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What it's like to cut the cord and stop paying for TV

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 6, 2011; G04

This Sunday will be a major television-viewing day for millions of Americans. Most of them will pay to have Fox's broadcast of the Super Bowl beamed into their homes. But I won't.

Why would I? I haven't paid for TV service since October 2009.

At the time, this exercise in what TV-industry types call "cord cutting" was just an experiment: Could my wife and I get by with only over-the-air broadcasts and Web video? Sixteen months later, the experiment has become a habit for us. And for many others: Cable and satellite services lost almost 250,000 viewers over two quarters of last year.

It helps that we've conducted it under favorable conditions. Even when we paid to get our dozens of channels via satellite, we watched very little of that selection: some network sitcoms and dramas (few of which we tuned into with any regularity), sports and the occasional movie.

Meanwhile, we have good over-the-air digital-TV reception at our home, plus a fast FiOS Internet connection that can easily stream high-definition video off the Web.

And we bought the right TV. I followed my own advice, getting a set with "connected TV" software that can play video and audio from such sites as Amazon, Netflix and Pandora. This Sony also includes a nifty and free but rare feature called "TV Guide on Screen," which lets us see what's on the air by browsing through a simple program grid.

Relying on over-the-air broadcasts may sound like a throwback habit, akin to baking your own bread, drying your clothes on a line or owning a manual typewriter. (Note: All of those descriptions apply to me.)

But the transition to digital TV has made this far more viable than before, providing outstanding, high-def picture quality and bonus channels from local stations to those blessed with good reception.

So network fare has been no trouble to replace. The ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates all come in clear, and PBS stations MPT and WETA are almost as good (although sometimes we've had to reposition the $13 rabbit-ears TV antenna next to the set to tune in some of them).

Recording programming has been less enjoyable. The DVD recorder I bought in 2009 tunes in the same channels but only does so in standard-definition quality - and having to program in recordings, VCR-style, by specifying a time and a channel instead of selecting a show off a TV Guide on Screen grid, is so irritating that I rarely bother.

I could have fixed this issue by adding a digital-TV tuner to a computer but opted not to. Instead, the Web has become our DVR: If we miss a show, we just watch it on Hulu on a computer.

Sports have been a stickier issue. Much of that programming is confined to pay channels - and online services such as Major League Baseball's MLB.tv generally limit you to watching live games of out-of-town teams. As a result, I watched more Nationals games in the ballpark than on TV last year. Then again, we got used to hearing games on the radio during the team's first year in town, when most TV services did not carry its fledgling sports network.

And the selection of games viewable online has kept improving. ESPN's ESPN3.com has allowed me to keep up with Georgetown basketball, while my wife was pleasantly surprised to be able to watch the U.S. Open online for free - even on an iPad.

Movie viewing might be the most frustrating part of our transition to free TV. We've had a more reliable selection of content at the local library than over the Web. The big studios' insistence on protecting every other movie-viewing business before making their content available online has left the likes of Amazon and Netflix with a weirdly limited menu of titles. Worse, popular films routinely vanish off the online shelf at preset dates.

This also applies to shows on non-broadcast channels, too. Netflix will gladly mail me a DVD of a "Mad Men" season, but I can't watch the same episodes via the Netflix app on my TV.

Hollywood is going to have to get over its fear of Web distribution unless it's happy with continuing to cede the online market to file-sharing.

I expected that we'd watch less TV when we no longer had any psychological need to justify the bill. That has certainly happened - but the arrival of our daughter last summer has cut down on our TV time anyway and given us plenty of other places to spend the money once devoted to TV.

Yes, you can't overlook the financial issues here. The total of what we would have paid to keep our old TV service over the past 16 months, not even factoring in price increases? $1,120. Not having to underwrite a TV business model that denies customer choice? Priceless.

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