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2010/09/24

Catching Up to the New Television

First, there was broadcasting. This is one-to-many, and because of the costs and because of regulation, there weren't that many "ones" floating around. If you live in a town with an ABC and a CBS but no NBC, for example, that's because they decided years ago that your town only needed two broadcasters. When I was 14, in St Louis, we had ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and two or three UHF channels showing syndicated reruns. That's how I came to know Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Remember the Weird Al movie, UHF? I can't say that real UHF was like that, but there was more than a little truth to it.

Then came cable. The one-to-many paradigm became some-to-many, but through one wire. "57 channels and nothin' on" was the Boss 20 years ago. Seems kinda quaint today, doesn't it? The TVs were set for UHF and VHF, so special adapters had to be bought so your TV could get the cable channels. Eventually, you started to get "cable-ready" TVs. Right now, we have a TV that was swank in 1988 that has channels up to 60-some and three stereo RCA ins (for VCRs and such) and a few 1990s TVs that have channels up to and past 100 and one mono RCA in. Once, my VCRs were connected daisy-chained over co-ax, but now when I set one up, I always go RCA.

I guess there are two big changes post-1999, and they would be TiVo and YouTube, but to take away the camel caps and brand names, you can say digital video recording and Flash video. Once, when you wanted video online, it opened up Real or Quicktime, and I groaned for all the configuration options. I was applying for a web-dev position and one of the company's sites had video in the page and it amazed me. Since then, it's become a big thing. So big, in fact, that a <VIDEO> tag showed up in HTML5. Clearly, now it makes sense to have a computer connected to your TV, making TVs more and more just monitors.


(I suppose that the move from videotape to DVD and beyond needs a mention. DVDs were clearly better than tape — better image, no rewinding — so the video stores cleared out their tapes. Streaming video is equal in quality and clearly more convenient than DVDs, so strip malls are clearing out their video stores. I think that Blu-Ray is impressive, but like digital broadcast, it came in just in time to herald the end of non-streaming-internet video. Both require a change, and if the world is going to change, why go with the only-vaguely-better?)


The old TV way of scheduling recordings sucked. If you knew the time and channel and duration, you could set it up to record, but you could only watch what you're recording. My 80s videotapes are either Dr Who shown on PBS starting 10pm on Sunday or lots and lots of videos off MTV. (Yes, I still have some VHS tapes. No, I don't watch 'em much. Yes, it's more convenient to watch the same Tom Baker eps off Netflix and searching "Humpty Dance" on YouTube. I'm getting to that.) If you have your VCR inline with your cable box, it got worse, because your VCR couldn't change the channel and you might get several hours of the Weather Channel. With the TiVo, and with the set-top boxes that came after, and the TV tuner cards that cane after that, you have a box that knows the TV channels and schedules, can switch between them,

This is clearly wonderful, as this means that you are no longer bound to be at the TV to watch your favorite show at 9pm on a Tuesday. It also means that there's an explosion of set-top boxes, often doing mostly the same thing. GoogleTV, AppleTV, Boxee, Roku, TiVo, Wii, XBox, PlayStation, whatever came with my Samsung Blu-Ray player, all wanting to cover some subset of Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon on Demand and YouTube, plus whatever other streaming stuff is available.

I'm slowly trying to get from the 90s model (CRT, cable, VCR, DVD player) to the 2010 model, but I'm not sure what the 2010 model really is. Clearly, going to an HDTV that's inches thick instead of an old screen that's feet thick is a crucial move. I think the general-purpose computer is a dying thing, but a machine running Windows can handle all the video codecs and sites and choices you might want to do. I have an inexpensive VGA-RCA converter and an old desktop running at 800x600 connected to a big monitor right now, and another with a Wooted TV tuner. This gets my toe in, and while the first step is clearly getting a bigger, better, thinner HD screen, I'm not sure what the next step is. A recent Wired article seems to say that you can get everything you want cheaper by renting the shows than by getting cable. I'm thinking that having seventeen boxes connected KVM-like to my HDTV/monitor might be the way, but that seems so wasteful and wrong, too.