Shutting off the Satellites

Life in a post-DirecTV world

b52satellites.jpgAccording to this here weblog, it was almost exactly 11 months ago that I canceled off my satellite subscription. At the time, this seemed like an earth-shattering decision. Sure, I knew lots of people who’d gone without cable or satellite for years, and they claimed not to miss it at all. But I knew that they were really living the hollow lives of shadow creatures, coming home from the drudgery of their jobs to find a David Lynchian living room silent except for the incessant drone of an old refrigerator, sitting on a couch and staring blankly out a window into the darkness as they waited for death to release them.

I expected one of two things to happen: I’d achieve a Buddha-like state of awareness as I used my free time for reading and exercising and cleaning up around the apartment and grooming, able to quote from the greatest works of Western literature as I shattered bricks with my fists and I stood, shirtless as a Bowflex ad, inviting the neighborhood children to bounce quarters and superballs off of my rock-hard abs. Either that, or they’d find me in my apartment after I’d hung myself with a coaxial cable, a forlorn suicide note scrawled with a manic hand and addressed to Sal Castaneda, the cat having gnawed off as much of my lower extremities as he was able to reach.

Neither of those actually happened; in fact, it’s been such a non-issue that I wish I’d skipped all the hand-wringing and cut the cord years ago. The status quo is pretty much the same: I still have more stuff available than I have time to watch. The only difference is that instead of spending hours numbly flipping through cable channels, I now spend hours numbly flipping through RSS feeds. And I have a skewed idea of what is and isn’t supposed to be popular, which as it turns out isn’t as useful as I’d always assumed.

While I had a freakish dependency on television, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of other people who are in the same boat. So here’s what I’ve found after a year, the kind of stuff that would’ve helped had I known it a year ago. Maybe it’ll help anyone who’s been wondering if they really want to keep paying $80 a month or more for television:

  1. All this assumes a broadband internet connection. You’re not really getting rid of an addiction; you’re just trading one for another. I don’t know if the SF Bay Area is particularly well-connected, or if it’s just 2009, but high-speed internet access seems to be pretty much a given these days.
  2. I don’t watch sports or reality TV. If any one of those were true, I’d probably be missing the live TV a lot more. As it is, I hear rumblings about things like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars but couldn’t tell you much more than that they exist.
  3. I don’t work from home. When I was freelancing, it was important to be able to set aside the “computer area” from the “entertainment area,” which is harder to do if you’re getting all your entertainment from the computer.
  4. Consider getting an antenna. As sad as it may be to admit, sometimes you really just want to sit in front of a TV and watch indiscriminately. Now that everybody’s made the digital conversion and you can get over-the-air HD broadcasts, TV antennas aren’t nearly as ghetto as they used to be. I’ve mentioned it before, but it still surprises me: an over-the air HD broadcast is indistinguishable from an HD cable or satellite picture. Unlike an analog signal, a digital signal doesn’t degrade when you lose reception: it’s all or nothing. Either you get blackness, or you get the full, crystal-clear picture with 5.1 surround sound, the works.
    I bought an “HD Antenna” (apparently any antenna will work, and the “HD” moniker is just clever marketing) for less than the cost of one DirecTV bill. I’ve been too lazy to install it on the roof, but even indoors in San Francisco, pointed away from Sutro Tower, I can pick up all the major networks except NBC. And as it turns out, PBS is surprisingly entertaining as long as it’s not the hellish Sunday afternoon home improvement block.
  5. Reconsider getting an AppleTV. At the time, the AppleTV was a no-brainer. But then revealed the full extent of its evil and started cock-blocking boxee in favor of its own player — apparently, there are ways to work around the limitations, but it got to be more hassle than I was willing to put up with. So now, the AppleTV does no more than it advertises: funnels content from your iTunes library to your TV and/or home theater. Anything you want to watch over the AppleTV (that’s not YouTube, anyway), you’re either going to pay for or convert yourself. The AppleTV feels very much like an interim solution that’s either going to change significantly or get discontinued altogether.
  6. If you’ve got a computer anywhere near the TV, hook that mother up. Both Microsoft and Apple are paying more attention to the home media functionality of Windows and OS X, making either one basically plug-and-play. You might even be better off in the long run getting a full media computer for the television, instead of getting a dedicated box like the Apple TV: you won’t be tied to one provider like the iTunes Store, and you’ll be able to use hulu’s player as well as boxee or plex or whatever else comes along for free content. It’s even better if you don’t mind watching TV at a computer; I’ve never had the attention span (or a comfortable enough computer chair) to do that.
  7. If you’re using Macs, ditch the G4 machines. I have an old first-edition Mac mini hooked up to my TV, but it’s basically useless. It doesn’t have an IR sensor for the remote, for one thing. Worse, though, all of the free media center apps require an Intel machine — boxee and hulu desktop both refuse to run.
  8. If you’ve got a videogame console, find out what you can do with it. Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 let you buy TV shows through their online stores; I haven’t used either, because they both run a little more expensive and are a good bit more inconvenient than iTunes. (Plus it’s been nice to occasionally copy a TV show onto my phone to watch on a plane or elsewhere). But if you’re using a Windows machine, the 360 can act as a “media extender” to let you watch video from your PC on your television. If you’re using OS X, nullriver software makes MediaLink to connect to the PS3 and Connect360 for the 360, which let you watch videos or listen to music from your PC on your home theater. Be aware that neither version supports content you’ve bought from the iTunes store, whether music or video (even, surprisingly, the supposedly DRM-free “iTunes Plus” tracks). And finally, if you’ve got a 360, the Netflix streaming support on the new version is pretty great.
  9. You might save money, you might not. I’ve avoided using BitTorrent* and can’t easily use hulu, so I’ve been getting series and individual episodes from the iTunes store. Instead of a monthly fee spread out over the year, I end up paying a big chunk whenever a new season starts. I haven’t yet gone through an added up how much I’ve spent over the past year, but I doubt it’s quite as dramatic as I’d expected. On the other hand, I haven’t felt like I was missing anything.

So there’s really no excuse for reading or going outside these days. And you can rest easy knowing that you’re still giving lots of money to Rupert Murdoch and Disney and NBC Universal and all the other big media conglomerates; you just now have more options to pay a la carte.