Diggin' technology every day

December 6, 2011

Is TV Broken ?

Filed under: Random Thought — Nate @ 10:38 am

Been reading an interesting, and to me at least, kind of surprising discussion over on slashdot about whether or not TV is broken. The surprising part is how negative people view TV at least in that discussion(is it a result of the moderation at work? There’s too many comments to check)

Complaint: 500 channels and nothing to watch

Some people even say they get more than 500 channels. Myself I have channels that number up to 800 or 900 but as far as channels I actually have normal content on(whether or not I watch it) I believe is well under 200, there’s tons of PPV, or “radio” channels, or even duplicates(east/west feeds etc). There just isn’t a very good way to figure out what you may like to watch that your not aware of. One issue I have with a DVR is I sometimes come across shows I really like only to find out they were canceled years ago, since I so rarely see the ads for upcoming shows I don’t know what’s out there. But the good thing about a (good) DVR is you can program it in advance. I remember seeing some early advertisements for the show Falling Skies but the show wasn’t due to air for months at the time(guide data goes out only two weeks), so I set a wish list in my Tivo to record any shows in HD with that name, and right on schedule there it was when the time came.

Complaint: I want ala carte access

A major request seems to be people want to subscribe to only the 10 or 20 channels (maybe less) that have the content they want to watch, pay a tiny amount per channel and cut their bill by a large amount. What people don’t seem to realize is this would (if widely deployed) cause probably at least 50-60% of the channels to go away entirely (the vast majority of which are watched by some niche of people including geeks/nerds) and the net result may be instead of having 10 channels of content they want to watch they’re down to two because the rest got canceled. Subsidizing is an important part of making these channels available.

There is on demand from some cable (and maybe satellite too) companies. I don’t know what the state of that is since I have Tivo which is not compatible with that. Tivo in itself is a form of on demand, one that is compatible with a wide range of cable, OTA and in some cases satellite providers. Though most people don’t want to pay for that either.

A good example of this for me at least was the cancellation of one of the only pod casts/web casts/whatever you call them called Cranky Geeks, due to lack of advertiser interest, Cranky Geeks wasn’t subsidized much (if at all), and it died (had a good run though, I didn’t come across it until the last year or so of operation). I really enjoyed it even if I rarely learned anything from it, it was great to watch the points of view and conversations they had.

Complaint: I want real on demand access

Some people, myself included dream of this, but it’ll likely never happen for reasons that have nothing to do with TV as a product or technology. The same applies for books or music too. It is unfortunate as this would be a holy grail.

One post goes to an extreme

Here’s how it should work. I pay a content provider a subscription for a show. For instance, $0.75 for a season of House without ads, or $0.05 for a season of House with ads. $1.50 for a season of “The Daily Show” without ads.

If that sort of model gets adopted TV will go dark overnight.

Complaint: costs too much

You still have the option of going with over the air broadcasts, I recently bought a high end HD TV antenna for someone as an xmas present so they could get HD signals since they don’t have HD cable service. I don’t think I’ve used OTA since 1989(TV or Radio), I’ll see how well it works these days. All of this content costs money which leads me to..

Complaint: too much advertising

You were just complaining that you are paying too much and now your saying there’s too many ads too ? You either need to pay more, or get more ads or go somewhere else for your (hopefully legal but probably won’t be) content.

There is also a new invention called a DVR, I think TiVo and at one point ReplayTV had them. Tivo has had it’s first increase in subscribers in many years recently, which is nice to see as a very long time Tivo subscriber (3 Tivos all with lifetime subscriptions, gave one to my sister earlier this year). My first Tivo Series 1 is still used every day and I bought it about 10 years ago (April 4th 2001 in fact just looked at the receipt – replaced the HDs to get more capacity about 6 years ago). To me at least it’s kind of sad to see what passes as a DVR these days from the cable/satellite companies, but I suppose they are sometimes better than nothing.

Complaint: give me more educational programing less mindless sitcoms

If there were more people that were willing to watch such content such content would appear, since there is not, the market goes to where the money is. I saw one person ask for college lectures on TV, these do exist although are probably pretty rare. I skimmed across some when I was at my mother’s house a couple of weeks ago in Orange County. There is a community college there called SaddleBack Community College which airs a lot of stuff on cable TV, they have at least one dedicated channel. I attended this school myself for a year or so back when I was experimenting with the idea of going to college, some of the classes I took I had to watch the TV to get the lectures, then study at home and go in and take tests once in a while. It didn’t work for me any more than regular school works for me, I could study, take notes, and highlight passages in a book for an hour and at the end not remember a single thing of what I just did (even though the notes and highlights were good) because my mind simply wasn’t in it.

So instead of blaming TV you should be blaming the audience since TV is giving the audience what most people want.

Guess what – Fear factor is coming back.. Reality shows are cheap to produce and attract a good number of viewers. My favorite reality shows are the car repo shows on TruTV – it’s amazing to me to see the lengths some folks go through to prevent their property from being re-possessed by the bank. Those repo guys in New Jersey have some serious balls. Looks like you can watch the shows online, but when I go to the link nothing happens – must not be compatible with Linux.

My complaints

I share the same above complaints but they are really minor for me, most of them are addressed by Tivo, and having had Tivo so long it’s a natural thing at this point. I do wish I could find a better way to find things on TV. I have Tivo suggestions, and I can rate shows with thumbs up/down on my remote which is a start but I’m sure there is more out there, e.g. on the premium channels my usage of them has been very very low for years now, I’m sure there is some good stuff here or there but am not exposed to it. I see many people sing the praises of HBO though I can’t remember the last time I was tuned to HBO(not sure why I’ve kept them around). Tivo did go through a phase with me at one point where it was confident I was a fan of kung fu stuff and kept recording tons of kung fu over and over. I’ve never been a fan o f kung fu and had never recorded anything, took a few weeks of convincing, but Tivo eventually stopped recording kung fu.

