How (and Why) I Cut the Cord: 12 Streaming Basics to Know

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Yesterday I explained why I finally cut the TV cord and a few options available for those who want to do the same. You can never get too basic when breaking down anything. So, here then, some basics about streaming and cord-cutting.

1. If you have a smart TV, you can stream content (like Netflix). Or you can use Amazon Fire TV, Roku or Apple TV, each with multiple options at different price points to hook up to your TV so you can stream. Simple.

2. If you have Netflix, you are streaming. Trust me, some people still don't equate the two. But that's fine. You're doing it, which means you have a toe in the future. Yay.

3. Is there a difference between streaming and cutting the cord? Yes, actually. Because if you have a cable or satellite package but you also watch Netflix, you're just streaming. You are still tethered — either out of old habit or ignorance or fear (that you won't be able to watch live sports, for example; or live local news) to a cable cord. If you were to cancel your cable and satellite you would obviously need a replacement unless you're only going to stream Netflix or Hulu or HBO Now or the upcoming Disney+, which is fine, too. But yes, if you want a new-age variation on what you have right now (but less expensively), you will need what's called "live TV streaming" after you cancel that cable or satellite service. Seriously, that definitely confuses people.

Luckily, you have eight (technically nine, so far) options: AT&T Watch TV ($15); Philo ($20); Sling ($25; it offers two options, Orange and Blue, so they conceivably count as two separate ones). That's the budget tier. Or you choose among five "moderate" options in Hulu + Live TV ($45), PlayStation Vue ($50), YouTube TV ($50), AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now; $50, which includes HBO), or the sports-centric Fubo ($55).

4. Once you have one of those "moderate" services, you have live streaming capability because of the local networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW) they offer, plus regional sports networks specific to your area and teams, and channels like ESPN and, say, NFL Network; plus cable and network news options. So, you are set for live stuff. Plus, of course, each of those services offers a collection of channels like, say, FX or AMC, and that will get you scripted fare that you're streaming. Some will even let you add on, for a price, channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc., which just means that you won't be getting a separate bill from those premium services. 

5. Now that you have a "live TV streaming service" from the ones listed above, you are technically full-service streaming — meaning you have duplicated your cable or satellite package, probably for substantially less money. You are watching whatever came in your Sling TV package or your YouTube TV package, plus you are set up with the capacity to watch an established streamer you already have as well, such as Hulu or Netflix. Via their app.

6. Yes, it's all app-based (snicker all you want at the obviousness of that, but it's still a conceptual hurdle for some). So, your smart TV can have apps downloaded to it (or probably came preloaded with many options). Your Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Apple TV boxes all can download not only the apps for your "live TV streaming service" (example: PlayStation Vue) but from other channels that might not be available on those services. For example, let's say you choose Hulu + Live TV as your "live TV streaming service" but you absolutely want Epix, which it doesn't carry. No problem, you just download the Epix channel app and pay for that directly.

7. Ah, yes, you are now seeing the benefit of places like Amazon Prime etc. letting you "add on" subscription services. It can streamline your bills, if that's a worry. Also, you can sort of see how this works using Amazon as an example: You go online and order Amazon Fire TV. It gets sent to you and you hook it up to your TV. Now you can stream! Then you realize, "Holy shit, I bought Prime for the free two-day shipping but it comes with an entire TV studio making originals and buying up movies and stuff!" So you stream Amazon's new series. And you realize that you can "add on" streaming channels like CBS All Access, Starz, MLB TV, HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Epix, Acorn TV, BritBox etc. It all starts to make sense. (However, here's a backward-looking pop quiz to see if you're getting this: What can't you do with Amazon Prime? Correct – stream live TV. Great answer. You need a "live TV streaming service" for that.)

8. What about PBS?! Oh, don't go there, please. OK, fine, here's the short story: It's very complicated. More complicated than you probably want to hear. But no, there's currently no "live TV streaming service" that carries all of PBS' offerings, which is a key qualifier (you can find what might best be described as mini-PBS channels like PBS Masterpiece and PBS Kids via Amazon Prime; another slice called PBS Living will also be available. YouTube TV has said that it will be the first to announce a deal. (PBS, for its part, seemed less ready to make concrete announcements but has said that yes, at some point, in some way, you might get the full slate on multiple streaming platforms. So stay tuned, I guess? It's not here now, though, because of the aforementioned complications, most having to do with clearance rights for streaming). Another option: Paying $5 a month for PBS Passport, which PBS really considers a donation to the system not a real streaming service, but it does unlock a lot of content not available to stream for free on the PBS website, plus you are being generous. Lastly, want to know a weird trick? If you are in one of these nine cities then this service will essentially let you stream your local PBS channel for free (you can also make a donation to it). It's not on demand. You can't pause it or fast forward anything. But it plays what's on. In the meantime, we wait for the PBS streaming solution. 

9. "Hey, my cable provider cuts me a big discount on my internet if I get it through them and how does that factor in?" Well, yeah, that's the tough love part. If you are one of those people with mixed services, you will have to do the math on how separating things will work for you. I, like lots of people, was getting internet separate from satellite. I would say this as an encouragement: Lots of people think you're still going to be paying less if you unravel things, especially if the financial element to cord-cutting is the most important for you. 

10. A quick word on user interfaces: If you're old enough to remember when cable channels exploded into an unwieldy assortment of choices or the DirecTV menu guide grew to become this never ending scroll of channels that confused you, it probably means that somewhere in your brain pan you previously remember flipping around your TV channels. Like, tuning in one, then the other, then the next one. Which is to say, look, you had to get used to a new way to find things once in your life and you can do it again, especially because, let's not kid ourselves, those cable and satellite "guides" are horrible. If you are young enough where all you've ever experienced is the "ease" of the DirecTV channel menu, well, looking at what PlayStation Vue, Fubo or YouTube TV offers as a navigational home page will probably take some getting used to as well. I wouldn't call any of them intuitive; they are just different. None are perfect. I ended up preferring the YouTube TV interface, but then didn't go with the service. In time, whatever you pick will become second nature or you'll find a life hack for it. 

11. What if you don't want any of these extra channels (you're living only on Netflix, let's say) and you cut the cord primarily to save money. Can you still watch live sports and local networks? Yes! You can actually buy a really cheap indoor antenna that hooks up to your TV and picks up HD-quality over-the-air signals. It's low key and kind of cool. You do you.

12. I documented my journey to cutting the cord in the main story, but you can be sure that yours will be different. As I said there, I heartily recommend this CNET deep-dive if you want a well-researched shortcut to making your decision.