Cable TV is an outdated concept. You pay an ever-increasing bill every month for thousands of shows you’ll never watch. When you do want to watch, you have to organize your life around the TV schedule or set up your own DVR.

Buying episodes and streaming TV shows online may be cheaper than paying that cable bill. It all depends on what you want to watch and how much you’re paying for cable — we’ll walk you through what you need to know.

How Much Does Cable TV Cost?

To really crunch these numbers, you’ll need to understand how much you’re actually paying for cable. Cable TV bills vary based on the amount of channels you’re paying for, whether you’re getting a bundle along with Internet and landline phone service, your cable provider, where you live, and so on. Everyone’s cable bill will be a bit different, so understanding what you pay will help you do the math on your own situation.

According to the NPD Group, the average monthly pay-TV bill in the USA was $86 in 2011. NPD predicts the average monthly pay-TV bill in the USA will reach $123 in 2015 and $200 by 2020, so cable TV is only becoming more and more expensive.

Buying, Paid Streaming, and Streaming With Ads

First, let’s run down all the Internet-based TV options available to you. There are several different types of TV streaming services you need to care about:

  • Buying Episodes and Seasons: You can buy individual TV episodes from services like iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play. You can also buy entire seasons at a time, which gives you a buying-in-bulk discount. Standard definition (SD) video files are generally cheaper than high-definition (HD) video files. The nice thing about this option is that you can generally get episodes as soon as they air on TV — buying a season in advance will give you access to them as they come out, but you won’t have to watch commercials. You also get to keep these videos forever, so you can watch them in five years. The disadvantage of this solution compared to services like Netflix is that it’s generally more expensive to buy episodes instead of  waiting for them to appear in an all-you-can-watch streaming service.

  • All-You-Can-Watch Streaming: Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Hulu Plus offer this type of service. For example, for a single $8 monthly fee, you get access to Netflix’s entire catalog of TV shows and movies and can watch as much as you like. If you wanted to watch the entire five seasons of Breaking Bad in a single month, you’d have to pay $8 for Netflix or about $145 to buy the entire series worth of episodes on iTunes. Even if you took a year to watch Breaking Bad, you’d only have to pay $96 plus you’d have the ability to watch whatever else you wanted on Netflix. Amazon Prime works similarly to Netflix but with less selection, while Hulu Plus also shows you commercials even while you’re paying a monthly fee.

  • Free Streaming With Ads: Some TV shows are available for streaming online right after they’re aired and can be watched for free. The downside is that the streams have commercials you have to watch — but, then again, you’d have to watch commercials even if you were paying for TV. Hulu has some free shows with commercials. Other shows are available elsewhere — for example, full episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are available for streaming on each show’s official website. You may also find such episodes on each TV network’s website.

The Price of an Episode

On iTunes, you can expect to pay about $2.99 to $3.49 for an HD episode and $1.99 to $2.49 for an SD episode. You can also buy season passes to get an entire season for cheaper, and these prices will vary depending on the amount of episodes you get in a season.

Some shows are only available by purchasing episodes, even years later. For example, you can’t get old seasons of Game of Thrones on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Instant Video, but you can buy episodes of Game of Thrones on iTunes.

So, When is it Cheaper?

Whether this is cheaper than cable depends on how many TV shows you watch and how new they are. For example, if you’re a person who watches every new TV show the moment it airs, you should stick with cable. On the other hand, if you’re a person who only watches old shows that are available on Netflix, you’d save a lot of money by dropping cable and sticking with Netflix. If you only watched a handful of shows per year, you could buy those shows — or stream them even cheaper if they were available for streaming — and save money by dropping cable.

The cut-off point will vary from person to person depending on the cost of your cable bill, the number of shows you watch, and what services they’re available on. If you’re interested, you should make a list of shows you want to watch. Do some research to see what services they’re available on and how much they cost. Rather than buying every show you watch on iTunes, it’s a better idea to combine an episode-buying service with streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. This can help you save more money.

Let’s say you pay $86 per month for cable. And let’s say you buy TV show seasons at $40 each on iTunes — some will be cheaper. You can then buy two full seasons per month — that’s twenty-four seasons per year — and have some extra money left over to pay for Netflix. This is a very rough example — to get a real one, you need to focus on the specific shows you actually want to watch.

Finding Where Shows Are Available

RELATED: Smart TVs Are Stupid: Why You Don't Really Want a Smart TV

Just Watch allows you to search for TV shows and movies and see where they’re available for streaming or digital purchase. Searching a website like this one is much faster and more convenient than searching every individual service.

Roku streaming boxes also have a universal search feature that allows you to search all your Roku’s channels for content and see where a TV show or movie is available. Of course, the Roku doesn’t support iTunes so not every service will be displayed here. This feature is also only available to Roku users in the USA and not in Canada.

Thanks to wilsontp on the forums for inspiring this article! We hope we’ve given you enough information so you can crunch the numbers and decide whether cutting cable makes financial sense for you.

Image Credit: Alyssa & Colin on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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