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Confessions of a Cable-cutter


Woody Sherman

Former Crutchfield staff writer Woody Sherman spent years working as an editor and manager in the video industry at the national level.

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Time to cut the cord

News flash: There's a recent AP article out entitled Pay TV industry loses record number of subscribers. And while the numbers of defectors they're talking about aren't massive yet, I'm fairly sure that this subscriber migration won't come as a surprise to most of you. The content-delivery universe has been in the process of re-inventing itself ever since the old "World-Wide Web" first figured out a way to deliver rich media back in the '90s.

Almost a year ago, my wife and I opened the cable bill, which hovered around its usual $100 dollars a month. After sourly commenting that we could put that money to better use, we looked at each other and she said, "How much do we really depend on cable for entertainment?"

The answer, unfortunately, was more than we would have liked. There were some high-quality shows on the cable-only networks that we watched weekly. There were occasional sporting events on ESPN and NFL Network (okay, that's just me). There were idea-generator shows on HGTV, TLC and Food Network (okay, mainly her). There were movies on the premium and classic movie channels.

And, though I didn't use a digital cable box with DVR capability, I used my Windows® Media Center computer to record and time-shift cable programs, and then used the Media Center extender capability of my Xbox 360™ to get that recorded material to my TV. So there were significant sources of home entertainment that would need replacing.

To cut the cord, first look to the skies.
The Channel Master 4228HD antenna.

The first step

The next day I began to do some research. I'm lucky to live close to TV transmitters in a city that has access to a good variety of national network affiliates, so things like local news, network TV and select national or regional sporting events are available in HD for free. The first stop in my cord-cutter's journey was to maximize my ability to gather high-quality over-the-air (OTA) signals in the region.

In my location, a basic HDTV indoor antenna works most of the time, but if you're a little farther away, that's where a good antenna comes in handy. The Channel Master 4228HD is the choice of a great many high-def enthusiasts, as it's easy to place in an attic, and excels at pulling in coherent signals from a distance. You can then put its signal into a distribution amplifier, to feed all your TVs and your computer's tuner card, if you have one.

Banish the blocks

OTA HD is as clean a signal as most home viewers will ever see. Even though it, too, has opportunities to be compressed in many places along the signal chain (notably, by your local broadcaster, who is probably running several digital signals inside their available channel bandwidth, and can prioritize which program gets the most compression). Still, it's likely to be a cleaner, more artifact-free signal than you'll get from either cable or satellite.

Yes, the cable and satellite guys will tell you that their signals are digital and therefore "pristine", but just as with audio compression, there's digital and then there's digital. In audio, a lossless FLAC file or the Apple lossless codec will always beat a 128Kbps MP3. And while fully uncompressed digital HD signal transmission is so bandwidth-intensive as to be unfeasible, there are still "best case scenarios" for an HDTV signal, and OTA is one of those. Cable and satellite providers have an awful lot of signal to deliver over a lot of territory, so they add their own layers of compression in various ways along the signal path to ease their bandwidth load. Chalk one up for the broadcasters.

In short, changing your network viewing to OTA will significantly up your picture quality in most cases.

Where's the good stuff online? And how do you get to it?

First, you need access to a good, fast Internet connection, and you need to decide on a delivery device. I used my MacBook® Pro computer and a DVI-to-VGA cable to my HDTV, plus an optical audio cable to my receiver. It's a bit old-school, but it works. I also have an Xbox 360™ that does a great job of delivering content from Microsoft's "walled garden" of TV shows and movies available for purchase by Xbox LIVE® subscribers. Xbox has also started streaming select ESPN content in near-real time.

Samsung BD-D6500
The Samsung BD-D6500 gives you Internet access
and also plays DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

There are open-source aggregators that present content with a user-friendly interface, like Boxee, on your computer. There's also the stand-alone Boxee box, the Roku player, and Apple TV, but you might also consider the new class of Internet-ready TVs and Blu-ray players. These have built-in browsing and a variety of interfaces dedicated to simplifying content navigation and aggregating streaming programming. This stops your entertainment center from being an unruly collection of black boxes and cables, and streamlines your remote control situation.

