2013-01-02

Living without satellite TV


My wife and I "cut the cord" and cancelled our Bell Satellite TV account in the spring of 2012. Our kids had both been away at university for the past two years, and we figured the two of us would see if we could live without satellite TV. Cost was one of the main factors in our decision - the annual price hikes from Bell had put our monthly satellite bill at close to $80, and that was without any receiver rental charges or premium channels like HBO! We had the middle-of-the-pack channel package; we had to take that package since we wanted sports channels like TSN and Sportsnet, plus "lifestyle" networks like Food, HGTV, and TLC. The lack of channel bundling options from Bell and the other TV distributors is quite frustrating, and I'm convinced that they all have a team of statisticians that try to figure out how to bundle channels to extract the most revenue from their customers. How else can you explain the almost complete lack of a-la-carte channel packages in most of Canada and the annual shuffling of channel lineups and programming tiers?

To make matters worse, most of the TV channels in Canada are owned by the same companies that sell you a satellite or cable subscription, so it's in their corporate interest to get you to subscribe to as many channels as possible. This leads to situations where shows like "Big Brother Canada" are only available on the specialty channel Slice rather than a mainstream network like Global TV. Shaw owns both Slice and Global, but to drive subscription numbers for Slice, they need to have a few marquee shows on that network that will bring in subscribers. CBC, CTV, Global, and all of the other Canadian networks that have licenses to broadcast over the air are part of the basic cable/satellite subscription tier (CRTC regulations require this), so the media conglomerates like Bell, Rogers, and Shaw that own most of the channels we watch as well as the distribution system will sometimes move popular shows off their main network channel to their specialty channel in order to drive subscriptions. Now you know why specialty channels like Slice and Bravo have a couple of first-run shows in their lineup and everything else is reruns. We consumers would be better off with far fewer specialty channels since there isn't enough first-run content to provide programming for all of them, but that doesn't coax as much money out of our pockets each month as the current system.

Alternatives

We live in the west end of Ottawa, so in preparation for cutting the cord I setup an over-the-air system with an antenna in the attic so that we could tune in the Canadian networks like CBC, CTV, and Global. I also got us signed up with Netflix and the American Hulu Plus service, the latter through a bit of Internet trickery (more on that in a future article). We get 10 English and 3 French channels in spectacular HD quality for free via the antenna, and for the odd show we want to watch that isn't available on CBC, CTV, CTV2, or City, we can usually see it the next day via Hulu.

We survived the summer and found that we really didn't miss satellite TV that much. I missed having TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, but I didn't miss them enough to make me want to spend $80 a month. My main concern in the fall was whether or not I'd be able to find a way to watch the Major League Baseball playoffs since they're not available over-the-air in Canada - Sportsnet has exclusive Canadian rights and they're a cable/satellite-only channel. Similarly, if the NHL hadn't been in a labour dispute I would only have been able to watch NHL on Saturday night via the CBC - no mid-week Senators games since Sportsnet has their local broadcasting rights.

I'll go into the details of what we did for all of the above in future postings, but the good news is that I saw every MLB playoff game this fall in HD quality, and if the NHL season started tomorrow I'd be able to do something similar and watch all of the NHL games too. Our monthly recurring cost for TV is a mere $21 and that includes Netflix which is $8 and is probably the source of most of our TV and movie viewing.
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