How We Avoid Cable And Watch Free TV Online
Greeting fair Frugalwoods friends! It’s Mr. Frugalwoods here, making a rare appearance as author. I’m usually your trusty behind-the-scenes tech guy, but today I want to share our strategies for securing gratis TV.
“Hold on, you don’t have cable?!?”
Yep. Don’t have it. Never have and probably never will. We’re a cable TV executive’s worst nightmare.
But fear not, fair tube viewer, Mrs. FW and I do watch TV. It’s just that it’s the free kind that’s delivered over the internet. And no, we’re not sailing the frightful and dangerous pirate seas (unwise since Frugal Hound is afraid of boats).
This is the totally legal, totally free kind of internet video content. And, it’s also the $0 per month plan after the initial start-up costs, which are minimal.
They key to making this work comes in two parts: personal philosophy and good old-fashioned electronics.
Change Your Channel Needs
If you just have to see a particular show, then going without cable AND without piracy is going to be tricky. We can watch broadcast TV with our rabbit ears, though we rarely do, so anything we watch has to be freely available online.
And we’re not talking about paid online sources such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu Plus. We used to have an Amazon Prime account and while it was nice to have all those shows, we decided it wasn’t worth the $100 per year. Our free internet TV comes mostly from two sources: YouTube and PBS.
YouTube has all sorts of great content. Tons of amazing British shows like Grand Designs and Escape to the Country are available, with scores of back seasons. And there’s a whole new crop of made-for-YouTube channels that provide both entertainment and education. The amount of machining knowledge I’ve gained from watching Keith Rucker’s channel is unquantifiable… but I digress.
And big name shows often have YouTube content too. HBO’s Last Week Tonight posts most of their shows directly to YouTube. Who needs HBO?
PBS has an amazing internet presence with astoundingly high-quality shows. Frontline, Nova, American Experience, Downton Abbey, the Woodwright’s Shop… we could only watch PBS and still have more TV than we have time for.
Watch Less TV
And that brings up the other mental switch needed to make a cable-less life work: watch less TV. I think we’d get bored and frustrated with the amount of video available for free if we watched it all the time. But since we generally watch maybe 30 minutes of “TV” a night, we always have more than enough tantalizing options to view. And, I just realized that we haven’t actually watched any TV since last Friday, so I guess it’s often less than that.
For us, watching less TV is equal parts frugal and a general life choice. We only have a finite numbers of hours in our lives and we don’t want to look back and realize we spent a ton of them in front of the tube. Plus, since we insource most things in our lives, we’re constantly busy with one project or another around the house, which leaves little time leftover for TV viewin’.
But since TV isn’t something we wanted to eliminate entirely (we do like us our Friday night pizza and TV date nights), finding a way to maintain this avenue of entertainment for $0 is a key frugal weirdo strategy.
Use the Right Hardware
While we source our content from the ol’ internet, we don’t view our shows on a computer screen. Like most folks, we enjoy kicking back on the couch while watching a decently sized screen. So how do we get PBS on demand and YouTube on our sweet 9-year-old 37″ LCD TV?
Via the most magical little box I’ve ever come across: the Roku.
The Roku, which is slightly larger than a deck of cards and at $69 costs less than one month’s cable subscription, streams all the TV content we could ever dream of from the internet. There are free apps for both YouTube and PBS, which makes it really easy to select and play content. Since there’s no monthly fee or ongoing maintenance cost for the Roku, it truly is a one-time expense of $69 for all our TV needs.
The trick to making this a seamless solution is to connect your YouTube account to your Roku. This allows you to do a couple of freakin’ neat things:
- Your “watchlist” on the YouTube web interface synchronizes with the Roku watchlist. This means that you can use your laptop to easily build a queue of videos you want to watch on your TV. It’s so much easier to discover content on the web vs. on the Roku, so this is a tremendous usability improvement.
- You can “cast” a YouTube video from your phone to the TV. This is a tad more gimmicky, but still dang fun. You just start watching a video on your phone, and then you can select to send it to your Roku (which YouTube knows about since you synced the two together).
- Your YouTube suggestions are synchronized between your desktop and your Roku. I’ve found that the more YouTube we watch, the better it gets at suggesting other content that we’ll probably like. Our YouTube suggestions section is full of shows about machining, welding, homesteading, small engine repair, British home building, history, and videos of greyhounds looking goofy while running around. YouTube knows us well…
The PBS app works fine on its own and looks like any on-demand interface you’d encounter on a cable box. Select the show and click play. Just that simple! New programs generally appear the night of airing or the next day… though we tend to be woefully behind in any series due to how little TV we actually watch.
