Cable TV costs a fortune. According to Leichtman Research Group, Inc., the average household pays $99.10 a month for TV. This represents at 39% increase over 2010 figures.
Cutting the cord can be a challenge and raise a number of questions. How do you get local stations? If you need an antennae, how do you pick one and instal it? And most importantly, at least to me, how do you watch sports without cable?
To help answers some of these questions, I interviewed John Brillhart. John founded Cable Alternatives, a company that specializes in helping people ditch cable.
You can listen to the interview below, or read the transcript that follows.
John Brillhart Interview
Rob: John, welcome to the show.
John: Thanks for having me Rob.
Rob: I’m thrilled that you can take a few minutes. I know you’ve got your two young children with you, and that’s great. Mine are at the other end. They’re in their 20s. But I certainly remember the days of young kids at home while I was trying to work so I appreciate you taking a few minutes to help us. So, your expertise is in helping people get rid of cable?
Rob: How did you get into that kind of business?
John: Well, my entrepreneurship story is a fairly classic one. It’s what a lot of people do. I have an MBA and I was in the corporate world as a project manager for a Fortune 500 company when I got laid off. In 2012 I became a stay-at-home dad and did that for about a year and a half. Then I saw what was happening in the industry… Just to give you a bit of a personal background, I’ve been cord-cutter since about 2009. Back then, people kind of looked at me funny wondering why I didn’t have cable. That really changed in about 2014 when they thought it was really interesting that I didn’t have cable. They wanted to know more so I started helping out family and friends and realized there could be a business potential for this. I came up with the idea of, Cable Alternatives. I pitched it to my wife who said, “That’s a great idea. Just make sure it makes money.”
John: So we started Cable Alternatives in August of 2014. We got some media coverage this past spring and we’ve been very busy ever since.
Rob: Cable Alternatives – I notice you sell products on that site as well as services. You actually go to folks homes and help them set it up?
John: Absolutely. We are the sort of the ‘white glove, cord-cutting consultant.’ I will go to people’s homes and initially consult with them. Usually it’s with the family around the dining room table. We’ll talk through their TV watching habits to discover their needs and the kinds of shows that they like. Then we’ll propose a solution and usually they’ll have us install it afterwards. This usually involves and HD antenna, a DVR and streaming devices.
Rob: Where is your company physically located?
John: We’re located in Fridley, Minnesota which is just outside of Minneapolis.
Rob: Okay. But for folks who don’t live in that area you sell products folks can install themselves?
John: Generally, we will give out advice. We can sell the product, but generally we tell them to work through their local channels because the product support is a little bit better with the national outlets than it is with us across the country.
Rob: Okay. Well, I kind of want to jump right to it because I’ve toyed with getting rid of cable. I’ve thought about it. My wife and I have had very animated discussions on this topic. [Laughter].
John: Of course, yeah.
Rob: We always sort of run into the same problems so I’d like to go down the list of problems and you can help us solve them.
John: Of course!
Rob: The first one is, getting the major networks— I guess with an antenna. How does that work?
John: Well, there are a couple of options with an antenna. You can certainly try to purchase an antenna at Best Buy, Target or one of the major retailers. Those antennas will get you the major television networks in your area which generally include NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX as well as some of the independents. In high-definition which is actually a better picture than what you get with cable or satellite.
Rob: Okay. Do you recommend that folks install it themselves or pay someone to install it? Are they difficult to install?
John: The process you want to do is, pick one at the retailers— and there are a multitude of different antennas that do a multitude of different things. Pick one, save the receipt. Try it out. Try it in different positions in your home and if that doesn’t work, get another one. Just be a little patient trying to find the right antenna. Ultimately, if you don’t find something on the consumer’s side that works, at that time it’s probably a good idea to call a professional. And Cable Alternatives does professional antenna installations in the Twin cities. They (installers) are generally around. They’re not as numerous as they were in the old days, but they’re definitely around. You should be able to find people who will install professional antennas in either your roof or attic for you.
Rob: This may be the dumbest question you’ve ever heard, but, how do you connect the antenna to the TV? Is it through the coax cable or do you have to rewire your whole house?
John: Generally, what we do when we install professionally is, we hook it into the existing coax. So, where your cable signal was coming out in the little wall outlet that you had before? That would be your antenna signal as well.
