On the Air

clockworkorange.jpegAbout two months ago, I did the unthinkable and cancelled my satellite TV service. It was both an attempt to save money as well as a social re-engineering project on myself: I’d gotten so dependent on having live TV that it never even occurred to me I could go without it. It was an essential utility, like power and water (and now: broadband internet).

Results so far have been pretty disappointing. Not because it’s been torture, but because there’s been pretty much no change at all. I’m not saving money yet, because I somehow convinced myself to buy an Apple TV, and it’ll be another couple weeks before it “pays for itself.” And I’m not able to take pride in “roughing it” because I haven’t had to go without. There’s just too many ways to get TV programming these days; it’s ruined any feeling of frontier spirit.

  • Most of the stuff I want to watch is available through the Apple TV, so I’ve already bought all my season passes (using a Christmas gift) and have them downloaded 24 hours after the show originally airs.
  • For the “Battlestar Galactica” premiere the other night, lots of blogs were threatening to spoil The Big Secrets for everyone, so I went onto scifi.com and watched it at my computer without incident.
  • For stuff that airs frequently, like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” I can watch it on hulu.com if at all. I installed Boxee on my Apple TV, so I can watch it on the television instead of hunched over in front of a computer.
  • All the other stuff I used to spend “dead time” watching — uninteresting documentaries on the Food Network or the History Channel; the sublimely ludicrous “Ghost Hunters;” “MythBusters” and Samantha Brown travel specials which are still fine but lost their appeal from overexposure — I just haven’t watched and haven’t missed.
  • Now that you can stream Netflix movies over the Xbox 360, it’s like having an infinite number of channels showing crappy movies I don’t really feel like watching, at any time of the day.

If I were still working at home, I think cable or satellite would be justified. I just spent the last five days stuck in my apartment with a cold, and things were getting pretty dire by the end there. I ended up buying the entire season of “Psych,” one episode at a time, just to have something to watch. (Not that it’s a bad show, just that I never saw myself as a season owner). But apart from that, it’s been pretty painless.


  • They don’t secure music rights for re-broadcasting “Saturday Night Live,” apparently, so they can only sell “selected sketches” on iTunes, or via hulu.com, without the musical guests and without any sketches that use existing music. Even with that, it’s unpredictable when it’s going to become available; the Neil Patrick Harris and Rosario Dawson episodes still aren’t on iTunes, and Dawson’s monologue isn’t up on hulu.com.
  • The implementation of boxee on the Apple TV (it’s still in alpha) is pretty nice, but not quite all there yet. I can’t reliably fast-forward or rewind through the stream, so as soon as I sit down I’m stuck watching the whole thing. And if my connection goes south during the stream, I’ve never been able to get it to resume. There’s few things more annoying than having the connection crap out five minutes from the end of a 45-minute-long show, and realizing there’s no alternative except to start over from the beginning.
  • I’ve yet to find a source for the magic Saturday Nights on the local Japanese channel, when they air bizarre game shows and sitcoms. I miss watching the I.Q. Supplement and knowing the entire time that there were more constructive things I could be doing.
  • And it’s a small thing, but I miss turning the TV onto something while I’m eating dinner. Eating in a silent apartment is just creepy.

So as an experiment, I picked up one of those indoor HD antennas. They’ve been warning us incessantly that the switch to all-digital broadcasting was imminent, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. I’m not sure what I expected — actually, that’s not true. I expected it to be like analog TV, but with a bigger picture. There’d still be some ghosting and blurriness and occasional static, to remind you that you were too cheap to pony up for a cable or satellite bill.

This is not the case. Over-the-air HD broadcasts are eerily sharp. (And most are broadcast with 5.1 surround sound as well). It’s exactly the same as the local channels over satellite, but without my having to pay Rupert Murdoch 80 bucks a month. And there’s like thirty channels available, at least twenty of them in English. It could be just because I live in the shadow of Sutro Tower, but everything I wanted came in astonishingly clear.

Except, of course, for the two channels that started the whole experiment: the closest NBC affiliate in San Jose, and the local channel that broadcasts Fuji TV on weekends. It’d be relatively painless to invest in the outdoor version of the indoor antenna that I have now; I’d be surprised if that doesn’t give me better results (assuming I feel like climbing up to the roof to install it). The alternative is to wait and see if the situation improves after the Great Digital Transition of February 2009. Or, be true to the spirit of the whole experiment in the first place, and just go without “Saturday Night Live.”

But what continues to surprise me about the whole business is just how readily available all this stuff is; you don’t have to go without unless you choose to. Having broadcast TV feels like it breaks the spirit of the arrangement, somehow, but I can’t say I’m all that upset since I don’t have to pay a monthly fee for it. What I’ve wanted for years from cable and satellite companies was a real a la carte system, where you pay only for what you want to watch and ignore the rest. I’d always assumed that that was never going to happen, but as it turns out, it’s been available for a while now, and I’m just now getting caught up.