TV junkie’s guide to giving up cable


Life before cable. Photo by Getty Images.

I canceled my cable a few months ago. It had to be done—my Cablevision bill was $124.67 a month. But you can’t expect a girl to live without TV: If you prick me, do I not bleed? Yes, I can stream many, many things on my laptop, but I have a lovely—and massive—32” Sony Trinitron across from my couch. Also, I have the bad habit of checking my email while I’m watching things, and that’s hard to do when everything is happening on one screen.

With a little maneuvering, however, I’m getting most of my favorite programs and an almost unlimited trove of films for roughly $18 a month, which means I’m saving around $1,250 a year. Read on for my easy three-step-no-cable survival strategy.

Step 1: I got a converter box. I was one of those 13.5 million American households with an antenna, but, after staring at static for a couple of days after the big digital changeover on June 12, it occurred to me that I was one of those confused people I kept reading about in the news. The government-issued coupon for  $40 off a new analog-to-digital converter box is still available at through July 31 (you can even use the coupon online at sites like With the antenna (and the converter), I can get all the basic channels, which is nice if only because I often like to veg out to the low hum of the news or Law & Order. I do feel a little nostalgic when I think about my old DVR, but if I really want to record Dancing with the Stars, I can set my VCR. Yes, I actually know how.

NB: If I had a digital TV instead of the CRT Sony Trinitron behemoth, I wouldn’t need a converter box to get basic channels. Of course, with a digital TV, I’d also be able to get a decent picture just by hooking up my computer –then I could just stream stuff from or Justin.TV. But a new set currently isn’t in my budget.

Step 2: I bought a Roku box from Netflix. Roku is a bagel-sized box that you plug into your TV. It streams your Netflix “Watch Instantly” cue right to the TV, via wireless. It’s amazing. To paraphrase Tracy Morgan, I want to take it behind the school and make it pregnant. It’s amazing. Did I already say that? Not everything on Netflix can be fed to my little Roku, but tons of movies and shows are available—and there is no limit to how many things you can have queued up at a time, or how long you can keep them.

In the past few weeks, I’ve watched Murder By Death, Singin’ In The Rain, Thieves’ Hideaway, The Visitor, Tootsie, The Office: Season 1 … You just select what you want using a cute little remote. My Film Forum-loving, Criterion Collection-obsessed boyfriend makes excited “ooh ooh” sounds when scrolling through all the possible options. What’s more, without ever touching your computer you can use the remote to buy “new release” films as well as episodes from the current season of many TV shows (they do this through a partnership with Amazon). My only complaint is that they don’t offer The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. So those I usually watch online. Still: Amazing!

The box itself is a one-time purchase: I got it for $99—which, amortized over the course of a year, is $8.25 a month. (The Xbox and several other devices work as well, but Roku is the cheapest option). You have to also have at least the bottom-of-the-line Netflix subscription. That costs $8.99 a month. I still use the old in-the-mail service when there’s something I can’t get on Roku, but my cheap-o plan only gets me only one DVD at a time.

Step 3: I go to the library a lot. On occasion, Roku falls short. Case in point: It doesn’t offer The Wire. Regular Netflix has it, but if I want more than one disc at a time, my Netflix doesn’t work. So, I go to the library’s online catalog.

A lot of New Yorkers have recently caught onto this publicly funded Netflix-like system: The Brooklyn Public Library says that DVD checkouts have risen nearly 10 percent in the last year. At The New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx, it’s been closer to 20 percent.

Indeed, it works a lot like Netflix (so much so that there’ve long been rumors that the NYC library branches are going to partner with Netflix). Once you request the DVDs you want online, you pick what branch you want the disk sent to, and then you pick it up–you don’t have to return it to the same branch where you got it. You’re allowed 10 at a time. You might have to place a “hold,” but I’ve never had to wait for anything longer than a week.  The Brooklyn Public Library has 123,000 discs circulating through its 60 branches. I’ve had more luck finding titles at The New York Public Library, which has more than 455,000 DVDs in its system. I also think their online interface is easier to use.

At my local library—the Bedford branch of the Brooklyn Public Library—the librarian reports that few patrons go to the DVD shelves simply to browse; most people make their requests ahead of time online. The selection of non-reserved items at any one branch is a mixed bag, but on my last visit to the Bedford branch, there were about 300 DVDs to choose from, including a handful of ones I can imagine renting: Away From Her, Rebecca, The Godfather Part II (Remastered), The Apartment. There were also some relatively new releases, like the Sex and The City movie and Get Smart. And Teens, Dating & Abstinence.

Thanks to the library, I watched three seasons of The Wire this spring. I could’ve gotten each disc one-at-a-time from Netflix, but I didn’t want to wait that long between episodes. Library DVDs can be kept for a week. If no one else requests your disc, you can renew and renew and renew (you can do it on the phone or online—it’s easy). Nevertheless, my Wire habit cost me about $20 in late fees. But that’s only because I got them from the New York Public Library, which has $1-per-day overdue fine. It would’ve been twice as much at our borough’s branches: they charge a whopping $2-a-day. Manhattan wins this round. But who knows what they charge for cable over there…

10 Comment

  • Roku sounds AMAZING :)
    Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Ok, this post seriously rocked. BUT, how would this info change if one *did* say happen to already have two kickass, digital LCD TV’s?? Still Roku? Apple TV? Boxee? Inquiring minds want to know!!??

  • Hi Erica–
    Two kickass digital LCD TVs? Can we be friends?
    Go to Radio Shack and get whatever cord you need in order to plug your computer into your TV. It should then just act like a second monitor. I’m no expert on such fancy modes of technology, but I’d look into Boxee (if you have a Mac–I’m not sure if it works with a PC). You don’t really need Roku or anything of the sort–you can just use Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature. If you are good at navigating Bit Torrent or whatever other download services, you can probably skip going to the library, too. I think I hate you.

  • Thanks for the suggestions. Cable costs in Manhattan are insane!! I’m thinking of doing what you did but don’t have the courage to, but seems it’s manageable. Thanks =)

  • Thanks for the advice I’m going through the same thing and needed ideas.

  • I had to cut cable myself and use the same tools you use – Hulu, Netflix watch instantly, and library DVDs. Occasionally, I’ll watch online shows on their network websites (30 Rock and Heroes on NBC, etc.) We also have a giant old Sony Trinitron and have that cord for hooking a laptop up to the TV. Don’t forget to turn off your screensaver – it tends to pop up at critical movie moments!

    Outside of the city, I have a lot of friends who rent movies from the Redboxes at grocery stores. $1 per day for new releases. Duane Reade would do well to put those in their stores.

    Thanks for the review of the Roku box – I had been thinking about that as an option.

  • Another option — if you have a coax cable in your appt, plug it straight into your TV without a box. This way I get all the basic channels plus NY1 and occasionally some other cable channels. I found Netflix was a waste of money because I didn’t use it enough. Luckily we have a great rental place a block away that we use when we feel like seeing a movie.

  • also most major networks stream episodes online, abc nbc wb fox cw etc and there are websites hosting even more

  • Thinking very hard about trying this out. I got my converter coupon and I’m wondering if there is a list of channels that you get with just the converter. Is it just 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13?

    Thanks for this post!

  • Dish network is way cheeper then cable.