline of television stuff.

    I definitely think that cable tv is going to go away.
    Or at a minimum have to change with the times.
    Internet tv is definitely the wave of the future.
    As broadband speeds get quicker, everyone will be watching their shows on
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