Saturday, September 10, 2011

Watching Fall TV Shows Without Cable

Since we ditched our cable TV over the summer, we avoided what I call the "Watercooler Issue".
Some TV shows have gained a definite social aspect and are likely to be discussed amongst friends and co-workers soon after they air. You know the ones - "Survivor", "American Idol", those "Real Housewives of Timbuktu" shows.

But if you haven't watched the show that night or at least the next night, you either hear all the spoilers or you just can't join the conversation.

This is a Big Deal for some people. I am one of them.

So with the fall TV season quickly approaching, I began to strategize. Since we have no DVR, I cannot simply record the shows I want to watch later, so I'm left with two choices:

  1. Watch the show live. Gasp! So 1950's!

  2. Leave it to the show's network to record the show, then watch it online later (via laptop hooked to TV with HDMI cable)

I will TRY to use option #1 when possible, but I know for a fact that I already have plans during the premiere of one of my favorite shows, "Dancing with the Stars". This is a show that will be talked about the next day. So I checked ABC's website for when the show will be available for watching online. Turns out ABC is a pretty responsive network, and has the show available online the next day. Score!

But, if you snooze, you lose. ABC takes the shows down after 4 weeks.

I wondered whether other networks had a similar timeframe for making shows available. As it turns out, they do not, and it's not always very easy to find this "timing" on their website. So, lucky you, I'm providing it to you in one place. Enjoy!

When: Shows are available the day after broadcast.
How Long: Shows are available for 4 weeks after broadcast.

When: Shows are available the day after broadcast.
How Long: Unknown (after the fall season starts, I'll figure this out).
Exceptions: There are some shows that are owned by other studios that have requested that they not be available online. So alas, you will not find "Two and a Half Men," "The Mentalist," "Cold Case," or "Without a Trace" online.

When: The majority of our primetime shows become available for viewing online at 4 AM Central time the night of the broadcast. Wow!
How Long: Unknown - but looks like the past 3-9 episodes are available for most shows.


When: Shows are available 3 days after broadcast.
How Long: Unknown - but looks like the past 5-6 episodes are available for most shows.

When: Fox has decided to get in bed with DISH Network (and "more TV Providers coming soon"!). For DISH Network subscribers ONLY, shows are available the day after broadcast. For the rest of us schmucks, they are available a whopping 8 days after broadcast! Epic FAIL, Fox. Give us non-cable folks another option, even if it's fee-based.
How Long: Unknown - but looks like the past 3-8 episodes are available, depending on the shows.

So, other than Fox, the networks have made it fairly easy to keep up with your favorite shows without cable and without DVR.

Now bring on the fall shows!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Look Ma - No Cable!

I’m not sure where the initial idea came from. I must have seen our recent cable bill and thought about how little TV we actually watch and realized “Holy Shit! We are spending $84 a month for stuff we could watch on network TV for free!”

Then I came to my senses and realized that in order to do this, we would need to be home at a specific time, in order to sit in front of a TV and watch something LIVE…and this is something that we are just not programmed to do anymore. Damn you DVR! You’ve spoiled us all!

But the idea persisted. And I did some research. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Original Vision
I originally had this vision of a computer hooked to our TV in the living room, serving up streaming audio and video from the Internet. Two problems with this strategy:
1. Audio
2. Video

Audio - When you plug your computer into your TV, the sound still comes out of the computer. Computers are not known for their spectacular sound quality. Some nice speakers could be bought to help out, but then the living room is filling up with all sorts of equipment clutter.

Video - When you plug your computer into your TV, the TV acts like a great big monitor. Monitors don’t do HDMI quality video. We have an HDMI TV - we want to see an HDMI picture.

Luckily, connecting the TV with the computer with an HDMI cable solves both these problems. If (and it’s a big “if”) your computer has a spot to plug in an HDMI cable. If your computer is older than a few years old, it probably does not.

Tangent note: Do NOT buy an expensive HDMI cable...please! This one (HDMI Cable 2M (6 Feet))is just dandy and it's two bucks. DO be mindful of the length of the cord - make sure it's long enough.

Fortunately, we DO have a laptop that has an HDMI cable jack. Unfortunately, my protective husband did not want his precious laptop in the jungle-that-is-our-living-room, alone and unprotected. Sigh.

So more research was required.

What about "live" TV?
I knew we could get "re-runs" of our favorite shows online, but I was also curious about live TV. We do live in Kansas, known for its springtime Tornado Fest. It might be nice to get some up-to-date weather information, as needed, from local TV. My good friend Google told me that a digital antenna ($15) would allow us to watch digital channels "over the air" without any cable requirements. Since the investment was low, I decided this would be a good first step.

We got the digital antenna from Amazon for $15 (the fancily named Axis DVB-T9001 Omni-Directional Digital Indoor Antenna), plugged it into the TV and clicked around until we found the ‘search for over the air channels’ (or something like that). It found 22 channels. We don’t watch these a lot, but they will come in handy for Chiefs games and for weather advisory stuff. Or if you’re one of those folks that still watches the news on TV.

