Living Without Cable TV

Because I’m approaching my retirement years, and contemplating living the last third of my life on a fixed income, I’m spending a lot of time examining how I spend my money.  One of my biggest monthly bills I pay is from Comcast.  I get cable TV, Internet and local/long distant phone service from them, so naturally the bill is going to be big.  Even after I retire, I know I’ll want high speed Internet, so I positively have to budget $50 a month for that.  For now, I’m not ready to be one of those people who live a cell phone only lifestyle.  So that leaves the $120 a month for cable to consider. 

I’ve already cut $23.90 from my bill by returning the bedroom cable box/DVR, so I’m down to $96.  My plan is to quit cable entirely as soon as True Blood season 2 wraps up, but I want to explore just what I desire from cable TV and how much is it worth, and what I will miss when it’s shut off.

Pros of Cable TV

  • Watch shows in DVR time
  • Excellent selection
  • Elegant integration of DVR and guide
  • Channel guide
  • Convenient

Cons of Cable TV

  • Cost
  • Hate paying for channels I don’t use
  • Overwhelmed by the choice of too many channels
  • I watch too much TV

Pros of Over the Air TV

  • Free
  • Non-compressed high-definition
  • PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC actually cover most of what I watch
  • Simple – less to worry about
  • Will watch less TV

Cons of Over the Air TV

  • Must watch in real time
  • No channel guide
  • No DVR unless I build one
  • Missing 9 favorite cable channels

The worst downside of free TV is watching in real time.  I could build a Home Theater PC, but I’ve explored that idea and there’s a great deal of aggravation involved.  [Note to television makers:  Invent an elegant but simple to use over-the-air DVR turner that works with an online guide via the Internet – but doesn’t require the show stopping $13 a month subscription like Tivo.  A 1gb model for $199 would be a killer product.]

I’ve also explored the idea of just getting basic cable, but at $50 a month I still get far more channels than I want, and most of my favorite HD ones would be lost.    [Note to Comcast:  Offer over-the-air local HD channels and my favorite HD cable channels listed below, with a simple DVR for $30 a month and I’d stay with cable.  And I think a lot of people I know who don’t get cable would consider it too.  Or this setup with high-speed Internet and voice for $99.95.]

Most folks I talk to, hate cable because they feel cheated by the huge bill and being forced to buy far more than they want.  Cable needs to reinvent itself.  Since everyone is moving to digital reception and digital TVs, offer a basic HD package for $25 a month, and provide a la carte selection of cable channels at $1 for those with commercials, $2 for those like TCM, without commercials, and whatever the premium channels think they are worth, and then see what people really want.  Also offer bundle packages for those folks who like to buy in quantity.

Which Channels Would We Miss the Most?

My favorites are:

  • The Science Channel (wished it was HD)
  • Discovery Channel HD
  • National Geographic HD
  • History Channel HD
  • Turner Classic Movies (wished it was HD)

My wife wants to add:

  • Home and Garden HD
  • TLC HD
  • Food Network HD
  • DIY Network (wished it was HD)

If we had those 9 channels with PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC – and a DVR with channel guide just for those channels we’d be in TV heaven.  Everything else, Susan and I could get on Netflix.  And if the documentaries I love from those first four cable channels were easily available on Netflix, I could live without them too.  Netflix and streaming Netflix could be everything for me with just PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC for random watching.  Those are our lucky 13 channels.  Currently we’re overwhelmed with two digital tiers, a bunch of premium channels and scads of music channels we never even flip through.

Comcast and other cable companies need to study what people really want.  Ever since I wrote “Saving Money on Cable TV and Internet” a bunch of my friends have come up to me and told me they were thinking about the exact same thing.  Everyone I know hates paying a big cable bill for so many channels they don’t want.

Living the Simple Life

Our culture forces everyone into living with information overload.  I’m predicting a movement towards simplifying life.  Even the young will burn out from Twitter and Facebook overload.  Kids feel bad if they don’t have 800 friends in their social networks, but the reality is you can’t have that many friends.  And you can’t watch 200 TV channels, and the Internet is just as overwhelming.  There’s got to be some consolidation.

Because I won’t get the a la cart cable service I want, I’m going back to four TV channels:  PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC.  Maybe this makes me a TV Luddite, maybe this is bad for the economy, and maybe it will even reduce what I get to learn about the world, but it might also be innovative for my lifestyle.  There’s that old saying about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die, well, too much of the life I will see flashing in front of my eyes will be sedentary in front of a TV.  I regret that.

