Since most of the TV shows are on what appears to be a three-month vacation, now might be a good time to seek Internet alternatives. I got the idea from a story last week in the New York Times about how one of its reporters has gone completely cold-turkey on their cable TV consumption.
It got me thinking about two guys that I know in their 20s that have taken completely different approaches to their digital entertainment consumption. Their approaches illustrate what we have to do to get our TV these days.
J. is single and a DirecTV subscriber, at $95 a month. C. is engaged but doesn't pay for his TV programming. Like the NYT reporter, he uses his computer to send video to his TV from various Internet sources, using a HDMI to DVI cable. Both are relatively computer savvy guys. Both bought their TVs earlier this spring – this is C.'s first TV since his college days, and did so because he wanted to make it easier for him and his girl friend to watch shows both separately and together. J. has a second TV in his bedroom, and a bigger plasma display in his living room. Both guys have 10 MB cable connections for their Internet service.
C. watches a combination of shows from various Web video sites, such as Hulu and Boxee and some on air TV too. He works in the financial industry, where he has Bloomberg TV streaming to his desktop PC as part of his job. J. works in sales and has some downtime during the work day, where he also watches TV on his PC, but only those Web stations that aren't blocked by his employer. SpikeTV is his favorite. C. likes the Netflix streaming option, J. hates it – "if I wanted to watch ten-year old movies, I would just find them for free online."
J. is a big computer gamer and has an Xbox and connects other gaming consoles when his friends bring them by. "The Xbox was difficult to setup to find my digital media," he told me, much worse the Playstation 3, which easily found and played the majority of his video files that he has downloaded to his PC. It is ironic that a Microsoft gaming console connecting to a Microsoft Windows PC is more difficult to configure than a Sony console connecting to a Windows PC. C. runs on a Mac.
Curiously, the two guys also differ on how they watch movies. J. hasn't been in a movie theater since 1996, and is proud about that record. Instead, he has downloaded hundreds of movies illegally from a file sharing service, and makes copies of the videos for all of his friends. C. goes to the theaters once every two months but says that it can get expensive, especially at big-city ticket prices.
C. has about 30 GB of music on his PC, most of it illegally downloaded. His last CD was purchased from a store about nine years ago. J. bought his last CD in 1996., and also has several gigabytes of stolen music on his computer. "There is no point in downloading a clip from a legal site," he told me. "In the time it would take me to listen to the commercial and the first 15 or so seconds, I can find the entire MP3 song online and have it on my hard drive."
So what can we learn from these two guys? First, going completely free-TV isn't easy. Some shows aren't readily available on the Internet. For example, HGTV has exactly 12 shows on Hulu at the moment, which is a very poor sample. Yes, you can find some old shows (C.'s current fave is the vintage Adam 12 series), but your mileage may vary. Yes, they are adding shows all the time, and in some cases you can find the shows on the networks' own Web sites. I watched a few episodes of FlashFoward on ABC.com, but I had to watch short commercials and click on a button to continue playing the show when the commercials were done.
Second, the system isn't spousal friendly, at least not for my generation. When I checked to see about my wife's favorite local TV station, they didn't have any stream that I could watch from their Web site. HGTV's Web site is also miserable, making finding a show more of an Easter Egg hunt, and I mean that not in any good way. I know free-TV isn't ready for my wife yet. C.'s fiancée is happy with their free-TV setup, but it has taken her a while to get used to the arrangement.
Third, while the TV producers and networks are trying mightily to avoid another Napsterization of video, they have yet to succeed. They have experimented with copy protection and that seems to be on the wane, and are now concentrated on streaming. Some episodes are available for sale on iTunes.
One thing that is clear is that broadcast networks "must-see TV" is so over. Both guys don't watch much in the way of sports or news programming. Both watch shows on their schedule, not the networks'.
Finally, the number of add-on devices and gotchas is still mind numbing if you want to deal with the Internet channel. For ABC's shows, you need to download a player and not use Safari. Netflix has the best and widest streaming support but you'll need a computer, a supported Blu-Ray DVD player, Xbox or PS3, or their Roku device. Some current shows don't show up for days or weeks online. Others only have excerpted clips.
Speaking of Roku, I bought mine a month ago and unlike J., am happy with the Netflix choice of those older movies, especially the ones that have been upconverted to HD status. There is little interruption in the video streams, even with a Wifi connection to my network. And Roku continues to add other services, such as Pandora roll-your-own music channels, to make it easier to get content to my living room.
We certainly have come far with free TV -- it wasn't all that long ago that we were using videotapes and buying DVDs, both things that seem so quaint now. Streaming video gets better and better as our Internet pipes improve.
But we still have a long way to go before the Internet can replace the cable DVR. Certainly, Hulu is worth taking a look at and seeing if you can find your favorites and queue them up to watch on your computer. And as Netbooks and used Mac Minis are around $300, there isn't much friction in having one of them connected to one of your TV outputs. The big remaining issue is having to deal with the various software pieces to try to play the videos.
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv