Anyone who gets cable TV or satellite in the U.S. has noticed a pronounced trend over the years: their monthly bill keeps going up. Sure, you can get lots of channels, plus HD channels and DVR functions, but those usually cost extra. According to research from Centris (PDF), the average digital cable bill was nearly $75 last year, and the average monthly satellite TV bill was $69.
What's causing those bills to skyrocket? A lack of competition among cable and satellite providers, and the rising costs of programming. The most recent programming dustup happened when News Corp. demanded carriage fees from Time Warner Cable, and settled before any channels were dropped. Time Warner is planning an upcoming rate hike. Like other traditional media, TV networks (both cable and broadcast) are being squeezed by lower advertising income, and think they can just keep raising the cable bills indefinitely.
Unfortunately for the cable TV industry, they've picked a bad time to raise their rates. Centris found in a separate report (PDF) that due to the economic meltdown, eight percent of U.S. households were likely to cancel their pay TV in the third quarter of '09, and nearly half of households contacted TV providers for discounts or cheaper packages.
Thanks to the rise of Netflix, Hulu and hardware like the Roku box and Apple TV, cutting the cord to cable TV doesn't mean cutting yourself off from your favorite shows and channels. While past experiments at bringing together the web and TV (such as WebTV) have failed, the recent recession has pushed people to pursue their own convergence projects that enable them to watch web content on their TV. Depending on various living room setups and viewing habits, making the changeover from cable to online TV can be complex and maddening. But you're sure to save a bundle of money.
Hardware and Services
The first thing to do when cutting the cord is list the shows you watch regularly, and your favorite TV channels. Next, do a little online research to find out whether those shows appear on the channel's streaming sites (such as NBC.com, CBS.com, etc.) or on Hulu or YouTube. Many shows on pay channels such as HBO don't appear until much later, and usually must be bought via a service such as iTunes.
In addition to what's available online, you might be surprised at the quality of over-the-air broadcast channels since the digital switch-over last year. Many newer TVs only require an antenna to get local broadcast channels, while older TVs need a converter box, which runs from $40 to $80. Plus, some of the programming includes HD content. To find out which digital channels you can get over the airwaves, input your location at the AntennaWeb site.
(Note: Broadcasters recently announced at CES that they would be offering "mobile DTV" so that people could pick up digital broadcast TV on laptops, smartphones and tablets.)
Below is a rundown of some of the more important elements to enjoying TV content via the web. You won't need to get all of them but you can mix and match those that will get you what you need. Most cable quitters find they can get about 95 percent of the TV content they used to watch on cable via the various services below.
This is the box most cable quitters seem to like. It connects to your TV and your computer network, let's you watch Netflix streaming movies, and offers some free and pay options for additional content. It costs $79.99 for SD and $99.99 for an HD model.
It's basically a front-end device to iTunes, letting you download movies and music and play them through your TV. Problem: No TV tuner or DVR functionality.
Digital converter box
If you want to get the digital over-the-air stations in your area, you'll likely need an antenna for newer TVs or this box for older TVs. Cost: $40 to $80.
This small box connects your TV to an external hard drive, letting you play movies, TV shows, photos or music you have downloaded. The standard WD TV is about $79, while the WD TV Live that lets you watch Net content is $119.
It's a TV tuner for a Mac, letting you watch digital over-the-air channels on your Mac, or even on your iPhone with an extra $4.99 app. Cost: $149.95.
Netflix will let you play movies through your XBox 360 or PlayStation 3. There are also a wide variety of TV tuners and other devices that can turn game consoles into home entertainment systems.
Note: If you prefer simply connecting your computer directly to your TV set without any other hardware, you can do that, too. Here's a great video explaining how:
How To Connect Your Laptop To Your Television on Howcast
Services and Sites
The granddaddy of the DVD-by-mail services, Netflix has also become a huge entryway for people who want to dump cable and get TV shows later when they're available on DVD. Netflix also offers unlimited streaming of some movies and TV shows, which works well with a Roku box or other Netflix-ready devices. Cost: $8.99/month for 1 DVD plus unlimited streaming, with various higher cost plans for more DVDs.
