The merry holiday season is upon us, but a lack of entertainment funds has left you seriously ho ho hopeless, are we right?
Instead, a TV plague has descended on you because you can't afford cable, satellite or any of the other common methods of connecting you with the critical life-force known as "my favorite shows."
But wait, Misty. It's the holiday season, remember? The season of miracles.
Thanks to the airwaves, your local video store or library, and the Internet — you still have the Internet, don't you Bubby? — we can show you how to survive the slump and maybe even feel like you've been kissed under the electronic media mistletoe.
A word of caution: the Unofficial B Section Guide to Surviving Without Cable or Satellite is not without its gaps — think those periods of unexplained time between the comings and goings of those three weird ghosts visiting Ebenezer Scrooge. (Did he not dream anything? [Odd.] Did he dream of making more money? [Dull.] Did he dream of Mrs. Bob Cratchit? [Censored.] We digress.)
The fact is, nothing can replace all those channels, all those fresh shows, all the live sports. The HD! The 3D! The commercials.
But if you don't HAVE TO watch your favorite shows the instant they air, if you don't crave lots of live sports (or can find your way to one of the area's many fine sports bars), and if you're willing to experiment and try something new, you'll find a surprising amount of TV shows, movies and other programming under your tree this year.
AVI (Air. Videos. Internet.)
Start with the good old airwaves. If you didn't already, get yourself a digital converter at your local electronics counter — all TV signals over the air are now digital — and some kind of antenna and hook 'em up. Pay once, never pay again. Cheapskate TV watchers in L-A contend they can get channels 6, 8, 10, 13, 23, 35 and 51, depending on equipment, conditions and if they've been particularly good girls and boys this year. That's live network TV and all that comes with it.
Don't have much money left? After you take your bottles back, head over to your local video store, Red Box monolith or library, where you can pick up a movie or series of TV episodes from your favorite show and still have enough left over for intermission Moxie and peanut butter whoopie pies.
In the enviable position of having enough green for the Internet? Ding! Ding! Ding! You win the holiday jackpot. There's a lot available by either going to various websites or by using a service that provides movies and shows.
The least expensive way is to head to the website of each network. They all offer past episodes of many of their shows and, of course, commercials.
Want to ramp that up a bit with more access and choice that goes beyond the major networks? Take a look at these four services:
— Netflix: $7.99 dollars per month for unlimited streaming
Yes, I know, you’ve probably already heard of Netflix. “But I like to watch TV, not just movies,” you say. You may be surprised to know that Netflix has a pretty decent selection of TV shows, some of which are available on Netflix a day after they air on broadcast TV, such as "Desperate Housewives." Netflix also has a decent selection of premium cable TV shows, such as "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men" and "Weeds."
— Hulu: free service available, or "plus service" for $8.99 per month
Hulu is the destination for TV shows that are currently airing now. "Community," "Parks and Recreation," "Glee," "Modern Family" — you can get them all on Hulu the day after they air on TV. On the free version, Hulu will only provide the last five episodes of most shows. If you pay for a subscription, you can get all available episodes of complete TV shows. You will need to pay for a subscription if you want to use Hulu on a device other than your computer (but I’ll talk about that later).
— Amazon Instant Video: around $2 per television episode or $4 per movie, or free streaming with a $79 annual Amazon Prime membership
A monthly subscription on Netflix or HuluPlus is a better deal, but for the shows that aren't available on those two services, check out Amazon or Blockbuster On Demand. The selection is wider here, but you also pay more. It’s also possible to stream Amazon Instant Video to a compatible DVD player, TV or video streaming device.
— Blockbuster On Demand: $3-4 per movie, with the option to buy movies
This service is great if you are ready for a spontaneous movie night but don’t want to go out to the store to get the movie. They have a wider selection than what’s available on Netflix and at the Red Box, and you pay the premium to watch the newest releases.
The newer the episode and the more exclusive the network — HBO, for instance — the more you will have to pay to see a show. After a while, it might surprise you how entertaining re-watching 11 seasons of "Cheers" can be.
But I don’t want to watch TV on my computer . . .?
I know. You probably spend enough time in a desk chair as it is. If you’re thinking about buying a new TV, look for one that is “Web-enabled,” which means that you can contact one or all of these online services and stream them straight through your TV, as long as you are paying for a subscription. Keep an eye on whether or not the TV has a wireless Internet connection, because if it isn't, you will have to plug the TV into your Internet router (the device that connects all the electronics in your house to the Internet).
Not ready to buy a new TV? Buy a device that will do the same thing. Many Blu Ray players on the market can access streaming Internet services. My family got a Sony Blu Ray player two years ago for less than $150, and we can stream Netflix and Blockbuster On Demand though the TV. There are many device options available today that cost even less than that.
Thinking about buying a game console — or do your kids already have one? The Xbox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii all come with Netflix enabled. Hot sauce!
Another option: A company called Roku makes a device for $50 (and up) that will connect to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video and a few other services. You pay the one-time fee for the device, and then you pay for subscriptions for those services. A Roku box is also wireless.
Just a reminder — if your cable modem and router is in one area of the house and your TV is in another, you will want to make sure you choose a wireless device for streaming services, or you will have to string some very long Ethernet cables across your home.
Hey! I thought the idea was to save money here.
The ultimate cheap way to do this is to take an old computer that is still functional but no longer in primary use and park it next to the TV. Most computers made in the past 10 years will have a video-out port that can be connected to an RCA port on your TV (the yellow cable of the yellow, white and red cables) or an HDMI port on your TV (a flat-shaped plug on high definition TVs). Whichever your TV has, you'll need a cable with the right ends.
If you're trying to save money (and we know you are) and have mastered that delayed gratification thing (and we know you have), check around for the cables. Prices vary wildly and big savings are out there.
Once the computer is hooked up to the TV — trust us on this — you are going to want some sort of remote control, because having to go over to the computer to change the channel every time will get tedious. If you have a smartphone, invest in downloading and setting up Mobile Mouse Pro. Or get a wireless mouse. Just get something. You won't regret it.
The long and short of it: If you go the broadcast TV/Internet streaming route you won't get everything that cable and satellite have to offer. No way. But if you can live without watching premium network first-run TV shows and most sports games, the savings add up. Once you make the initial investment in a digital converter/antenna combo and, say, a Roku box, and then pick up a Netflix subscription for $7.99 a month, you'll save yourself about $42 a month over a monthly cable or satellite bill of $50. And sports fans? You can take the money you saved and head down to the sports bar to catch the game with the gang. First round's on you.
Take to the air
For those trying to get more out of their over-the-air television reception, check out these two websites: