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Nearly a Year without Television

Well, last February when we moved from the West San Fernando Valley to Burbank, for a variety of reasons we decided to not get a cable or satellite TV service. Since we got cable for Internet there was no over-the-air antenna connected to our apartment either. (The cable is swapped from the Master Antenna for the complex to Charter to provide Internet.) I originally blogged about the experience shortly after we started. The announced release of Appletv is a reason to revisit the experiment to date.

Content has been coming from a variety of sources. Some, certainly, is purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store, but most is coming via a legally gray source: bittorrent, justified in my mind by the experimental nature of what I was trying to do. On the plus side, the quality is great and most shows I’ve wanted has been available. Most of the content is encoded with the DivX combination: MPEG-4 Advanced Simple Profile with MP3 audio in an AVI wrapper. This will not play on an iPod nor on an Appletv (to the best of my reading of the specs). To date Apple have only supported MPEG-4 Part 2 Simple Profile natively and officially that’s what’s supported on iPods and Appletv.

Another “plus” (for us, not the industry) is that we watch less TV. There’s no incentive to “just turn it on and kick back” because it’s a blank screen unless we’ve prepared content to watch. Missing from the bittorrent sites are any contemporary Food Network shows (Good Eats and Emeril were watched sporadically). Full seasons are available but mostly not until they’re published on DVD.

Overall, this isn’t something I’d recommend as a solution for anyone really. It’s not television, because television is easy and this is not easy. I have to find the torrent file, made somewhat easier by the availability of RSS feeds to monitor most of the shows we watch, download the torrent file and then wait for it to download. Shows like Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report are usually available within 4 hours of air time on the East Coast (faster than they get to the iTunes Store btw) and are fairly quick to download (occasionally faster than real time, but usually an hour or two).

The shows have to be burnt to disc and played from a DivX/MPEG-4/DVD Player at the TV. All in all, quite clumsy. For the RSS fed stuff I could probably use the Democracy Player which combines RSS with bittorrent but I’d still have to burn to disc.

So nearly 11 months into the experiment, what I really want to do is pay for the content! Seriously, if the pricing was fair (more below) I’d much rather have the convenience of regular release and commercial download, not bittorrent. The trouble is, no-one currently offers what I want and that was the reason for going TV-service-less in the first place!

The sticking points are the lack of content availability (250 shows is narrow head, not even middle tail, let alone Long Tail) and pricing. Putting aside the first for the moment, as there’s nothing we can do about stubborn studios, pricing is a major sticking point.

Prior to the move, we spent $55 a month on a 100 channel Dish Network service, which includes 160 hours a week of Comedy Central, for which Comedy Central got about 60c per subscriber (as near as I can discover – correct me in the comments) but definitely less than $1 a subscriber.

And yet, using Apple’s Season Pass, just two shows – Daily Show and Colbert Report – will cost me $19.95 a month for (no offense) disposable television. We’re currently watching about 40 hours (TV hours) a month of programming. If all were purchased through the iTunes store it would be $59.75. Not much more than the Dish Network purchase, right?

Wrong. For Dish’s $55 a month I get access to (in theory) 640 TV hours a month, not 40. If we watched the average amount of 4.5 hours a day (130 hrs a month) that’s about $180 a month at the iTunes store for what we paid $55 to Dish. Something does not add up.

FWIW, I’d be happy to pay somewhere between 10c and 30c a show for the Daily Show and similar “disposable” (doesn’t bear a second watching) television and 50-75c for content that I’d watch more than once – produced drama and comedy.

The producers are cutting demand by pricing too high to be practical. Get the pricing in line, so my a la carte spend matches (or slightly exceeds, for convenience) my previous bill and I’d much rather pay money for a better service.

The one other place we’re getting content is from podcasts. VH1’s “Best Week Ever” is consistently, easily (and freely) delivered, as is Good Night Burbank, The Show with Ze Frank and some other favorites. But these “true” ISO MPEG-4 files are not supported on the DVD Player (just DivX’s proprietary format incorrectly labeled as MPEG-4) so we have to run cables when we want to watch these. For that alone I’d like the Appletv.






5 responses to “Nearly a Year without Television”

  1. Curtis N.

    “It’s not television, because television is easy and this is not easy.”

    I think that’s what makes something valuable. If it’s easy, is it really worthwhile? Sure, I’ll use my Easy button when available, but it’s the things that I work for which I have a long-term appreciation, and will enjoy the most.

  2. Chris

    I couldn’t agree more. I believe this goes with music too. I think the perfect model for both music and video’s has been created at You choose the file format and the bitrate and are charged for bandwidth rather than on a per song basis (not to mention there’s NO DRM). A song ends up costing 15c for a AAC 190k file. I spend SO much more on music than I ever have before because price isn’t an issue. In my mind it would be a win win for the record companies if they supported this kind of model – customer spends more money and are very satisfied that they didn’t feel like they got ripped off and since it’s so cheap why spend the time to find it on bittorrent, it’s not worth the hassle.

  3. “For Dish’s $55 a month I get access to (in theory) 640 TV hours a month, not 40.”

    For me, downloading shows via iTunes is about quality, not quantity. We do have the most basic of basic cable. So, we still can get the shows that we enjoy. There are literally only two shows we like to download via iTunes: The Office and Heros. Because we are selective about our choices, I wouldn’t describe them as disposable. We like watching when we want. And when Apple TV finally comes out, we’ll be able to watch “where” we want as well.

  4. What this argument leaves out is the discussion of ads. Sure, Dish gets you 640 hours a month, but a good share of that is supported by ads, and that’s why it’s economical. Apple doesn’t sell you shows with those ads. The ads can be skipped, but it’s still a distraction from the show.

  5. With Dish and a PVR I never saw a commercial unless it was one I wanted to watch.

    And I’m not really happy paying a subscription *and* seeing advertising. It should be one or the other. I have no problem with advertiser supported television or micropayment for what I want to watch. As long as the total spend is about $55-70 a month.