For those of you that read my previous article on cutting the cord, one of the things that I talked about several times was my desire to watch baseball games. Specifically baseball games that include my Cleveland Indians playing. (Who just swept the Boston Red Sox, by the way. This will be the only time all season that I’m gloating over my first-place team.)
I have tried to do my due diligence, and visited their website to find out what it costs, and what kinds of restrictions I might be subjected to. Right on the registration page (in the fine print at the bottom), there’s some very specific text that made me want to investigate further:
Regular Season Local Live Blackout: All live games on MLB.TV and available through MLB.com At Bat are subject to local blackouts. Such live games will be blacked out in each applicable Club's home television territory, regardless of whether that Club is playing at home or away.
Thankfully, they provide a link to a page to figure out if I’m in the blackout area. It states: “To find out which Club’s live games are blacked out in your current location, click here.” Here’s what I see after following that link:
OK, it’s doing an IP address lookup, and for some reason, it thinks I’m in Michigan! Awesome! I should sign up right now! But wait..what’s that other box at the bottom of the page?
“To find out which Club’s live games are blacked out in the area where you will be watching the game, enter the zip code of that area here and click Go:”
When I do a zip code lookup, the results are a little more bleak:
Three teams are blocked out? That’s crazy! I am no closer than 2 hours from any of these three teams, but they are blacking the games out to me, I assume, because they want me to attend the game instead. This is more confusing than I’d like. There’s no way I can drive 2.5 hours each way, each day there’s an Indians game being played. That’s unreasonable. I should call them to figure out how this is EXACTLY determined, so that I can be confident that I won’t be paying $119 for a season of blacked-out games.
The Phone Call
I decided to call them at their toll-free number, specifically because they encouraged me to on their website:
“If you think we have inaccurately determined your blackout restrictions, you may call Customer Service at 866.800.1275.”
It really didn’t surprise me that “America’s Game” outsources their call center, but I was very patient with the gentleman on the other line. I had a simple question, and figured I could get a simple answer, regardless of the call center’s location in the world.
I explained the situation much like I did for you earlier. I’m getting conflicting results from their website lookup tools, and I just want to know how this will be determined before I subscribe. The final answer I received from the person on the phone was that my billing zip code will ultimately be the deciding factor in which games are blacked out.
That was depressing news.
But I called to his attention another line from their website’s blackout restrictions legalese:
Note MLB.com live game blackouts are determined in part by IP address. MLB.com At Bat live game blackouts are determined using one or more reference points, such as GPS and software within your mobile device. The Zip Code search is offered for general reference only.
This directly conflicts with what the guy on the phone told me, so I just wanted to make sure that I completely understood. In their FAQs, I found another interesting tidbit that I brought up as well:
If you are traveling and are accessing the Internet through a VPN connection (or other secure network connection), you might be getting a blackout message because the host IP Address for the VPN is within the restricted range for the game that you are trying to access. In this case, we suggest that you try the following: log off your the VPN connection (or other secure network connection) and access the Internet through a local connection.
This definitely suggests to me that they will also black out games if I am traveling. So if I were in Seattle for work, I would have the Mariners’ games blacked out. That’s fair, I suppose, but it’s in direct conflict with what the man on the phone is telling me.
I called these points out, and he stuck to his guns. He continued to tell me that zip code was the determining factor, and it was at that point that I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere speaking to him anymore. I was talking to a person reading a script, and NOT someone that can make critical thinking decisions based on the conversation they are currently participating.
Perhaps I can make more headway by emailing them with my specific problem, using screenshots from their website.
The Email Chain
Yesterday, I sent MLB.TV an email at email@example.com. The contents were very similar to my opening paragraphs of this article, including the exact same screenshots:
4/6/2011 7:12 PM
I am considering getting MLB.TV for the season (as I am no longer a cable subscriber), but I'm getting a very confusing message from your website about blackout restrictions.
When I look up my IP address, it gives me this message: [IP IMAGE FROM ABOVE]
And when I do a zip code lookup (for my home address), it gives me this message: [ZIP CODE IMAGE FROM ABOVE]
Which criteria will be used in determining my blackout restrictions? I am a rabid Cleveland Indians fan, but I live 2.5 hours from Progressive Field. I don’t think it’s reasonable to blackout someone who has no capacity to make it to games regularly due to driving distance.
I’m only interested in purchasing an MLB.TV subscription if I can watch the Indians play baseball every day. Otherwise it’s pretty useless to me.
Pretty straightforward, right? Here’s the response I received:
Response Via Email(Customer Support) - 04/07/2011 03:11 PM Dear Jeff Blankenburg,
Thank you for sending your email.
