Confessions of a Cord-Cutter: How I Did It

February 27, 2013 | 7 comments

You can cut your cord, ditch cable and put together a perfectly good home entertainment solution, TV and all, for a one-off payment of around $400. Here’s what I did.

Remote controlWhen I moved to the US in 2011, I made the decision that I wouldn’t re-subscribe to cable TV. I’d been a Virgin Media customer in the UK, but I can’t say I was satisfied with the experience. Cable television seems to be more expensive in the States, and due to legislation designed to protect niche media, you’re required to subscribe to a bunch of channels you’ll never watch alongside the ones that you will. (I love C-SPAN, despise the religious channels on basic cable, and can’t understand why most people on American TV are shouting at me.)

And anyway, I reasoned with myself, I should be able to get all this content on the web, right?

Right! So for the last two years, that’s what I’ve been doing. The rules: I can only watch video from Internet services. I won’t buy or rent discs. (I lost my movie collection when I moved, because of arbitrary rules designed to create artificial barriers: the US is DVD Region 1, and the UK is Region 2. I refuse to feed that model.) Finally, to make it more of a challenge – I may not break the law. Channel BitTorrent, as many of my friends call it, is usually an easier place to watch what you want when you want it than anywhere else. Grab Vuze and go. But it’s a no-go for me.

I started out stubborn: just my laptop, and a monitor where I’d normally have a television set. That didn’t last long; if my laptop’s tethered to an entertainment center, I can’t put something on in the background while I work on code or futz around on the Internet. Shortsighted!

In came the next iteration: a small Samsung television set, and an Apple TV.

An aside: why a small TV? I thought long and hard about getting a bigger television, and in the UK I had a 32″ screen (and even projected movies across a whole wall for a while). I just don’t think that the standard resolutions available to television entertainment are high enough to warrant larger screens – and I don’t think television needs to occupy more space in my house, or more of my dollars. Maybe when home entertainment all comes in 4K or higher and I live in a much larger place, I’ll reconsider.

Why an Apple TV? At $99, it’s far cheaper than a home entertainment PC, just works, and the integration with my computer is fantastic. And I don’t need to operate my TV with a keyboard and mouse.

The Apple TV comes with an HDMI cable and a TOSLINK optical digital audio port. I bought a cheap digital to analogue converter and plugged the audio into a mid-range set of speakers; audio is the Samsung set’s weak point, and adding any external speakers at all is an improvement. Audiophiles will want to buy a full amplifier with end-to-end fiberoptic audio connections, but it’s possible to put together a more than passable system on the cheap. Remember, also, that digital signals mean you don’t need to buy expensive cables: the picture and sound is literally exactly the same whether you pay $5 or $50.

I use a MacBook Pro as my main computer, and Mountain Lion allows me to wirelessly share my screen with the Apple TV. So I can stream, for example, Al Jazeera (one of the few news channels to broadcast live on the web worldwide – and, luckily, one of the best) and watch it as if it were CNN. I can also just stream my music to the speakers if I want to, which is a nice bonus. I’ll often stream from Spotify and fill my room with sound.

The Apple TV is a closed platform, so there’s no app store for more channels, for example. In that respect, the Roku is better: it’s got 700 channels and counting, most are free, and you can actually define your own. Channels like Al Jazeera can be installed as top-level options, and it’s highly customizable. The flipside is no Airplay, and no iTunes, but you gain more than you lose. The trick, though, is that you don’t have to choose: right now I have both a Roku and an Apple TV plugged into my television.

I subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu Plus, at $7.99 a month each. Counter-intuitively, Netflix is actually far better for mainlining TV series – its collection is huge, and it’s starting to produce its own high quality shows. House of Cards is fantastic, and they’re bringing back Arrested Development later this year. Meanwhile, as well as recently-broadcast shows like the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, Hulu Plus gives you access to a great list of movies including the Criterion Collection. They also had the Oscars in their entirety. Brilliantly, while Hulu does have some ads, neither bombards you in quite the same way as broadcast television. Nobody shouts at you unless you want them to. And it’s much cheaper than cable.