I don’t like how badly digital tv degrades when there are signal issues, the audio cutting out is the most annoying. Analog TV degraded so much more gracefully!

I would like a next generation of cable card that was more functional, something that had more cable box-like functionality so I could do things like get on demand, or order PPV from Tivo. Not critical though.

More remote access would be nice, I have a couple of Slingbox solo’s that I haven’t had hooked up in 4-5 years but plan to hook one up this weekend for my trip to Atlanta next week so I can watch my local NFL games while I’m there (assuming there is time). Slingbox had an annoying firmware update a few years back which did some stupid things, fortunately I never accepted the update so I can still use my Slingbox in Linux. Would be great if I could use it from my WebOS devices but that’ll never happen. So even remote access is addressed to some degree.

I’d like to see more creative use of the additional resolution provided by HD on TV. CNBC HD+ does a great job at this, very cool. I’ve seen other channels like NBC do creative things during big political elections. Maybe it wouldn’t work for most other channels but for news (and maybe sports) it would be cool. I think NFL Redzone is sort of like this as well. Though I’ve only seen NFL Redzone at a bar once in Arizona years ago(and seem to remember having multiple games on at the same time on a single screen). I don’t watch it normally since I like to watch the full game.

Last Thoughts

A good DVR goes a long way to me. I just checked the number of season passes and it’s more than 70 at this point (all time high for me). I think some shows are canceled and I just don’t know it yet, most of the season passes transferred flawlessly when I moved to CA (I thought I’d lose them all), I did lose those that were tied to local TV channels (since those channels don’t exist here – the passes stayed but the shows didn’t get recorded), but the cable channel ones all stuck around.

A lot of what I watch is news (CNBC mainly, find it entertaining, I’m not an investor), and I watch some NFL too(speaking of sports I find it funny that so many people feel they have to watch it live, as if the results of the game would change if they watched it time delayed, I don’t start watching a NFL game until at least and hour after it starts), and a bunch of other things some of which I could probably get online, but the Tivo gets it for me already and has been very reliable so haven’t had a reason to change.

Speaking of DVRs, I saw an interview with the president of CBS earlier this morning on CNBC where he actually said DVRs are our friends. Which I thought was shocking, given how easy it is to skip ads and stuff. His reasoning was it boosts viewer ship of shows by a big margin (on big shows the numbers are in the millions). I guess this combined with product placement advertising and stuff offsets the ability to time shift.

I’ve covered it many times before but the current design of the internet doesn’t have the capacity to replace broadcast and satellite tv, it’s just not efficient enough by a very wide margin. If IPv6 and large scale multicast come along, assuming it works maybe it would work, I’m not holding my breath though.

I’ll admit the price tag of Tivo isn’t cheap, it wasn’t an easy decision way back when to spend what I think was around $950 for a DVR,and my series 3 unit which is my newest but still four years old was around $1,300 (just looked at the receipt – March 2007 included storage upgrade). But they have paid for themselves many times over during the years, especially given how long they have lasted and the lifetime subscriptions (which have gone up over the years, originally for me it was $199, next Tivo was $299, most recent Tivo Series 3 was $399, now it’s $499). I remember reading at one point that “lifetime” technically meant something like 3 years with Tivo (in the fine print – this was ~7-8 years ago not sure about today), fortunately Tivo hasn’t declared my oldest Series 1 units obsolete and stopped serving them, probably because there’s still a fair number of those boxes out there and if they stopped serving them they would take a decent hit to their subscriber numbers and they don’t want to take that hit. They did cut off UK users a while back when they pulled out of the market.

My Tivos probably wouldn’t lasted as long as they have if I didn’t protect all of my electronic equipment with UPSs which I believe goes a long ways towards extending their life. It almost pains me to see someone with fancy electronic gear just plugged into a cheap surge protector. UPSs at home are so incredibly rare outside of the tech community.

Tivo isn’t exactly rolling in spare dollar bills so it’s hard to say they are ripping me off for this stuff, it costs a lot of money to do good R&D, and they don’t have large economies of scale to drive the costs down so the cost remains higher than it otherwise would be. People have been writing the obituary for Tivo for what seems like a decade now and yet it keeps on kicking (fortunately for folks like me!).

With the Tivo upgrade program I can get the lifetime service for $399 again and retain my existing Tivo subscriptions (it doesn’t transfer it just gives a discount which is nice), I have contemplated over the years whether or not to get the next generation of Tivo but so far haven’t had a big reason to do so. A lot of the new functionality revolves around internet streaming (some of which I have on my current Series 3 but don’t really use it much – haven’t come across much I’m interested in), and Apple iPad and iPhone integration (I have no Apple products so that doesn’t help me either).

I don’t think TV is broken, the basic model is outdated to some extent, but bolt ons like on demand, and DVRs are helping extend the useful life of the concept, the lack of patience of the younger generations will result in the continued slow erosion in market share though.

The lack of patience reminds me of this from Star Trek.

STUBBS: Nobody will say anything at all, Wesley. We will not even be mentioned. I could live with failure. Well, maybe not. But never even to try. To miss your one chance at bat. Do you know baseball?
WESLEY: Yes, my father taught it to me when I was young.
STUBBS: Once, centuries ago, it was the beloved national pastime of the Americas, Wesley. Abandoned by a society that prized fast food and faster games. Lost to impatience.

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