JWH – 8/29/9

Saving Money on Cable TV and Internet

We pay $163 for cable TV and high speed internet service.  That bothers me, because, for every month we pay $163 now, it means one month we won’t have $163 after we retire.  When my wife and I get too old to work and only have a fixed income, we will probably wish for all those frivolous dollars we once spent.

I know quite a number of young people earning little and older people, either retired, or near retirement age, earning little, that have given up cable and/or Internet access.  I’ve also read it’s one of the first bills to cut when families are downsizing because of the economy.  A lot of young people I know never seemed to develop the cable addition that folks my age have acquired.  So they will spend big dollars on cell phones and Internet, but scrimp on TV.  I also know a number of people now that have no cable TV at all.  Others have given up house phones and Internet too.

If you combine the house phone bill, cell phones bills, Internet access and the cable/satellite TV bill, telecommunication becomes a huge piece of the monthly budget pie.  In our household, it’s bigger than the utility bill or car notes we had in the past, second only to the mortgage.  Last night I watch ABC World News, three episodes of Weeds from a Netflix disc, and recorded an old black and white movie off of TCM.   We pay $4 a day for our cable.  Much of what I watch could be had from over-the-air TV or Netflix.

Free TV

I have helped a number of women in their fifties set up digital TV boxes so they could watch free TV.  This is the absolute cheapest way to have TV, but you only get a handful of channels.  Depending on signal, indoor antennas can be easy to use or annoying.  So far I haven’t met anyone wanting to spend the money on an outdoor antenna.  If you’re lucky, you can get ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX and several other digital stations in HD.  This free option does make life much simpler.  And when the antenna works well, I’m very impressed with the quality of the picture.

Free TV + Netflix

Upping the budget to $8.99 a month, you can get a Netflix subscription and see nearly all movies and a good selection of premium cable shows like Big Love, Mad Men and True Blood, but just delayed by several months.  Most cable TV shows now come out on DVD, so if can wait for your favorite shows, you can watch them in order and without commercials.  This offers the best selection for the least money.

Free TV + Netflix + Internet

If you’re willing to budget another $25-50 for DSL or cable Internet, you can expand your options even more.  If you must have the Internet, then this option is a no-brainer.  Trying to find low-cost Internet access is hard.  There are $10 monthly modem services, but they require a house phone, and many people have ditched landlines to save dough.  I have heard it’s possible to get low-cost DSL without local phone service but it’s a difficult option to arrange since AT&T and Baby Bells push bundled services.  And if you crave the Internet, then you usually crave fast Internet, and that’s about $50 a month.

Now, if you have fast Internet, and you’re willing to be a Do-It-Yourselfer, you can buy or build a Home Theater PC.  This gives you a DVR plus access to streaming TV and downloadable video, including high definition videos.  Think of this as free, on-demand, Internet TV.  Hundreds of thousands of people are experimenting with this now, and cable companies are getting worried.  Internet video quality is constantly improving, with HD becoming common.

With free services like Boxee, Miro and Vuze and a HDMI or DVI cable from your laptop or computer to your HD TV, you can develop your own free on-demand TV library or select from a large lineup of streaming network shows. 

Video is quickly becoming the new medium for communicating over the web.  People have been watching video on their computer screens for years, but now people are finding ways to make their computers into set-top boxes connected to their TVs and controlled by remotes, so they can watch TV as God intended, from the comforts of their La-Z-Boy.  

Cable and satellite TV providers are worried that the Internet will soon provide people with all the TV they want and they will be out of business.  You’d think they’d want to offer a better service for less money to compete.  Follow this link to a Google search for many articles about living without cable TV.  A lot of people are doing it.  I like the concept of cable TV, so I won’t be abandoning it just yet, at least not until season 2 of True Blood is finished.  I just want to find ways to bring down the cost of cable, but if I can’t, I’ll consider abandoning it completely.

Cable/Satellite TV “a la carte”

People often wonder why they can’t lower their cable bill by just buying the channels they love to watch.  Most people watch a handful of favorite channels but have to wade through hundreds of TV and other cable services they just don’t want.  I get 200+ channels but probably watch less than 12.

