When there's only one

...there's only one choice
Everything here is my personal opinion. I do not speak for my employer.
May 2012
June 2012

2012-05-28 »

Okay, I know, cable TV is a pox on humanity.

The last time I really had cable TV was back in 2001 in Waterloo up until I graduated. And okay, I did have it for a while at a place where I "lived" in Montreal, but for most of that time I didn't have a TV, and for most of the time I had a TV, I didn't actually live there. So it didn't count.

Back in September I picked up a newfangled flat screen TV (yes, I'm living in the FUTURE!), a $99 Apple TV, and a $79 Google TV (Logitech Revue, with huge discount off its normal price). Let's ignore the Google TV for now because I want to keep this post family-friendly. Oh, I also have a Wii.

So my TV choices on this device were pretty limited. In short, they came down to 1) Apple TV + iTunes, 2) Apple TV + Netflix, 3) Apple TV + AirPlay, 4) Wii + Netflix, and 5) PC. #5 is crap. #4 is blurry (no HD output on a Wii). And not to sound too much like an Apple fanboy here, but #1, 2, and 3 are all kind of dreamy and zen and I've been very happy with them for months.

But I thought, okay, you know, my life is pretty good, I should mix things up and do some experimenting and probably make them worse. So last week I got digital cable TV and a DVR. I figured it would make a decent supplement, at least in terms of getting more recent episodes of shows than Netflix, without paying iTunes zillions of dollars.

So here's the good news: I got the new shows. And the UI is actually pretty good. With my HDHomerun cable-tv-to-ip-tv converter, I can record 3 shows at a time, which is neat, even though I can only really watch one at a time. In three days I've already auto-amassed 261 GB of recorded media, which makes me feel powerful, in a vaguely pointless sort of way. But powerful is a good feeling, so I'm going to run with it.

But there are two things about cable TV, when compared to Netflix or iTunes, that drive me absolutely nuts. First, commercial interruptions. Second, idiotic TV channels that mangle the show you're watching with horrific tricks like LITERALLY SQUISHING THE VIDEO to add a useless ticker bar on the bottom of the screen, or remixing the show to make more time for commercials, or moving the show to start/end slightly before/after the hour in order to confuse your DVR. I'm pretty sure they also fade out the colours in addition to using really excessive digital compression levels in order to squeeze in more channels, because you know, quantity trumps quality every time. Also, there are things that are just confusing, like how some channels have black bars all the way around the screen; not for aspect ratio reasons, obviously, but I can't figure out why then.

Maybe people who have had cable TV all this time have come to terms with this, or maybe they get used to it after a while, but coming to cable TV after 11 years, the best description I can find for it is "crass." Alternatives include "uncultured" and "lower class" and "swill."

This reminds me of some long, boring rants I read years ago about the differences between seeing a movie in a theatre vs. watching TV, and why they are such different experiences. Hypotheses at the time included the lack of interruptions, the bigger screen and better sound, the social connection of sitting in a big room with a bunch of other people, the specialness added by paying for the privilege, and (seriously) the differences in screen flickeriness making one medium more or less hypnotic than the other (I forget which).

That all puts in context for me the concept of "home theatre," which is what people call their TVs nowadays. Someone realized that cable TV is crass, and movie theatres (although they get ever worse) are less so. Home Theatre People want to make your TV more like a theatre, less like TV.

Without thinking very hard, I had done this with my HDTV + Apple TV + not_cable_tv combo. I had a system with a big screen, good sound, no interruptions, suspicious screen flickeriness, and goshdarn it, it cost a lot so I'd better like it. Sitting down to watch something on Netflix on that thing is an experience, which now that I think of it, is kind of like going to the movies. It's intense. It requires you to pay attention. Actually it's so intense that I didn't do it much because I found it tiring. I waited until there was something I really wanted to see.

Sitting down at the same TV to watch TV is like regressing to my 20-year-old self. It's the opposite of intense. My wife says she finds commercials loud and stressful, but oddly I don't find that at all; I find that they disrupt the intensity, which, perversely, means I can do it for hours. I can get up in the middle of the show without pausing (despite the pause-live-TV features in every modern DVR). I can read/write email at the same time. Cable TV is background noise and it's surprisingly easy to tune out.

All this makes sense, of course. It explains why so many people just leave the TV on all day and all evening. It explains why TV commercials work - because after a while, you stop remembering to fast forward them because you're not all there. It explains why some channels desaturate the colours - because that way it fades better in the background, where you'll forget to turn it off. It even explains why TV is in decline: because the Internet is now, for many people, a slightly better source of background noise.

Moreover, it explains why I hate Youtube ads so much more than I ever remembered hating TV ads. (And sure enough, 11 years later, I still don't hate them that much.) Because the rare occasions I visit Youtube, I'm intense. Whatever I'm looking for, I want it now, and the ad isn't it. With TV, I'm here to kill time, and I'm not being intense, I'm not even really paying attention. It's the perfect time to throw some unrelated sales pitch at my subconscious, because I'm receptive and bored.

So what is the future of TV? If you ask Apple, the future of TV is a smooth, slick, intense movie theatre in your home… and they're really doing it. But that's different. Movie theatres and TVs have always filled different use cases; that's why we have both. Most people still want both, which is why although Apple TV is popular and cheap, it's not as popular as cable.

I never missed cable and I'll probably ditch it again now that I've had my psychology fix. But it was worth it for the experience. Now I remember how easy it is to get sucked in, and how easy it is to fill my brain with background noise and hardly notice. How much time I can waste without really thinking. And how so very many people do it every single day. And also, how much less stressful it is than the purified beautiful experience Apple is selling.

Interesting.

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