After all the game show posts we’ve had lately you’d think that we were big TV watchers. But we aren’t, really; not as much as our cable bills would warrant. So over the last year we started seriously considering quitting cable and switching to antenna.
Over the air (OTA) TV isn’t quite like the old days of snowy pictures, rabbit-eared TV sets that you have to wiggle every time a cloud passes by, or towering antenna towers on top of your house. The signal is now HD digital, clean and crisp (no rabbit ears needed); and the antennas are much smaller. You can even use an HD-DVR to record your shows.
First, we took stock of our viewing habits. The shows we watched the most were the Daily Show and Colbert Report on Comedy, a few shows on Discovery, and Jon’s Weather Network. We figured we could DVR Stewart and Colbert from CTV and watch most of the relevant Discovery shows (not all—no Mythbusters) via Discovery’s iPad app beamed to the TV. The one thing holding us back was not being able to get the Weather Network without cable. But after several months of truly eye-popping bills (we had changed our internet service to a different provider, so we were no longer getting “bundle” discounts from Rogers) we decided to bite the bullet, withstand any potential tantrums, and cut the cord.
How many stations you get via OTA depends on your antenna’s direct line of sight from the broadcasting signals. Luckily for us our house is not in a depression (so our antenna wouldn’t have to be too tall), and most of the local channels beam from the CN Tower, which is easily visible from our neighbourhood. The local US stations broadcast from across Lake Ontario, but from a different direction—good, since the strong Canadian signals wouldn’t drown them out. We would actually get two PBS channels, yay!
When we notified Rogers of our plans to leave (because for some reason they need a month’s notice) we got a lot of the expected “hey baby, don’t leave me!”-type calls from them (we had been through this rigmarole before when we switched phone carriers). Interestingly the calls did not also include any great discount deals, so we weren’t even close to tempted. And then, amusingly, after the month was up, we got a pamphlet from Rogers for “New Resident”: Apparently the only possible reason for us quitting cable was that we had moved away!
We’ve been without cable for a couple of months now, and it’s worked out tolerably. After a few days of pouting Jon weaned off his Weather Network reasonably well (with the iPad app to get actual forecast info, and regular forays onto YouTube to hear some of the old, beloved local forecast tunes.)
The one fly in the ointment is the DVR. To my surprise, there isn’t much of a selection of HD-DVR recorders for digital OTA. We have one that is apparently state of the art—when it works it works well, giving us recordings of amazing resolution and quality, from two separate tuners (you can record from two channels at once, woo-hoo!) But the machine is somewhat flawed: The software is buggy, and it occasionally fails to boot (so it can’t record that session) or it crashes for no apparent reason.
And due to the manufacturer’s choice of chipset, it can’t record for more than 45 minutes in any one recording session (though because it has two tuners and can record from both at once, there is a more labour-intensive workaround). Edit: The recording length limitation was due to the format of the external hard drive we had hooked up to the DVR. It was originally PC-formatted, which our Mac computers could easily read and allow us to grab files off the drive. When we formatted the drive to Linux we found we could record to any length but our Macs could no longer read it. We had to purchase software so our computers could read the drive and get files off it. Ain’t technology fun?