There’s two obstacles to this problem.  One, if people bought only what they wanted, many cable networks would go out of business, so cable providers fight this option.  Second, as long as cable companies must provide analog channels, those stations you get when you plug your cable wire directly into your cable-ready TV and scan the channels, then they can’t sell channels separately.   When cable companies go to 100% digital, a la carte buying will be technically possible.

Right now, a la carte channel buying is not possible, so it’s only a dream option to save money.

My Dream TV and Cable Internet Service

I don’t mind paying for what I want.  I think my current $163 cable/internet bill is too high!  It should be closer to $75.  What I would love is a perfect convergence of TV and Internet.  I want to buy a la carte just the exact TV networks I want, and I want to own my own equipment so I can customize it.  I’d like a Home Theater PC that played and burned DVDs/Blu-Ray discs, was a DVR recorder for 2 terabytes of shows, played all my own digital media, including MP3 songs, JPG photographs and any collected videos I made or bought, plus streamed music and videos from the Internet.  That means my entertainment system would consist of a TV, home theater PC and speakers, all controlled by one remote.  That would simplify my setup greatly, and save electricity.  Right now I have:

  • HDTV, with remote
  • DVR/cable box with remote
  • Receiver with remote
  • Media player with remote
  • Blu-ray player with remote
  • CD/SACD player with remote

My wife bought me a very nice Logitech programmable universal remote, but I never liked it.  Life was so much easier back when I was growing up.  We had one TV, three channels and no remotes.  Life has gotten too complicated.  I dream of living with one remote and no more than 12 fantastic high-definition TV channels with no damn commercials.  Infinite variety could come from Internet TV.  With fewer TV networks, the quality of TV production should go up.  I would get better shows for my time and money.

JWH – 8/14/9

Where are the Wholesome TV Shows?

I’m wondering if the TV shows I watch make a statement about my personality, or even more, if they influence it.  I constantly argue with my friends about the old nature versus nurture debate, with me believing biology is the stronger force, while my feminist friends holding firm to the power cultural influences.  If my lady friends are right, then television programs us.  If me and my males friends who side with biology are right, then television only reflects our baser instincts.

And I’m sure members of God’s flock will ask: Where do I, an atheist, get the moral authority to judge what’s wholesome about TV.  Maybe I can define “wholesome TV” in a way that both the spiritual minded seeking moral goodness, and the secular wanting uplifting humanism, can agree.  I’m afraid my definition will be tricky because it aims to be two things at once.  Fiction is both a mirror to personality and a microscope examining culture.  To question fiction’s purpose is akin to debugging one’s own programming.

My definition of “Wholesome Television Shows” are those teleplays that reflect positive cultural programming or ones that educate viewers about biology’s influence on human relations.  Wholesome TV should provide inspiring role models and illuminate the weaknesses we should all seek to overcome.  Wholesome fiction should constantly explore what it means to improve oneself and our species.  Whether you are a fundamentalist or a humanist, the desire for wholesome entertainment is a desire to improve the whole. 

TV shows from the 1950s often naively tried to do this, with each episode of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” presenting a moral lesson, and reinforcing conservative beliefs.  Creating wholesome fiction is not the goal of most TV writers, they seek to make money by entertaining.  Most audiences find moralizing condescending.  Uplifting is a very difficult trick to pull off.

The other night I watched an episode of Leave it to Beaver, and then rewatched my favorite science fiction movie, Gattaca.  From my viewpoint, Gattaca is the perfect example of modern, adult wholesome entertainment.  I wonder what Christian fundamentalists would make of my evidence?  Just because I don’t see God in the universe doesn’t mean I don’t see the beauty of spiritually uplifting humanity.  Vincent Freeman’s relentless drive to overcome the dictates of genetics is a uplifting spiritual quest.

The average TV viewer doesn’t want morality plays about improving their souls, they want high impact entertainment that provides fabulous escapism.  In other words, Americans crave boob tube heroin, where they can kick back in their recliners and experience opium intense visions through their flat panel screens.  This adult audience doesn’t want wholesome TV.  Wholesome TV is primary a idealized concept that parents want for their children, and some adults want because they are tired of feeling like Romans at the Coliseum when turning on their TVs.

I’m too old to wonder what I’ll be when I grow up, but I have to wonder how kids today view their future.  And if I was a proud parent, would I want my kids watching television?  If my feminist friends are right, and cultural programming is the dominant influence on personality, then what kind of code are we loading into the brains of today’s rug rats?  As a concession to my feminist friends, young women of 2009 are far different from young women of 1909 or 1809.  I would argue they are the same because of biology, but freed of cultural repression, we are seeing more of their true instinct.