We apologize for the confusion. In order to thoroughly research your inquiry, we will need all of the information listed below. Once received, we will look into this query within 48 hours and advise you accordingly:
1) IP Address (your IP address will be automatically rendered when you log-on to www.whatismyip.com)
2) Email address associated with your account including your zipcode.
3) Team name that you have been blocked from watching
4) The address from which you are attempting to watch the game
Should you have any further questions about your account, please contact Customer Service toll-free at 1-866-800-1275.
Thank you again for taking the time to write.
MLB.com Customer Support
Even though most of those questions don’t apply to my scenario AT ALL, I decided reiterating my point couldn’t hurt, so I answered their questions.
04/07/2011 3:16 PM
1) According to whatismyip.com, my IP address is 220.127.116.11.
2) I do not currently have an account, but my zipcode is 43082.
3) I have not yet been blocked from viewing any team, because I don't have an account yet. I am inquiring about whether a subscription will allow me to watch the Cleveland Indians.
4) I am primarily going to be watching games from my home, at [address redacted].
You can see I’m getting a little annoyed at this point, because it already appears as if they’ve not read my original email message. Here is their well-thought out response to my answers to their questions.
Response Via Email(Customer Support) - 04/07/2011 09:07 PM Dear Jeff Blankenburg :
Thank you for your recent email regarding MLB.TV blackout restrictions.
The below link will take you to the MLB.TV landing page, as the blackout restrictions are stated in full on this page and you may look up individual teams’ blackout zip codes here as well.
Customers are also blacked out within the United States on Saturday afternoons & Sunday evenings due to the fact that networks have exclusive rights to games that are shown during this time period. Our Canadian customers will also find that there are live game restrictions for the Toronto Blue Jays.
If you are still experiencing technical difficulties, please feel free to reply or you may call the toll free customer service number at 1-866-800-1275.
Thank you for using MLB.com.
Customer Response Team
We have officially come full circle. I started with a question that was caused by confusing information on a specific web page, and through some of the most inept customer service I have ever encountered, they have now directed me to visit that web page for the information I‘m seeking. Are you kidding me?
4/8/2011 8:08 AM
This is absolutely ridiculous. I've officially been taken in a giant circle. My initial request stated that the information that I was getting from http://www.mlb.com/mlb/subscriptions/index.jsp was inconsistent, and that I was looking for clarification about what the blackout restrictions actually applied to me.
The IP lookup on your suggested web page tells me that the Detroit Tigers are blacked out:
The below-listed Club(s) is within the searched home television territory, and MLB.TV is subject to blackout for all regular season live games for these Club(s):
Your IP Address: 18.104.22.168
Approximate Zip Code: 48084
The zip code lookup on your suggested web page tells me that the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates are blacked out:
The below-listed Club(s) is within the searched home television territory, and MLB.TV is subject to blackout for all regular season live games for these Club(s):
Approximate Zip Code: 43082
Which one is correct? I don't see a trial of your service available, and I'm not willing to give you $119 only to find out that I can't watch the ONE team that I'm interested in watching.
Can someone give me a clear answer as to what my specific situation will be?
UPDATED (4/11/2011) In a remarkable turn of events, my blog post got me a response that was completely inverse to my experiences thus far. Within two hours of the publication of this article, I received a phone call from the team at MLB.TV. I wish I had gotten some names, but I was caught off guard by the call, and it was moments before I was boarding a plane to Las Vegas for Mix 2011.
There was one gentleman who seemed to be a stakeholder in MLB.TV, and he introduced a technology expert on the call who seemed to be very plugged in to their technology stack and how it would work. We had about a 15 minute phone call, and during that time, they were sympathetic to my situation, and wanted to do anything they could to help. It’s incredibly flattering to know that something I post on my blog can result in an emergency phone call less than 2 hours later. It was really reassuring to have these guys call me, even if it didn’t get me the answer I wanted.
Anyways, after a few minutes of explaining my situation, they confirmed what I’d hoped not to hear: as a non-cable subscriber, I am not capable of watching my home team. With cable, I can get it, but because of blackout restrictions that are specifically in place to protect the cable companies, I’m not able to watch the games any other way. It sucks, but at least they finally gave me a straight answer.
Looks like I’ll be spending some time at a local watering hole to catch my Cleveland Indians.
At the end of January 2011, my family and I cut the cord. What this means, specifically, is that we are no longer be cable television subscribers. (I wish it meant I was cutting that cable from my house, as the term suggests, but since that’s how I get to the Internet, it will stay put.)
I’ve had many people ask me the obvious questions:
You can’t afford cable? That sucks.
How can you not watch television? [Their favorite show] is hilarious!
How will you get all 200+ channels that they offer without paying for cable?
