Cutting the Cable: Getting Media Content
This is the fifth post in a series about abandoning cable/satellite television in favor of HD broadcast TV combined with a web-connected computer acting as a media server. To start with the introduction, click here; links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of the post.
First, an overview. After you have dropped cable, added an antenna to get over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts and hooked up a computer to your television, you have an incredible array of options for content, and I’ll cover them all here. I’ll also cover what you can’t get at all or in real-time.
Your sources for free content are OTA broadcasts and the web. For OTA broadcasts, this means all of the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, the CW and whatever
local UHF stations you get) plus some additional programming on the extra HD channels. Let me explain.
Because digital broadcasts use less bandwidth than analog television did, every broadcast station found itself with unused bandwidth on its hands, and many decided to use the left-over bandwidth to add stations to their line-up. In Atlanta, for instance, channel 11 (NBC) broadcasts its standard NBC feed on digital channel 11.1, added a weather feed on channel 11.2 and broadcasts Universal Sports (year-round coverage of Olympic sports) on channel 11.3. We also get a channel of old television shows like The Rockford Files and Magnum PI, extra PBS channels, and more religious channels than you can shake a looted Eastern European icon at. So OTA covers access to all your standard network programming.
To replace your cable programming, you have to turn to the web, and whether this will supply what you need or not is entirely dependent on what cable content you are trying to replace. Make is list of all the shows you and your family like to watch on a regular
basis and then go searching. Check Hulu first. They’ve got content from all the networks and a bunch of the top cable networks. If you are going to be using Hulu regularly, download the Hulu Desktop application because it is remote-enabled and is by far the easiest way to use the service. You can find a review here. Hulu streams content in 480p format, and it looks damn good. Much of the Hulu content is also available on the websites of specific channels, but you will almost certainly find the Hulu implementation easier to use, particularly via Hulu Desktop. You will have to suffer through short commercials (many repeated several times during the same broadcast), but, given that they have to make money somehow, the tradeoff seems reasonable to me.
If the content you want is not available on Hulu, check next on the website of the specific channels you want because they often have full episodes available immediately following the broadcast air times. I’ve found the implementation of site-specific complete show watching to be spotty: some sites do it really well, and others really poorly. Be prepared for a little frustration.
ESPN3. ESPN3 is ESPN’s streaming service, and it is now available from most b
roadband providers at no charge. The web interface works well, and the quality is fine (but not as good as an HD source or Hulu). They show live events from all over the world and also have a ton of content stored.
Astonishingly, the sports coverage you get via this service is often far better than is available on any television. They streamed every game of the World Cup (except those televised on ABC), they cover about 10 courts from the first serve to the last for every Grand Slam tennis event, and they show dozens of college football games every weekend. It’s plenty for the casual sports fan and probably enough for most sports fanatics.
YouTube. It’s not just for videos of bullies getting knocked out and rabbits fighting snakes. Although those are great. They also have a huge library of old TV shows and other content you may find interesting. Last summer my daughters made their way through every episode of Bewitched via YouTube, something they never would have come across otherwise.
Content You Pay For
iTunes. iTunes has more content for purchase than any other service, but I hate it. Why? Because you have to download everything and then store it on your on hard disk (or archive it to a DVD) for the rest of time. The more you buy, the more hard drive space you need and the greater the risk to your investment of a hard drive failure. Buying HD content? Better have a giant drive.
As much as I would like to avoid it completely, iTunes sometimes has content not available anywhere else. So I got prepared. I daisy-chained two 7200 rpm 1-terabyte Firewire 800 drives from my Mac Mini, one of which I use as my boot drive because the Mac Mini runs faster in this configuration than it does booting off its 5400 rpm internal drive. I use the second drive as a backup which gets refreshed every night via scheduled SuperDuper backups. Even so, I find myself deleting content I paid for just because I don’t want to keep it around any longer (and I am unlikely to go back and watch it again).
You can also use iTunes to rent movies, but the download times are sometimes astonishingly long. Again, use it for rentals only if you have no other choice.
Amazon Video on Demand. I love the Amazon VOD service as much as I hate iTunes. Why? Because they store all your content in the cloud for you. Forever. What a concept. But this is not to say your content is marooned on a web server somewhere. Far from it. You can download it to your computer (Mac or PC) if you want or even
download it to your TiVo. Then delete it and download it again later. But the streaming service is great (even for HD content), and I almost never download anything; I simply stream it via the web interface on my Mac Mini or via the Roku. Amazon’s selection of television shows and movies is great, and they have another advantage over iTunes if you are buying entire seasons of shows: Amazon respects your wallet.
Let me explain. If you go onto iTunes to buy a season of a TV series, you pay for the whole season up front even if the first episode has yet to air. Yikes! With Amazon, you subscribe to the season and get charged for each episode as it becomes available. And, if it turns out you don’t like the show, you can stop the subscription at any time and pay only for what you have already purchased.
You can also rent movies from Amazon, and, again, this service is superior to iTunes because they stream the content to you rather than forcing you to wait for a download. Get online, rent the movie and start watching immediately.
If there is one thing I don’t like about Amazon, it’s the interface for searching for content. It’s just not very good. If you know what you want to buy or rent, you’ll find it quickly. But if you are just interested in browsing, I recommend you use the great NetFlix website to find what you want and then go to Amazon to rent the specific title you decided to watch.
NetFlix Instant Play. This is a great service that comes along free with any NetFlix unlimited plan (which start at $9.99/month as of this writing). The catalog of content is weak for just-released titles, but incredibly strong for older titles, particularly entire
seasons of television shows. And you can access it via your Mac Mini (the web interface is very good) or your Roku or your TiVo or a number of other web-connected devices and televisions.
You just get online and add a title to your Instant Play Queue, and then it is available via any of the devices. Or, if you are browsing using your Mac Mini connected to the television, you can simply push play without dropping it in your queue at all.
The short answer is this: you can’t find real-time (legal) sources for original programming on HBO and some other premium pay channels, and you may be unhappy if most of your entertainment time is devoted to sports or cable news.
HBO simply does not make any of its programming available on iTunes or Amazon. When they release DVDs of the previous seasons shows, you can generally buy the digital content from either of these sources (or rent it from Amazon), but there is no real-time source other than (illegal) overseas streaming sites. So we just took a year off from HBO and are now catching up.
I already talked about the benefits of ESPN3 and the fact that you will likely be able to find stuff on there you simply cannot find anywhere else. But it is not a true replacement for good cable/satellite sports packages. If your sport is baseball, however, MLB has great packages of HD content on line (and via the Roku) that cover every game. But it’s expensive.
Finally, cable news. Sorry, but there is no good replacement because they do not stream their feeds.
If you want to read more on the subject, you should definitely check out this LifeHacker post because it has a number of additional suggestions that will serve you well.
Other Posts in This Series
Network Hardware: Setting It All Up
Software and Remotes: Making It All Useful
On-Going Frustrations: One Year In