There’s No Such Thing As Free TV

In the early days of television it appeared the shows were free, just put up an antenna and watch your favorite programs for nothing.  But as we all know, we paid for our viewing by watching commercials.  Then came cable TV.  We paid a small fee to avoid the hassle of messing with antennas, but we still watched a lot of commercials.  However, this started the upward cost of watching television.  Cable providers slowly added more channels and raised their fees.  They even offered commercial free networks like HBO and Showtime, but at an even greater cost.  It’s not uncommon today to pay over $100 a month for cable or satellite access.  Then they charged even more for DVR boxes and services so we could skip over the commercials.

Now people are abandoning their cable/satellite services to save money and going retro by using antennas again, and getting over-the-air (OTA) HD television.  They supplement their viewing variety with Netflix, HTPCs and now DLNA compliant devices.  Getting TV from the Internet gives the illusion that we’ve finally found a way to get free TV.  Don’t count on it.  We still pay $25-50 a month for broadband Internet access, and we still watch a lot of commercials.  And if the movie and television industry has their way, they’ll find new ways to charge us for watching our favorite shows over the Internet.

Netflix, at $8.99 for 1 disc service and streaming video via a Roku box is probably the cheapest way to get the most TV watching bang for the buck.  Now Netflix is under attack by the Hollywood Studios.  As the Business Week article points out, studios don’t like the all-you-can-eat streaming pricing.  They want a cut of the action for each movie you watch, because they consider streaming equal to cable/satellite pay-per-view movies, that cost viewers $4 a pop.  And the studios, like Warner Brothers, want to slow the access to movies that Netflix rents because Netflix is cutting into sales of DVD/BD discs.  I know I don’t buy discs anymore, so I can understand this.  And if you haven’t noticed lately, a lot of streaming content on Netflix started showing expiration dates.  Bummer.

Generations of television viewers who grew up after the Baby Boomers don’t remember “free” TV.  Every house had an antenna sprouting from the roof and you didn’t have to pay a monthly bill to watch your shows.  Of course, we didn’t have the power to skip commercials, and we only had 3-4 channels in our nightly lineup.  We had NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies showing new to broadcast films, and each station had a library of old films they could show at odd hours of the day, usually in the middle of the night.  Life was simple then.  Of course, so were the shows.

Decades later, television shows and movies cost untold millions to make, far more than what broadcast commercials and movie tickets can finance.  Movie makers want to maximize their profits by selling their films several times, in a standard tiered released system where they get the maximum revenue at each stage:

  • Theatrical releases
  • DVD/BD sales
  • Pay-per-view
  • Premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc)
  • Basic cable
  • Broadcast networks
  • [Netflix streaming?]

So where in the hierarchy do they release titles to Internet streaming?  And if DVD/BD sales are hurt by rentals, when do you release titles to Netflix?  Right now, I pay the most for movies because I watch a lot of flicks on the big screen.  I could probably save $500 a year by waiting for movies to come to Netflix.  This is one reason why I don’t care about getting cable TV anymore, or when movies get to Netflix.  But if you aren’t big on going to the movies, this does matter.

The trouble for movie makers is Netflix is so damn efficient and cheap.  Even without streaming, for $8.99 a month you can watch about a 100 movies a year, and with streaming, your selection is overwhelming.  Who needs to watch more?  And if you count that Netflix rents/streams TV shows and documentaries, that makes $8.99 a month the cheapest form of TV watching other than OTA viewing.  Sports is the main thing missing, and probably why more people don’t give up cable/satellite.

Now Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is catching on, allowing you to stream video content off the Internet directly to your TV, without using a computer.  Geeks have been hooking up their computers to their TV for years, but it’s not an elegant consumer oriented solution.  All the major TV manufacturers are starting to build DLNA technology directly into their TVs, meaning you won’t need a Roku box to stream Netflix and Amazon videos.  Each manufacturer can choose which streaming system to support, or in some cases, they can support PC servers like PlayOnTv that will talk to your TV directly, or via your Wii, PS3 or Xbox 360, so you can watch Hulu and other emerging Internet TV networks.

Essentially, online TV networks like, CastTV and are ways to get broadcast and cable network shows free off the Internet, or free if you ignore your ISP bill.  But when content providers realize that these services will undercut services higher up the economic viewing ladder, will they continue to offer their content for free?  Will there be more commercials, or even subscriptions required?

