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Unplugged: Trading Cable TV for Internet TV

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Having control over 600 cable channels is the greatest thing ever. Having to pay $74 a month for that privilege isn't so grand. As prices for food, gas, and everyday needs continue to rise, we here at dealnews wondered: Is it possible to save a few dollars every month by replacing our cable service with free, legal Internet content? Has the Internet evolved to the point where cable service is unnecessary? There was only one way to find out, and so on the first week of May I unplugged my cable box and replaced it with my laptop.

I watch a lot of television, but before tackling this mission I needed a good mix of shows to account for different people's tastes, so I asked my fellow co-workers to help me create a must-see list. My list ranged from personal favorites like "How I Met Your Mother" and "Top Chef" to obscure programs like "Top Gear" and "No Reservations." In all, I had five network shows and five cable shows on my list. My go-to sites for this experiment would be Hulu, Joost, and any network TV or cable TV website. BitTorrent, YouTube, and other sites with questionable material were out.

My next step was to tally the number of hours I spent per week in front of the TV. I live by myself and on weekdays I average about 4 hours of TV per day. My TV is on in the morning as I prepare for work and it's on again in the late evening when I return. Saturdays the TV is barely on as I'm usually taking care of personal errands or out with friends, but Sundays I'm parked in front of the TV all day. Even when I'm not in the living room, I like having the TV on as background noise while I do something else. The more I thought of it, the harder this mission seemed and the less enthusiastic I felt about it. And I was right. My first TV-less week was pure hell. I felt out of the loop with all of my favorite shows, but more importantly, I felt out of touch with my local news, since I used to watch the morning and nightly news every day. None of the network Web sites stream live news casts and there was no point in watching clips of old news online. I tried to substitute my morning TV addiction with radio, but I found morning radio overly annoying, to the point where I preferred to eat breakfast in silence. This routine eventually earned me a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning since I no longer needed an hour to get ready. In fact, it made me realize that TV slows me down in the morning. My routine was to always leave after the weather update. Without TV I left my apartment when I was ready.

My real problem that week surfaced in the evening. What would I do while preparing and eating dinner? Would a laptop on my kitchen counter do the trick? The answer: No. Not even close. Bringing my laptop into the kitchen was awkward. Not only was it too bulky for my table, but the screen was too small and the sound was horrible. That's when I realized that downgrading from my 42" LCD to a 15" laptop screen was going to make this challenge impossible, so I spent about $25 on a DVI to HDMI adapter and a mini-stereo to RCA cable which, along with a spare HDMI cable I had, allowed me to connect my laptop to my TV and speakers. The next thing I did was familiarize myself with LocateTV.com. This site is like TV Guide on steroids, telling you when programs will air on TV, on DVD, and on the Internet. I was only concerned with the latter, so this site quickly earned a spot in my bookmarks folder. It wasn't always accurate, but it came in handy on more than one occasion.

The first thing I noticed while watching Internet TV on my Sharp 1080p Aquos is how horrible most programs look. Hulu's content was atrociously pixelated with lots of noise and motion blur. Joost's programs looked equally bad. Hulu's HD content, however, looked spectacular. The problem? There simply wasn't enough of it. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the way Hulu had evolved since its launch. In fact, I was able to find 5 out of my 10 shows on Hulu. "The Office," "30 Rock," "The Simpsons," "Battlestar Galactica," and "How I Met Your Mother" were all available on Hulu (the latter was available on Hulu via CBS.com). I wasn't able to watch them live as they were broadcast on air, but instead had to wait about 48 hours for the show to post, or in the case of Battlestar Galactica — eight days later. Fortunately, Hulu's new Subscription feature let me create a favorites list so that every time a new episode was available, I'd receive an automatic e-mail from Hulu with a link to the episode. TiVo, this was not, but it certainly made it easier for me to keep track of my programs. However, "Top Chef," "American Idol," "Top Gear," "No Reservations," and "Project Runway" were nowhere to be found. Watching network programming, it seemed would not be a problem. I could either watch them from Hulu or directly from ABC.com, NBC.com, or CBS.com. Cable shows, however, (with the exception of "Battlestar Galactica") were impossible to find. So instead of watching new shows, I spent most of my first week watching archived shows, many of which I had already seen, but since my selection online was limited, I had no other choice. This wasn't the best way to start this project, but at least I was watching something.