Rob: Okay, that makes sense.
John: There are a lot of concerns about weather issues or anything else with TV antennas. That’s one thing that I want to dispel. If your TV antenna is properly installed it will not experience weather drops like you would with satellite.
Rob: Have you found that antennas in an attic do reasonably well or do you find that most of the time you have to get one of those giant monstrosities that you put on top of your house?
John: Well, you can certainly install the giant monstrosity in the attic of your house and do just fine. It depends a little bit on your location as to what will work in your area and that’s what a professional installer will certainly help you with.
Rob: Alright. That’s problem number one. Problem number two is sports. And for me, particularly football. How do I watch NFL football? I can watch it on the networks when it’s playing there with the antenna—
Rob: But what about things like ESPN and particularly college football when they’re not playing on the major networks?
John: Well, ESPN is available on a service called, Sling. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that. It’s a fairly new service that came out in February that does have ESPN on it. It’s about $20 a month. And you can certainly—
Rob: What’s it called? Fling?
John: Sling. S,L,I,N,G. Sling.
Rob: Oh, Sling. Okay.
John: It’s a little bit different than… There’s a product out there called, Sling Box. People confuse Sling and Sling Box. It’s a little bit more of a different product. Sling is more like Netflix with TV channels whereas Sling Box is a physical box.
Rob: Okay. So, the antenna is actually a one-time purchase and I don’t have any monthly fees. If I want ESPN, one option is Sling…
Rob: … And that’s $20 a month.
John: That’s right.
Rob: I want to keep a running tally of what this might cost me on a monthly basis. So, are there any other options for ESPN? Or for that matter, the NFL Network?
John: NFL Network is pretty difficult to get as well as most regional sports networks so if you’re watching your baseball team or your basketball team, that’s a little bit harder to get. It’s really if you’re looking at football, college and pro— if you’re a fan of only football, that’s generally the best way to cut the cord.
Rob: Have you ever gone out to a family who is interested in sports and it ends up being a deal-breaker. You ultimately conclude, “Look, if sports is that important to you, you probably can’t cut the cord.” Is that—
John: It’s a value question. Most of my customers save about $100 a month which is $1,200 a year so it’s a question of whether or not sports is worth $1,200 a year to them. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no.
Rob: Sure, sure. Okay, problem number three is a DVR. With most cable packages you can lease or rent a DVR. Can you get a DVR on your own that doesn’t require you to pay a monthly service fee?
John: Yes you can.
Rob: Okay. What does that look like?
John: There are a couple of good DVRs. The one that doesn’t require a monthly service fee (that we sell) is called, the Channel Master DVR Plus. It’s a pretty straightforward DVR that you can hook up to your antenna. It interfaces with some streaming services such as Netflix but if you’re just looking for a basic DVR and you’re not a big DVR person but you do want to record show occasionally, that’s what I’d recommend.
Rob: The Channel Master DVR Plus?
John: That’s right.
John: The other DVR on the market that’s relatively popular that we sell a tremendous amount of is the TiVo. I’m sure you’ve heard of the TiVo brand which is an award-winning interface that we sell quite a bit of. It’s got Amazon and Hulu integrated into it. With streaming services already integrated into it, it makes it really simple.
John: It does have fee associated with it though. The new TiVo Bolt, which just came out two months ago, have about $150 a year service fee attached to it. And that comes out to about $11 or $12 a month.
Rob: Okay. I take it if you don’t get the TiVo and you go with something like the Channel Master, you’ve still got to figure out streaming services… Why don’t we just get into streaming services and then we’ll come back to the question I was going to ask you.
Rob: The big three, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Do you need all three of them? Or does it just depend on what you like to watch and what they offer? How do you figure that out?
John: This gets more into how to cut the cord in general, and one’s approach. A lot of people approach cutting the cord with— Let me just move this back a little bit Rob, if you don’t mind?