The overwhelming message to kids from modern television, is teaching them that if they aren’t extremely sexual active they are failures, losers and dorks.  Following that, television illustrates that wealth is everything, that money equals sexual partners, freedom, and power.  After that, the subtle message that’s constantly beaten into their heads is violence is the best solution.  Is it any wonder I claim biology is the dominant influence on personality?  Television constantly shows alpha males fighting for prized females, or females going to inhuman efforts to be sexual irresistible.

Don’t get me wrong, modern television does have it’s good messages about tolerance for diversity, preaching ecological education, promoting GLBT acceptance, often dealing with subtle ethical issues, while regularly championing societal underdogs, and exploring political controversial topics of the day.  However, it seldom promotes hard work and discipline and usually sees the academic successful as the socially challenged.  On TV, sarcasm is presented as the supreme method for demonstrating intelligence.

The television shows I like to watch reflect a deep addiction for fiction and escapism, but I can also imagine they could also represent moral failure.  My top three favorite shows right now are Big Love, Dexter and True Blood, in that order.  Critically I’d rate them A+, A+, A-, but none attempt to be Gattaca.  None of them are wholesome, although, strangely enough, I might advocate Dexter, a sympathetic look at a serial killer, as the most wholesome of the bunch. 

Dexter Morgan knows his genetic programming commands him to kill, but he constantly struggles with the ethics of being a serial killer, all the while trying to understand what it means to be a good human, because he knows he’s not.  Don’t get me wrong, I would rate all my favorite shows M30.  I’m not sure people under 30 should watch them.  In fact, I can’t think of any primetime ABC, CBS, NBC show I’d recommend for the under 18 crowd.  Over at Parents Television Council, they could only find one show they gave their Green light to, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.  Most primetime broadcast TV shows are rated Red, and a few Yellow by the stoplight metaphor coding.

The most wholesome network show I watch is The Big Bang Theory, which the above group rates Red.  I love this geek fest show, especially because it’s the only show on TV about scientists, but I’m not sure if it’s a flattering portrayal, and it gives a bad message to kids:  Scientists are comic book reading dweebs, nothing but silly characters who can’t get laid, or worse still, don’t even think about getting laid.  What if television producers create a show about JPL scientists that was realistic, dramatic, inspirational, and encourage kids to believe science was a tremendously exciting career?  Television has totally failed at presenting science to the public.  Science fiction is usually fantasy escapism, and shows like CSI lamely present a silly, simplistic, and inaccurate view of science and technology.  CSI makes science look like slight-of-hand, only reinforcing Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Is all of this a failure of television, or really a failure of fiction?  If we consider non-fiction, then there’s a true abundance of shows worthy of young people’s viewing.  Fictional television fails at presenting role models, and its efforts of cultural programming are mixed.  Nor is fictional programming that educational about burden of biology places on our personality.  It amply illustrates the sex drive, but never reveals it as a burden.  Television only reflects a worship of sex and never deconstructs sexual impulses.  We all know rubbing our genitals together is pleasurable, but why is the quest to find the right frictional partner so common in storytelling?  And if fiction isn’t about sex, it’s about conflict and violence.  Would the Harry Potter books been as satisfying if they lacked all the killing?

Sex and death are natural parts of life, but fiction gives the illusion that sex and death are the most common aspects of life.  By not watching the local news, my crime filled city seems peaceful.  In real life I never see other people having sex.  Mostly I see people struggling to get ahead at their education or work, or improving their house and lawn.  Is the craving for fiction the urge to see what we don’t in normal life?  Is my craving for wholesome television just a craving for what I don’t see in my life?

The defining moral and ethical issue of our lives is global warming.  Will we be the generation that fiddles while Rome burns?  Many scientists are now saying we only have one decade to transform ourselves before our habits push the environment past the point of now return.  We are a generation of Noahs, but instead of building an ark and collecting animals, we’re watching television.  As far as I’m concerned fiction has totally failed to address this issue.

If I had any backbone I’d beat my addiction to fiction and throw it off completely.  I crave wholesome fiction, because I feel it’s a time in our culture when we need it.  However, my addiction to sensational fiction is too great.  It’s beauty is to powerful to ignore.  However I am cutting back on my drug of choice by reading more non-fiction.  Mostly I fix my fiction habit with television and movies, and leave reading to non-fiction, but I’m starting to watch ever more documentaries.  If I was a parent, I’d urge my kids to watch quality documentaries, but there is a third force in the nature-nurture debate that may even be more powerful, and that’s peer pressure. 

