TV is dead. Long live the internet!

I feel like an old man. I can now look at my kids, and say with far too much vigour: “When I was your age…” I refer to, of course, having to get off my ass, walking over to the cathode ray tube-based television set, change the dial to UHF, and move the oversized dial that changed the direction of the UHF antenna…

I’ve lost you, haven’t I? I shudder to think how few of you have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Yeah, that’s how old I am. I remember when there were only a handful of channels, when almost all of the content was on ABC, NBC, CBS, CBC, CTV, Global, and a few independent stations (such as the awesome CityTV and the the extremely nacent Fox). I remember the introduction of cable. I remember having to wait for the summer reruns because I missed that crucial episode of The A Team that everyone was talking about in class the next morning. I remember when the season debuts were a big thing. I remember when missing a live televised event was significant, because it was gone forever.

It seems somehow just as bizarre a concept as the Spanish Inquisition.

Up until a few years ago, this model was still fairly static. Despite the massive influx of cable, the ridiculous proliferation of specialty channels (seriously, I cannot fathom how some of them make any money), Youtube, Torrents, and the like, the concept of “television” hadn’t really changed. You still relied on the networks. Waiting for the most recent Survivor was still a big thing. And people watched the evening news.

In the last 24-30 months, however, I’ve seen a massive shift in service. The iTunes Effect completely altered the way that we consume music (despite the music industry continually trying to roll the clock back as if nothing ever happened), and it’s echoed into the way we consume video. And I choose that word very carefully: video. Not “television”, not “movies”. The length of a given item, or its relevance to a related group of videos (say, a television series of yore, or a trilogy of films) is largely irrelevant. Thanks to devices such as DVRs, tablets, Boxees, Apple TVs, and so forth, we can consume video on our own terms, and not at those of the telecommunications companies to whom we enslaved ourselves for over five decades.

A month and a half ago, my family moved out of our home so the kitchen renovation could begin in earnest. When we did that, we took our living room video display (I now loathe to call it a “TV set”) and the Apple TV so we could watch, well, something. For three weeks, all we had were whatever videos were on the Apple TV — we had no network connection to speak of, so no new videos during that time.

When we got back into our home, the living room was far from any suitable state to be able to hook our video displays back up to the television display boxes. No TV. (In fact, hardly any video at all.) At the end of a month and a half, it’s hard for us to really “miss” television at all.

We had Telus Optik. It was a decent service, and the only real complaint I had with it was that we had about 180 channels more than we watched. There were four on any form of rotation: Discovery (for my MythBusters fix), Treehouse (for the kids’ shows), whatever channel showed Greys Anatomy, and one or two other channels were in the mix for a few things. But that was it. No kidding. No joke. We paid $80 to watch less than a half dozen things.

Yesterday, I pulled the plug (not completely, mind you — I rather stupidly signed up for a three year contract, thinking this blog post was still quite a ways away; the account is in “suspension” for $5/month, though it counts towards the contract term), and we started onto a new path: internet-only content.

We are far from the first to do this. I have several friends who cut their cable a while ago, and have sufficed quite well off of whatever they could glean from the internet. iTunes has been a major source of material, as has the ubiquitous YouTube. Many have turned to the less-legal Torrents to acquire television shows and movies, while others have looked to online services such as Netflix.

My problem with the internet aspect until recently was twofold: fragmentation, and accessibility. There’s a lot of different venues in which to find the content one might want to watch — think of it as having two constantly criss-cross a typical urban mega-strip mall on an erratic shopping spree, rather than being able to go to a single store and finding all that you need. And then it’s an issue where you go to a given store expecting to find the very shirt your American friend told you about, but despite it being an American clothier, that specific shirt isn’t available in Canada. (Canada remains, frustratingly, a digital backwater when it comes to internet content.)

So what’s changed? Aside from the realization that we just don’t watch regular television anymore, it was the introduction of a “content aggregator” (not sure what else to call it), some handy (but legally grey-area) tools, and the ability to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Allow me to introduce our new media setup…

The Device

Ultimately, you need a unit to actually serve content (the stuff — literally — doesn’t fly through the air, anymore). The Apple TV (version 1) had been a decent first attempt, but it failed in a number of ways, not the least of which was a strong tie to iTunes and not a lot of expandability (even the aTV Flash hack offered little more). It meant that it was hard for us to use different media sources, or even watch DVDs through a single device.

Enter the mid-2010 Apple Mac Mini, model A1347 (non-server). Slightly taller than the Apple TV, this is a complete computer, and can run any software we need. Furthermore, it has full support for 1080p video, complete audio support, and because it’s a full computer, it can be used by Monkey and Choo Choo as they grow up and need to use computers in their school (while Mommy and I get to help/watch). Even more key for this specific release of the Mac Mini, however, is that this is the last one that came with a SuperDrive built-in — the next release was without an optical drive, making it hard to watch those reams of physical media we’ve been accumulating.