I installed PlayOnTV on our Wii and played around with Hulu.  The Wii remote made a decent TV remote and worked well with the Hulu menu system.  This bit of testing provided an epiphany for me.  Internet TV is like cable TV – too many channels and too much to see!  Since I’ve given up cable TV and lived for a few months with just ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Netflix, I’ve learned to love simplicity.  I thought I wanted more documentaries which Internet TV might offer me, but it’s not worth the hassle of finding them. 

I like the higher quality of watching Blu-ray discs, or even DVD quality, over watching Internet TV quality.  Broadcast HD seems better than cable HD, and Blu-ray 1080p is even better yet.  I’ve gotten used to pristine picture quality, and for me at least, visual quality is better than viewing quantity.  I don’t mind waiting for BD discs to come in the mail.  I know my viewing habits aren’t typical.  My wife is a channel surfer and loves to see what’s on by flipping through hundreds of channels.  If you’re like her, then you’ll need to pay for cable/satellite, or spend the money for Internet TV options.

I pay $16.99/month to Netflix for 2 discs out at a time with Blu-ray.  That’s as cheap as I can get while getting the most TV watching for my dough.  If the movie studios force Netflix to charge more for streaming, I’ll live without streaming.  I’m a little annoyed that Blu-ray discs cost more to buy and rent than DVDs when they look physically identical, but the extra visual quality is worth it to me.  I don’t mind watching Big Love or Weeds months after their HBO and Showtime broadcasts.

TV isn’t free, but it doesn’t have to be expensive either.  How much you pay for TV depends on how impatient you are to see new shows and films.  As I get older I’ll probably stop going to the theater as much, because paying $10 to see a movie the first week it’s out won’t be as important.  I know a lot of old guys who stopped going to the movies altogether.  If you’re young, restless, twitchy and impatient, then you’ll probably love flipping through 300 cable channels and won’t mind paying $100 a month for that pleasure.

When I heard Warner Brothers wanted Netflix to wait a whole month before renting movies that had just gone on sale, I laughed.  At 58, a month is nothing.  To a teenager or twenty-something, waiting a month is probably unbearable.  I’m still finding new movies from the 1930s to watch, and I’ve seen thousands of them already.  I’d much prefer Netflix maintaining it’s low rates than getting movies sooner.  Let the young finance the movie and television industry – if you’re patient you can save your money for retirement.

JWH – 1/17/10

Roku HD – The Future of TV

I bought my wife a Roku HD for Christmas.  She works out of town and wanted Netflix streaming for her little apartment.  Before the Roku HD left the house forever, I thought I’d play with it and see how it compared to my Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 Blu-Ray player.  In a way, I wished I hadn’t, because now I hate my LG BD390 Netflix streaming.

If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have bought the LG BD390.  I spent $100 over my budget to get the highly rated LG BD390 because it had wireless-N built in and Netflix.  The BD390 is great for playing Blu-Ray discs, but has been less than spectacular for Netflix and wireless.  I would have been better off buying a basic Blu-Ray player and the Roku HD, spending the same as I had on the LG BD390.  But I might not even agree with this decision by next Christmas.

I hooked up both the Roku HD and BD390 to the same wired Ethernet.  The BD390 has never liked my Linksys WRT160N version 1 router – but that’s Cisco’s fault.  Cisco won’t update the original model of this router and it needs it.  I mention these annoying tribulations because anyone buying network devices to add to their TV need to be prepared for pitfalls and aggravations.  However, even after I hardwired my den, the BD390 would not consistently work well with Netflix.  My internet reception was usually one half of the gauge or a little over.  On rare occasions I got HD reception and things looked fantastic.  I keep waiting for a BD390 update that would tweak its Netflix feature, but so far I’ve been living with average quality Netflix streaming.

I set up the Roku HD, which was a complete snap.  It’s a tiny device, weighing just ounces.  (Here’s a peak inside the older model.)  I’ve been watching an episode of Farscape every night, streamed via Netflix through my BD390, so I decided to look at the next episode on the Roku HD.  I got 4 dot reception, that’s Roku talk for their streaming quality meter, the highest level of streaming.  I was overwhelmed by how much better the image was over the LG.  On the BD390 I assumed the show was old and the visuals were crude.  But no!  On the Roku HD the make-up, costumes, and sets are gorgeous.   And my wife leaves this weekend taking the Roku HD with her!  Bummer.

This morning I got up and played with the Roku Channel Store and found all kinds of extra content (Mediafly,, Revision3, etc.)  Techie shows I love that drives my wife from the room.  I was amazed by how good Internet TV content looked on my 52” HDTV.  Since I’m already planning on building a HTPC that would replace my BD390, I’m now worried that anything I build won’t be equal to the elegant little Roku box.

