The Tube: Free yourself from traditional cable packages

In the second installment of a two-part series on a la carte television, Melissa Zimdars asks whether viewers can already unbundle themselves by moving away from traditional cable packages and toward streaming television online.

Rumors of cable or satellite television becoming unbundled, which refers to the ability to purchase a particular channel’s content or a specific program instead of an entire package, have panicked the entertainment industry for years. Apple, Google, Roku and Intel all have or are developing devices that would allow people to ditch cable and bring streaming a la carte TV directly to their massive, wall-mounted sets. As we learned in the last TV column, however, a la carte television could have detrimental consequences for smaller, subsidized content providers and cable companies who survive on the status quo of high monthly subscription rates. Both would have their profit models fundamentally challenged, and there could be drastic changes, likely passing off the costs to viewers. Thanks, capitalism!

But the problem at hand isn’t cable’s future business model, it’s the fact that bundled or unbundled, cable prices already exceed what a lot of people are willing or able to pay. So, while many cable companies resist offering an official, unbundled option, there are already ways to unbundle yourself and save more than a few bucks while still enjoying tons of great TV.

A few months ago, I chose to forgo satellite in order to save money. Instead of two hundred channels and a DVR, I created my own a la carte programming system and watch almost everything on a computer screen (you can also easily hook up your computer to a TV with an HDMI cable if you want a larger screen). Now I spend about $8 a month on my Hulu+ subscription, hijack my parents’ Netflix for free and maybe throw away another $8 a month to Amazon for individual episodes of “Shahs of Sunset,” which are hard to find elsewhere.
What follows is a list of my unbundled, streaming TV sources, and more importantly, what is currently streaming on each that is worth checking out.

Obviously, Netflix is one of the biggest content streamers and sources of internet traffic there is. Despite the flak Netflix has received over splitting its DVD and streaming packages, or it’s sometimes underwhelming selection of movies, it is continually expanding its television library. Netflix isn’t good for staying up-to-date on currently airing programs, but great for catching up on recent seasons of “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “Louie” and “Mad Men.” Additionally, Netflix is great for watching past TV series of note, including “Twin Peaks,” “The West Wing,” “Arrested Development,” “The X-Files” and “Cheers.”

Where Netflix fails in terms of being timely, Hulu+ picks up the slack. Hulu+ streams pretty much every broadcast show after it airs (except for CBS programming, but that should be changing soon). It also features full episodes of Comedy Central, ABC Family, USA and SyFy programming. And like Netflix, Hulu+ streams older series, including “The Shield,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Hulu+ also has exclusive rights to stream several sweet British shows, particularly “Misfits.”

The TV library for this website and app isn’t nearly as comprehensive as Hulu+ or Netflix, but it is completely free! Crackle features some full episodes of “Seinfeld,” “Married With Children,” “Rescue Me” and classics like “All in the Family” and “Good Times.” Additionally, Crackle has a large selection of anime—if that’s your thing—and random movies, including “Bottle Rocket” and “District 9.” The main drawback is that Crackle makes money by selling advertising, so there are commercial breaks while you stream.

Channel Websites
Most broadcast networks, and a growing number of cable channels, now offer full episodes streaming on their websites without having to pay—so really, they’ve been unbundling themselves for a while now. Channel websites are where I normally watch “The Good Wife” (CBS), “Hoarders” (A&E), “Teen Mom” (MTV) and “Breaking Amish” (TLC).

While you circumvent having to pay a large cable bill to watch only a few channels, there are some limitations to going directly to the content source. Often times the television content will appear weeks after its original airdate, which requires a good deal of patience. Conversely, other programs will be available immediately after their original airdate, but expire after a limited amount of time. Trying to time the exhibition windows of various channel websites can be tiring, but again, it’s free!

Indexing Sites
Many of the easiest sites to get all of the television content you could ever want for “free” are pretty questionable. These sites are called indexing sites, and they exist in a gray area in terms of their legality. The sites themselves do not stream copyrighted material, but they provide links to hosting sites that do (think Sockshare, Putlocker, etc.). I think of this method of watching as the new BitTorrent, except for it’s generally less risky (but still just as legally murky) because entertainment companies can’t plant tracking torrent files, and it’s more difficult for internet service providers to track individual bandwidth use since people aren’t actually downloading and storing the files. If you’re savvy, you should be able to find these sites no problem, just be prepared for having to close a good number of pop-up ads as payment for viewing.

For the most part, I’m pretty happy watching all of my television this way, and sometimes I enjoy the hunt for a quality stream of a show, but there are definitely some drawbacks. I have to be more proactive in searching for new, off-the-wall reality programs. This means that I don’t just stumble upon crazy shows the way I used to by flipping through the channels. Instead, I have to scan for new shows on different websites and actually look at TV Guide. Furthermore, I can rarely share in the liveness of television (unless I find some really questionable streams), which makes live-tweeting nearly impossible. Lastly, overall image quality is sometimes hindered by my internet speed. But, every time I think of reconnecting the cable cord, I remember how many pints of beer or new books I can buy with that money, and I recommit to my new unbundled way of watching.

As it stands, this unbundled style of TV watching is still far from being the norm, but given consumer demand and the naturally unbundled, easily reproducible nature of digital content, it’s likely the future.

Melissa Zimdars also likes to watch Lifetime movies.

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