The young will find their own art to admire.  We have no choice in the matter.  The young are programmed by biology and fuel by pop culture.  I can’t image what they will look back to in forty years and see in this decade as their wholesome television.  Two and a Half Men is no Leave it to Beaver.  And what kind of role models do Britney Spears, Fergie and Lady GaGa make for young women?  Read this interview with Megan Fox to see an example of a contemporary thoroughly modern Millie.

The moral majority’s demand for wholesome TV is really a tempest in a teapot.  Just watch ABC Family and Disney Channel TV shows.  Are they really that wholesome?  They might be cleaner, but are they uplifting?  And are their shows improving this generation of children?  Is Disney’s Britney Spears a reasonable example of a wholesome upbringing and current role model?

NBC’s ER was a reasonably good wholesome show because it was very positive about doctors and medicine, providing gritty, but realistic role models.  Compare that to Gray’s Anatomy?  Is there any show on TV now that have characters you’d want for your children to admire?  I hate to say it, but Dexter the serial killer is at least aspiring to be a better human.  I don’t even see that in most shows.

JWH – 8/13/9

Big Brother – Baby Boomer Edition

Theoretically, I like the concept of the reality show Big Brother, but watching horny kids in their twenties throw tempests in teacups becomes less appealing every year as I get older.  Youth really is wasted on the young.  With the first season, back in 2000, I thought it was a great anthropological experiment, with us TV viewers observing the private conversations of caged Americans.  The contestants were more aged varied back then, and more unique personality-wise.  Now the shows seems to focus on the young and the randy. 

Big Brother has local editions in 70 countries – see the above Wikipedia link for a rather fascinating account of the worldwide success of this show.  But pardon me if I bitch and moan a bit about the television’s obsessive focus on youth.  Give us reality shows for the over 50 demographic.   Why can’t they have a Big Brother with all Baby Boomer Houseguests?  I’d like to see a dozen people from my generation trapped in the Big Brother House together. We’d see an “Oh, my God, I’m getting old!” melodrama instead.  I could relate to that.  And this summer would have been perfect, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock.

I doubt TV voyeurs would find the same titillating action with boomer houseguests, especially after 10pm.  Would many young internet viewers rise with the dawn to watch the oldsters when they are fresh and frisky?   Would old flabby bodies draw in the same Nielson numbers?  How many Beatles generation women, would want to prance about in their big white granny panties and show off their droopy asses?  Or how many men from the same generation, who once might have had hippie hair and sinewy bodies preen their bald and flabby bods for TV viewers, and as for being studs, reveal their only wood comes in the morning when they are half asleep, or their major lust is to be left alone to drink a beer in peace and quiet, away from female chatter.   

On the other hand, Big Brother Baby Boomer edition might be rather educational for the young.  Listening to my generation talk about their regrets over lost youth could inspire the under 30 crowd to get off their asses and stop watching so much damn TV.  Would teens and twenty-somethings watching fifty-somethings find warm and fuzzy lessons about life?   Or would the inner lives of old house guests be as invisible to young viewers as the inner lives of their parents?

I find the reality shows do have value.  They are very revealing about the varied types of personalities in life.  Unfortunately, most reality shows focus on the brawn and bikinied, who all seem to have a very shallow inner lives.  Or do producers just cut out all the philosophical conversations, and leave just the whining?

And would Baby Boomers debase themselves so willingly in the Food Challenges?  Maybe the young and the clueless are all Big Brother can recruit.  But if we did get to eavesdrop on a bunch of fifty-something imprisoned in the Big Brother House, all sitting around the mini-pool, what would we hear?  Bragging about success?  Soliloquies of regret.  Tales of memory loss and fears over physical decline.  Or would we see examples of fighters, people who won’t go gently into that good night.  Stories of world travel and adventure.  Deep philosophical rants.  Meditations on mystical insights?  Normally, the houseguests are young, and they have their whole life ahead of them, so what would a show be like full of contestants that are heading into retirement?

I wish CBS would change the format of the game.  Most reality shows are based on the idea of eliminating one player each week.  With Big Brother, the appeal to me is the interaction between the players,  I wish they’d invent a system where they kept all players till near the end, then find a way to compete based on a more complicated scoring system.  In real sports, you don’t vote out players.  Eliminating people solely based on likability, or lack of, and chess-play like endgames is getting boring.