Now take all of my enthusiasm for the Roku HD with a grain of salt.  Go to the Roku Forums to read about other people’s experiences.  Not everyone is getting 4 dot reception.  Many fight with bad network connections, rebooting Roku boxes, bad updates, etc.  Also, remember, generally only users with a problem come to the forums to begin with, so we don’t know how many people have fantastic out-of-the-box luck like I did.

But I am in trouble.  I don’t want to watch Netflix streaming on my LG BD390 anymore.  It’s a shame that Farscape isn’t on Blu-Ray, but for now I just put the DVDs into my queue and I’ll be networking the show via USPS mail.  I would jump over to Amazon and order another Roku HD, but I want to wait and see if I can build a HTPC that does a better job instead.  The Roku HD box has a very tiny chip to process the Internet video stream, so I’m wondering if a powerful CPU and GPU can do a better job.  Watching the same episode streamed through my computer looks way better than the BD390, but not as good as the Roku HD, but that might be because I’m sitting twenty inches away from the LCD monitor and I’m sitting ten feet from my HDTV.  Like I said, everything is very iffy with Internet TV watching. looked fantastic blown up to a 52” HDTV via the Roku HD box, but it looks just as great on my computer.

Actually, I’m struck with the overwhelming impression that the Roku HD box foretells the future of TV.  We watched a HD movie over the Roku box and maybe it wasn’t Blu-Ray 1080p quality, but the illusion was damn close.  I gave up Comcast cable to live with over-the-air broadcasts and Netflix and I’ve been very happy.  If I could get all my TV from a little box like the Roku I would.  I’d give up DVDs and Blu-Ray discs too.  In my post about building an HTPC I wanted to reduce my entertainment center from 5 electronic devices connected to my Samsung HD to one. 

If that one device could be something the size of the Roku box that would be even more elegant, but obviously, the solution is to put the little Roku circuit board inside of the TV and have just a TV and sound bar, and even then, why can’t they build a great sound bar into the TV too?  You can see where this is going.  A flat panel on the wall with a power cord and an Ethernet cable.  No HD antenna, cable or satellite cable, and if wireless improved, the future TV wouldn’t even need an Ethernet cable.  While I’m wishing, if they could also take the small circuit board from my Roku SoundBridge M1001 that streams music, and put it inside the TV too, we’d really be living in the future.

In other words, maybe I should hold off on building my HTPC.  By Christmas 2010 or 2011 such a simple elegant TV solution might show up on the market.  There are already TVs out with built-in Internet access, but they are limited.  Obviously, such an Internet TV will bring about a tremendous paradigm change in the TV business.  The Netflix model, of one monthly fee to watch exactly what you want to watch, and only that, is too powerful to ignore.  Why pay big bucks to cable and satellite providers for 250 channels you don’t watch?  Why hassle with HD antennas if the Internet provides better reception.  Why buy DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and mess with storing them when Netflix will do all the work for you?

The Netflix model for video and the Rhapsody model for music should be the standard for the future, but will the content providers allow so many revenue streams to be dammed up?  Will the Roku box change the TV world?  If on-demand streaming content can approach the visual quality of Blu-Ray, why not?

JWH – 12/30/9

HTPC Advice Wanted

I want to build my own Home Theater PC (HTPC) but I have a number of decisions to make that I hope readers can advise me on.  I want to build a low-cost HTPC that also uses as little energy as possible, especially since I will need to leave the machine on 24×7.  The demands of a HTPC can be high, so I’m worried that a green low-powered chip might compromise the project.  I’ve read reviews of a Polywell Mini-ITX HTPC with a  N330 Atom dual processor combined with an NVIDIA ION chipset, using just 23-30w of electricity, but is it powerful enough to do the job?  And is onboard graphics good enough, or will I need a discrete graphics card?  Finally, I’d like my custom HTPC to replace several machines connected to my 52” Samsung DLP HDTV:

  • LG Blu-ray player
  • Pioneer CD/SACD player
  • Toshiba DVD recorder
  • Yamaha 5.1 receiver/amp
  • Roku SoundBridge M1001 media extender

I doubt I can find an internal Blu-Ray optical drive for my HTPC that can replace my SACD player, so it might be time to give up on that technology. I never bought more than a dozen SACDs anyway, but I will miss them.