I’ll answer all of those questions in this post, but I want to set a few ground rules for why we’re doing this, what we’re trying to accomplish, and how we measure success.
First, we can absolutely afford cable. We’ve been cable subscribers for 10 years. In fact, our most recent bill from WOW Internet/Cable/Phone was just north of $160. Mind you, that includes $80 for an upgraded Internet connection (15MB down, 2MB up) and a home phone line. (I work from home, and they’re necessities.) So we’re looking at a bill of $80 that makes up JUST our cable television subscription. We ARE doing this to save money, but it’s certainly not because we HAVE to. It’s because $80 seems way too high for what we’re getting (when most of it is available for free.)
Our goal in this experiment was to be able to watch all of the shows we were currently watching, while eliminating the cost of our cable subscription. We watch a TON of television, and if we weren't able to continue watching the shows we love, then cutting the cable isn’t worth it.
In order to be successful, certain criteria HAD to be met. They are:
- We must spend less money each month on television entertainment than we currently are. In our case, this means spending less than $80/month.
- If we need to purchase additional equipment or services, they cannot exceed the amount of money we would have spent just keeping cable for the year. Since we will be cutting $80 a month, this means that we CANNOT spend more than $960 this year on new hardware or services to accommodate or supplement our new situation.
- We must be able to watch all of the shows we are currently watching, including being able to record those shows digitally. While we were willing to concede a minor show here or there, anything we were hooked on HAD to be available.
The Shows We Currently Watch
I mentioned earlier that we watch a ton of television. I’m really not kidding. My wife certainly watches more than I do, but between us, there’s plenty of television watching in our house. Add two children to this mix, and there’s even more. Below is the list of shows we watch currently:
|The Event||NBC||9:00 pm|
|Greek||ABC Family||9:00 pm|
|Being Human||SyFy||9:00 pm|
|Mike and Molly||CBS||9:30 pm|
|Raising Hope||FOX||9:00 pm|
|White Collar||USA||10:00 pm|
|Cougar Town||ABC||9:30 pm|
|Modern Family||ABC||9:00 pm|
|Off the Map||ABC||10:00 pm|
|Better With You||ABC||8:30 pm|
|The Office||NBC||9:00 pm|
|Grey’s Anatomy||ABC||9:00 pm|
|Private Practice||ABC||10:00 pm|
|Perfect Couples||NBC||8:30 pm|
|Royal Pains||USA||9:00 pm|
|Vampire Diaries||CW||8:00 pm|
|Big Bang Theory||CBS||8:00 pm|
|Sh*t My Dad Says||CBS||8:30 pm|
If you take the time to add that all up, it’s 23.5 hours of television a week (when all of the shows are airing new episodes.) In order to pull this off, we were going to need to find ways to continue watching ALL of these shows. This doesn't even count the times that we'll just flip on a re-run of Mythbusters, or Spongebob. These are just newly-aired shows we're counting.
The Technology We Already Had
First, let me give you an inventory of what we already owned. This will vary for each person considering this option, and could potentially be “make or break” for some based on costs. I have not factored these into our cost analysis, because they were hardware and services we were already using. This may not be true for you.
- 2 Xbox 360 consoles – hard drive space, in our solution, does not matter. You can get a brand new Xbox 360 with a 4GB hard drive for $199. This will allow you to watch Netflix, HuluPlus (soon), and anything you record on your Windows 7 PC.
- A Windows 7 PC – technically any PC running Windows 7 Home Premium or higher should be sufficient. You can certainly get one from Dell or HP for less than $400 that includes a cable card. By attaching a HD antenna to your PC, you can turn it into a free DVR. And since your Xbox 360 devices are Media Center Extenders, you can watch this recorded content on your televisions as well.
- A subscription to Netflix – we have had the “3 DVDs out at-a-time” subscription for years now. It has become far more important since we decided to cut the cord, however. Between on-demand streaming of our kids favorite shows, as well as previous seasons of our favorites, there’s much to like about this subscription. (This Netflix subscription is $19.99 a month, but you can get a "streaming-only" subscription for $7.99)
- 3 high-definition televisions – we have one in our bedroom, one in the family room, and one in our finished basement. If your situation has fewer (or more) televisions than this, you might need more (or less) hardware to accomplish this task.
The Technology We Had To Get
Although some of this stuff was gifts from Christmas, I am still counting them as if we had to purchase them.
- 2 Roku XD-S boxes - think of a Roku box as a cable box for the internet. Except there's no monthly fees, and the user interface is better. Each of these boxes cost $99, and they allow us to watch Netflix, HuluPlus, MLB.TV, YouTube, Amazon OnDemand, and hundreds of other online channels.