John: A lot of people think that when they cut the cord they have to watch their specific channel, or they have to watch this, that or the other. If you’re approaching cutting the cord that way, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult. However, if you take a step back and say, “Hey, I’m open to watching different things that might entertain me,” that’s a good way to cut the cord. There are generally three things I do recommend when you’re cutting the cord. Number one, always get an HD antenna to make sure you’re able to tune in good reception. And, like we talked about, there are several different ways to do it. Number two, what I recommend is looking at devices you already have such as your DVD player, where you can replace the content that you have with a service like Redbox. It’s just really cheap and really easy to understand and use. A lot of people like the, On Demand, service or maybe are looking to watch other than some of the cable channels. Number three would be to start to looking at the streaming services, where it starts to get a little bit complicated. But, you want to take a simple approach to it. So, after you do the first two things and you find that you want to do more, just take a real simple approach to it. Get a streaming device. If you have a DVR, use your TiVo and subscribe to one service. I recommend that service be Netflix, but you can pick. Start to be really open to the content you watch but neutral at watching that service. So, since you’re not watching those cable channels anymore, find out what’s on Netflix. Look into it and see what’s there. Be open to finding new things that will entertain you. Usually you will find something that’s good for you and it will take up your time. I’ll offer you an example. I had a customer who had a whole slew of shows she wanted to maintain watching after she cut the cord and we developed a process whereby she can buy some of those shows online as well as doing a whole slew of complicated things. I showed her all of them. However, once we got her to cut the cord, she subscribed to Netflix and found that a lot of the content on Netflix took up a lot of her time. A perfect example… I said, “Hey, did you buy Sherlock online at Amazon?” She said, “No. You know what? I found, Orange is the New Black on Netflix and I’m watching that now.” So that’s really the approach you want to take as a cord cutter— be open to what’s new on a streaming service. And from there, allow your habits to change a little bit. You’ll be pretty satisfied. The hardest thing about cutting the cord, honestly Rob, is crossing that threshold.
John: Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you’ll find your habits change much more easily than you thought.
Rob: Right. I take it the fifth problem is the internet? You still need high-speed internet.
Rob: At least with Fios— there are times they tell you the price will be lower if you keep cable.
John: Well, you know, who would think that their cable company was lying to them? [Laughter]. Here’s how that works. It’s a little bit more complex to understand, but, here’s what they’re doing. They are generally not offering you a promotional discount for internet but they are offering you a promotional discount for television. So, basically, yes. In some cases there’s a better value proposition initially to buy TV and internet rather than internet alone. However, for most companies, they’ll offer you a promotional discount for internet only after a period of time.
John: So if you buy internet only from Fios or whomever, usually if you wait about 3 months you can call them back and say, “You know what? I’ve got internet only. I want to negotiate a promotional discount.” And they’ll generally give it to you.
John: The other approach you can take is to look at other providers other than your current and incumbent provider. That’s where you have the most advantage because you qualify for the new subscriber discounts. So, Verizon, Fios service… I’m assuming—where are you located, Rob?
Rob: In northern Virginia.
John: Northern Virginia? I’m not quite sure of the incumbent provider there.
Rob: It’s Cox.
John: Okay, so instead of Fios you can call up Cox and say, “Cox, I want your internet only price.” Usually that will only be around $40 to $60 a month, depending on where you’re at. And that will be a promotional discount. When you’re taking that kind of a view, usually that will a lot cheaper than what you have right now. When you’re looking at internet, it’s a lot easier to switch internet that it is television providers. So always look at all of your internet providers when you’re looking at cutting the cord. Not just the one you’re getting your television services from.
Rob: That’s good advice. Hey, I appreciate your time. I know your hands are full with your two young children so let me just ask one last question. What’s your setup at home? What equipment do you use? What do you stream? How does it work at your house?
John: Well, I’ve got an HD antenna installed in my attic. And of course I did that myself because I know how to install antennas. I have a DVD player that I use, actually, fairly often with Redbox (which is just down the street). I actually just returned a couple of DVDs today. And I’ve also got a TiVo . We do DVR (digital video recording) quite a bit on network television and then we watch some of the streaming services that are integrated into the TiVo as well.
Rob: Okay. That’s great. Hey, I appreciate your time. So people can find you at cablealternatives.com. Is that right?
John: Yes sir, that’s right.
Rob: Okay, great. I appreciate your wisdom in this area. It’s an area (I must confess) that has stumped me for awhile so I appreciate the talk today.
John: Okay. Well, hey, I’m happy to help your listeners sort everything out. Please take a look at my website. Even if you’re not located in the Twin cities, feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to hand out advice via email or phone.
Rob: Great. Appreciate it. Thank you so much.
John: Thanks Rob.