This article was updated on March 10, 2016.
Cutting the cord might make financial sense, but for many it's a scary prospect.
Yes, you will save money, but is that worth the hours of entertainment you will be forgoing? Is it possible to eliminate your cable bill and not miss your favorite sporting events that dominate the inevitable water cooler conversations the next day at work?
It's possible, but not with any one solution. The top alternative to cable TV involves a three-step approach. You'll need an HDTV antenna, a subscription to DISH Network's (NASDAQ:DISH) Sling TV, and a second subscription to Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX). That will cost you under $100 in upfront costs to buy the HDTV antenna ($24.99 or so on Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN)) and under $40 for a streaming media stick like Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Chromecast or Amazon's own Fire TV Stick. After that, you'll pay $20 a month for Sling TV (or more if you want any of the add-on packages) and $8.99 for Netflix.
Don't be alarmed at all that gear, though. It'll still offer generally a lot of savings over a cable bill, and I'll break down how it works below. It's also worth noting that if you don't care about certain programming you may not need all three, though the cost is so low it's hard to see why anyone wouldn't just go for the whole alternative to cable package.
An HDTV antenna brings you free TV
The days of rabbit ears antennas may be over, but local stations -- specifically the broadcast network affiliates, but others as well -- are still broadcasting over-the-air for free. To get those stations, which in many markets would include NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX, all you need is an HDTV antenna. That's not a big bulky affair, it's a simple box or flat panel which plugs into your TV that can be set up in seconds.
Exactly which stations you get will vary depending upon where you live, but you can check on what's available in your market here. In major metropolitan areas the choices will be extensive, and even getting the networks gives you access to primetime television, the NFL, and a lot of other sports.
Sling TV fills in the live streaming holes
DISH Network has essentially brought cable TV to a streaming service with Sling TV. The company (which has provided me access to the service for review purposes) offers a package of top cable channels, including ESPN, AMC, TBS, and TNT. Sling also includes CNN, HGTV, and Cartoon Network/Adult Swim in its $20 package.
Consumers can add HBO for $15 a month, or packages with more sports, family, news, lifestyle, or movies for $5 each. Sling TV does not have every cable channel, but it has most of the popular ones, and offering ESPN fills in any sports holes left by what's available over the air with your HDTV antenna.
Netflix's content library will augment your programming, too
If having access to most of the top broadcast programming is not enough, Netflix offers subscribers a wealth of original shows as well as a deep archive of movies and television series. The service already has plenty of original content that generate tons of buzz, including Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and it should only get better and more diverse in the future. For instance, the digital streaming service is launching its first talk show (starring Chelsea Handler) in 2016, and it has made movie deals with Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler, so most viewers could probably find something suited to their tastes.
An embarrassment of riches
You could argue that any of these options would be a viable alternative to cable TV. Netflix certainly has enough shows to keep anyone busy for years, and Sling offers many of the most-watched cable channels. Even just an HDTV antenna would give most people a lot to watch, especially for those with more mainstream tastes.
By getting all three though you can cut the cord and still be able to impress the next day at the water cooler.