I think Head of Household should be an elected position, because the politics for winning it would be far more fun than just a twenty-minute game.  It would give more purpose their daily lives.  To make it more complicated, make the reason to win Head of Household different each week.  One week, they could elect the most ambitious member of their group, and the next, the smartest, or the sexiest, or most scientific, or the most conniving, or even the most spiritual.  Acting and lying would be allowed in these competitions at an extra dimension.  By keeping all the players, there would be more alliance intrigue.  Then have a rush of eliminations in the last two weeks of the show, like in sport playoffs.

Also, make the Food Challenge and other games less clownish, and more elaborate, and maybe longer lasting.  There is too much sitting around doing nothing by the contestants.  Give them more to do, make them work for that half-million.  I’m not sure mature people would put up with all those silly competitions.  And maybe that’s why the producers can only get silly people to want to be on the show.

For example, have a trivia contest that lasts a week.  Allow the players to talk with each other and share guesses.  If the producers gave out a 20 question quiz with really hard answers, imagine how much the contestants would struggle as a group-mind to find the answers, but still selfishly horde answers to be the winner.  Or have an art show contest, giving the players a week to produce a work of original art voted on by the TV public.  Another fun thing, would be to have them build elaborate mouse-trap like gadgets.  A weekly cooking competition would be great for people trapped in their situation.  The current games are getting stale after 10 seasons.

The Big Brother reality TV show is like a science experiment in psychology and sociology.  The producers should work with scholars in these subjects to develop real science worthy experiments, letting the TV viewers in on the setup.  Big Brother 11, the 2009 season, is working with high school cliques.  That might turn out interesting.  It would be fascinating to see the current season run concurrent against the Baby Boomer edition, to see if the same cliques 30 years older play out in the same way.

To be honest, I can barely watch reality shows.  Their novelty has worn off.  I will admit I did find a lot of guilty pleasure in the first seasons of Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, Project Greenlight, and a few others.  I still watch them sometimes to be social and have something to talk about with my friends and workmates, but as a whole they are getting to be a tired concept. 

Yet, I have to wonder if the shows are getting tired, or if it’s me, by getting older.  I do long for shows and movies about people my own age.  And I hate it in reality shows when the token old person gets voted out immediately.  I also hate when the token old person is a nut job.  Or if the old contestants aren’t nutty, they come off bitchy or bossy by the young, and get immediately voted out.

Of course, are there young bloggers out there complaining that the young are totally misrepresented on reality shows, and they would like to see the youth of America get better TV representation?  And why do reality TV producers always make up teams from a collection of token diverse stereotypes?  Why not have an all computer geek Big Brother, or all African American Survivor or GLBT Biggest Loser that might get viewers for forget the personality clichés and see individuals.

I have to give these shows credit for one kind of success.  Watching reality TV reveals deeper personality aspects than what we’re normally exposed to in our day-to-day work lives.  This happens in two ways.  First, the contestants are willing to let more of their inner thinking hang out naked for the world to see, and second, television viewers get to hear thoughts from groups of people they normally never get to know.  How many people would ever get to meet a Richard Hatch in real life?  And I’m not referring to the gay issue per se, but maybe how many people get to meet such unique Machiavellian?

I think reality shows could capitalize on this virtue of theirs by getting past their own successful formula.  What would a reality show reveal if all the players were older than 75?  And why not show foreign reality shows here, with sub-titles and commentary about local customs and traits.  Right now reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor contain a mixture of people, mostly whites in their twenties, one or two black people, maybe a Hispanic or Asian, one gay person for sure, and a token old person, either in their forties or fifties.  Get away from that  PC formula.  For instance, what if Big Brother 11 was composed of all gay contestants, but still organized by the same cliques of Athletes, Populars, Brains and Off-Beat, with a varied age range.  Now that wouldn’t be tired.

JWH – 7/12/9

LG BD390 Blu-Ray Player Part 2

[Update 12/30/9:  After using my BD390 for six months I wrote a new post about it’s Netflix feature.]

I’ve had my LG Blu-Ray player for ten days now, and I’m learning a lot about this specific player, and Blu-Ray players in general.  I had been waiting for the price of a Blu-Ray machine to fall below $200 before buying, which it had, but I ended up spending $150 more for my player because I wanted Draft-N wireless built in, which only LG was offering.  I wanted a Samsung player, like my TV, but Samsung only offered wireless-G that plugged in as a dongle, which I gave a Bronx cheer to as a buying option.