- Hulu Plus subscription - I'm glad this came out when it did, because it's been a lifesaver. This $7.99/month subscription gets us 90% of the television shows we watch ON our television. Many of you may contend that this is a frivolous service, because all of the content is available on Hulu.com for free, but I have a couple of specific reasons why it's TOTALLY worth it.
- You can’t watch Hulu.com content on your television, only on a computer. If you hook a computer up to your television (we tried it), you then lack remote control capabilities. It’s just more of a headache than the $8 for a subscription that runs right through our Roku boxes.
- It’s like a DVR. I can tell it which shows I like, and it adds them to my queue when they’re published (which is almost always the next morning.)
- Not only does Hulu Plus give me all the new shows as they’re published, but I can also stream the entire history of that show as well. This means that if I decided that I wanted to start watching LOST from the beginning, I can do that. It allows you to catch up on shows you may have missed some of the earlier episodes for.
- It also includes a bunch of shows I didn’t expect to get, like Tosh.0 and the Daily Show on Comedy Central. There’s lots of great stuff to watch anytime we want.
- The one glaring absence from our TV lineup is the Discovery Channel. If you absolutely HAVE to watch Deadliest Catch and Mythbusters when they air, this entire scenario might not be for you. If you can watch them when they make it to Netflix, you’ll still get to watch them.
- 3 High-definition Digital Antennas – this was the final piece of the puzzle for us. We still needed access to our local channels for news and sports at a minimum, but these antennas also provide us the ability to watch our local channels LIVE rather than the next day on Hulu or HuluPlus. I actually got two different models of antenna, and I list them both here:
- Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified HD Antenna – this is probably my preferred choice, but it’s got a little bit of size to it. The picture it receives is true 1080p over the air, and is honesty better than any picture I ever got over cable. In addition, we keep it hidden in a cabinet under our television, and it still works perfectly. Like I said, its only real downside is its size, as it’s probably 12” tall and 14” long. But it’s also stylish to look at, so you might be able to incorporate it into your room without hiding it. I paid $35.97 each at Amazon for two of these.
- RCA ANY1650 Flat Digital Amplified Indoor TV Antenna – this antenna is a completely different form factor, and if hiding it is one of your priorities, definitely look into this one. It’s a flat panel, about the size and shape of a tablet computer (but significantly lighter, of course.) In addition, this one also advertises that you can paint it, so you can hang it on a wall and blend it right in. I paid $40.44 for this on Amazon.
- ESPN3 application on my Xbox 360 – as those of you that know me will note, I’m a pretty avid sports fan. I grew up watching the Cleveland Browns and Indians. That’s not something I’m willing to stop doing. While nearly every NFL game is on CBS or FOX, many college basketball games, and nearly all baseball games aren’t. I’ll get to baseball in the next bullet, but the ESPN3 app lets me watch any of the games that ESPN is showing on their networks, live, for free. I believe this is only because I get my internet connection through a cable provider, however. Without that, this app might not work for you.
- Ah, baseball, my love. How ever will I watch you? As it turns out, MLB.TV provides a subscription for $99 (or $119 for features that are VERY worth the extra $20) a season. This gives you access to EVERY game, EVERY team. They also offer a monthly subscription March – October, but you’ll pay significantly more. The baseball season only just started, and I haven’t pulled the trigger on this one yet. My primary reason is because they have blackout restrictions, and until I am sure I’ll be able to watch my beloved (but sucky) Indians, I’m not ready to pay for it. (Their IP address check says that the Detroit Tigers will be blacked out for me, but their zip code check says that the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, and Pittsburgh Pirates will be blocked out. Very confusing.) If I do pull the trigger on this, though, I can watch it on both of my Roku boxes, as well as any of my PCs. Big win.
So that’s it. There’s certainly some technology you’re going to need to investigate, but here’s the specific financial breakdown:
I was paying $80 a month for a cable subscription. This included three HD DVR boxes, but HD content was otherwise unavailable on any other televisions we have.
I now subscribe to Hulu Plus and potentially MLB.TV (seems likely I’ll get it). Hulu Plus is $7.99 a month, and the $119/year subscription for MLB will cost around $9.99/month. This means that I now have a $17.98/month commitment vs. $80, for a difference of $62/month.
I now own two Roku boxes, and three HD digital antennas. These cost me $310.38, and have no future costs. This basically is the equivalent of 5 months of the savings we’ll encounter from cancelling cable.
So, for us, will break even on our purchases on June 30th, 5 months after we started.
If you were considering cutting the cord, I’d be happy to show you my setup, or answer any questions you may have. If you’ve already done it, I’d love to hear your story/solution. I’m always looking for better ways to do things.