The free U.S.-only TV show service is a joint venture between NBC Universal, Fox, and Disney. You are forced to watch commercials before and during TV shows and movies. While it has been an especially popular service for those dumping cable, there has been chatter that Hulu might charge for content at some point. Cost: Free (for now).
Apple's poorly named digital media buying service started out selling music downloads. Then it added a podcast directory, and now sells TV shows and rents/sells movies. Downloading TV shows at $1.99 per episode can get pricey, though there are discounted "Season Passes" and some limited free TV show offers.
The most popular video site on the web also can be accessed through various devices in order to view its content on your TV. These devices include the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 and TiVo.
amazon on demand.jpg
Amazon on Demand
Amazon on Demand
Trying to compete with Netflix and iTunes, Amazon offers quick downloads of various TV shows at similar prices to iTunes. They are playable on Macs or PCs, or on devices that connect your computer to your TV.
Free software that helps you organize TV and movie content on your computer. Currently in beta, the Boxee software will soon come on a special Boxee Box from D-Link for under $200.
Windows software that lets you play Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. from your computer on your TV via a PlayStation 3, Wii or XBox 360. Cost: $39.99 after 14-day free trial.
Popular free file-sharing software for people who trade TV show and movie files. You'll need to search your own conscience to decide whether to download copyrighted material from sites that utilize the torrent system.
Here are a few sample setups of people who get TV content without subscribing to cable.
Roku + Netflix and Amazon
Who: CancelCable.com bloggers
Setup: Roku box that plays Netflix and Amazon content; digital TV converter box.
Quote: "Since we need to be more proactive and select shows from Netflix or Hulu, we read a lot more reviews and tend to sit down and watch complete movies rather than just switching around hundreds of channels."
Dan Milbrath's setup with eyeTV
eyeTV + Mac Mini
Who: Dan Milbrath, product manager, San Francisco
Setup: eyeTV hybrid to get broadcast channels on a Mac Mini; projector for movies; Netflix.
Quote: "I'm intrigued by on-demand, online TV options like those being offered by Amazon and iTunes but I think the pricing is still a bit too steep. $1.99 for a one hour episode of 'Mad Men' is about double what I think they should charge."
AppleTV + PlayStation 3
Who: Leo Prieto, founder of online community Betazeta.com, Santiago, Chile
Setup: AppleTV with iTunes and Boxee; PlayStation 3 playing BitTorrent content, podcasts.
Quote: "I spend less than $30 a month on content, and it's all stuff I decided to watch (and not just 'what was on' or 'what I remembered to record on my DVR'). I also have Boxee on the Apple TV installed, which lets me access lots of public and free podcasts or web shows that aren't available on Apple TV (all free and legal)."
Hulu + laptop
Who: Carla King, author and tech editor, Pt. Richmond, Calif.
Setup: Laptop watching Hulu; uses projector for some movies on Netflix or iTunes.
Quote: "The availability of content of all kinds on the Internet is a terrible distraction for me from tasks at hand and health in general. Whereas before I could cancel my magazine subscriptions and choose not to buy cable TV to keep myself on task with personal and professional goals, I find that today I need to develop my willpower to the utmost."
For many people, the biggest barrier to canceling cable is the loss of live sports. While MLB.com has a package of games you can stream online, and CBS has offered a popular March Madness on Demand stream, many other leagues have been slow on the uptake. Plus, there are often restrictions and blackouts with some online season pass deals. For example, the NBA League Pass Broadband does not include nationally or locally televised games. So if you're living in Boston, you won't be able to see Celtics games online if they are also on TV at the same time (whether they are home or away).
The same goes for other live events, such as awards shows. "Mainly, live TV content is impossible," said Leo Prieto, who gave up cable in 2005. "And most of that live TV content isn't available to download on iTunes later. For example, the Oscars or some sports event. In that case I have to go to BitTorrent and get the show afterwards. I would love iTunes or YouTube to offer live content."
Multimedia reporter Sean Mussenden is also living the cable-free life, and says he believes TVs will eventually come with direct Internet capabilities. He had an interesting take on how his discovery of programs changed without cable.
"When you rely on cable, the easy access to thousands of shows tends to limit your willingness to explore further," he said. "But there are far more options for informative and/or entertaining content beyond cable. Not having having cable has made me more willing to explore. For example, at the moment I'm really enjoying watching talks on Ted.com and MIT's OpenCourseWare. I don't think I'd have discovered either of them if I still had cable."
