Paying bills is never fun, and that goes double for cable TV, the least customer-friendly industry this side of repo men. It's not your imagination—the bill really does balloon every year. From 1995 to 2014 the price of expanded basic cable increased at almost 2½ times the rate of inflation.
But in the past year an explosion of online viewing services has turned cord cutting into child's play, and it can be a very lucrative game. You still need to pay for Internet, but Greg Ireland, research director for multiscreen video at market-analysis firm IDC, estimates that for people with a "double play" bundle—cable TV and Internet in the same bill—canceling cable would save an average of $75 a month. If you switch to online streaming, you could duplicate a basic-cable menu for $34 a month.
The big advantage to streaming is that you generally pay for only what you watch: no more Spike or Oxygen or the Jewelry Channel unless you want it. There are tradeoffs. While cable is essentially one-stop shopping—a single box and a single tier of programs—streaming requires you to be a more active consumer. You'll need to explore various services to find the ones with your favorite shows, then pair them with the right hardware.
The following guide will give you an overview of the major streaming services. Once you know who carries what shows, you can start to mix and match programming that matches your tastes. Or if you want to make it even easier, just pick from one of the seven plans we've put together for viewers of all kinds.
PRICE: $8 a month
MAJOR SHOWS: Empire, Modern Family (pictured), The Mindy Project, Scandal, Seinfeld reruns
Hulu Plus carries the primetime lineups from Fox, NBC, ABC, and the CW, as well as current and archived content from the networks and cable channels like Comedy Central and FX. There's also some exclusive content, including The Mindy Project.
PRICE: $9 a month for high-definition streaming
MAJOR SHOWS: House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black (pictured), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Daredevil
Netflix is a bit like an online premium channel, with a large catalogue of movies and TV shows as well as a growing number of its own, exclusive productions. It can take a while for blockbuster movies to appear on the service, but Netflix's buzzworthy original programming has made it an increasingly popular choice.
PRICE: $20 a month
MAJOR SHOWS: The Walking Dead (pictured), Chopped, ESPN sports
Sling TV delivers more than 20 basic-cable channels, including AMC, TNT, A&E, CNN, and the Food Network (though it doesn't offer archived shows for all channels). It is the only service carrying ESPN and ESPN2.
PRICE: $15 a month
MAJOR SHOWS: Game of Thrones (pictured), True Detective, Veep, Ballers, Girls
HBO was the first premium channel to release a standalone streaming channel. In addition to broadcasting its current slate of shows, HBO Now contains a library of every hit HBO series, as well as its original movies, documentaries, and major sporting events.
PRICE: $11 a month
MAJOR SHOWS: Penny Dreadful, Ray Donovan, Homeland (pictured)
This option is already $4 a month cheaper than HBO Now, and now Hulu subscribers can add it for only $9 a month.
CBS All Access
PRICE: $6 a month
MAJOR SHOWS: NCIS (pictured), The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife
All Access delivers more than 6,500 CBS episodes on demand, including new episodes (available for viewing the next day). All Access subscribers in most markets can also use the service to watch live network content, including sports like pro golf (although NFL games are blacked out).
Amazon Prime Video
PRICE: $99 a year
MAJOR SHOWS: Transparent (pictured), Alpha House, Bosch
Amazon Prime Video is a lot like Netflix in that it mixes a back catalogue of movies and TV shows with a number of exclusive shows. There are many non-TV benefits too, including a music-streaming service, free two-day shipping on Amazon orders, and more.
So far there's no one-stop shop for sports fans. Sling TV offers various college-oriented sports channels (in addition to ESPN), and each major sports league (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) runs its own streaming service. They vary in price but typically cost about $11 a month. The bad news: They tend to black out local games. (For more hard-core, can't-miss-a-game sports fans, see "Sports Fans" in our viewers' guide.)