Cutting the cord on cable

That was Comcastic

A Motorola cable box from Comcast. That was Comcastic.

It’s been about a week since I turned in my Comcast cable box and decided to rely on over-the-air TV broadcasts. It’s been an interesting experience with some small frustrations, but I don’t know if it will help accomplish my goals.

Toward the end of 2011, I decided that I would pull the plug on cable, but it took awhile to get up the moxie to actually do it. Ultimately, it will be nice to save about $23 per month and I was hoping to regain some valuable time. There were many weekends or late nights where the hours would slip away while I was catching up on shows recorded to my TiVo. Even now, I’m still behind on some public TV programs that I recorded last summer.

I didn’t drop cable because I don’t love TV, like those who scoff that they don’t even own a set. I love television, but I can spend way too much time with it. There are so many things that I need to be doing with my life and that glowing box is just too much of a lure for me.

By setting aside cable, I hope to rededicate my time to writing more, cleaning around the house and just getting outside more. I know that cutting down on TV watching will only get me part of the way to these goals.

I won’t be quitting cold turkey. I’ve discussed with my friends about watching missed shows on Hulu or downloading them through iTunes Store, but I also feel that watching TV on my computer isn’t the greatest experience. I also have a digital TV converter box that I’ve plugged into my living room set, so I can watch programs the old-fashioned way — live.

I do like the over-the-air experience since the transition to digital TV. When everything works, the picture is generally pretty clear and shows are presented the way they were intended to. Comcast or NBC affiliate KNVN have recently started showing shows with the images cropped to fit old-school 4:3 TVs, which is annoying when they are meant to be viewed in 16:9 letterbox.

Although I imagine some of my viewing will actually be live, there are still options to watch shows later. After doing some quick Internet research, I was able to find an easy way to connect the converter to my TiVo digital video recorder. That was a relief because I had spent a couple of hundred dollars for lifetime service and I didn’t want to set it aside (although I have recouped the value of that plan over the past two years).

While my specific Series 2 model was meant to work with satellite/cable and not antennas, I was advised that I could set up my TiVo for satellite service and trick the unit into thinking my converter was the satellite box.

It’s not perfect, but I can get most of the broadcast networks (except for ABC affiliate KRCR 7, which is just too far away). Over the past week, I’ve tried to find a good indoor antenna but the cheap $12 unit I bought two years ago still does a decent job. I actually made my own, based on Make magazine’s instructions for using old, metal coat hangers (although I had to substitute copper wire for the increasingly scarce type of hangers). That antenna works all right, and both were superior to the expensive flat antenna that I tried briefly and just as quickly returned.

At the very least, this change has me thinking of new and different projects and challenges (like when I can’t watch a show when I would like). It’s been exciting so far and we’ll see where we go from here.

Comcast digital switcheroo may make a la carte channel choice more feasible

Across the country and soon in Chico, Comcast is slowly lowering a digital boom over its customers as part of the cable company’s transition from analog to digital television services. While the company’s new digital cable adapters will add another gadget to the jumbled electronic menagerie inhabiting people’s living rooms, the change may remove one of the hurdles to many customers’ holy grail — being able to pick, and pay for, only the channels they want to watch.
First off, the idea that Comcast would offer most of its channels as a la carte selections is merely a dream — I haven’t seen any indication that the company would want to do so. I’m only asserting that digital TV makes it more practical than before.
We haven’t heard much about a la carte in several years, but the idea remains intriguing. Instead of paying for 80 channels and watching just four, customers could pick and pay for the four channels they actually watch.
When the customer choice debate was raging, the cable and satellite industry had several objections, including that it was technologically difficult to deliver just the channels a customer wanted. That’s understandable with analog cable — in my experience, it’s difficult for the cable company to block off channels that customers aren’t supposed to have access to.
That hurdle was removed with digital cable and it should become insignificant as Comcast forces its customers to go digital. Cable companies can more easily lock and unlock channels that a customer signs up for. I’ve experienced this several times with premium channels and pay-per-view on my digital cable box.
I haven’t dealt with the more simplistic digital adapter, but I imagine Comcast would still have greater control over what’s being delivered on its pipes than during the analog days. While billing for single channels may be a headache, the delivery system itself should be better suited for a la carte.
While the public desire for a la carte may have waned, I still think it’s worth giving it a shot. Access to individual episodes of shows has taken off through digital video recorders, download sites like iTunes Store and streaming sites like Hulu, but there are some downsides to the individual episode approach. Not all series are available in these different formats. It may be easier to have access to a whole network than buying shows piecemeal.
In addition to technological hurdles, a la carte pricing may not be cheaper than the current bundled rates, based on earlier studies.
The theoretical a la carte offerings may be slightly more expensive, but at least the customers would paying for the services they want and not necessarily what the operators want them to have.

What the media companies giveth, they can taketh away

In just two days, I’ve seen a pair of reminders of the power media providers have when it comes to providing access to content. These providers are Amazon and Comcast.

On a national scale, some people have been crying foul about Amazon reaching out and deleting copies of books on their Kindle e-book reader. Many have noted the irony that the books being deleted in this Orwellian fashion are those by George Orwell, he of “Animal Farm” and “1984” fame.

As Ars Technica notes, it appears that a third-party publisher may have not had the rights to sell Orwell’s books. I can appreciate Amazon’s desire to try to correct a situation a third party has put the company into, but I also hope that Amazon sticks to its word and doesn’t automatically delete purchased books in the future.

On the personal level, I received a letter from Comcast regarding their On Demand service. In its letter, Comcast wanted to tell me that my wide access to use On Demand to watch shows and movies from most channels at any time was a mistake. Comcast stated they were limiting most of my access unless, of course, I chose to upgrade to a more-expensive package.

I downgraded to local channels to save money. While On Demand is a nice perk for a handful of shows I don’t have access to anymore, it’s simply not worth the additional $40 per month to return to Standard Cable with Digital.

I don’t quite understand it — Comcast should be encouraging use of On Demand because it offers a lot of the advantages of watching shows on the Internet, but from the comfort and convenience of your living-room television. Instead Comcast is helping me opt for the cheaper solution with more available programming on the Internet.

At least Comcast is giving me a heads up about the change. It’s pretty easy for media companies to simply flip a switch and take away stuff that we take for granted.