In many cases, people who have canceled cable still get to see their favorite TV shows, but often much later than those with cable. If they can deal with being a bit behind, and don't mind the tech hassle of setting up a Net-to-TV connection with gear, they're often happy to save money and watch what they want.
If you want to read more about cutting the cable TV cord, check out these sites and stories:
Cable Freedom Is a Click Away at NY Times
You Don't Need Satellite TV When Times Get Tough at News.com
Cancel Cable and Save with Free Internet TV at Digital Trends
Ways To Watch TV Without Paying An Arm And A Leg For Cable Or Satellite at Bible Money Matters
Turn On, Tune Out, Click Here at WSJ (paid subscription required)
Cancel Cable TV by Paul Kedrosky
Cable TV's Big Worry: Taming the Web at NY Times
Who Will Win the Cable Wars? Not You. at Slate
Broadcast TV Networks Want Your Money at The Atlantic
More Fees For Broadcasters Could Hurt Cable Networks' Growth at Dow Jones
Why the Roku Netflix Player Is the First Shot of the Revolution at NY Times
Netflix Agrees To Warner's New Release Delay In Exchange For More Streaming Rights at PaidContent
Have I missed any important elements to cutting the cord? Have you cut the cord and if so, what's your setup? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and I'll update my story with any gear or services I missed.
UPDATE: There has been a lot of commentary on this story when it was linked on the PBS Facebook page. I thought it was worth addressing a few of those comments here:
> Michael Lindemann said, "Interesting that no one mentions cable Internet access as being an upshot to cable access. Interesting article, but it misses at least one key point: The fastest and most reliable way to get home Internet access is through the cable company! In my area, the cable Internet subscription is bundled with the cable service at a discount." That's true. For many people who cut the cord to cable TV, they still are likely to end up paying for Internet service from the cable company.
> Prashant Shah said, "The missing option in the article is the public library, where I've always found not-so-recent shows. Newer shows you need to wait a bit, but then I'm in no hurry." True enough. The public library in many communities offers up free borrowing of TV shows and movies on DVD. The selection can vary from library to library, but the price is right: free, as long as you return them on time.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.
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33 comments so far, Add Yours
Shawn Bouchard said:
January 8, 2010 10:43 AM
Great post Mark! Thanks for putting all these resources together in one place. I use EYE TV and Apple TV but haven't cancelled my cable subscription just yet since our 4 year old would really miss the kids programming and I would miss live sports. I agree with Dan Milbrath's note about pricing for tv shows. Considering this content is available for free from other sources I'd like to see costs lowered. Alternatively, I'd be interested in a Network pass that would enable me to download all the shows I like from a particular network/IP owner. So, if I wanted to subscribe to everything HBO produces it would auto download to my Mac/Apple TV.
Mark Glaser said:
January 8, 2010 12:07 PM
Thanks, Shawn, glad you liked the piece. I think the next step will need to come from content producers such as HBO to decide if they want to continue the model of getting paid for premium cable and DVDs, or whether they want to go direct to consumers via Net distribution. Cable co's say content prices are getting higher, but that seems to go agains the trend of content production and tools getting cheaper and democratized.
peggy treiber said:
January 8, 2010 12:49 PM
there's justin.tv for live sports, too
John Johnson said:
January 8, 2010 12:59 PM
Very nice article.
I'm not sure if this is what Mussenden means by "direct internet capabilities," but there are TVs available now with Netflix and other capabilities built in. Check the Netflix site as a starting point.
Another point of interest is, from what I've experienced, the ad content when watching online is much less than when watching over the air, or on cable. Maybe 2 minutes for a 20 minute show, versus 10 minutes over the air.
Unless its recorded on my MythTV so I can skip commercials, I can't bear to watch regular TV now with its inane commercials.
One final note: I recently called Charter to cancel the video portion of my cable package (Very basic cable TV + Internet = $72/mo). They gave me a deal whereby I have the same services as before, but $10/mo less. Interestingly, the price was the same with or without TV.
It's definitely worth anyone's while to call and tell them you're about to bail and let them work to keep your business.
