Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kicking The Cable TV Addiction

The Problem (and rant)

After a little over a year of having Time Warner Cable on my TiVo HD, tonight the two have parted company. My TiVo is now no longer connected to cable TV, and the equipment used for cable will be going back from where it came. I think I've been more than patient with TWC and their signal problems. I, my neighbors, my friends, and lots of people on the Internet who I don't even know, have devoted numerous hours trying to assist TWC in resolving the reception and tuning problems we have experienced. Over three weeks ago I spent an hour and a half on the phone with TWC technical support who agreed there was a problem, forwarded a detailed report of my experiences (and everyone else I knew who had the same ones) to the group responsible for infrastructure, and I received a call a few days ago from the same tech support guy asking if anything had improved, that he had not heard anything back. This is clearly not going to get fixed anytime soon.

For those who I haven't already told in person: The problem is basically that on many channels, the video tends to pixelate and the sound cuts in-and-out at various times. Tuning to any of the switched digital video (SDV) channels is hit-or-miss (mostly hit, but why should I have to guess whether or not I will be able to tune into a channel I pay to receive?). When a DVR can't tune to a specific channel, it cannot record programming on that channel. It is likely that all of these problems are related to TWC's deployment of SDV, but I have no real evidence to support that theory. Regardless of the problem, I just want to turn on my TV and/or DVR and watch it -- I don't want to spend hours explaining the same problem over and over to people who won't fix the problem.

This is not a problem for channels I receive over-the-air on the exact same TiVo...and people who have the Scientific Atlanta (Cisco) DVR and cable boxes from TWC are having the same issues. Some people don't mind paying $55+/month for this kind of service. I am not one of those people. I have been patient and have given TWC ample opportunity to fix this problem. I can think of much better ways to spend $55/month than on a service that's no better (sometimes even worse) than watching stuff on the Internet.

What now?

As I ran the TiVo through "guided set-up" and watched hundreds of channels disappear before my eyes, I got that sick feeling in my stomach along the lines of, "Good god man, what are you doing?!" I realized how addicted I had become to having cable TV. No more hours of watching reruns of game shows on GSN. No more "channel surfing" through The Science Channel discovering shows that filled my brain with lots of neat information. No more voyeuristic examination of people about to have an intervention about their drug or alcohol addiction or hoarding being addressed on A&E. No more Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters, and other semi-educational programming on Discovery. No more South Park (sob...). No more stand-up on Comedy Central.

No more blood pressure problems and hair extraction when the video starts pixelating and sound blips out at just the thing I wanted to see/hear.

Mary, Holly, and I started talking about this, and we all realized that life is more than spending hours in front of the TV, even if the programming is mind-stimulating. I almost felt like I was on an episode of Intervention trying to kick the cable TV addiction. I decided the only way to deal with this was not with a twelve-step program, but with a one-step program: Unplug the cable wire from my TiVo and just say, "No more." It hurts as I type this...but I think it has to be done.

Surviving Without Cable TV

As a public service to everyone out there who's frustration level has led them to the same place I am now, here are some ways to help get along once you've "cut the cable."
  1. Over-the-air TV - Since the transition to digital TV (DTV) picture quality using an antenna has been dramatically improved (as good or better than cable or satellite). You will need an antenna, of course, to pick-up the signal, and depending on whether or not you're in a metropolitan area, the means of doing that may be easy or hard. Here in Austin, Texas, I was able to craft an antenna from some copper wire and PVC pipe and put it in my attic. It works okay, seeing a signal strength of over 90% on most channels. You will likely need something a little better, and putting an antenna on the roof may be the best solution. The web site www.antennaweb.org goes through some of the gory details of selecting and positioning an antenna. Really, it isn't all that hard.

    If you're using a cable box and your TV can't pick-up the new DTV signals, you'll need a converter box. Search this using Google. You'll find more information than you ever wanted to know. New TV sets can receive DTV signals using their built-in tuner. If you have a DVR from the cable company, then you will need to either buy a TiVo DVR, install something like Windows Media Center on your computer (and a TV receiver card), or build your own DVR from open source software projects.

    The best part of over-the-air TV with DTV is that many TV stations now broadcast multiple programs at the same time (you'll see channel numbers like 18-1, 18-2, and 18-3 instead of just 18). PBS affiliates typically have their normal programming plus some additional syndicated public TV programming. Here in Austin, a couple of our network channels simulcast Spanish language programming on one of their sub-channels, and one even has a 24-hour weather radar channel. The PBS affiliate in Temple, Texas carries The Pentagon Network on their sub-channel, and while that may seem boring, there's actually some cool programming on it ("Fit For Duty" is a pretty neat exercise series, if that's your thing). Sports programming in HD on DTV is stunning.

    Using a DVR, you can record game shows that air during the daytime for viewing at night, instead of watching the reruns on GSN. I'm gonna miss GSN...
  2. Netflix - The Netflix video rental service includes unlimited online viewing of select videos, in addition to the normal DVD-by-mail subscription service. Lots of popular series programming is available on DVD at the end of a season, and Netflix carries many of these. You can watch Netflix online using a TiVo, a computer (that is Flash-capable, yuck), or using an Internet video appliance like the Roku box.

    Likewise, video rental services like Blockbuster now have online video viewing, and even Amazon.com has joined-in and has a pay-per-view like service.

    You'll find that your $55/month can go a long way with these services (even further if you were spending extra for premium movie channels on cable).
  3. Downloading programming - There are both legal and illegal ways of downloading video programming online. The downside is that most of the legal methods require Flash, and I don't support services that require Flash. The illegal methods are generally bittorrent-based download services where the video is compressed and can be played with your computer's media player. The quality is amazingly good, and these "video pirates" typically edit-out commercials before uploading them.

    (Disclaimer: I am not saying to go do something illegal, I'm just saying what you'll find if you decide to do it. Don't try this at home. Do not eat. Keep away from fire and flame. You know the drill...)
  4. YouTube - If you have a TiVo or Wii (probably other game consoles too) you can view YouTube videos on your TV (again, if you want to do it on your computer, you need friggin' Flash). While YouTube videos are generally amateurish compared to what comes out of the TV studios and Hollywood, some of the programming is (at the very least) amusing, and some is really good. I've mentioned some of what I've found in this blog, even! Searching YouTube is like most other Internet activities: You can find yourself lost in a maze for hours looking at some of the most ridiculous stuff.
  5. Do Something - Why not take-up a hobby or finish that project that has been eating at you for a while? TV viewing is such a passive activity. We've gotten so accustomed to someone else providing us with entertainment that we've lost the ability to make our own. I've been thinking for years about learning to play a musical instrument. Maybe this is the time to do that. I have friends that have started reading, although that is a passive activity too.
I'm not saying that this will always be easy, and I won't pretend that I'm never going to have days where I miss the positive things about the cable programming I received. I've beaten the dead horse about this lament earlier in this article... I can't imagine I'll die without cable TV. The frustration I've gained for my $55/month though translates to stress, and stress is something that may eventually kill me. Let's give the no-cable-TV idea a try.

1 comment:

mduval said...

Cool article! Of course, if you don't want to do the over the air route (or you're afraid you'll somehow direct aliens to your house by putting up an antenae), many network programs are available online, usually the day after it airs. And, for the moment, Hulu.com is free and offers a lot of tv shows and movies, many of them current hits. So, good for you giving up your cable tv...now if only I could find the courage.... :)