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Tube Optimizer: How To Get The Most Cable Channels For Free

photo: jeffgunn

Facebook may have taken over your social life. Can it also help you save money? Perhaps it can, when it comes to your cable bill.

Warner Bros. Entertainment’s recent announcement about its new online movie rental (or purchase) service through Facebook sent ripples through the cable and movie rental industries. While analysts like Goldman Sachs’ Ingrid Chung acknowledged that Facebook might not present a real threat to Netflix in the short term, the announcement highlights changing trends in how people view television and multimedia content.

Traditional television viewing through cable or satellite service is expensive. Costs can average more than $50 per month for cable television, according the U.S. Census Bureau, and those costs are only going up. Earlier this year, Miller Tabak & Co. media analyst David Joyce told CNN Money, “There will always be an increase in cable bills.”

Paying for services that consistently increase in cost while decreasing in use doesn’t make sense from a smart money management perspective. Ron Rule, an e-commerce advisor and the president of web development and marketing firm Primordium, offers his take: “DirecTV’s justification of their monthly price because they give me ‘hundreds of HD channels’ isn’t all that impressive, since I only actually watch about 12 of them.”

If you are looking to save money without sacrificing the movies and shows you enjoy, there is an option to fit every budget. Here are three ways to optimize your cost-per-channel ratio:

Use A Digital Antenna

Approximately 90% of U.S. households can receive at least five local stations over the air using an antenna. For free.

With the 2009 switch to digital TV, the picture is beautifully clear. Gone are the days of forcing your little brother to contort his body position while holding rabbit ears as you furiously find the perfect position that chases static away. There is, in fact, no static: you either have a sharp picture or no picture at all.

HD-integrated televisions, combined with HDTV antennas, allow you to see your favorite television without paying fees for HD packages. Most channels only broadcast the more expensive HD shows during primetime, so though your news broadcast may not be in Hi-Def, you can be sure to catch ‘Glee’ and ‘American Idol’ in all its 1080-pixel glory.

AntennaWeb is a free online tool that can help you locate the right antenna based on geographical maps and signal strengths.

Valerie Reddemann, Founder and President of eco-friendly and socially responsible Greenfee says her family got rid of satellite TV last fall, saving $70 a month. “Instead, we researched and purchased a digital antenna that brings in plenty of channels and three PBS channels. All free. I took our bill from $70/mo to $10 for Netflix.” Granted, there was a one-time investment of $550 for the antenna and Google TV, but given the monthly savings, it paid for itself within eight months. 

Watch Recent Shows For Free Online

Your favorite show Isn’t on a broadcast channel? Don’t panic. Many networks and cable channels (ABC, NBC, CW) provide full-length episodes on their websites for free. Watch them on the computer or transfer them to the television screen using audio-video cables, an HDMI connector or a media player like Boxee or Roku. Most network sites have archived episodes, so you can catch up if you miss a week or two.

Amazon.com recently announced that Amazon Prime members (who pay $79 annually for free shipping upgrades) can now watch 5,000+ movies and tv shows online (through Amazon Video On Demand) for free. If you’re already a Prime member, check here first before paying for a show you can’t find for free. Not a member? If you do a lot of shopping on Amazon anyway, perhaps free TV is a good excuse to upgrade your account.

Though its free service is limited, Hulu.com carries a week’s worth of shows from many channels. Similar sites, like Fancast.com, also aggregate free shows.

Get Premium Content at less than Premium Cost

Netflix content can be streamed instantly to devices including your computer, Wii, Xbox, iPhone, iPad and Windows 7 phone. You can watch unlimited amounts of movies and TV shows over multiple devices for $8 a month. The savings are compelling and you can cancel whenever you want, without penalty. Try pulling that off with your satellite provider.

As we mentioned earlier, Hulu has hundreds of movies available to watch online, all free. For $8 a month, you can upgrade to Hulu Plus for additional premium content, which you can then watch on mobile devices.

You may find that you need a device to hook the Internet and digital shows into your television. Streaming content from providers like Netflix and Amazon VOD are available through digital media devices like Apple TV. For $99, you get access to the iTunes store, Netflix, YouTube, and several television networks, plus all the music and videos in the iTunes libraries on computers in your network. Roku and Boxee offer added access to Pandora and Flickr. TiVo Premiere allows access to your streaming media while recording over 40 hours of HD content for later viewing.

Details about the Warner/Facebook video deal are still forthcoming, but it’s clear that the television industry is moving to an a-la-carte model rather than the traditional cable model. For consumers, this means not having to ask: “Why pay for what you don’t use?” With very little investment, you can watch seemingly endless amounts of movies and television shows, past and present.

Shane Snow is Editor-in-chief of Contently, which contributed this post exclusively for Mint.com.