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Changing Channels in 2008

2008 was the year in which internet video replaced cable TV in my house.

Moving from California to New York, the first thing Angie and I did was figure out the local cable and internet options in Ithaca. There are few. Time-Warner is the only Cable TV and internet provider. Satellite TV is available, but DSL is not. Ithaca’s about 50 miles from the local network affiliates, so powered indoor antennas don’t work, and external antennas are pretty expensive. So we gave up.

Cable’s costly in both dollars and time, and since we’re transitioning back to studenthood, both of those things are dearer than they have been for the past few years. If it were possible to just get local affiliates plus news channels and maybe Comedy Central, I’d do it, but it doesn’t exist (To understand why a la carte cable is infeasible, read [1]).

Our solution is sort of hodgepodge, and there are definitely gaps in coverage, but it’s worked out pretty well, at least this past semester.

Our Netflix usage has changed from being solely DVD to nearly all streaming. The selection’s limited, but it’s growing, and I hope and predict it will continue to grow, both in movies and in TV series.

Next is Hulu. I am surprised, actually, at the degree to which I’ve come to rely on Hulu, mostly for 30 Rock, Daily Show and Simpsons. Plus, each series has an RSS feed, so new episodes pop up in my Google Reader whenever they’re available. SNL is not available in its entirety, but usually the best sketches are.

I ran into a few problems during the election season. Though the debates were streamed on C-SPAN, the conventions and election night weren’t. Some of the higher-profile convention speeches were on YouTube, which was ok, since they’re the only reason to watch anyway. For the debates, CBS News was streaming on the web (cosponsored by C-NET, IIRC) and had a webcast-only session afterwards — you could tell it was an informal webcast because Katie Couric wore her glasses. There is a lot of potential for TV journalism on the net, but print journalism failed to embrace the web early, so hopes aren’t high yet [2]. Election night was going to be a complete disaster — it wouldn’t be a presidential election without minute-by-minute electoral vote updates — but an election party saved me, and I admit I missed CNN and MSNBC a little.

Sometimes all the non-copyright-violating options are exhausted. We belatedly fell in love with The Office this winter. Seasons 1-4 were available for streaming on Netflix, and at 22 minutes apiece, we caught up in so little time that you’d be correct in thinking we had frequently foregone sleep and schoolwork to watch them. The current season, 5, is on Hulu, but they have only the most recent five episodes, and the season was already ten episodes in. What to do? If you wanted to do the unthinkable, you could apparently download those five episodes via bittorrent. That’d be one way to fill the Netflix-Hulu gap.

Besides the obvious benefits of not having cable — the money, and also removing the temptation to watch eight Good Eats episodes in a row til 2:00 in the morning [3] — the portability has been pretty nice. While traveling, I’ve been able to watch movies on Netflix while visiting family, and just now watched old Family Guy episodes on Hulu from the airport terminal.

There’s a really long way to go. Besides Netflix, Hulu and Youtube, there’s ABC.com (Desperate Housewives!), Amazon VOD, and iTunes, and it’s all disconnected, so the hard part is figuring out which content lives where, and then keeping track of it. The Roku box does both Netflix and Amazon, but so long as one important input isn’t there, it’s still not as easy as flipping channels. Boxee has potential, but if you have to install linux on it, it’s not for everyone. I’m still waiting for the Universal Remote of internet TV. Maybe it’ll arrive in 2009.

—–

[1] http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/13/magazines/fortune/pluggedin_fortune/index.htm
[2] For starters, wouldn’t it be great to have all the TV news archives from forever? Go read anything by Jeff Ubois
[3] until they show up on Netflix. Aw, crap.

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