These days, they are still out there, but they have rivals in the realm of zealotry: people who do watch television ??? sometimes plenty of it ??? but don???t own a cable box.
Those who belong to this crowd are only too happy to remind you that they can watch most of what you watch, but don???t pay $60 a month or more for the privilege. They will explain gleefully how they (legally, for the most part) circumvent the cable companies. And they are becoming more voluble, as cable bills rise and technology improves.
???I tell everybody at my workplace about it all the time,??? said Sundance McClure, a Web developer from Lakeside, Calif., who canceled his cable service nine months ago when the cost inched toward $100 a month.
Whenever colleagues talk about what they watch on TV, he said, ???I always tell them, ???Yeah, well, you know, we don???t have to pay for any of that.??? ???
Whether this makes Mr. McClure popular at the office does not seem to be the point. He gains pleasure from watching hours of television a day with the help of PlayOn, a $40 software download that aggregates Internet content and streams it to his Xbox 360, a game console attached to his TV.
It???s impossible to quantify how many people have ditched their cable service, and the cable providers are eager to paint them as a minority fringe. But with devices like Xbox and Apple TV and software like Boxee making it easy to stream Internet content to a television, mention the phenomenon in just about any gathering, and someone is likely to pipe up about his or her way of watching cable free. And, yes, by and large they do enjoy making other people jealous.
???The two questions I get asked most often are, one, ???Do you really save that kind of money???? and two, ???Can you really see everything that you want???? ??? said Gerald Ortega, who has been proudly documenting his divorce from cable since July 2008 on his blog, Replace Television. ???And the answer to both of those is yes.???
And no. Though you shouldn???t expect a cable-cord cutter to volunteer this information, a monthly bill is not the only thing you must do without. Because they command hefty advertising rates, few sporting events are streamed live. Premium channels like HBO and Showtime also keep their original programming behind a pay wall, since they rely largely on subscriber revenue. So a rabid football or ???True Blood??? fan who decides to dump cable had better have some very hospitable neighbors (preferably, ones with a premium package).
There are various and baffling reasons that some shows are available online and some are not (it has everything to do with contracts and money and nothing to do with technology). A show???s Web site will usually indicate whether episodes are available online or on DVD.
Charles Redell, a magazine reporter in Seattle, learned this the hard way when he invited friends over last year for an annual book swap on what turned out to be Super Bowl Sunday. Suddenly he wasn???t bragging about how he uses DVDs and Hulu.com to watch ???Dexter??? and ???The Office??? on his laptop.
???A couple of our friends are really into football, and we had no idea it was on,??? he said. Fortunately, before any friendships were severed, an Internet search turned up a live, illegal feed of the game from China on Justin.TV, a video streaming site.
Nonsubscribers may also find themselves playing catch-up when news breaks. Although there are plenty of places to find the latest news online, it???s hard to find the sort of narrated news program that people expect when they turn on the television. ???The election last November was a bit of a nail biter,??? said Mr. Ortega, the blogger, ???and Michael Jackson???s death kind of came out of nowhere.???
But it???s precisely this off-the-grid lifestyle that some people find so alluring. Lauren Reinhold, a stay-at-home mother in Lawrence, Kan., canceled her cable service largely to reduce the amount of advertising her children saw. She started a Facebook group for cord cutters to share tips and cheer one another on.
???We???re kind of pioneers,??? she said. ???The easy thing to do is to have cable, so you???ve got to do things a little bit differently and be a little bit tech-savvy.???
Social media can actually pose a problem for people without cable: because they must wait for shows to be available on the Web or DVD, they sometimes must avoid sites like Twitter and Facebook, which are minefields of episode spoilers.
???For certain things, like the ???Mad Men??? finale, I just had to stay offline completely till I was able to watch it,??? said Laura Barganier, a 24-year-old publicist on the Upper East Side who has gone without cable since January 2008. Still, she never misses an episode of ???Gossip Girl??? and has lately gotten into MTV???s ???Jersey Shore,??? both of which she watches on her computer anytime after the shows first appear on television.
Cable executives say they are not worried. Setting up a cable-free life is still too daunting for most people, since most of the work-arounds involve a lot more than just grabbing the remote (assuming you can find it under the sofa cushions).
???We don???t consider it a threat to our business,??? said Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable. ???Being able to watch TV on the Internet is not new.???
Without question, the cost of watching television is going up: The average household cable bill in the United States hit $64 a month in 2009, up from $47.50 in 2004, according to Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in media research.
Even so, most cord cutters are ???really just a bizarre breed of people, usually in New York or San Francisco, who don???t watch a lot of television in the first place,??? said Bruce Leichtman, the president of the New Hampshire-based group.
The numbers back him up. The multichannel video industry, which includes cable and satellite providers, added 1.7 million new subscribers in the last three quarters of 2009 ??? not exactly boom times for discretionary income among Americans.
Some cord cutters think of themselves as taking power away from cable companies, much the way people without land lines have upended the telecommunications industry. But Alan Wurtzel, the president of research at NBC Universal, rejects the analogy.
???You can do everything you need to with a cellphone,??? he said. ???But the fact is you can???t duplicate a conventional television experience online.???
Mr. Ortega concedes that the life is not for everyone. ???As an American, you grow very accustomed to sitting on the sofa and grabbing the remote and just flipping through channels,??? he said. ???And you can???t really do that when you???re Net-based.???
For some people, life without cable proves too difficult. Baratunde Thurston, a comedian and editor at The Onion, got rid of his cable service in 2008 to save money but resubscribed after he started hosting ???Popular Science???s Future Of??? on the Science Channel ??? a show that is not available online.
???I literally got cable again to watch myself on television,??? he said, adding, ???I feel like I???ve let the movement down.???