TV Everywhere
By the end of my first week, I felt like I had been living without TV for months. I missed the instant gratification of live TV and I missed having access to my DVR. There was something about watching cable TV that the online experience couldn't replicate. Not to mention, channel surfing is non-existent on the Internet. Sure, I could switch between shows online, but there was no remote control to switch channels and every time I switched to another show online, I had to wait for it to buffer and load. The load times weren't horrible (usually under five seconds), but it interrupted the flow of things.

As I entered my second week, I realized that I watched more TV than I initially thought and I became ultra-sensitive to its presence. Whereas before I could walk by a TV and not think twice, suddenly every TV I came across jumped out at me. I noticed, for instance, that my gym has a monitor built into every treadmill. As if that weren't enough, they also have massive 42" LCDs hanging from nearly every wall. I was never a fan of watching TV while working out, so I didn't find it tempting to cheat, but instead this made me realize how dependent society is on TV. In fact, I noticed that whenever a TV was present, most people would ignore what they were doing in order to watch what was on, be it at the gym or at a bar. The biggest shock for me, however, was finding TVs inside restaurants. Diners, pizzerias, and even some delis had HDTVs nestled into corners where patrons could watch TV while eating. In fact, two of my usual lunch spots near the dealnews Brooklyn office had cable TV hooked up. Why hadn't I noticed this before?

And that's when it became clear to me that many people (myself included) associate food with watching TV. When forced to eat in silence, I found that I ate faster and I ate less. Prior to that, I'd eat at a slower pace and usually ate more. I'd subconsciously time myself so that I'd finish eating just as the news wrapped up or just as whatever sitcom I was watching finished. If I finished eating before my show, I'd just refill my plate. When you're eating in silence with no TV in the background, you finish a lot faster. At least I did. Perhaps this project would wind up saving me money and help me lose weight.

Sports Night
Back in March, Joost offered its members live streams of the NCAA tournament. I'm not a sports fan, but this made me wonder — how hard would it be to catch a few games online? The answer: Very hard. Casual sports fans might be able to get by with ESPN.com's 30-second clips and condensed updates, which cover everything from Major League Baseball to NASCAR, but streaming live games from your computer for free is nearly impossible.

Sure, there are sites like MLB.tv, which offer live games, but you have to pay for those. A yearly subscription will set you back $80 and due to MLB exclusivities with networks, certain games may be not be available for streaming. The same applies to the National Hockey League, National Football League, and the United States Tennis Association. Die hard sports fans, Internet TV is nowhere near being ready for you.

Commercial Break
It was now mid-May and on more than one occasion I was tempted to cheat and plug in my cable box, but I didn't. Instead whenever I felt the urge to watch TV, I'd fire up my laptop and surf the Net. In fact, my laptop remained on for most of the month. You can kill as many brain cells surfing the Net as you can watching mindless TV. I also got more use out of my Netflix subscription, renting more DVDs and tuning into more of its "instant watch" movies. The latter wasn't the best content out there, but it was great for killing time, which I suddenly had a lot of.

You see, watching online content is a lot faster than watching regular TV. When you're watching cable TV, the average commercial break lasts just over a minute. However, when you're watching Internet TV, the average commercial break lasts 30 seconds. Suddenly, it doesn't take 30 minutes to watch a 20-minute sitcom. Instead you're done after 22 minutes. Considering I was watching most of my programs on Hulu, I initially thought I'd find the site's mandatory commercial breaks intrusive, but I didn't. I actually liked that instead of watching 2 minutes worth of generic commercials (many of which I found annoying) I was now watching roughly three or four, 20-second commercials per program. Sure, it took some getting used to, but by my third week the commercials started feeling like an extension of the show. They felt smarter, like they wasted less of my time and went straight to the point. Slowly I started to realize that online commercials had a greater impact on me than traditional TV ads. To the point where I found myself buying some of the products I saw advertised online (i.e. Pam cooking spray). Whether it was a sub-conscious decision or not, I don't know. But Pam was now an every day word in my vocabulary, as was Best Buy and Chevrolet (two other advertisers).

Free doesn't always mean good
The Internet is packed with loads of free content, but I quickly learned that free doesn't always mean good. Case in point: Amazon.com. Via their Unbox service, Amazon offers roughly 210 free video downloads. Of that selection, I couldn't find a single episode I wanted to watch. The problem was two-fold. Most of the free videos were shows I didn't care to watch ("Obama Girl Show," "Trick My Truck," "Rob & Big"), and when I stumbled upon a show I liked ("How I Met Your Mother," "Battlestar Galactica") I realized that these weren't actual episodes, but instead episode recaps, bonus content, or — in some cases — 2-minute shorts that never aired. It was like finding a lake in the desert and quickly realizing it was an illusion.

