Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kill your (cable) television

Living sans television for a year now hasn't been quite the cold-turkey experience one might have expected. Most of the serial dramas I follow (24, Lost) are available for streaming online a few hours after broadcast. I could get a lot more content via iTunes but I fear just how out of hand that could get for both my free time and wallet. A couple new products, however, offer a glimpse into a future of cutting the cable tv cord (or satellite dish uplink) altogether. I think network executives especially should be quaking in their suits.

By now, most have heard of, if not seen, YouTube, the repository of all manner of viral videos, music, and miscellany. But clips are limited to about 10 minutes, the low-rez video window is tiny, and it's often hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of content.

Enter Joost, a new video distribution program from the creators of Skype and Kazaa. In a nutshell, it's TV over the internet but not in the way viewers are accustomed to watching TV over-the-air. Instead of scheduled broadcast times, all the content is available at any time through the user's computer. If you have a broadband connection, you're ready to watch. Programs are organized in channels similar to a cable box's but with more particularization, closer to satellite radio's narrowcasting. Some of the major cable channels, like MTV and Comedy Central, have their own channels; others include episodes from shows such as NewsRadio, Rocky & Bullwinkle, and even '70s cop fare like Starsky & Hutch. Music videos, fringe sports, and international programs also figure prominently. Programs are interrupted only occasionally by a short advertisement (usually under 30 seconds).

Using the beta version for a few weeks now, the content is the weak link in the chain at this point. It will have to expand beyond basic cable repeats and second-tier reality programming to be competitive with cable and network television. Dedicated movie channels would also be another welcome addition. But the concept is solid and it's easy to envision a time where, if access to any desired content was not an issue, something like Joost would be a cable killer. Instead of being at the mercy of the various schedules of a few hundred channels (90% of which go paid for but unwatched) or even the offerings on cable's own On Demand service, what to watch and when to watch it would be completely at the fingertips and control of the computer user. Stream it directly to a home theater via a device like Apple TV and there really wouldn't be a reason to need your Time-Warner or Comcast set-top box again.

An explosion in content delivery via systems like Joost also augurs well for creative types. There will still be gatekeepers but the barriers to entry keep getting lower and lower. Hi-def technology of the type that only a few years ago was in the hands of one director will soon be entry-level for professionals. The costs of computer processing, memory, and storage will be cheap enough that visual effects and editing can be done in an apartment instead of a post-production facility. If a screenwriter or director has a story they want to tell, they will not necessarily be limited to the largess of the studios, networks, or production companies to get the project made. Scrounge up some hedge fund money, a crew, and shoot it. Even if theatrical distribution remains the province of the big players (I'm not sure even that will be true once digital delivery becomes standard in theaters), internet distribution will allow an end run around the traditional system. It won't happen overnight but it's the direction I see things inevitably moving.

Until then, another nifty gidget I hope to pick up at some point is the Pinnacle HD Pro Stick, an HDTV tuner that plugs into any USB port. Allowing me to recieve local over-the-air hi-def broadcasts, and also record those to an attached hard drive a la TiVo. All for the low low price of $129.00. TV, I wish I knew how to quit you.


  • I moved in March and can't use my DirecTV thing at the new place, so I've been without a plan. After a month or so, I started jonesing for some network TV and checked out my options online - and came to the same conclusion you did. All I could find were back episodes of stuff I didn't want to watch. I ended up "borrowing" all of Two and a Half Men from bit torrent and have been plowing through that. (When the DVDs are available here, in the States, I'll buy a full-priced copy and happily give the producers their money.)

    Definitely though, I think we'll end up getting content through our computers. One reason is Comcast charges too much (the only company I can use at my new place) and so I sort of am resisting using them because I kind of think they're the anti-christ.

    My boyfriend has been free of TV for a like a year or two and now he wants one again because he's missing pop culture references. I like to watch one or two episodes of each new program so I can talk about them, so by fall, I will probably cave into Comcast.

    By Blogger shecanfilmit, at 8:01 AM  

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