My cord-cutting journey starts almost three years ago when we bought our first house. As busy millennials, we just didn’t watch enough TV in a day to justify the incredibly high cable fees we’d have to pay for traditional service, so when we moved out of our parents places (the last place we had had “cable” as we know it), we started the journey to see what we could do without it. Here’s a little outline of what our personal goals were, and where that journey has taken us.
Our TV Goals:
- Get the local CTV station so we could watch the local news every day
- Get a mix of TV shows and movies that met our interests to watch when we have time each day to sit in front of a TV and relax
- Ideally, stay current on some TV series’ we specifically enjoyed from cable too
The goals were simple, but achieving them has gone through many iterations and really highlighted how much of a mess the online video streaming world really is. It’s also been a good demonstration of how nobody truly has a viable IPTV option (that’s legal) to properly “cut the cord” in this landscape yet.
Why not just use a single, legal IPTV service?
There are some IPTV services popping up in Canada that are fully legal and have decent channel selections on par with a traditional cable provider. The problem with these is that they’re provided by companies who also require that they be your ISP as well. I get it – this is probably done for quality of service reasons where they can ensure, as your ISP, that your IPTV remains a high priority item in your bandwidth so you don’t have buffering or poor quality video when consuming a lot of bandwidth elsewhere at the same time. If you let people de-couple their IPTV provider from their ISP, then they’re on their own to control quality of service within their home network, and that’s far beyond what most home users are capable of and will lead to lots of complaints where they think the IPTV is the source of the problem. We pay nothing for our home internet due to our one employer, so I’m not going to switch providers and have to start paying for internet on top of IPTV.
Also, these IPTV services are known to not be that much cheaper than cable TV once you add all the channels you want. They’re all buying their licenses from the same place probably, and so many of the channels are owned by the big cable providers, so why would they want to put a third-party service at an advantage over their own overpriced offerings?
You could go the illegitimate route
Yes, there are endless pages on Kijiji of $15-$20 a month “IPTV” services promising thousands of channels. These are obviously illegal re-broadcasts, and these providers get shut down left, right and centre. Just this week there was a massive bust that took down as many as 5M global IPTV users! I equate these providers to the modern day equivalent of stealing satellite – expect a lot of legwork as providers come and go and get busted. It’s great to save money by stealing cable, but remember that all the shows you’re stealing cable for won’t continue to be made if somewhere along the line someone isn’t legitimately paying for them to provide the funding and viewership they need to continue.
Illegal IPTV streams do open up an interesting discussion though – as a Canadian, why can’t I legally buy channels from another country if I want? Why do we have to close down licensing of these so much and build barriers around who can buy them? Illegal IPTV is especially popular in many immigrant cultures who just want to watch the TV channels and shows that they’d have in their home country, in the language they know best. That’s what makes Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures such large IPTV users. If companies complain about money and funding so much, why not open your networks up to the world and imagine all the size of your potential user base now! This could help drive down costs for the rest of us. Sure, some of the little guys might get drown out in this approach, but we do need a reform in how we handle TV for modern day.
I digress. Back to my approach now.
Starting with an Antenna
I knew I could catch some OTA (Over the Air) stations, including our local CTV station, with a digital antenna. I picked up the ChannelMaster 4221 antenna and ChannelMaster Titan 2 7778 preamp. Using the TV Fool reception checking website, I had an idea of what stations I could expect to pick up at my address in ideal conditions with ideal antenna placement. Since I don’t have an antenna mast on the house and little desire to climb up on our roof to install something, the antenna is currently hung in the highest point of our attic. From that location, I can pick up about ~8 OTA stations. Make sure you read and understand the colour coding of the channel list that TV Fool will present you – you will not get the full list but should definitely get the green ones, and possibly into the higher yellow and maybe some of the top red ones with ideal conditions too. Of the stations I get from the antenna, most of those don’t interest me and are various local stations between where I live and Toronto, but I can get the local CTV station and Global Toronto and those get us the news and some random evening programming that isn’t half bad.
I feed my antenna back into a SiliconDust HDHomeRun network tuner, which then allows me to add it as a TV feed in Emby (or Kodi, or Plex, or whatever you use for media), which we have installed on all our Android TV devices, phones and tablets. SiliconDust has their own app too, but I prefer to consolidate it into our central home media platform of choice.
This is where things get annoying
Local news and programming out of the way, it was time to figure out where our core TV show and movie content would come from now. This exercise showed me just how broken up and segmented the digital streaming market is. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this without having cable. You’re stuck paying for at least one, but probably more, online streaming services, each of which has their own app you have to use, each of which have different exclusive deals with different networks and publishers, and all of which are closed off enough that they don’t integrate to populate media platforms like Plex, Emby, or Kodi. Here’s where I’ve landed on this front:
Netflix – Who doesn’t have it these days? We find Netflix has a huge assortment of TV shows and movies that we both enjoy, and some of their original content has been really catchy and well done too. Only complaint here is that the original TV show content tends to be very short seasons, more like mini-series’ than a proper full-length TV series, there’s a long time between new seasons (often a year or more), and some really great content has never been renewed past the first season. Their app is nice and user friendly, and the offline download capability is useful for when we travel.