What we discovered out of this experiment is that we pretty much hate live TV. The commercials every 5 minutes, waiting for shows to be on, the lack of “anything on right now”. Ugh. We needed a streaming service to give us more content.

Yet more research was required.

Streaming Services
The Big Daddy is Netflix. We’ve all heard of Netflix. I was skeptical about it though, having heard that the streaming content did not keep up with the disc-in-the-mail content. I also heard rumblings about HuluPlus, which is more TV-show oriented than Netflix.
But wait! I was getting ahead of myself. How to get the Netflix goodness to my TV?

I knew that our Nintendo Wii console had the capability to deliver streaming content to a TV, especially if that content is Netflix. But our Wii lives in the kid’s playroom and we just didn’t want to bring that romping, stomping good time frenzy up to our living room.

After more research, I uncovered some alternatives to connecting a full-blown computer to the TV to get these streaming services. There are several devices that can do this: Roku, Boxee, AppleTV, and the previously-mentioned Wii, as well as the Playstation console.

Roku and Boxee have very similar features, but very different prices. Roku ranges from $59 - $99 and Boxee is $199. After reading the raving reviews of Roku and its other features, I decided to buy it. We got the middle version – XD for $79 - that provides 1080p HD quality video.

So how does it work? Well, you plug the Roku device (which is about as big as a ham sandwich) into your TV directly, with an HDMI cable. It finds your Internet connection, via the wireless network in your house, and connects your TV to the Internet.

To wrap your mind around how this works, think about it this way. Basically, the Internet is your DVR. And it's recording EVERYTHING, not just what you tell it to. The Roku is your cable box, allowing you to access all the pre-recorded goodness. One difference: the Roku does not actually perform stereotypical DVR functions – it has no memory for saving shows. You don't have to tell it to record anything. So we’ve had to adjust our thinking somewhat, from: What do we want to set the DVR to watch? to: What do we want to watch? (then check whether any of the Internet services have the show we are wanting).

Definitely a change in thinking, but I have to confess we’ve watched more TV than we have in a long time. We‘ve found several new shows that we really like ("Billy the Exterminator" - Who knew about this show?). We never would have found some of these shows in the chaos that is the cable channel guide! It’s actually a fun process…”What about xyz show? Where can we find that?”, “Hey, look at this show – I've never heard of it before!”, etc.

The Internet streaming services that we are testing out (1st month is free for both) are Netflix and HuluPlus. Netflix is more movie-centric, with some cable shows; HuluPlus has more TV shows. HuluPlus has whole seasons of shows available. Both are $7.99/month each if we decide to keep them.

Oh and the “other features” I mentioned above regarding the Roku box. The Roku is not limited to Netflix and HuluPlus. It has a Channel Store – that frankly, we haven’t scratched the surface of – that has dozens of other channels with different content. Some examples are:

  • Pandora (this replaces all those lame cable music stations)

  • FoxNews

  • CHOW (all the cooking shows you ever wanted)

  • Crackle (older movies - "Lethal Weapon", anyone?)

Oh and all the channels I listed above are FREE. Cool, huh?

Now let’s stop and do some quick math:
Roku box $79 + Netflix $7.99 + HuluPlus $7.99 = about $96. One month of our cable-TV bill was $84. Big savings…especially since the only ongoing monthly expense is the 2 services, which total $16/month.

What about DVR capability?
The strangest thing so far is the lack of the DVR. We were big set-the-DVR-at-watch-it-later folks. But if you get the right set of other services, they do all that for you, you just need to remember to go watch. You have to ditch the DVR Mindset. Damn near everything is out there “in the cloud”, you just have to find it.

What if I can't find it?
Yes, there are shows that you just won't find on any streaming service. If you can’t find it – I’m talking to you “True Blood”! – your other choices are:
1. Wait for the season to be over and buy the whole damn season on DVD
2. Watch it on a computer (with or without HDMI capability)

Okay, now you’re saying “Hold on! Our point here is to save money! If I’m out buying seasons of all my favorite shows on DVD, that will break the bank.” And it might, if you aren’t careful. Check your streaming services first, then check online, then check the library. Yes, I said the LIBRARY...don't be a caveman. We have rented whole seasons of “Dexter” and “Weeds” from the library. For free. Nothing. Nada. You can’t lollygag around, though, you have to watch the entire season in the 3 weeks you have the DVDs checked out, but trust me, it’s doable.

If you do need to buy a season, buy it, watch it, then re-sell it on I resold a season of Dexter for several dollars MORE than what I bought it for. Score!

What next?
Our next challenge will be the Fall TV shows premiering. If we want to watch one or more of these, how will we? There's the live option, but I'm guessing with the nicer weather, we won't want to rush inside to watch a possibly-lame TV show. So stay tuned on how we cope!

And post comments with any questions or experiences you have. I'd love to hear them both!