Networking speed is everything.  For the first six days of owning my LG machine I was totally delighted with the built-in Netflix feature.  I was getting the HD bar on their little connection meter, and content looked fabulous.  Then Memphis was hit by a storm that knocked out the power to 129,000 homes (luckily, not mine this time), and networking hasn’t been the same since.  This isn’t LG’s fault, and I hope Comcast will eventually recover, but this lesson from nature has taught me something significant.  Without a very fast broadband connection, don’t count on those extra features of Blu-Ray players that make them cost more.

There are many factors to networking speed.  First, is the wireless speed between the device and your wireless router.  Draft-N is the fastest, and I think this speed is needed for streaming video well.  Then there’s the speed between your house and the Internet.  With Cable Internet, this varies greatly.  Finally, there is the speed of the video servers.  If those machines are hammered, things will be slow no matter how fast the other two connections.

Each evening since the storm, I’ve selected something from my Netflix menu only to be told that my connection was too slow and the machine asked me if I wanted to try anyway.  After hopefully answering yes on several nights, I’ve learned to just say no.  Movies and TV shows that were once quick to load and beautiful to look at were now almost impossible to load and horrible to watch.  Bummer.

I’m not an early adopter, and after several years of Blu-Ray refinements, I had hoped things would be smooth sailing by now.  Not so.  My wife keeps asking me why I don’t take the LG back.  She complained that her DVDs looked better on the old DVD player.  The Gilmore Girls jittered.  I could see it too.  And I had read on the Amazon reviews many complaints about playing DVDs on the LG player, whereas many reviewers said old DVDs looked great.  I got into the setup and changed the screen resolution to automatic, and Susan’s problems disappeared.  That’s one of the many hassles of digital TV, matching the resolution of the content to the resolution set on the TV.  I had set the LG to 1080p, wanting to get the max out of my Blu-Ray discs.  The TV was set to 4:3 for playing DVD TV shows.

So my advice to people getting into this Blu-Ray game is to expect a learning curve.  They aren’t as easy to use as DVD players with old-style analog TVs.  And I also say “buyer beware” to people wanting those new gee-whiz features.

I really wanted Pandora streaming music, a feature offered on Samsung players.  I even wrote LG to see if they were working on it.  Here’s my plea:  “Will the BD 390 be upgraded to handle Pandora streaming music, and Amazon Unbox video?”  Here is LG’s short answer after editing out the flowery marketing speak:  “Unfortunately this unit does not handle Pandora that is a feature of one of our new home theater systems.”  I would have thought their fancy Blu-Ray player was part of their home theater system.  At least I got my reply within 24 hours.

If I had seen LG’s support page before buying the player, I don’t think I would have bought my player.  It doesn’t offer system updates for downloading, or any information about updates.  The unit itself has a menu option for checking for updates, but that only works if you have  the box networked or if put the update on a USB drive and feed it to your machine directly.  But how do you get those updates if the support page doesn’t offer them?  I was also wanting a user forum on the support page.  A Blu-Ray player is essentially a computer.  It has tremendous potential for expansion.  Many great equipment sites have these kinds of features on their support site.

Forums are especially useful because volunteer tech-wizards will offer hard won discovery tips, and company techs will add inside knowledge.  I get the feeling LG wants people to accept what’s listed on the box as the only features their machine will ever have.  They are missing a marketing advantage by not promoting such goodwill.  The menu on the LD BD390 has 8 icons, with room for 4 more without reducing the size of the current icons.  They could squeeze 20 icons easily onto the screen if needed, offering 20 super features.

These machines are computers, and adding features is like loading software and updating the menu.  LG could offer Pandora, Amazon Unbox, Rhapsody Music, Lala.com, iTunes, Hulu.com, and many other multimedia networked services.  And maybe they will.  The BD 390 is new.  I’m going to be pissed off though if they sell the same box labeled the BD 490 with those features.  If I see that, I won’t be buying LG anymore.

For now, I’m not going to take my player back.  It does what was advertised on the box, although the box should have had in very big letters, a warning that these features need a very fast Internet connection and without such a fast connection these fancy features will suck.  Many people are going to be disappointed.  Probably only the top cable and DSL speeds will offer pleasing results.   Doesn’t Korea have the best broadband in the world?  Their marketing execs need broadband simulator for the other countries they sell to, so as to get an idea of how their products will perform in different markets.

