In the fall of 2010, right around the end of October, I did the unthinkable: I cancelled my Dish Network service and began relying solely on the internets for all of my tv needs. I was able to do this thanks to ESPN partnering with Microsoft and launching an ESPN app on Xbox 360. Armed with that, Netflix, Hulu, and a small over-the-air antenna that pulled my locals out of the airwaves, I forged my way into the brave new world of cord cutting.

I felt empowered. I was on the cutting edge of TV-watching technology. I controlled my content consumption with an iron fist. Netflix was blazing along, adding tons of new content every week, and thanks to the ESPN app and my OTA antenna the only game I missed every week was the Monday Night Football game (and frankly, I could always go out and have a couple of beers at a sports bar if it was a good game).

For the first couple of weeks I missed being able to turn on Sportscenter and catch up on my news, or just have the Discovery channel on in the background as I did other things around the house, and it bugged me that I wasn’t able to watch the latest Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs every week. That gradually passed, however, and my viewing habits adapted to the ala carte style of the future that internet-basted viewing offered. Soon, it was blissful and freeing.

It’s been a year and a half now, and I’m still off the cable grid. Now my Xbox has more services competing for my viewing attention than ever. Netflix and Hulu are still there, along with Youtube, Vevo, and TV apps from Verizon and Comcast. The Playstation 3 (I have one in my spare bedroom) brings even more to the table with NFL Sunday Ticket and the recently added Amazon Instant Video.

Now, let me put out the disclaimer that I know there are more services available on both, as well as iTunes/Apple TV, but I’m only discussing the services I’ve used over this time. In fact, let’s do a quick rundown of the major ones. That’s probably the best way to give a clear picture of the options and hurdles of going cable-free.

  • Netflix: Probably still the golden standard of online streaming, even though they tried their hardest to piss off and alienate their subscribers by poorly explaining the reason for their price increases and then bungling their way through a split/name change/nevermind fiasco soon after. On top of that, they lost their Stars catalogue when they refused to offer that content on a premium tier for a higher price (which I totally back them for). So now their streaming selection isn’t great, studios have imposed a month long limbo on new release DVD’s, and they promised video game rentals in the Quickster screw-up and didn’t deliver. Ok, I’m probably the only one that cares about that last one.
  • Hulu/Hulu Plus: Hulu is THE place to watch your favorite TV shows online. They’ve partnered with a lot of networks, offer tons of content and back episodes, and there’s really no catch. The only downside? Watching it on your computer instead of on your 46″ LCD. Enter Hulu Plus. Pay $7.99 a month and get access to Hulu on your TV? How can that be anything but awesome? Well, get ready to see “Available online only” a lot. That’s right, due to licenses with content providers, a decent portion of the content can’t be watched through your TV. This, simply put, is total bullshit. Go to Hulu’s website and they’ll tout the fact that you have access to content that non-subscribers don’t get, but the fact remains that you, as a paying subscriber, can’t watch everything on your TV that someone who isn’t paying a dime can watch online. That is a major fail.
  •  Vevo/Zune Marketplace/Playstation Store: I’m going to lump all three of these together because they’re all similar rental services. They all work essentially the same, and I like them. I’d use them more, but I’m a flat fee, all you can eat kinda guy and these rentals can add up quickly. I use Zune Marketplace the most, and my only complaint is Microsoft’s dumbass purchase system where you have to buy points in order to make any kind of transaction on Xbox Live. It’s like going to one of those outdoor festivals where you have to buy tickets in order to buy beer. It pisses me off there, and it pisses me off here. Sony let’s me buy things with dollars in their store, why can’t Microsoft?
  • Amazon Instant Video: This is the most intriguing to me right now. It’s a hybrid buffet/rental service that’s apparently on better terms with the studios and networks than Netflix. For $79 a year you get cheap shipping and access to a pretty large library of movies and tv shows, with newer additions rentable. It’s the up-and-comer right now, but it’s growing fast, and it gets around the long wait times for newer content by offering it for rental. Unfortunately, it’s not on Xbox 360, but an app just hit the PS3 last week and I can’t imagine it will be exclusive for long.

So, as you can see, the freedom from traditional service providers can get a bit messy. The state of streaming to TV right now is fractured at best. Hulu may have one or two things you can’t get on Netflix, and if you want to keep up with the latest episodes of Mad Men, Amazon is the best place. For most of us the only answer is to get onboard with multiple subscription services that are spread out across multiple devices, and it bugs me to no end to hook up a bunch of shit up to my TV when the functionalities all overlap. Sure, you have to have a PS3 and Xbox if you want ESPN, NFL Sunday Ticket, and Amazon Instant, but now you have two machines that do Netflix and Hulu Plus on the same TV. What a waste.

But doesn’t going to all this trouble pay off financially? It’s confusing, but it’s still cheaper than cable, right? Well, let’s break it down:

Netflix unlimited streaming: $8 a month
Hulu Plus: $8 a month
Amazon Prime: $80 a year, or $6.66 (the price of the beast!) a month

That’s $22.66 a month, still cheaper than cable. But wait, you kept up with The Walking Dead and Justified by renting the episodes in HD? That’s an extra $6 a week, $24 a month, which brings it up to about $47 a month. Oh, you rented a couple of movies in HD too? That’s another $10 or so, so now you’re almost to $60. Congratulations, you just paid for cable!

If your reason for going off the cable grid is financial, be careful. It adds up faster than you think, and without realizing it you’ve defeated the purpose.

So, to answer my original question, is it viable yet? Well, yes and no. You can happily rely on the internet for most of what you need, but you have to make compromises. If you hone in on what content you want, what services you need to subscribe to, and can hold off until your favorite shows and movies are available to stream at no additional cost, it can be great. If you’re doing it to access to all of your normal content without the subscription, be ready to shell out just as much money and have any combination of a Roku, PS3, and Xbox 360 hooked up to your TV.

For me, the benefit of cutting the cord has been breaking free from an archaic system that forces you to pay for a lot of crap you don’t want in order to watch the stuff you do, as well as the ability to work what I want to watch into my schedule instead of working my schedule around it.

In the end, I think the true benefit lies in the ability to tailor your content consumption to your lifestyle instead of going with a one size fits all cable or satellite service. Cutting the cord allows you to customize a plan that’s flexible and does what you want to do, be it save money, have more freedom in your viewing, or engage in some good old-fashioned sticking it to the man.

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