So I turned to the cable and network websites themselves. ABC.com, CBS.com, and NBC.com were all gold mines for free content. There weren't many ABC episodes on my to-watch list, but ABC.com offered the best video for online streaming, with many of their shows available in HD. Although I was never a fan of the show, I suddenly found myself watching "Lost" simply because it looked good on my TV. NBC.com also had an elaborate offering on its site with the option of downloading certain episodes. I began watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, not because I wanted to, but just because it was available. But again this was network TV, not cable.

Cable networks like adult swim, Comedy Central, and Bravo TV were shy about offering their hit shows online. Instead, they offered clips of their most popular shows. Unlike the networks, cable channels, it seemed, used their websites as a means of marketing new shows. This was especially obvious with Discovery Channel. Although one of the few cable networks with full episodes online, the Discovery Channel steered away from popular shows like "Deadliest Catch," instead focusing on new shows like "The Alaska Experiment" and "Verminators." It seemed my attempt at ditching cable for online programming was going to be a failure.

Final Week
My last week had finally arrived and I was itching to go back to live TV. It's not that I missed my favorite shows — it was actually easier than I thought to detach myself from them — but I missed cable TV's wider selection of shows. With Internet TV I felt like I gave up control of my TV-viewing habits. There's a lot of legal content online, but I could only watch "xyz" shows on the days they became available online. With cable TV, I could watch anything I wanted at any time. If I missed a show, I could always record it on my DVR. Internet TV doesn't work that way. If I wanted to watch "How I Met Your Mother" I had to wait for the show to air on TV and then wait for it to become available online. Although that waiting period was usually consistent, there were times when it varied and a show that was supposed to debut online 24 hours after its initial air date would instead make its online debut 48 hours later. This inconsistency was my biggest pet peeve throughout the month of May, and it was that lack of control that broke the deal for me and made me crave cable TV.

If sites like Hulu gave more of that control back to viewers and offered more content, I would seriously consider ditching my cable provider. Accompanied by a few Amazon.com or iTunes purchases, it would be possible (not convenient) to ditch my cable box and pocket $74 a month. And that's what it really came down to in the end. Giving up cable TV for Internet content is possible. You'll miss out on a few shows, but only if you're a heavy TV watcher. The hard part, for me, was the inconvenience. TV was such a part of my daily routine that I couldn't let someone else control what I wanted to watch. So until Internet TV catches up to speed with cable TV, my money (as much as I hate saying this) will go toward cable. Despite it's great strides, in my opinion, Internet TV just isn't ready for prime time.

One Month Later

It's been over a month since I gave up cable TV and a lot has happened since my first week of Internet TV. Content-wise, Hulu continues to refine its service introducing full episodes of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. In addition, the site is running a Hulu Days of Summer promotion where new content is introduced every weekday. A nice way to bring people back to the site each day. Meanwhile, Univision.com has launched a new portal and streamed its first, full-length, online concert by Latin Grammy winner, Fonseca. The micro site, which is called En Directo, is sponsored by Toyota (the ads are very aggressive) and will feature additional concerts, downloadable songs, backstage footage, and more. I'm not a fan of the artist, but I am impressed with the amount of online video you can find on Univision.com. It appears the site has even struck a deal with CNET.com and is translating many of its tech reviews into Spanish (it'll be interesting to see how this relationship plays out once CNET.com is owned by CBS.com). Although I speak Spanish fluently, I was never a heavy Univision watcher, but having more video options online never hurt.

On a more personal note, I'm back to my old TV-viewing habits, watching TV in the morning and in the evening when I get home from work. When I miss an episode I want to watch, I now turn to Hulu (when appropriate) instead of recording shows onto my DVR. I'm also more comfortable bringing my laptop into the kitchen and watching Internet TV from my kitchen counter — something I felt awkward doing before. Ironically, I also turn to the Internet for new shows (shows that I've never seen like "Dexter" or shows that are no longer shown on TV like "Arrested Development") and if I like them, I look for them on TV. Unfortunately, I didn't lose any weight during my cable-free month, and I have once again associated eating with watching TV.

But perhaps the biggest change in my everyday routine is the amount of time I spend online. Whereas before I would go online just to check e-mail, I'm now online the minute I get home. Most of the time I'm reading new blogs I discovered during my cable-free month, but the amount of time I spend online has spiked dramatically since the month of May.

Louis Ramirez is the dealnews Features Editor and worries about the day that he's asked to play only video games for a month straight.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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