I hope my very fast Comcast connection comes back.  [Comcast contacted me because of this blog and reset my modem, and I’m  getting 17-20 Mb/s download speeds and the Netflix feature is back to producing excellent results.  Thanks Melissa, I’m happy with my LG again, and impressed with Comcast’s service, let’s hope LG might be reading blogs too.]

But the future development of Blu-Ray players that have networked features is illustrated by my desire to have Rhapsody support.  I have a separate device, a Roku SoundBridge M1001 that supports getting music off my computer that is stored in Windows Media, iTunes and Rhapsody.  The LG BD390 sees the Windows Media, but supports another media server, Nero, and doesn’t see iTunes or Rhapsody.  Roku now makes a Netflix/Amazon Unbox decoder.  Apple makes a AppleTV device.  How many boxes will I need to buy for my den to work with my TV and stereo setup?  How many HDMI connections and combinations of HDMI connections will that take?  How many surround sound connections to my receiver will I need?

The solution is one box.  And the obvious place for that box, is the Blu-Ray player.  I waited out the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray fight for the winner to emerge, but now it seems many other contenders must duke it out.  There are already several online video distributors, and many music services.  Right now it’s like buying a different brand of TV for each TV network you want to watch, and a different radio for each music station you want to play.

If you’re sitting at your computer you can take advantage of all of these offerings.  That’s because a computer is a general purpose device.  We need to think of the box we hook up to our TV as a general purpose device, and a Blu-Ray player is a computer.  They should be upgradable by software, so each quarter, as manufacturers make marketing deals, they can upgrade their players to offer more choices.

Here’s a specific example of my problem.  I discovered a new musical group I like, The Kings of Leon on Lala.com.  I then went to Zune Marketplace and added their album to my Zune to play on my trip to Birmingham, Alabama.  When I got home I wanted to play them on my big stereo in my den.  I have Rhapsody set up to do this, but I had switched the optical fiber audio connector to my LG BD390 player, so my SoundBridge M1001 wasn’t hooked up.  I went to Target to buy the CD so I could rip it and put it on my computer so the BD 390 could see it.  Target was out of the CDs.  I already have rights to play this CD on two paid subscription services, but I was willing to buy it on CD so it would work with my new LG BD 390, but that didn’t work out.  So I shifted the optical fiber cable from the LG to the SoundBridge and played the CD.  When I want to watch a movie, I’ll have to shift the fiber audio cable back.

If the LG supported Rhapsody, Zune or Lala, I could have played it through the Blu-Ray box as it was set up.  By the way, even though my connection isn’t fast enough for streaming video from Netflix, it’s perfectly fine for streaming music.  The Kings of Leon sounded great.  I may still buy the CD to hear them in their best sound quality, but my SACD CD player won’t work if the LG BD 390 is connected because my receiver won’t take 5.1 RCA connection setup from my CD player and optical fiber input by the LG at the same time.  The LG will play a normal CD, but it doesn’t support SACD, an orphan technology that I need to keep the old SACD CD player around to play my handful of SACDs.  The LG could have offered SACD and DVD-Audio support.

Sometimes I want to just give up on technology for five years, and come back and see if the Geeks of Earth have worked everything out.  Man, the Amish must have it easy.

JWH – 6/18/9

Update 6/19/9:  Melissa at Comcast posted a reply to this blog offering help, and my network is working perfectly again.  The Netflix feature is back too, and this has a lot of implications.  I’m on Netflix’s unlimited 1 disc out at a time subscription, but with this new feature I can watch as many TV and movies I want from their Watch Now list.  I’ve converted all my queue to Blu-Ray discs.  I read customer reviews of the Roku Netflix box on Amazon, and many say how streaming Netflix movies and TV shows have changed the way they do things.  One thing they do is to cut their Netflix subscription down to 1 disc out at a time, and many talked about canceling their cable TV.  Streaming Netflix, when it works right is a game-changer.  I know, for the most part, I’ve stopped buying DVDs because of Netflix, and I won’t be buying Blu-Ray discs, because I can get them from Netflix too.  We know Comcast is reading this too.  I wonder if they will change the way they offer content.  Instead of me buying a zillion channels, I’ll pay a few and stream just the shows I want to watch.  Streaming content could mean the end of networks.

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