CBC Gem – Oh, Canada. CBC has some great original content and short half-hour shows that we enjoy. This app gets free access to a huge amount of content, but the app could use some work. For example, it has no way to simply resume watching the next episode of a series or see your “currently playing” shows list – you have to browse through the full list of content to find your show and find the next episode each and every time you start it. It needs some work; it needs to behave more like a Netflix. They do give you a list of “recently watched” episodes, so I hope this means an “up next” or “continue watching” type of list could be on the horizon?
Amazon Prime Video & Amazon Channels – Prime Video comes with all the regular Prime benefits too, so it’s a bit of a no brainer to have if you shop on Amazon regularly. I’d reckon a lot of Amazon Prime customers who bought Prime for shopping may not even know there’s a whole world of video at their doorstep too. This is the newest service we started using, so I haven’t explored too many of their originals yet, but what we have watched we’ve enjoyed. I want to specifically talk about Amazon Channels though. Channels is new to Canada and allows you to subscribe to channel packages to get live and on-demand TV show access. Getting the StackTV channel package allowed us access to an old favourite: HGTV. It also included a bunch of other networks that my wife really enjoys watching. I would say we primarily bought this for HGTV though.
Channels has a little ways to go though. Amazon’s Prime Video app SUCKS. Just look at the UI in my screenshot below this paragraph. It’s the worst user interface of any video app I’ve ever used, and their attempt to incorporate live channels into it was poorly done. It frustrates me every time I have to use it. Amazon needs to build a proper guide into here as you’d have on a cable TV or IPTV box, and then have the channels show in the guide based on the packages you subscribe to. TV channels currently show as tiles in a menu you have to side scroll through to find the one you want. Channel names and TV show name only shows when the tile is the selected one, and on the mobile app, it doesn’t show name or show name at all (yes, you literally have to start watching a channel on the mobile app to have any clue what channel or show it is!). The on-demand portion of channels is nice but tends to only include the latest season of any given episode, and sometimes even the latest season isn’t complete. I wish we’d get access to all seasons, but that’s ultimately up to the channel provider (Corus Entertainment, in this case).
It would be nice to see Channels expand to include more great packages, but the problem we have in Canada is that a lot of our great TV networks are owned by the companies who own the cable providers (Bell Media and Rogers Media), or are American stations where licensing rarely seems to extend outside of the major cable networks in Canada. It would be great to see some of these networks loosen their hold and let Amazon and other providers pick up their channels, but since that could mean lost TV subscriptions for their own services I’m not holding my breath.
We need standardization
We get everything we need at home now, at the fraction of the cost of traditional cable, but we pay a little more in the extra frustration. We have to hop between different apps depending on what we want to watch, and some apps (looking at you Amazon Prime Video) require a lot of clicking to get to where we need to be to just open a simple live TV stream or TV show.
I’m already paying these providers monthly for their service, so I don’t want to be bound to their apps too. These providers need to open up some form of standardized API where an app like Plex or Emby can add them as media sources and live TV sources.
Imagine being able to browse your Plex library and the content shown is a collection of all the on-demand movies and TV show available from all your paid media subscriptions! Or being able to open the Live TV guide in Plex and it’s a modern guide system containing all your live TV channels offered by any of the media services you have a subscription too. This is partially what makes piracy so appealing. I can do all of that right now with downloaded content and illegal IPTV streams which offer a standardized M3U format. I can have all my TV shows, movies and live TV in a single beautiful app by not paying for it and stealing it. So why can’t I legally pay for it, support these networks and content creators, and do that too? Isn’t that what the networks want – my money?
With even more Netflix competitors on the horizon to launch this year, and so many others already on the market that I didn’t talk about, this lack of a “one size fits all” solution in the market is what drives people to piracy. I’m more than happy to pay several providers if it’s still cheaper than cable (or the same price but I get a wider selection of content), but I want it all under one application and I want to choose whatever application works best for me. We need some serious reform in this market space. It’s well known that people are done with cable, so let’s find a way to make all these providers work together to make Cable 2.0. Let’s make a way to pull together all these separate subscriptions that let people curate their content and put it into one space – exactly what cable companies would do with their legacy cable boxes that took all the channels you paid them for (where they in turn paid all the other networks) and put them in one place for you, but now letting you do this with your own subscriptions, and using whatever application you prefer to do this. I don’t think we’ll ever get there, but I’d like to stay optimistic.