A Roku device is a favorite choice of cord cutters. It’s cheaper than some rivals like Apple TV, it’s easy to set up, and it’s easy to use. But can Roku replace cable TV?
I was cord-cutting long before cord-cutting was cool, but I think it can. At least for some people.
The problem with cable TV
Several years ago, a coworker told me a story that I think illustrates all the problems with cable TV. He said there are people who hack cable TV boxes to let you see out-of-market channels. It’s illegal, but it solves problems. “Let’s say you want to watch Seinfeld. There’s always some TV station somewhere playing an episode of Seinfeld.”
The problem is that if it’s 9:16 PM and you want to watch Seinfeld and it’s not on any of your local stations at that time, you can’t watch it on cable TV without breaking the law.
The streaming solution
Streaming over your Internet connection neatly solves that issue. It doesn’t matter what any TV station is playing. If I want to watch Seinfeld, all I have to do is find what streaming service Seinfeld is on and subscribe to it. It’ll probably cost less than $10 a month. And then I can watch the series on demand. Chances are the same service will have other movies and TV shows I’m interested in. Every service just becomes a new streaming channel I choose on the Roku device with the remote control, and from there I choose the streaming videos to watch.
So with a $30 device and a couple of $10-per-month services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu, any night can be must-see TV with whatever combination of your favorite shows of all time you want. And it costs a lot less than a monthly cable bill. Oddly enough, even though it costs less, it also subjects you to less advertising, which is nice.
As someone who holds a degree in journalism, I like the idea of you controlling what media you see. A lot of what’s on TV is designed to scare you, not serve you, because it’s really easy to sell stuff to scared people. Streaming gives you more control over the agenda
Problems with streaming
That said, there are some weak spots that keep you from directly replacing cable just with a combination of Amazon Prime, Netflix and/or Hulu and Roku’s many free streaming channels. I’ve come across three. There’s a partial solution to all of them that may be palatable to you, but if not, there’s another, more expensive option for your Roku that still lets you save some money.
Live sports is the biggest problem with cord-cutting. I watch a lot of baseball, so I can subscribe to MLB.tv and watch everything but my local team. Since I live in St. Louis, I can’t watch the Cardinals. I can watch the Kansas City Royals, who happen to be my favorite team. That works, but I know I’m an unusual case. And it’s a problem in the postseason, where MLB gives exclusives to certain cable channels for certain series. I can watch the World Series, but I’ll be limited to audio for some of the playoffs.
But within those limitations, MLB.tv sometimes provides a better experience than cable. I can watch any game live other than the local team’s game. I can choose the home or away broadcasters. Often I can choose the radio broadcasters along with the video. This is nice because sometimes the radio team is better.
Not all sports offer the streaming options that baseball does, but MLB.tv has been a real moneymaker, so other sports are taking notice. Can Roku replace cable TV if you’re a sports fan? Almost. If it’s not quite good enough, look at my last option.
Cable TV news
You can watch clips of most cable TV news networks, but the experience isn’t the same as watching the networks live. As a former journalist I have real problems with modern cable TV news so I don’t really see it as a problem. I’d rather you load the PBS app on your Roku, watch the PBS News Hour and read your local paper and watch an hour or two of sitcoms every day instead of watching hour upon hour of cable TV news. You’ll be better informed and happier, partly because the PBS News Hour doesn’t concern itself with ratings. I once had a journalism instructor cite the PBS News Hour as a problem. “You want unbiased news? It’s on PBS. It’s called MacNeil/Lehrer and no one watches!”
MacNeil and Lehrer are retired now but their show lives on with a different name, even though far too few watch it.
Can Roku replace cable TV for a news junkie? If you’re willing to change how you watch news, it can. But if you don’t like that idea, you can go with my last option.
There’s a lot of kids’ programming on Hulu and Netflix, and the PBS Kids app provides some great kids’ programming for free, but not all popular kids’ shows can be streamed, especially those owned by Disney or Nickelodeon. So depending on what your kids want to watch, you may have to go to my last option as well. Can Roku replace cable TV? Not if you subscribe to Netflix and Hulu and then ask my kids.
Roku can directly replace cable
Technically, you can get a very cable-like experience on Roku if you want it. If you have no other option, you can subscribe to a service that gives you access to live TV cable channels over your Internet service. Basically it’s cable without the cable.
Options include Sling TV, Youtube TV, AT&T’s Directv Now and Sony’s Playstation Vue, all of which work on Roku devices and provide similar functionality. It’s more expensive than Netflix, at $25-$40 a month, but cheaper than cable.
Since all of these services are cheaper than cable, none of them provide every channel. But if you can find one that provides the channels you want, it’s still cheaper than traditional cable. And it gets you around the cable box limits. Each streaming service has a limit on the number of screens you can use at once, but if various screens are using different services, you don’t have the limit problem. I just plug a $30 Roku streaming device into each TV, or get a Roku smart TV, and we’re good.
So, can Roku replace cable TV? It can if you’re willing to spend enough.