Tim Halle said:
January 8, 2010 1:27 PM
A couple of downsides here: The quality from netflicks and amazon download and hulu and for that matter everythig else Ive seen is crap. So until such time as we get something close to a consistant 19.4 Mb/sec or enough speed and storage to load up a 25 gig movie, this isnt an option I want. Of course there's good old terrestrial ATSC.
Furthurmore, I see the Comcast merger as a tacit acknowledgement that the jig is up with the standard approach to cable TV and that the future belongs to content owners and people with fast pipes. What really concerns me is that the cable lobby just might get their "High speed lane on the information superhighway" and thereby (for example) Comcast owned NBC content looks just fine but content from other broadcast outlets (especially independant ones) looks like crap or that Comcast (and Cox and Cablevision and the rest of them) require fees from distributers for access to their high speed pipe. From everything I've ever seen of the cable business, this is exactly the kind of thing they'd try to do.
January 8, 2010 1:31 PM
True, live content is one thing missing. However, the second is content you otherwise wouldn't discover.
For instance, a classic movies channel shows films you've never heard of and would never search for, but they have been hand-picked by someone who knows their stuff. Another example is the concept of channel-surfing, annoying so some, but a way of jumping into the middle of something you don't know the name of, but think is interesting enough to stop on and sit through before going back to watch the first half.
Both of these have become natural ways in which we sort through content. Replacing that with a grocery store of sorts assumes A: we know what we are looking for, and B: our tastes are similar to the populace if we want to be able to use ratings as a compass.
There is a big future in having content on demand, but there is also something to be said for live streams of non-live content people can tune into and put their trust into the VJ for.
Joseph Hayes said:
January 8, 2010 8:22 PM
I've rarely had quality issues with Hulu or Netflix, and when it does happen a quick reload usually fixes the problem. I just have two connections to my TV: a PC, and a $40 antenna in the garage that's hooked up through my former cable-TV wiring. Instant access, better picture than I ever got from Bright House, and since I have to have Internet access anyway, free TV!
rick kelley said:
January 10, 2010 2:48 AM
Being an expat living in Ireland, I've adopted many of the suggestions in this article in order to consume some of my favorite US programming. What would prevent me from cutting cable or satellite cold turkey is the quality of streaming video on my 46 inch tv. For example, watching Slingbox or Hulu content that goes from my Laptop to my TV, there's a significant quality loss... and certainly none of the content is in HD.
I would think internet right to the TV might recoup some of the lost quality, but you're still dependent on fast enough web speeds.
Any advice on how to improve that level of quality from web to TV?
Mark Glaser said:
January 10, 2010 9:31 PM
Thanks for the question. One thing I should have mentioned and should update in the story is that there have been some uneven experiences for some people in getting shows online. A lot depends on your gear, your connection quality and connection speed. Those are all improving but they still can vary greatly. For best quality, you're probably best off having a higher speed connection and going to sites that have servers in your country.
January 11, 2010 9:34 AM
I agree with anthonydpaul that beyond identifying the TV shows you already watch, you would ideally also be able to find new movies and shows you'll enjoy as part of a cable cutting set-up. I expect discovery services (like Jinni.com) that are separate from any delivery service and help you choose what to watch from the universe of options, then connect you to watch where you prefer (Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, etc.), will become increasingly important as the number and size of web content sources increases.
January 11, 2010 12:12 PM
This is all great resources, but there is only one that eliminates your cable and your need for a dvr, and that's http://www.myhomedvr.com You can record whatever you want and it's stored online where you then can watch via your PC or phone.
Andres Peluffo said:
January 11, 2010 12:46 PM
I live in Argentina and most of the offers (Netflix in my Xbox, Hulu, ABC.com) are not working here. Anyone knows something better than torrents or something like that?
James Woods said:
January 11, 2010 1:20 PM
LOL, cords and cables are so 2008! LOL
January 11, 2010 1:40 PM
I cancelled cable 6 monnths ago in favor of Netflix (with roku box) and an OTA antenna. I have a 52" 1080P LCD TV. I have been very impressed with the picture quality out of the roku box. It is just a hair shy of the picture I get from my antenna and always worlds better than the standard def picture I got from the cable company. The only caviat to netflix streaming is that you need to have a fast connection to get a good HD picture. The picture will look really bad if you have a slow connection. On my cable company's 5-meg service, I have never had any issues with picture quality.
