10 January 2017

#NerdAlert: I Was a #Cordcutter When #Cordcutting Wasn't Cool. #OTA #DTV #DVR #Timeshifting #VideoDownload #Streaming #HDTV #JustSaying

I grew up in a rural area where over the air (OTA) TV reception meant you got PBS and a few local channels, if anything. I loved the educational programming offered by PBS and my Saturday morning cartoons, but never felt that television was integral.
Television was mainly an afterthought in our house, we only had a black and white TV. I didn't see color TV until I was in high school and recall finding it jarring, as the colors I'd imagined things were during all the years of watching in B&W often didn't match the colors items turned out to be.
Considering as a child that I'd rather be reading or out climbing trees, or chasing frogs or almost anything other than watching television, I was at a loss as to why anyone would PAY for Cable Television. Sure, you got more channels and sometimes got better reception, but as most TV programming when I was a child seemed a bunch of junk, so what?

No, I've never been a television fanatic. I enjoyed (some) television but could easily do without it. I never set my schedule around air times, no matter what the show. If something was due to broadcast and I was otherwise engaged I'd simply miss it. Broadcast television (like broadcast radio) was simply too haphazard, with seemingly little quality control. Depending on someone else to create programming I appreciated was a crap shoot.

Then came the Internet, and suddenly the user was (more) in control. Look, I've been watching Internet video since... well the Internet (or at least since the WWW became established, yes, back in dial-up days). Getting most of my entertainment via online conduits was a natural fit for a geek like me. I could find something entertaining or educational whenever the mood struck. I didn't have to count on some amorphous producer coming up with programming I wanted to see. It was a liberating, if slow process in the early days of the Net.

As comparatively faster internet connections expanded, my online world exploded. And, as truly fast internet --- which allowed for easily streaming video --- became the norm, videos of everything were being uploaded in droves (initially, often by mere bootlegging fans versus content creators or licensees), and it was a godsend. Being a savvy searcher, I could find whatever I wanted to see and watch it on my schedule. Content from all over the world. It was heady stuff. And a great time to be a techie!

Of course, it soon became obvious that being tied to a computer screen, or worse the handheld devices (early iPod Video, anyone?) that followed, was not optimal. If the best home viewing experience was a large screen television, why had consumers suddenly been sent on a tiny screen detour? (I have no problem with mobile video out and about on the go, but if given the choice between watching something on a tiny screen or a large one, there's no contest. Go BIG or go home! Or more aptly, go big when at home.) Funny that we had handheld video devices BEFORE SmartTV. We soon got back on track as (clunky) web-enabled television add-on boxes that weren't necessarily tied to Cable services arrived. (Cable services got with the program, too.)
Remember WebTV? Yeah, me either. I did an on-site, in office, beta test at its headquarters in downtown Palo Alto and lambasted the (at the time) clunky service, which was not an upgrade compared to using my desktop computer and would not have encouraged me to return my entertainment media back to the "television as entertainment center hub" concept.
Later these boxes evolved, shrunk to dongles and eventually became just the software pre-installed in a TV/Display. (Many modern "televisions" no longer come with built-in tuners and are actually merely displays or monitors. However, as a "free broadcast digital television" or OTA DTV advocate, I will always opt for a built-in tuner, given the choice.) Suddenly, I could watch "television" from almost anywhere in the world on an actual TV with the push of a remote button.

But throw it in reverse for a minute... with the arrival of the (clunky) web-enabled boxes and early media center software, users could now stream almost anything broadcast onto our actual TV sets instead of being tied to a desktop computer, but what to do when one wanted to watch stuff at another time than when it aired? A second component was necessary to achieve total programming control, Personal Video Recorders or PVR that would allow an individual to timeshift viewing and skip past commercials at his leisure. Pair it with a physical media burner, if desired, and users had won the lottery. (There was some rudimentary timeshifting going on, as geeky hobbyists would upload recorded video of shows, etc. but one had to count on finding a specific video, not to mention willfully participating in a bit of copyright infringement, as opposed to legally recording from a broadcast source or downloading and/or streaming from a licensed service provider.)
The third component of licensed service providers wasn't required, but is an augmentation which allows users to pick and choose catalog items to view at will, whether by individual purchase or subscription. Such services provide a pre-packaged convenience, instead of setting up the recording of one's own copy (which requires an investment in either software, hardware or both).
In January 2011, I won a top of the line (at the time) Samsung 46" 3D 1080p HDTV. I stumbled upon specs for the European model of the same unit and discovered it included a built-in PVR, software that would allow the TV to record almost anything pulled from its built-in tuner. Of course, I contacted Samsung to ask why the American unit did not also have this very cool feature and was told US "regulations" prevented it. (The thought of average folks being able to directly record OTA content apparently scared the stuffing out of the Cable lobby. And well it should.)

I was angered at what I saw as US over-regulation, but being a tech geek simply worked around it by rigging a computer to act as an on the fly recorder. Years later now, there's no need for such MacGyver-ing, as everyone expects a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and commercial platforms like Tablo TV and TiVo Roamio have emerged to offer OTA DVRs that don't require a Cable subscription (though in a somewhat backwards move TiVo still thinks one should subscribe to its television guide service). With all the options available nowadays, I can easily record free DTV pulled from the airwaves and watch it when I want; I can choose to transfer the recordings to physical discs; I can pick and choose content to download (my preference) or stream on my schedule.

It was a long, long and winding journey, but between cordcutting, timeshifting and a plethora of streaming + download services, we can finally spy somewhere up ahead the (entertainment) promised land where the individual viewer is the one who determines what constitutes Must Watch TV. I am in the pilot seat. Buckle up.

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