The content sieve

Like all things Internet, there's some high-quality content. and a lot of chaff. Fortunately, some things are simple to find: most every cable channel has a corresponding website, and a majority of them have streaming content. Some offer full episodes of your favorite cable-only shows — they might be delayed from their broadcast premiere time slots, but often they're made available for free in a timely fashion.

The subscription service Netflix® is now available on everything from your new Blu-ray player to your blender. Okay, I'm kidding about the blender (I think!), but Netflix has been very thorough about partnering with consumer electronics vendors of all stripes. Their catalog of TV shows and movies on-demand is ever-expanding. Amazon and Walmart, not to be outflanked, also have video download stores.

Some shows are available in video podcast form through Apple's iTunes® store, often for free., which is partially supported by a consortium of broadcast content providers, will stream free full episodes of many of the nation's most popular shows hours after they've aired, with minimal commercial interruptions.

Their premium step-up service, Hulu Plus™, offers a bigger catalog and higher resolution streaming for a fee. Hulu also has a huge catalog of classic TV shows, and my wife and I spent the first few months of our separation from cable TV replaying every episode from the original Dick Van Dyke Show. Incidentally, black and white survives compression really well — less data to crunch.

More and more companies are joining the fray every day. You can check on anything you're looking for with your favorite search engine — you'd be surprised how often things you're looking for are available. Just make sure you're looking on a known and respected site, as there's always a good deal of Internet video piracy going on, and sites that are sketchy can often be havens for malware.

What do I miss?

Not much, frankly. There are some series on premium channels, like HBO® and Showtime®, that aren't available through any other content stream (unless you're a premium channel cable subscriber, in which case there are streaming options available — a way to get a series in an on-demand fashion, I guess). For items like these, I find patience and a local DVD rental place are my friends.

The real discovery I've made is that I'm making better, and more considered, choices with the TV I watch. There's a whole world of streaming content available out there for free, and there's an awful lot of stuff that you'd never find on broadcast getting a chance to spread its wings online. Reportedly, even the fans of recently canceled network soap operas will be getting a chance to see new programming that will exist solely online (Update: this deal fell through in October 2011 after preliminary negotiations - it takes some vision and faith on the part of production companies to take a significant cost risk when predictable budgetary numbers don't exist).

Yes, some desirable online stuff will only be available on a pay-once or subscription format, but the old concept that that so many viewers have wanted from their cable and satellite providers — the ability to choose, a la carte, their own basket of unbundled content — will become an effective reality as this online model takes hold.

With the exception of watching OTA TV, I do miss good picture quality. The inescapable math of bandwidth limits and the ensuing compression compromises make it impossible for me to see the uncompressed 10-bit HD, 2K and higher-res images I used to see when I edited in the video post-production industry.

But the ability to pick and choose entertainment that's personally meaningful, presented in an "on-demand" fashion, is way more valuable. I'll see great 4K images at a digital movie theater with a Christie projector — or even better, with good old-fashioned higher-res film in a well-maintained theater. Meantime, the game is on online. Pass the popcorn. I've got some extra money in my pocket for a pizza, too.

Footnote: Our viewing options before and after

This is how we filled the missing categories I mentioned at the top of the article:

  1. High-quality series programming on cable-only networks: Check each network's website for streaming full episodes.
  2. Sporting events on ESPN and NFL networks: Xbox LIVE offers some ESPN programming, especially college games, as part of their Xbox LIVE gold subscription level (currently around $60 a year). NFL network is currently not available online, although there are hints that their games may get a pay solution before long.
  3. Network TV and regional sporting events: OTA TV gives you everything you've always gotten from the network affiliates, and local news too, for free.
  4. Idea-generator shows on enhanced-tier cable: Once again, check the individual websites for the channels you enjoy. Not everything is there, and it's not always up-to-date, but there's generally plenty for your entertainment.
  5. Movies on the premium and classic movie channels: iTunes and Xbox LIVE get us most movies as soon as they're in the video stores. You can also use Netflix, Amazon, Walmart and many others for pay-per-view streaming options. The big advantage? We're not paying for constant access to mediocre movies on a fixed schedule — we're seeing what we want, when we want, at an a la carte price.
  6. Recent popular TV and classic TV shows from the past: Hulu's catalog is very deep, and is free if you can take a commercial or three. Hulu Plus gives you higher resolution (have a fast Internet connection or you won't be able to use it, though) and access to more content.

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