January 11, 2010 1:52 PM
Ugh. Justin.tv and ustream are useless for live sports. I've tried both of them. Once you actually find a working stream (since the guide is cluttered up by SPAM and garbage links) you have to rely on the stream continuing to function. I tried the Ravens & Patriots game yesterday and the ustream link pooted out about 5 minutes into the 1st quarter. Lame.
And for a lot of us out here in the boonies, an antenna just won't cut it. I have FIOS, but with an antenna we only get about 5 channels in English - the rest of them (another 5 channels) are all in Spanish.
Bittorrent is ok, but it's so 0-day.. and forget shows that are on HGTV or TLC. My wife is addicted to "Hoarders" and "Intervention" along with a few other shows that are on channels underserved by the bittorrent community.
January 11, 2010 2:26 PM
Thanks for the link to my article about how to watch TV without paying for satellite or cable! For a lot of the people mentioning the lack of quality here, you'd be surprised at how good the shows/netflix/hulu/etc look when streaming over the xbox 360..
January 11, 2010 3:23 PM
@Mark This is spot on! However, for those who aren't ubertechs or don't want to live with the frustrations, we might need another option to bridge the gap. TV A La Carte.
It is time for a consumer led movement to bring competition and transparency back to the industry. Hundreds of folks have already signed up in San Francisco. No reason why other cities should be stuck with the same old status quo.
Also, there's a poll revealing which channels cost more... CNN or Fox News? Comedy Central or the Disney Channel? One thing missing is a reason why the average cable bill is $120 per month!
http://TVALacarte.org Join the movement.
January 11, 2010 5:20 PM
I never did understand why I should be paying for cable or satellite TV at all.
Given that 20 minutes of every hour of TV programming contains commercials, the content providers should be paying the cable and satellite carriers to take their material to get those commercials in front of my eyeballs.
January 11, 2010 7:43 PM
We used to rent a DVD maybe once every couple years. So we had no interest in Netflix. It was our deep dislike of Cox Communications (nonstop telemarketing, hard sell tactics, rate hikes, etc) that lead me to discover Netflix about 18 months ago.
I've read a lot of complaints about their on demand content being all old junk. But I think its at least as good of a mix as cable. Plus they're up to 17,000 or so titles. Plus its available on demand. Plus its commercial free. Plus we're paying less than 1/4 as much as we did with Cox. Plus they send us DVDs for free.
Cox never mailed me DVDs for free.
We are on the 2 DVD plan, so that's one for the kids and one for the grown ups. It is SO MUCH BETTER than cable. It took a little adjusting to get used to, but we love it.
If cox offered a much-better-than-basic package at under $10/month that might give me something to think about. Suffice it to say, we won't be going back. We might buy another Roku box some day though...
January 11, 2010 8:25 PM
There are plenty of free to air channels available over satellite including sports channels and PBS, if you own an FTA receiver and know where to point your dish.
Ted Barington said:
January 11, 2010 9:32 PM
You're missing out on more global tv stations. If you want mainstream tv then yeah you can go with cable but other smaller channels or more international channels can't be had for free through cable companies, at least not without paying an arm and a leg.
Whereas services like http://www.freetubetv.net have few live stations that you can actually watch for free, of course it won't necessarily appeal to everyone but if you're not worried about experimenting than you can get a good deal (for the price of $0 you can't really complain).
January 12, 2010 2:51 AM
enjoyed the article, and enjoyed the comments even more.
My two cents (and worth every penny) to cover options that are more "free" than $79+
I recommend readers interested in freeing themselves from a paid subscription service investigate xbmc, boxee, and media portal (in my order of preference).
xbmc is a fantastic media portal player that covers every aspect of media (including music and photo management) that i am interested in outside of traditional broadcast TV.
yes, it is a bit on the technical side to tune to your preferences, but setting it up, using it, and obtaining the "wow" factor takes just a click of the mouse on the setup program.
runs on windows, mac, linux, and xbox.