I want my HTPC to do:

  • Record over-the-air HD broadcasts
  • Offer an elegant program guide to work with the DVR
  • Burn DVDs from shows recorded with DVR
  • Play Blu-Ray and DVD movies
  • Stream video from Netflix and Amazon
  • Stream video from Youtube, Hulu, Boxee, etc.
  • Stream music from Rhapsody, Lala, Pandora, etc.
  • Play music CDs
  • Use the Internet in my den while sitting in my La-Z-Boy
  • Store 200 GB of digital media
  • Be my digital photo librarian and slide projector
  • Be my home file and backup server
  • Run everything from one remote

Question 1:  Can a sound card replace an standalone receiver?

Is it even possible for a HTPC to replace my Yamaha receiver?  My current system has Infinity main and center speakers, and Bose for the rear channels.  I never bought a subwoofer.  I’m wondering if I could replace my receiver and speakers with some decent PC speakers or an amplified sound bar?  I’m not a audiophile by any measure, but I like good sound.

Question 2:  What benefits will I get from a more expensive chip?

I’m happy now Windows Media Center is working on my AMD 64 X2 4200+ chip, but would things be much better with a higher powered chip?  For $50-75 I could get a very nice AMD chip.  For $100 I can get a low end Intel Core 2 Duo, or even a AMD X4 chip.  For more than double that I could get a high performance, low watt Intel mobile processor or i5.  What HTPC features benefit from a more expensive chip?

Question 3:  Will onboard graphics be good enough or will I need a good graphics card?

In terms of power consumption and cost, it would be great to live with the graphics built into the motherboard.  I want to watch Internet TV, so how much does the graphics card affect the quality of Hulu and other streaming video sites?  I’m not a big video game fan, but if I could play games hooked up to my big TV that might be fun.  What’s a good green graphics card?

Question 4:  Would I be better off buying or building?

Are there any good HTPC makers that sell systems within the price range of building my own?  It’s a shame Dell can’t sell a Zino with a Blu-Ray player, 1GB drive and dual tuner TV card for $499.  I wouldn’t mind buying a HTPC if it was priced well and came with a warranty, but I’m figuring to get the features I want, at the price I’m willing to pay, will require building it myself.

Question 5:  Is there any reason not to base my system on Windows Media Center?

I’ve been happy with Windows Media Center in Windows 7 for TV recording, so is there any reason to consider another media center application?  I was disappointed that Windows Media Center needed hours to burn a DVD of a 1 hour TV show it had recorded.  Can other media center apps do it much faster?  I’m not sure that Windows Media Center handles large listings of recorded TV shows or MP3 albums very well.  What’s the best program for handling large libraries of media?

Question 6:  How does Hulu and other TV streaming sites look on a large HDTV screen?

I’m worrying about buying a decent video card to stream Hulu TV, but will that investment pay off?  Does TV streamed through Hulu look good on a big TV screen?  I’ll be very disappointed if I buy a video card and Hulu isn’t worth watching.

JWH – 12/28/9

Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 and Terk HDTVa Antenna Pro

My wife gave me and my computer a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 TV tuner card and a Terk HDTVa antenna for Christmas.  I had to do a lot of research before I gave Santa my wish list, but I must have been a very good boy this year because that research paid off perfectly.  I want to build a HTPC for my den, but I thought I’d experiment first by adding over-the-air TV to my computer.  My previous TV tuner card experience consisted of working with an ATI HD-Wonder card on three different computers over the last three years.  What I learned by playing with that TV tuner card is making TV work on a computer leads to high blood pressure and a desire to seek the simple life.  And I’ve found many a blogger that confirmed this lesson. 

I was very worried that Santa would bring me another lump of coal, but I got a cool toy instead!  I knew it helped to have a computer and graphics card with a certain level of oomph and I was worried my old HP Pavillion a6000n with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ and NVIDEA GeForce 8500 GT graphic card lacked the horsepower.  I kept reading Best HDTV Tuner for PC’s over and over, looking for clues and advice, and finally figured I needed a tuner card with a PCIe connector to increase the bandwidth between the card and computer.  I was going to go with their highly rated AVertTV HD Duet, but after comparing the buyer’s comments at Amazon with it and the Hauppauge 1250, I decided to go with the cheaper card. 

Both cards are designed to be simple, tuning either over-the-air TV or clearQAM cable signals.  Make sure you have a PCIe slot free if you buy this type of card.  Best HDTV Tuner for PC’s actually seem to prefer USB tuners, but I was afraid to try them because of poor bandwidth issues with my old PCI based card.

