Thursday, February 26, 2009

TV Unplugged

Having watched the Academy Awards on Sunday over the air--for free, with a $15 UHF antenna--and having read Saturday's Consumerist post about How To Cancel Cable Without Losing Your Favorite Shows, I felt it was a good time to review our family's own TV watching arrangements.

But before I get into that, I'd like to remind everyone that even though you can follow John Scalzi's example and Amuse Yourself Completely (and Legally) for $100 a Month, it doesn't have to cost nearly that much. Your nearest public library is likely to have enough reading material to suit your tastes and keep you busy for months, if not years. If you're not sure how to find something, go talk to a librarian. They're nice people.

Back to TV. First of all, even though we do have a theoretical 12MB/s connection to TEH INTARWUBS, streaming video still sucks. I'm not sure who to blame; all I know is that even short YouTube videos work better when I pause first and wait for the play buffer to fill. Anything that won't let me do that (I'm giving you the stink-eye, Hulu and Netflix) is useless.

So let's talk about downloading. I'm only going to talk about legal methods for purchasing content. If you're looking for BitTorrent info, look elsewhere. I won't encourage you to do anything illegal, and I certainly can't tell you to download utorrent, or visit The Pirate Bay/tvrss.net/feedmytorrents.com, or even watch the howto video presented as evidence in the spectrial. No sir, you won't find any of that here.

Why not watch the "free" (ad-supported) full episodes available on various TV networks' web sites? Well, first of all, it's streaming video, which sucks (see above). Second, and perhaps more importantly, the writers don't get paid for those viewings. I know, most people couldn't care less about this, but even if the WGA negotiated a bad deal at the end of last year's strike, you can still do the right thing. None of that advertising money is contractually owed to the writers, but they do get a cut of your EST (electronic sell-through) dollars.

The good news is, there are only two major players in the online TV market, which means only two crappy applications you need to download and install: Apple iTunes and Amazon Unbox (recently rebranded as "Video On Demand"). Amazon also allows you to watch on their web site, using a Flash plugin, but again: Streaming. Sucks.

Both services charge about $2 an episode. Apple also offers HD versions for $3 a pop, if you really crave those extra pixels.

Both services offer "season passes" (Amazon calls them "TV passes") for most shows. Amazon is better, because they give a 10-cent-per episode discount on TV passes, and they'll offer a pass before the whole season is out. iTunes doesn't always offer a season pass if they don't know how many episodes will be in the season (e.g., for new shows), because they do package pricing, not per-episode billing like Amazon.

However, iTunes does offer "multi-passes" for some shows--The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, for example--which get you the next sixteen episodes (four full weeks; they don't air on Fridays) and an option to renew after that. Amazon only offers their standard TV pass, which continues until an entire season ends; if you cancel in the middle of the season and want to restart later, you'll have to buy individual episodes. If, like me, you never actually watched every single episode of The Daily Show, the iTunes multi-pass is a better deal.

[Aside: I have lately been weaned off the Stewart/Colbert teats by free downloads of The Rachel Maddow Show podcast from MSNBC. I've got the Internet; I don't really need to watch news on TV, but every now and then I like a little commentary. Also, Go Cardinal!]

Finally, both services allow you to export video to portable devices; Apple supports iPods, iPhones, and such, and Amazon works with Creative Zen, Archos, and some cell phones as well as TiVos, Xbox 360s, and Media Center PCs.

If you have a Mac or PS3 or some other considered-exotic hardware, I'm told you can install TVersity or Rivet or similar third-party software to transcode your video for those devices. And, of course, if you've already paid for the content, there's no ethical problem with downloading a non-DRM'd version from the wild when the craptastic DRM mechanism inevitably fails. But I would never tell you to do that.

ADDENDUM: We used to pay over $80 a month for satellite TV. Now that we're only paying for the shows we actually watch, we spend less than $20 a month.

(EDIT: Both services can be slow to release new episodes, sometimes lagging a day or two after broadcast. In general, iTunes seems to be better than Amazon at getting shows out faster.)

~CKL
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