I can watch content from iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, podcasts and anything that streams anywhere on the web. And I can watch it all on my own terms, when I want to. My entertainment choices have never been richer – and my entertainment services have never been cheaper.

I’m calling this experiment a success. In fact, I’ll never go back.

The totals

Samsung 22″ TV: $189
Apple TV: $99
Roku: starts at $49.99
Digital to analog converter: $17.79
Cables: ~$30
Cheap sound system: $50
Total: around $400 (or around $150 if you already have the TV and sound system)

Netflix: $7.99 a month
Hulu: $7.99 a month
Total: $16 a month = $192 a year (+ your broadband Internet service)

Cable subscription
(By way of comparison)
Around $60 a month for basic cable = $720 a year
(And you still need the TV and sound system)

Disrupt the mainstream

January 29, 2013 | 1 comment

Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen

“Mainstream culture,” as a concept, needs to die.

A little pre-history. The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text and the world’s oldest surviving printed book, was produced in China in 868 AD. It took another couple of hundred years before moveable type was invented, and another four hundred years for the printing press to be invented. Almost six hundred years after the first printed book was created, it became possible to mass produce literature. Two hundred years after that, the first newspapers began to appear, but they didn’t reach large circulations for another two hundred years – a thousand years after the first book.

Because of the advances in the printing press that allowed for larger circulations, newspapers could be distributed over a much larger geographic area. Prior to that, they had mostly existed in communities, where the publishers were easily reached. An unintended side effect of wider distribution was that this feedback loop was eroded. Newspapers became a one-way medium; a trend that continued with the invention of newsreels, radio broadcasting, and the television. Almost simultaneously, manufacturing techniques improved to allow for mass-market products made out of new materials like plastics.

The separation wasn’t clean. Because of its capacity to reach large audiences quickly, both government and business had interests in the media that went well beyond (while embracing) traditional advertising. They underwrote content, leaned on the companies who produced it, censored both explicitly and implicitly, and created a media environment that sold not just products and ideas, but a way to live your life. More than ever before, there was a wrong way and a right way. There was a mainstream, and then there were niche interests. This had always been true to an extent, but the main route for lifestyle propaganda had previously been churches, who fearfully controlled the means of communication. In the modern age, the media itself began to take the place of religion. (Think about the semantics of the phrase “mass culture” for a second.) Business and government had a direct channel to get their messages to the people. At the time, this seemed like a liberation.

It wasn’t a liberation compared to what came next. The beginnings of the Internet showed up in 1969, not at all coincidentally during the peak of the counterculture movement in the sixties – the first cultural movement to challenge the mass-market status quo. Usenet showed up ten years later, allowing anyone to participate in semi-public discussions. Ten years after that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Ten years after that, Napster was allowing anyone to trade music. A decade later, mass-market publishing was in free-fall.

For ordinary people, the utility of mass culture was coming to an end. Information was freely available without the involvement of businesses, governments or churches – both to consume and to produce. Anyone could publish, without anyone’s permission, no matter who or what they worshiped, where they had gone to school or how much money they had in their bank accounts. There were no corporate policies dictating who could be heard, and no slush piles where ideas that didn’t fit pre-defined marketing templates could languish. It was a free-for-all. Free as in speech.

In the middle ages, the church decried texts that defied its authority, often sentencing authors to death. In the 21st century we’re a little more laid back, but it’s nonetheless predictable that corners of the mass media, sensing that it’s under threat, have been arguing that Internet content is less reliable, or shady, even, contrary to the views held by the public. Meanwhile, proposed legislation like SOPA and PIPA and the Communications Decency Act were transparently aimed at neutering the new medium, and were often sponsored by the media companies themselves. (Wiser corners of both business and government have gone another way, and are simply buying these new media outlets.) Even now, opposition to SOPA is spun as a tech company triumph, while the truth is more subversive: the Internet is a grass-roots people connector, and it was the people who spoke in defense of their free speech.