What About Live Events?
AKA “Superball World Series of Poker de France.”
I’ll be honest, we don’t watch sports. And I know that’s the major thing that keeps many people subscribing to cable. I’m afraid I don’t have much experience here, but I hear Sling TV is a good compromise.
However, we do occasionally want to watch something live. Actually, I know exactly how many times per year:
- Superbowl. We’re in it for the commercials, which coincidentally are both funny and surreal given that we don’t commonly see commercials (nor do we see the point in buying any of the things that are advertised… ). We don’t quite feel like we’re in Idiocracy… but we’re getting there.
- Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a family tradition to have this on while working on Thanksgiving dinner. Not sure we’ll be watching it this year since Babywoods is due the day before Thanksgiving, but we shall see. It might be baby’s first TV show!
- New Year’s Eve ball drop. If we’re awake (something that’s increasingly less of a given… ), we’ll tune in for the last 5 minutes or so of the New Year’s Eve spectacular. Again, it’s more tradition than actual interest. And we’re long past the time when we recognize any of the entertainers featured. Mrs. FW and I are woefully uninformed about the pop culture. Man I sound like an old guy*!
*Note from Mrs. FW: if the shoe fits…
So how do we get these sporadic live events on our TV?
Ye olde Rabbit Ears. Yep, they still exist. And better yet, the signal is digital and HD which means the quality is spectacular and (at least here in the city) very reliable. For a one-time expense of $7, the ears give us all the live TV we need.
Before we splurged the whopping $7 on our very own set of rabbit ears, we actually used a 3 foot length of red 22 gauge hookup wire. I wrapped the stripped end around the inner conductor of the RG6 jack and strung the wire up into the air and through the slats in a nearby closet door.
I thought it looked industrious, and Mrs. Frugalwoods endured the cosmetic challenge like a champ, but its utility was undermined by how often it slipped apart and required me to worm behind the TV with a pair of needle nose pliers to fix. A couple of times during “important” parts of the game was enough to convince us to go with a pro antenna. It was a solid choice.
Homestead Contingency Plans
Many of the properties we’ve looked at have either cable or DSL internet. It might not be as fast as we’re used to, but it’s not dial-up either. However, some properties only have wireless (cellular 4G) or satellite internet. And while that’s a serious mark against those properties, it doesn’t disqualify them from consideration for purchase.
My plan for a constrained internet situation is to download the videos from YouTube while we’re in town or at the library, and then watch them back at home. Sites like KeepVid make it easy to download YouTube and other sources for later viewing. While it’d be more of a hassle, I imagine we’d manage. Plus, since we don’t watch much video each week to being with, it wouldn’t be too unwiedly to wrangle on a regular basis.
But man, I hope we can find a homestead with solid internet. Lots of things are harder without it, the least of which is watching our shows!
Mr. FW’s Favorite YouTube Channels (since I know you’re dying to know)
- Keith Rucker Vintage Machinery – This guy is a true master of turning metal into functional machines. He works/volunteers for a museum that has tons of vintage steam machinery and is always fixing something.
- Wranglerstar – He’s occasionally over the top, but there’s a lot of good instruction on tool care and forestry. Sometimes he’s making it up as he goes along, but aren’t we all?
- Frank Howarth – Less for learning and more for woodworking eye candy–the man makes gorgeous pieces out of wood. And I love his cinematographic style.
- Work Safe BC – Yes, the OSHA of British Columbia. While I’ve operated plenty of chainsaws, I never truly understood the mechanics of felling a tree until watching this series.
- SV Seeker – This guy is building a boat in his front yard. Not a canoe-sized boat. Not a boat made out of wood. But a truly enormous ship larger than most houses. He’s a mechanical genius with a heart for explaining and teaching. I really appreciate his willingness to show mistakes and how he fixed them.
- This Old House – Yes, this one is on the PBS app too, but the YouTube channel has every season since 2005. It’s fun to see how trends and technology have changed (or not!) in the 10 years its been available online. And who doesn’t smile in amazement when Tommy freehands a complicated joint with his circular saw faster than you or I could take a sip of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Yes, I do have a soft spot for the Boston traditions :).
As with all things in our extremely frugal life, we’re flexible about the TV we watch. We don’t require perfection or the latest and greatest television set or the newest, hippest program options. What little TV we do watch, we appreciate. But I tend to think it’s another area where moderation leads to greater enjoyment. And, the money we save by forgoing cable, Netflix, and the like is just another factor in our ability to save 71% of our incomes every year. It all adds up, my frugal friends!