The Mac Mini is limited to 320 GB, which seems like a lot, but it’ll fill up quickly with the media we hope to deliver through it. So instead, I’m going to be attaching it to a terabyte drive (ideally a RAIDed one, with a secondary backup for real redundancy) that will store all the music, movies, photos, and various videos that our family will use. Our network is gigabit (thanks to Telus), so network speed shouldn’t be a problem.

The Software

Operating system aside, the complete list is still pending, but I’m looking at:

  • iTunes
    Duh. We have a significant amount of content in iTunes, and there is zero reason not to use iTunes to access it.
  • Plex Server
    This is the aggregation tool. It offers a significant amount of functionality for linking disparate pieces of content (including iTunes) into a single interface, and offers a variety of “channels” for watching online content. Because it works full-screen, it’s a suitable replacement for the venerable Front Row. It also includes a player that can play software copies of DVDs…
  • RipIt
    Boy, it didn’t take long to get back into that legal black hole, didn’t it? Yes, I am using a piece of software to extract the content from media I have purchased and am placing it in a non-public system for my own personal entertainment, digital lock provisions be damned. Big Media pushing bullshit like SOPA and C-11 can suck my balls. I don’t like physical media, it’s too prone to damage by jam-covered fingers.

Beyond that, we will install what’s needed, when it’s needed. Right now, I’m not sure what that is, but I’m sure we can adapt when the time comes.

The Services

The hardware and software alone will not solve our problems. It’s not really any different than buying a “regular” television set. The problem is that you still need to have content provided from somewhere.

  • iTunes
    Again, duh. Our existing library is one thing, but iTunes still has an extensive (and lovely) collection of media from which to select. We’ve used iTunes for quite some time, and plan to keep using it.
  • The Service I Can’t Really Talk About
    Okay, this is another one of those “grey area” items. Technically, Canadians can’t see American content (think Hulu, American versions of Netflix and iTunes, and Comedy Network) because some dumbass decided that we’re not allowed to see it. So our IP blocks are scanned and summarily blocked. This service makes you look like an American — a sheep in wolf’s clothing — and away you go. It’s not illegal, but I’m sure that some moron lawyer will cry foul (because he’s paid to do so) and it’ll get yanked. Hence, I refuse to name it. Like Plex, it also provides a number of channels, so we should be able to watch … well, pretty much anything we want, really.
  • Netflix (the American verison!)
    My biggest gripe with Netflix is that the Canadian content is so wildly different than the American content … despite it running off the same system. So thanks to the aforementioned service, we get the added benefit of a larger library.
Okay, what about live television? Say I want to watch the hockey game, or even the Olympics? Well, this is where the Mac Mini comes to the rescue again. Because it’s a full computer, it has a full browser (and various necessary plugins) so that we can visit a website and watch live feeds. Perfect? Probably not, but at least it’s better than channel surfing.

The Result

To be honest, I don’t know yet. From everything I’ve read and from everything everyone who’s already gone down this road has told me, this seems like a solid path. But I’ll be the first to admit that it won’t be a bed of roses (and, really, when you think about it, is a “bed of roses” all that appealing? Think of the thorns!) and this could fail. I doubt it will fail entirely, since we get content no matter what, it’s just the depth at which we get it.

So what of actual “television”? We’re in the shift now, and already it’s showing. Advertisers are trying to find new ways to market to people who are willingly skipping commercials. Big Media is slow to adapt (surprise, surprise!), but is at least starting to recognise the revenue potential, so it’s doubtful they’ll fight against it. But the transition from network model (which provides funding and marketing for television shows) is at risk, given a more fragmented market.

For us, this can only be a win-win. People want to make video, and we want to consume it. The question of how remains, and its only a matter of time before these bits of technology-in-infancy are replaced by more robust and “complete” systems that hide the mess of aggregation, bringing about a true “on demand” environment that has been promised for the better part of 20 years.

As for our specific experience, we’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’ve got a Mac Mini to set up.

One Reply to “TV is dead. Long live the internet!”

  1. Same deal here. In Sweden I was paying a buttload of money for a cable package, but our tv was almost entirely locked onto BBC Entertainment. The added issue over here is that new TV series I’m interested in often come out HALF A FRICKIN YEAR OR MORE later than in the western hemisphere. Game of Thrones, for example: April for you, November for us.

    Moving to Amsterdam, I’ve told cable to die in a fire and stream everything through my Xbox and an old MacBook hooked up to my TV (hoping to upgrade to the Mac Mini like you have soon). Best decision ever.

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