Just as the media had fragmented from a few large organizations to something that every single person in the developed world could participate in, manufacturing is currently enduring the same kind of shock that publishing experienced. Sites like Kickstarter are flying in the face of traditional manufacturing processes, and allowing anyone to begin making products.

Mainstream culture was a construct. It was created partially by accident, because we were all consuming the same products and the same media, and partially on purpose, because people who conform to a set of ideals make better consumers from the manufacturers’ point of view and better citizens from government’s point of view. Once upon a time, it improved most of our lives through new manufacturing techniques and distribution models. In a world where this is no longer necessary, however, this imposed conformity is a kind of oppression. One need only look at the prevailing American ideals of strength over intellect, wealth over integrity, or the dismissal of “special interests”, to see a kind of fascism at work.

We’re all special interests. Humanity is beautiful because we’re all so different. We have dreams, ideals, values, goals and loves, and for each of us, down to a person, they’re all slightly different. That’s why democracy is so great – or at least, has the potential to be so great – and why freedom of speech is so important. We create a better society, and better lives for all of us, by embracing those differences and letting them form a patchwork, building something bigger together than the sum of all of us. Different ideas, cultural contexts, sexualities, abilities, preferences, characteristics, likes and dislikes; all of these are complementary as part of a bigger whole. The technology we build is there only to make our collective lives better; it doesn’t exist for itself, or so that we can make a profit. We’re building to progress. Technology is subversive, and always has been, because it empowers the previously unempowered. With the Internet, the time for enforced values has passed; we can all have a voice, and we can all have a media that serves us for who we really are. Ideas can and should be freely exchanged. People can and should be free to be themselves.

The concept of mainstream culture needs to become obsolete. That’s not to say that all the things in it can’t live on, enjoyed by audiences, or that the people who make their livings creating it can’t apply their skills to make new things for different kinds of people. That’s the point: it takes all sorts.

Photo: Anonymous contre Acta à Rouen by Frédéric Bisson, released under a Creative Commons license.

Is TV about to implode?

June 6, 2012 | 1 comment

It's a dangerous worldRick McCallum is quoted as saying something very interesting in this io9 spoilers roundup (about why the new Star Wars TV show hasn’t been made yet):

The episodes are too expensive and … well, we’ve got two things going on. Firstly, we’ve got television as we know it about to implode. You’ve got network TV, which is really where we should be because it has the dollars to pay for this and an audience, but you’re burdened by the fact you only get 42 minutes for an hour because of commercials. And then you’ve got cable, which has the most provocative and daring programming, but has audiences of 1 or 2 million people. They also have a very limited amount of money they can spend without wanting some sort of say or control over the material, which is absolutely repugnant to us in terms of the way we work.

Meanwhile, Business Insider is also predicting television’s collapse (emphasis mine):

Proportionately, that means TV lost 8.5 percent of its audience in 2011. As many as 17 percent of people never watch TV, the survey of 28,000 consumers in 56 countries.

That’s a staggering loss of interest in a medium that in industrialized nations is regarded as a standard like electricity or hot running water.

The number of people watching video on a computer at least once per month is now higher, at 84 percent, than those watching TV.

Finally, websites like Take My Money, HBO! show that consumers are interested in new models for TV content distribution – and are still very interested in the content itself.

But not all opinions about the TV industry are negative. Business Insider has republished a point-by-point rebuttal of its original argument:

The value of traditional pay TV will not have to drop at least for as long as consumers continue to exhibit a preference to take today’s multichannel video services as they exist today and for as long as a la carte programming access rules are not mandated. Most importantly, expenditure-sensitive consumers will continue to access basic broadcast signals (because MVPDs are obliged to carry them) and then certain broad reaching networks will be those which are next packaged together for consumers. These will be the networks that advertisers will continue to concentrate their budgets on.