I made a very lucky guess because I popped the 1250 in my PC running Windows 7 Professional and the 1250 was recognized and installed automatically.  In fact Windows Media Center did such an excellent job of configuring the card that I decided not to install the Hauppauge media center software or even try out any of the other media center applications, like XBMC, Boxee, SageTV or MythTV.  I’ll save that research for when I build my den HTPC.

The Terk HDTVa antenna also worked out well.  We have two local channels here in Memphis that still transmit on VHF that causes lots of trouble for indoor antenna users.  I tried the Terk without amplification and couldn’t tune in channels 5 and 13, but the Terk tuned them in great after plugging in its amplifier.

The bundled Hauppauge remote did not work out of the box with Windows Media Center, but I went to the install CD and manually ran IR32.exe and bingo the remote was recognized.  I would love to find a way to get this remote to work with other Windows programs.  I’d like to be able to sit in my reading chair and change music from across the room.  I’d especially love to be able to remote control  However, this brings up another issue for dealing with building a HTPC, and that’s the user interface and how visible it is from across the room.

Even sitting right at the computer with mouse in hand, getting to a particular TV show, photograph, film or song takes a lot of clicking.  Windows Media Center works hard to help, offering many ways to search.   I was delighted by searching for albums by their release year.  I also liked searching through my music by album cover.  However, with over 1200+ CDs, it’s hard to find a particular CD.  This isn’t an Achilles heel of Windows Media Center, but a central problem of all media managers.  Try finding a song from 1200+ CDs in iTunes with a remote from across the room.

The ultimate solution is either to have voice commands like in Star Trek, or have a handheld controller like those from Sonos or remote control programs that work with the iPhone or iPod touch.  Having a touch screen UI on the remote is the way to go now.

One thing I immediately liked about Windows Media Center is it allowed me to list only my preferred TV channels in my guide.  I mainly watch PBS, CBS, ABC, NBC and extremely rarely CW and FOX.  I blocked another dozen plus local channels, and I may block CW and FOX.  This makes my onscreen guide very easy to read.  However, I haven’t found out how to make it jump to a particular time and day.  It will take me awhile to explore the depths of Windows Media Center.  From reviews I’ve read, Windows Media Center is a great program, but some of the other media center applications offer tremendous customization (but with steep learning curves).

Windows Media Center is like a super Windows Media Player, with a  UI that scales up with big lettering for watching on a TV set.  When I build my HTPC for the den, and start using it from across the room, while sitting in my La-Z-Boy with a remote in hand, I’ll know then whether Windows Media Center succeeds or not.  I gave up cable TV to save money and have a very simple TV lifestyle, so any solution I keep must be frustration free.

And any HTPC I build must be simple to use too, and so far Windows Media Center and the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1250 fits the bill.  Right now I have a Blu-Ray player, DVD-recorder and CD/SACD player in my den setup, along with a receiver/amp.  I’d love to build a HTPC that replaced all four boxes so all I had was the HDTV and HTPC.  That would save electricity, reduce my pile of remotes, and may make my TV watching more simplistic.  As I get older, simple often means elegant.

My goal for having a TV tuner in my home office PC is so I can record the news and documentaries and watch them while checking email and web surfing.  Setting up recordings was a snap with Windows Media Center  The image quality is excellent for HD broadcasts, so I might even start watching short shows like The Big Bang Theory at my computer too.  I doubt I’d want to watch movies or hour dramas while seated at the computer.  And if I don’t like watching TV at all on my computer screen I’ll yank out the 1250 card and put it into a new HTPC box for the den.

JWH – 12/25/9

NOVA – Becoming Human

The PBS show NOVA began a three part series called Becoming Human that is an excellent roundup on the science exploring the evolution of humans.  The show aired on Tuesday night but most PBS stations repeats NOVA throughout the week, and you can also watch the episode online.

Evolution is a controversial topic in this country, and a good portion of the population refuse to accept the concept, especially regarding the ascent of man from earlier species.  From the time of Darwin through the Scopes trial, attackers of evolution have claimed that anthropologists have never found the missing link between man and monkey.  Well this show covers a range of fossils that provide a succession of missing links.  Not only that, but the show covers many new theories that go well beyond anything Darwin imagined in the 19th century.  The time range and scope of human evolution is expanding as we gain more evidence.  This is a very rich in ideas documentary.

I doubt this show will change anybody’s mind about evolution, but it does summarize the current knowledge in an excellent manner and provides terrific graphics to help imagine the immensity of the topic.  I do believe that most of the people who refuse to believe in evolution do so because of their religion.  I also believe those religions will die off in the future if they refuse to incorporate scientific knowledge and evolve.

JWH – 11/5/9

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