Cut your cable costs with a basic cable TV package

Cable companies don't promote the cheapest TV service, but it's worth searching out

Published: May 07, 2014 10:30 AM

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Lots of folks fed up with high cable bills talk about cutting the cord and dropping cable TV service entirely. But what if you can’t get TV signals with an antenna? There’s a cheap alternative you might not know about—broadcast basic or limited basic cable, which costs just $15 to $20 or so a month.

These basic cable packages include the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) and a handful of other channels, including home shopping, educational, government, and public-access channels. You’d be giving up dozens of cable channels—CNN, HGTV, TNT, and so on—though you could catch some of that programming from streaming services, possibly a season or two behind.

You might have to pay several dollars a month for a set-top box or adapter for each TV since the FCC now allows cable companies to encrypt all transmissions.

For obvious reasons, cable companies don’t push their barebones packages, so be prepared to hunt around your provider’s website to find it. We checked on a few of the biggest companies’ sites to see what we could unearth. On Comcast, a search for “basic cable” turned up a comparison of limited basic versus expanded basic, but no pricing. We had to do a live chat to determine the price: $16.10 a month including one receiver, which is required.

Time Warner Cable made things a little easier. A search for “basic cable” took us to information on “starter TV,” which led us to a page listing the price: $19.99 a month. In one area served by TWC, New York City, all programming is encrypted, so subscribers need either a digital adapter ($1.50 a month) or a set-top box ($11.25 a month). In areas where signals aren’t encrypted, no hardware is required.

It took a little searching to find the basic offering from Cablevision’s Optimum TV service. Its broadcast basic programming costs $15.62 a month, plus $6.95 for the required cable box and remote.

It’s worth asking your cable provider about its most basic programming package. If you can’t find it on the website, call customer service and ask specifically for the lowest-priced, most basic service.

Just beware of a gotcha that could eat into the savings if you currently have a triple-play bundle. Some providers don’t include basic TV service as part of a triple play, so the cost of Internet and phone service will go up if you switch. In that case, you might be better off sticking with the lowest-priced package that does qualify for the triple-play discount. It might be called something like "expanded basic." Make sure you understand the costs before you make any switch in your service.

And don’t rule out an antenna without trying it first. After all, you can’t beat free. The other cheap option is Aereo, but that service is available only in limited markets and is currently embroiled in some legal challenges.

—Eileen McCooey

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