This, of course, carries one hell of a qualifier: for as long as consumers continue to exhibit a preference to take today’s multichannel video services as they exist today. Who knows how long that is, particularly as the Internet continues to take hold of every available screen? The most future-proof strategy for content owners may be to de-tether from incumbent models and start testing new distribution methods now.

Full disclosure: I’m CTO over at latakoo, which aims to make digital video simple for professionals, broadcasters and consumers alike.

2011: happy new year

January 3, 2011 | 5 comments

sydney habour bridge & opera house fireworks new year eve 2008I’m a little late to the party for end-of-year wrapup / start-of-year prediction posts. Instead, I thought I’d write about some of the things I’m looking forward to playing with this year.

Vanquishing piracy through better business

First, though, I do have one prediction: this will be the year that traditional content producers finally get to grips with piracy. They won’t do it using restrictive DRM and other counter-productive tactics that have been shown not to work; instead, they’ll do it by allowing anyone to buy their content in a convenient way.

The BBC is already talking about broadcasting Doctor Who simultaneously in the US and the UK; they are also planning to release their iPlayer on-demand service internationally. Its US counterpart Hulu, meanwhile, is also planning an international release. All of this is a tacit acknowledgement that a great deal of piracy is the direct result of artificially enforced border restrictions, but it’s also a bigger, more general change: the realignment of incumbent media companies around the Internet, instead of treating it as just another conduit. Just in time to save their businesses – maybe.

The year of the tablet?

Last year, the iPad shook everyone up. It’s a great device, which somehow makes computing a more intimate, human experience – I bought one, and it gets far more use than any other computer I own. (This Christmas, it’s got at least a couple of hours every day from Celia playing Angry Birds.) It’s so good that everyone’s prediction posts for 2011 have been colored by it. Wired; Leonard Lin; Technorati; The Times of India; The New York Times; GigaOm; etc etc etc. I’ll be at CES in Las Vegas next week, and I fully expect tablets to dominate the talk of the town. (Most interesting tablet advice I’ve heard lately: buy a Nook Color and root it to turn it into a fully-featured Android tablet. Not bad for $250, if it works.)

After a rocky start with the operating system, I’m looking forward to developing Android apps. Although I’m still not sure what the platform’s developers were thinking in the early years, the 2.2 release was a major one, and the 3.x previews look pretty good. It’s got a very good chance of being as popular as Microsoft Windows for non-PC devices. Either way, the devices are now exciting enough for me to want to kick the tires and play with some new kinds of social interaction.

Here, my obsession with decentralized models continues. I believe that WikiLeaks represents the Internet beginning to fulfill its true potential, but the furor over it illustrates how dangerous building an information outlet or essential service around a single point of failure can be. The web is decentralized; social, content and information applications should follow the platform’s example.

The couch potato is dead; long live the couch potato

But it’s going to go beyond interaction. With the advent of consumer-friendly devices like the iPad, and living room web clients like Google TV, I think we’re going to see more web apps designed for the couch potato set: people who want to sit down and passively consume content after (for example) a hard day’s work. Right now, even products like the Roku require a fair amount of clicking around before you watch something. Nothing quite has the ease-of-use of television – but apps like Flipboard come close.

Just how do you filter the hundreds of millions of content streams the Internet has to offer so that I see just the right thing when I collapse into my armchair at the end of the day? Could channels, one day, be individually curated content streams, with the content itself sold directly from the producer to us? That would make companies like Apple the new Viacoms and Universals, and make our friends into our TV Guides, with the net result that we will have a much larger range of content available to us, and content producers will have a much easier route to market. I will certainly be playing with this in 2011, from a number of angles.

Getting paid

Ultimately, I think this is the year that analogue content producers – filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists, animators and so on – find a model that really pays for their work online. Once that’s happened, the decentralized, monetized web will be our mainstream source for all content. That means fewer gatekeepers, better content, and a much better information environment for consumers and democracy.

Photo by Hai Linh Truong, released under a Creative Commons license.