Idiot Box

Uh, I don't get it.Back when I was writing columns for SFist, one of the things I kept harping on was that Apple should make a DVR. If they could do for television what they did for the iPod, that’d be huge, right? An interface for TV as slick as OS X, without as many of the weird limitations that the cable and sattelite companies build into their machines, and with the ability to use the video you record on your computer. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Of course, what they came out with instead was the Apple TV. I was completely unimpressed with the announcement, I was more blown away at the concept of Apple’s releasing a product that I didn’t want to buy. The Apple TV isn’t a DVR; it’s just a way to watch and listen to stuff from iTunes (and iPhoto) on a big screen TV. That’s it. I could barely see the point, and it seemed like a step backwards instead of an innovation.

Now that it’s been out for a while, I just read this review of the Apple TV on And I still would never even think of buying one of the things. But after seeing in detail how the thing works and which audience it’s targeted at, I think I finally understand it. And I’m more than a little disturbed.

I’m disturbed because of this: the reason I didn’t understand the thing is because I can’t conceive of a world without television.

It’s kind of embarrassing. It’s not like Apple has been subtle with their whole strategy — they want you to buy stuff off iTunes. But even though I’ve got several friends who don’t have cable or satellite, and I’ve got friends who even watch shows off iTunes and have told me about the process, I just couldn’t understand how the process would work. How can Chuck watch TV if Chuck no can hook satellite to computer? Chuck confused and angry!

Am I just too short-sighted and old to understand new media? Or have I been living for so long with a coaxial cable from Comcast or DirecTV that I see it as an umbilical cord, and can’t imagine life without it? I don’t even watch nearly as much TV as I used to, but still the thought of going without it altogether just never occurred to me. As a thought experiment, I decided to go through and find out what it would take to do the unthinkable, and live without a live TV feed coming into my home.

Microsoft has a new Video Marketplace you can access over the Xbox 360 (and I’m guessing Vista), but a) it doesn’t have a lot of TV content yet, and b) they don’t as far as I can tell let you download entire seasons. So until that matures, the only other option is iTunes.

And yes, I am aware that with the internet, you can get all the TV you want in high definition for free. But at present, the majority of my income comes from a major multinational media company, so I can’t really condone that with a clear conscience. And still, that stuff is hard to find, takes forever to download, and just has a “ethical gray area” feel to it. So I’m not considering that.

So for this test, I’ll take the shows that I watch regularly. I’ll pretend that their seasons all overlap, and that a season is about 9 months.

Now, I pay an obscene amount for my satellite TV connection. It’s almost as much as I pay for real necessities, like cigarettes. If I think about how much better it would be for me to take that money and donate it to charity or something, it just gets depressing and strikes me as vaguely un-American, so I’ll just leave that idea alone. What I will do, though, is cut ten bucks a month off the bill, because that’s what I pay for the HD package (which is mostly worthless, but the rare shows that are broadcast in HD are sweet), and iTunes doesn’t support HD yet.

So for DirecTV the total is: 9 months at $50 a month = $450 per season.
Downsides: Commercials, being stuck with DirecTV’s lousy DVR.

Looking on the iTunes store, here’s the cost of season passes of shows I’ve watched with any regularity in the past year:

  1. 30 Rock: $34.99
  2. Heroes: $42.99
  3. Lost: $34.99
  4. Monk: $29.99
  5. Battlestar Galactica: $34.99
  6. Doctor Who: not available
  7. The Venture Brothers: $19.99
  8. Mythbusters: $25.87
  9. Passport to Europe: $22.99
  10. Saturday Night Live: $29.99
  11. The Sarah Silverman Program: $9.99
  12. Kim Possible: $37.99
  13. Legion of Super-Heroes: not available

So for iTunes the total is: $324.77 per season.
Downsides: waiting for downloads; the day delay between broadcast and iTunes availability; the lack of local programming, CNN and just lazy channel-surfing; knowing that I paid $43 for a show that I hate but am hooked on anyway (“Heroes”); no “Doctor Who;” no cheesy anime on adult swim. Plus, missing out on the stuff I watch sporadically but would never go out of my way to pay for — Discovery Channel documentaries, cheesy movies on the Sci Fi channel, and just about everything on the Food network.

I’d never seen a break-down like that before, and the result really surprised me. First, obviously, because it comes out cheaper to buy entire seasons online than it does to pay for a monthly satellite bill. Second, that there are shows available I never would’ve expected to be, like “Mythbusters” and “Passport to Europe.” And third, that browsing around the iTunes store works as well for TV shows as it does for music or watching stuff on a DVR. Especially since you can buy individual episodes to try them out. So I’ve gone from thinking that the iTunes video store was worthless, to realizing that unless you watch a lot more television than I do, it actually makes more sense to get stuff online than pay a regular monthly cable or satellite bill.

I’m not going to cut the cord anytime soon, since live and semi-live TV has gotten to be a habit. And there’s still a mental block with the pricing — even though it actually comes out cheaper, it’s easier for me to rationalize paying a bill and considering it a “utility”, than it would be to pay thirty or forty bucks for a series I feel somewhat guilty for watching anyway (like, for instance, the Disney Channel animated series aimed at teenage girls).

But after seeing it actually broken down, I feel like I finally understand why everybody’s making such a big fuss about TV over IP. If they can get semi-reformed TV junkies like me to make the switch, there’s a ton of potential and even more money to be made there; I wonder why they don’t make more of an effort to demonstrate how it’s cheaper.

And in case you’ve read all this, and your response is, “or you could, well, read a book,” then you just don’t get it, man.