Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Evolutionary Television Part 1 - How I cut the cord

"It's been a long time. I shouldn't have left you;
Without a strong rhyme to step to." -- I Know You Got Soul, Eric B. & Rakim

Sorry for the hiatus, folks. Work travel, moving into a new house, yadda yadda. But I'm back and things should be a little more consistent here on the Underground Media. So where did we leave things? Ah yes, I think we were talking about internet media. My last two posts were about internet radio, so I decided this week to look at internet television.

I'm a relative new-comer to the great Southeast mecca called Atlanta. And, as I'm a social creature, I have been known to visit the local bar and live-music scene. Atliens are interesting folks, the music scene here is awesome, and I love meeting new people. Here's the way it usually goes: the wife and I are listening to DJ TBone (local flavor!) and enjoying some drinks; we meet some new friends, and have some laughs. And then, just as everyone is good and buzzed, and we're all feeling good, she drops the bomb.

Wife - "And you know we don't have a television," she says, giggling. (Somehow, despite my best efforts to steer her off-course, she works it into EVERY conversation.)
Our new friends - (blank stares. The laughs have stopped.) "You mean you don't..."
Me - "Uhm, we *do* actually have a television," I say, with a little nervous laugh, giving my wife the please-stop-making-us-look-like-nutjobs-to-our-new-friends look.
Wife - "Well, sure we do," she says. "I mean, it's physically a television-"
Me - "Forty-seven inch Hi-def LCD," I interrupt.
Wife - "But we don't actually GET television. No cable, satellite, or even rabbit ears! Tell them, baby," she says, looking at me, grinning.
Me - (At least she's proud of my geeky achievements.)
Our new friends - (More blank stares. Again. This time, their mouths are slightly open.) "How do you watch American Idol?" they ask, looking at me. "Or Dancing with the Stars? Or CSI?"
Me - (Yup. In the span of five minutes, we've gone from that cool couple they met at the bar, to them thinking that we are a complete freakshow. And when I explain to them our TV-watching process, I will most assuredly remove all doubt.)

Perhaps my readers will reserve passing judgement. :-)

We watch all the TV shows and movies that everyone else does. We just watch them on-demand over the internet. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. I LOVE TV shows, but I HATE television. TV shows are 24 to 52 minutes of my favorite actors, writers and directors doing what they do best. Television is a 2000-channel, 24/7, screaming & ranting, commercial-break ridden, A.D.H.D. channel-surfing, wallet-busting, empty-headed political pudit-filled, NIGHTMARE of an experience. I stopped watching sometime in 2003, and I haven't looked back since. Not only was cable TV breaking my budget at the time, but despite all the bucks I was shelling out, nothing was EVER ON 90% of the time! So, we cancelled cable and I subscribed to Netflix for $20/month. We had a HUGE on-demand movie catalog, as well as a ton of TV series box-sets to choose from. Life was good, but like a good geek husband, I was always trying to "upgrade" the system.

In 2004, I discovered the wonderful world of peer-to-peer file trading, referred to by insiders as, "The Scene." (For background, here is a fairly brief, plain-English web article). Essentially, I was able to download TV shows on-demand only days after they aired (as opposed to months via Netflix). So, I did what any self-respecting TV-loving geek would do. I hooked up an old PC to my television and started downloading! As long as I was okay with engaging in quasi-legal internet file-trading, as well as the labor involved with searching and clicking on each show I wanted to watch, again life was good. By 2007, The Scene was EXPLODING and I was able to watch TV shows literally MINUTES after they aired. And, best of all, I had learned how to broadcatch (automatic TIVO-like downloading of my favorite shows), so now I didn't even have to work for it!

However, in 2008, a funny thing happened. Remember Napster? I mean the old free and illegal Napster of the 90's? It totally brought the music industry to its knees. And the RIAA refused to provide a cheap, easy and LEGAL alternative until iTunes hit the web, three years too late. Well, apparently the TV industry learned a valuable lesson from their music brethren. In March of 2008, Hulu launched. And there wasn't a minute to spare as broadcatching was just about ready go mainstream like the old Napster. (Non-geek friends of mine had actually heard the term bittorrent!) Not only did Hulu render my entire broadcatching setup obsolete, but it also changed the ENTIRE TV game. Probably forever.

Hulu is a Fox/NBC joint-venture that allows you to watch 90% of network and basic cable TV shows (ABC is doing their own thing) streaming and on-demand in your web browser. And I have to tell ya, blown-up to full-screen on a 47" LCD, Hulu looks frickin sweet! And did I mention they have movies? It's like TIVO, only free! Of course, the downside is the commercials. Yes, commercials on the internet. Only four or so per show, but they are usually boring and repetitive. A small price to pay, in my opinion, for true on-demand television. You can setup your own queue, follow a show's RSS feed, and even watch live events (they aired all of the presidential debates and the inauguration). But don't take my word for it. Check out this quick SNL clip on Hulu.

Next time, we'll talk about the recent Hulu competitors and some new directions that internet TV is taking.