Monday, March 18, 2013

Living Off the Tube (Or "Poor People and Their iPhones")

I've been living off the tube for a while now. The boob tube, that is. Which is to say that I've been without broadcast television. It had been spotty ever since the U.S. transitioned to digital television. Without any cable or satellite subscription, even most local channels wouldn't come through at my residence.

I tried installing a couple different over-the-air antennae, but none of the affordable indoor receivers did the trick. When I went to Best Buy to shop for one, the greeter didn't even know what I meant by "TV antenna." He directed me to the television department guy, who was able to show me their selection of antennae but couldn't offer any advice or recommendations. I told him I thought it ridiculous that, even as technology had supposedly progressed, my HD set seemed less capable of performing TV's most basic function than my family's analog box from twenty years ago had been. Back then, all you had to do was plug it in, and shortly you would be watching local channels over the air. My HD TV can't pick up anything on its own but mostly snowed out NBC. (And, for some strange reason, if you plug in the cable, even without service, standard-def SyFy will come in clean and clear.)

"Everybody these days just has cable or satellite," he said.

This surprised me, because I knew how expensive cable was, and, even when my family had it, I had always understood it to be a luxury. Yet, come to think of it, it did seem that quite a lot of people I knew were ready to prioritize TV among their expenses. There was a period recently, after I had quit my regular job of five years, when I simply bounced around from one temp job to the next. These were all low-paying, mostly labor gigs, and my coworkers, in their own words, "lived paycheck-to-paycheck." And yet they would mention watching first-run cable shows like The Walking Dead on TV. If even these self-described poor people had it, maybe cable wasn't a luxury anymore but more of a basic expense. Rather like the iPhones I noticed they all seemed to have. What was up with that? (While I was, at the time, still using a dumbphone!) Or maybe they were just incredibly financially irresponsible—they seemed to spend all their weekends at Indian casinos—and that was a large part of why they were poor in the first place. Or maybe, although they (and I) were not quite middle-class, the lifestyle of the working class was nevertheless far removed still from that of society's truly poor. In any case, the point remained that the days of free TV—even local channels—were over.

But I still couldn't afford cable! And how could I live without being able to keep up with my stories?! I didn't exactly have a lot else going on in my life. So I bought a Roku and checked out the various on-demand streaming services—Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime Instant Video.

It hasn't been too bad. The Roku is fairly capable—not as ideal as having a PC plugged into my TV to act as a media center, but far cheaper. And being able to watch shows on my TV is still far preferable to watching them on a computer monitor—enough so that I'm willing to pay at least a little extra for that comfort and convenience.

As for the services, having both Netflix and Amazon Prime is largely redundant. Netflix has the larger overall selection, but Amazon Prime has some exclusives and, of course, other benefits, such as free two-day shipping. Neither offers current seasons of shows, so they're no help for keeping up with whatever your coworkers will be discussing at the office. On the other hand, having access to their libraries of older shows and seasons has, in some ways, changed the way I enjoy television. I don't usually like to begin watching a show in the middle of its run, so, in the past, whenever I received a recommendation for a show already in its third season, I would just shrug and say, "Maybe someday." Now, if a show is included on my subscription, not only can I check it out from the beginning but I can catch up on multiple seasons very quickly by marathoning them (which is also a fun and addictive way to watch), as I did with Parks and Rec.

Hulu Plus is different. It has some older shows, but its real value is in its offering the latest episodes of current shows the day after they air on television. If it's important to you to keep up with conversations about, say, what's going on in The Vampire Diaries, then Hulu Plus is probably the most important of the video services. You'd still be that one agonizing day behind, however, and you also wouldn't get the "next week on" preview segments. On the bright side, I do love being able to come home that day after and immediately start watching whatever shows I have queued for the day. No longer having to structure my schedule around prime time viewing, I feel as though I have more time in the day overall. The lame part about Hulu Plus is that, even if you're paying for it, there are still commercials. I never really minded commercial breaks during the broadcast days, but they stick out as an annoyance on Hulu because 1) you don't have to deal with them when watching the same shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and 2) there are only a very few different ads that get old very quickly. I also think it's lame that you must pay for Hulu Plus in order to watch Hulu's shows on the Roku (or any device other than a computer). And even a subscription doesn't get you access to The Simpsons and some other shows.

As for what's missing from all these services? Well, none of them offer current episodes of cable shows like The Walking Dead or Justified, much less premium channel programs, like Spartacus or Game of Thrones. And, naturally, these also happen to be the most buzzed-about shows, which means, when they're running, I have to avoid all TV-related blogs for fear of spoilers (although I've learned to do that anyway, since even casting news is often spoilerish). You also don't get live programming, such as news, sports, and awards shows. I do kind of miss having the local news, for when I'm ready to shut off my brain and close out my night. And I also enjoyed riffing on the lousy reporting from time to time. I don't miss live sports so much, but I occasionally miss SportsCenter. Like the local news, that was often bedtime viewing for me. I always thought it did a great job of feeding the day's sports news to viewers in an entertaining manner. Honestly, I think my interest in sports has declined proportionally to the amount of SportsCenter I've been able to watch. And I haven't seen SportsCenter in many years, so maybe that's why I don't miss being able to watch sports so much. So, in a circular fashion, I suppose I shouldn't miss SportsCenter either. Funny how that works. Oh, and believe it or not, I do somewhat miss commercials. A funny commercial could be a great discovery, and TV ads also more often introduced me to new music than actual TV programs would.

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