Patrick Gunderson said:
January 12, 2010 7:22 AM
You noted MLB.com for live baseball. For football, you can buy games at midnight the day after they are played via NFL.com's Game Rewind https://gamerewind.nfl.com/
January 12, 2010 7:33 AM
Currently have the ROKU with Netflix, OTA antenna hooked up to my 60" projection tv & have been without cable/satellite for a year now. Have had to go to the pub occaisionally if I wanted to catch a sporting event that wasn't broadcast OTA. Ironically, met my local chapter of my alumni association by accident as a result. ROKU continues to add additional "channels" to their line up (MLB, Amazon, Pandora, etc.), and ESPN.com now has ESPN360 which has some events available for online viewing. Have three gaming systems set up also, the Opera browser on the Wii allows me to watch some video as well. My one drawback is living close to the airport, sometimes the air traffic scrambles my digital signal, quite annoying. But the Netflix streaming has allowed me to catch up on several tv shows I missed the first time around, DVDs tend to collect dust now.
January 12, 2010 11:36 AM
What about windows media center? with a tv tuner hooked up to the over-the-air broadcast it makes perfect sense. As well as organizing media on the pc and the prospects of plugins for additional functionality.
Oski the Bear said:
January 12, 2010 5:23 PM
I'm really upset with the way comcast has treated me after being a long time customer. I've decided to cancel cable TV and build a media PC where I can download and watch movies anytime I want. Since I live on the west coast, I can watch tv shows at least an hour before it's shown on cable here.
Bye bye cable...
John Piel said:
January 13, 2010 8:49 AM
tvfool.com is the best website for analyzing your local over-the-air tv reception options.
You didn't mention the DTVPal DVR, an excellent, dual-tuner DVR for broadcast television that requires no monthly fees.
Since Vista, windows has offered their media center software as part of the operating system (along with free channel guide services via Zap2It.) I love my Home Theatre PC- what's better than free HDTV?
January 13, 2010 3:32 PM
Thanks so much for this article. I will be forwarding it to my friends. As women there really is not much in the cable packages we care about and we are sick of subsidizing men's sports. Some of the most offensive content is the "women's content channels" where it is impossible to figure what is more offensive, the shows or the advertising. Tivo helps alot but I look forward to cutting the cord.
January 13, 2010 3:36 PM
Check out this website, you can see how much your cable bill would be if you had cable choice. Of course that won't happen because some of the media cartels advertising venues would have zero subscribers.
Beverly Smith said:
January 13, 2010 4:09 PM
I have all along refused to pay for TV-- cable, or otherwise. In the beginning TV programs were always free. You might need an antenna, but you had access.
Now we are being bombarded in from every direction to connect to something with a monthly CHARGE!!! The FCC Director has made a LOT of dreadful changes which are not in the interest of those of us with low incomes!!!
Up until this last change to HD and satellite, I was getting at least 10 good channels. Since the change I have had nothing but trouble, even with paying for an HD box and an antenna!!
EVERYTHING is aimed toward charging a fee to everyone and his or her brother for watching ANYTHING. You suggest just one way around it, but.....
What about those with limited incomes???? What is available for them?
Don't mean to sound harsh, just truthful.
January 13, 2010 9:05 PM
Here is another way cutting the cable helps me. I have kids in the house and if I subscribe to cable a lot of inappropriate content is force fed into my home. Reading about all this unwanted garbage on unwanted garbage channels and then parentally controlling it is a large waste of my time and of course still leaves me paying for the crap that wastes my time. So it would be a tremendous savings of my time if I could cut the cable and only have the shows I select available to the kids.
January 14, 2010 10:49 AM
For sports ESPN360 is pretty solid and Yahoo sports covers many CBS stuff as well. PLus CBS does basketball live during the tourney. But really ESPN 360 is a great free resource.
Eric Elia said:
January 18, 2010 12:23 PM
Great roundup, Mark. I'm thinking Mac Mini, ota HD antenna, EyeTV and a NAS backup for my own setup.
I think however that you are oversimplifying the "decision" that HBO and their peers has to make about cable distribution vs. direct or 'over the top.' Large programmers are receiving multi-billion dollar checks from cable MVPDs, that in turn creates predictable revenue to fund programs like The Pacific, that require feature-film level budgets. The shift you describe, despite consumers asking for it, has significant economic ramifications. Good complement to this piece on the economics behind the industry from Will Richmond here: