Cutting the cord to curb TV viewing costs

Some area residents are going back to antennas and buying streaming players to watch their shows

By Ryan Cornell

In some regions of the valley, watching TV may be an expensive hobby.

Cable subscriptions are a monthly cost, and then there’s the cost of antennas strong enough to pick up channels from beyond the valley

For $24 a month plus a $40 installation fee, Shentel subscribers can watch a variety of Washington, D.C., stations, including NBC, FOX and CBS, and WHSV-TV from Harrisonburg on the provider’s economy package. The most basic cable plan under Comcast is $30 a month, although it includes several times more channels.

Ed Morano, chief engineer at WHSV-TV, said viewers with antennas can watch ABC, CBS and MyNetworkTV from the station’s digital translator on Signal Knob. A PBS station, WVPT, also has a transmitter located on the mountain.

Morano said most WHSV-TV viewers tune in from farther south.

“Nielsen defines our market as Rockingham, Pendleton and Augusta counties,” he said.

Hugh Breslin, vice president and general manager of WHAG-TV, said the region’s mountainous terrain might impact some viewers with antennas receiving a signal from the Hagerstown NBC affiliate.

“If someone can receive our signal, they’ll get it crystal clear,” he said. “if you can’t, it’ll be black.”

Breslin said the station plans to expand its service in the area, and will add a full-time reporter to its Berryville office in April. That reporter will primarily cover Clarke, Frederick, Warren and Shenandoah counties.

According to antennapoint.com, a website that measures the distance of TV station transmitters, there are five stations within 50 miles of Strasburg: ION, two PBS stations, Harrisonburg’s ABC affiliate and Hagerstown’s NBC affiliate.

Jason Tevalt, home theater lead at Best Buy in Winchester, said local TV viewers can pay a one-time cost starting at about $30 for an antenna to watch these stations, but the price increases along with the range of the antenna.

“The key reason why you can get Hagerstown and Harrisonburg on any of these is the mountains,” he said. “Since you got the 81 corridor, you don’t have to worry about getting across the mountains. To get the D.C. stuff, you have to have that stronger pickup because it’s got to get that signal from over the mountains.”

Some local residents have decided to cut the cable cord altogether and have embraced digital streaming players such as the Roku, which can stream TV shows and movies over a wireless Internet connection using hundreds of apps, including Netflix, HBO GO and Hulu Plus.

Joseph Perricci, sales associate at Radio Shack in Front Royal, said customers could pay between $50 and $100 for the digital streaming player at the store and never have to pay for cable again to watch TV.

“The fact that you buy the equipment and you pay for the channels that you want and you can stop anytime you want,” Perricci said. “No contracts, nothing like that, makes it a pretty useful piece of equipment.”

Middletown resident Austin Harstky tried out the Roku for one week and liked it so much that he persuaded the Stephens City hair salon he works at to buy four.

A lead stylist and makeup artist at the salon, he said he brags about the device to his clients, and many of them have followed his lead.

“I’m all for saving money and still having functionality,” he said. “Forget cable.”

Hartsky said he was paying $180 a month for DirecTV and now pays only $24 per month, which feeds his Hulu Plus, Redbox Instant and Netflix subscriptions.

Another dedicated Roku user, Amanda Young of Strasburg, decided to ditch her cable plan last spring after getting the player as a gift from her family.

She said she had been paying about $80 per month for satellite. Now she just pays $8 a month for movies through Netflix and $2 per episode of current TV shows through Amazon Instant Video.

Perricci noted the fewer commercials and more reliable signal present with a digital streaming player like the Roku.

“I don’t work for [cable providers] at all, but I’d have to imagine they would be at least a little concerned about this,” he said.

The traditional cable model is evolving, Tevalt said.

“We’re getting closer to à la carte programming because the providers of the service — Comcast, AT&T, Cox — now have more power than the broadcasters do,” he said. “So you’re going to see where there’s going to be some unbundling of packages.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com