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How to cut the cable cord and watch TV now

The Netflix sign on is shown on an iPad in Encinitas, California, April 19,2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The Netflix sign on is shown on an iPad in Encinitas, California, April 19,2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Mitch Lipka

(Reuters) - The monthly cable and Internet bill for the Adrienne Capollupo's Roanoke, Virginia, family had reached $150 when they decided to cut the cord - the one that runs to the television set.

Now Capollupo, 37, estimates that she saves $100 a month, and misses little of what she and her family of three care to watch. She and her husband, Chris Pohlad-Thomas, still get their "Downton Abbey" fix, though they wait a day after new episodes air before they can watch them. Daughter Sophia, 2, gets all the Sesame Street she can handle.

For a total of about $15 a month the family gets shows and films via streaming services Hulu and Netflix. Roku, a $90 device, sends them wirelessly.

The family is part of an accelerating consumer shift away from cable TV and toward alternatives. Some 900,000 U.S. households dropped cable in the past year, almost double the rate the year before, according to Moffett Research, a communications research company.

In fact, ratings firm Nielson Company recently reported that the percentage of American households that don't have TV sets tripled in a year, from 1.1 percent to 3.3 percent - in part because technophiles are doing all their viewing on computers, tablets and other non-TV devices.

"The whole idea of whether I get pay TV or over the Internet is blurring," says Steve Hawley, principal analyst for the Seattle area company Advanced Media Strategies. "Right now, the advantage of pay TV is having more programming. The con is you have to pay for it."

Choosing to cut the cord is the uncomplicated part. Deciding what to do next gets more complex every day. The recent introduction by Google of Chromecast - a $35 device that streams a variety of services from a computer to a TV - joins an already crowded market.

To stream entertainment to their sets, consumers can choose among Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast and others - or stick with the videogame systems they may already have, like Microsoft's Xbox, or DVD and Blu-ray players. Some TVs have built-in streaming applications of their own; watching on a laptop or tablet are also options.

A variety of digital download services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and iTunes can also be searched. Some charge by the show and others charge monthly fees on an all-you-can-watch model.

Certain services are even starting to feature sought-after exclusive content. Netflix has made a splash with "House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey and nominated for nine Emmy awards.

NOT QUITE THERE YET

The switch to streaming is not completely without sacrifice.

"You miss local broadcasts. You miss sports," Hawley says.

You can buy subscription packages for some sports, but sometimes - particularly in the case of Major League Baseball - local team games will be blacked out.

Not every cable or broadcast show is readily available via streaming. Access to most live programming on stations like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News is restricted to those who subscribe to a cable, satellite or telecom service that includes those channels.

You'll also miss most local programming and the local news unless you hook up an HD antenna, where reception can be iffy.

Another obstacle for viewers who leave the pay TV fold is waiting hours or even a day or more after a show has aired before they get access.

It can take some adjustment to choose your shows one by one and watch them on demand, rather than simply surf one service that has everything. And not every streaming service has every film or show, so you may find yourself subscribing to more than one.

There are ways around many of these problems:

- Put up an antenna. If you can't live without sports or local programming, consider setting up your TV to work the old-fashioned way. You can put up an antenna, get a digital converter (not all TVs require this) and watch as much as your antenna will pull in without paying a monthly fee. That can cost as little as $20 for a small in-home antenna to $100 or more for a large roof-mounted one.

- Find out where the shows you care about most are. There are still some you can't get via streaming. CBS' "Person of Interest" isn't available online. "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix you have to stream to watch.

- Choose your devices. You need a computer to use Chromecast; you don't for Roku. You need another Apple device, like an iPad, to get the most out of Apple TV.

- Think about your TV. Smart ones can be pricier but can receive the streams from Hulu and Netflix without any special devices. Some devices require your TV to have an HDMI port to plug in a cable that delivers high-definition signals. Make sure you have what you need for the service you plan to get.

- Pay, watch, repeat. Prepare to go through the entertainment-service shopping experience regularly from now on. In six months, there may be a new menu of services and devices.

(Additional reporting by Beth Pinsker. Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance Editing by Linda Stern and Prudence Crowther)

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