Cutting the cord – Part 2 – TV
As I mentioned in Part 1 (Cutting the cord – Part 1 – Internet), the core focus of the “cutting the cord” movement is on reducing costs and unbundling things to make them as cheap as possible. There’s a strong element of “freedom” in there, not unlike writers going the self-publishing route, people growing their own food, running businesses out of their house through the power of the internet, ordering glasses over the internet, etc. A lot of it is thumbing the nose at the established monopolies to say, “Well that may be how you THINK we should do it, but I can do it myself now, and I don’t need you.”
Of the five main areas (internet, TV, phone, cellular and hosting), by far the biggest focus is on cable TV. As I mentioned in the previous blog, I’m not talking about people thumbing their noses at TV because they think it is rotting people’s brains or they didn’t watch it to begin with, it is about how you consume TV and whether you get it from a monopolistic provider or if you get it some other way that is (likely) cheaper.
While the current form of the movement has gone legit, the pressure points have been around for years, often with lots of illegal solutions. People who had regular cable could pay for “descrambler” boxes that would give them pay-TV stations for free. Or dishes with special boxes that unlocked other channels too. Even, for a while, people splitting their cable feed where it entered the house so they could run it to multiple spots in the house without paying an “outlet fee” to the cable company (mostly eliminated now, but it did happen). Some people had US satellite dishes with U.S. post office boxes for billing, even if they were living elsewhere. Some people split their cable off the neighbour’s feed, and split the cost (or maybe didn’t even tell the neighbour!). While some of the people were just cheapskates, almost all of the solutions were double-edged — they were both illegal and a chance to thumb your nose at the established companies who said “there’s only one way to get the service, take it or leave it.”
In more recent times, there have been huge internet developments and people now have at least seven ways to consume TV differently that doesn’t require them to have a cable package subscription.
First and foremost, there is the still-illegal option of torrents. Putting aside the risk of malware, putting aside the bit of extra technical know-how to get it up and running, and putting aside the need to have a computer, it’s still illegal. You are downloading content that you don’t own and don’t have the rights to view. Often with peer-to-peer client sharing tools, which is the fancy way of saying that it downloads fast to you because it is downloading from hundreds of people with copies — and once you have a copy, your server usually starts sharing it too. You’re not only downloading and possessing illegal copies, you’re distributing too. Yikers. So what’s the upside? Massive availability of the latest shows. Movies in theatres, latest EPs of the hottest shows, no waiting for your theatre or TV or country to launch the show locally. If it’s out there, someone pirated it and made it available. Have I used torrents? Sure. Often when I missed an episode because my PVR didn’t tape. If I couldn’t find it online for watching through the cable offerings, it was out there on the net. But it’s not a long-term viable solution for daily TV consumption, at least not for most people. Too much overhead and tech, plus that whole (relatively minor) risk of going-to-jail-thing kind of turns them off. And no live sports. Ever. Usually not even taped sports.
Second, people turn to the easiest replacement for cable TV — services like VMedia (that some have somewhat incorrectly described as a Canadian TIVO equivalent, but I won’t quibble). It basically is the same as cable TV through cable or phone or dish, but it’s through the internet. There aren’t a lot of companies offering this service because, well, quite frankly it’s not a lot cheaper than regular TV costs. Add in the need for internet with a strong reliable connection, and some people are like, “Wait, I have to pay for VMedia AND for internet? Isn’t this supposed to SAVE me money?”. But the beauty of the VMedia-like service is that (a) it’s legal, (b) you get to keep your handy little TV guide and remote to page through current listings), (c) you get SPORTS with LIVE shows, and (d) you can add in a PVR option. It’s almost identical to your cable options, just works a bit different. A friend of mine has VMedia and it was a very strong contender for me when I was looking for a new option. Partly because it had the basic “menu” of shows to go through, a very easy transition both for me and my wife+son. But only marginally cheaper than what I had and, at the time, it had a very big LOSS — there was no easy PVR option. I was using my PVR for everything. If Castle was on Monday at 10:00, and I was watching TV, I wouldn’t watch it live. I’d wait until at least part-way through the hour and then watch it on PVR so I could skip commercials. Or I would watch something else and watch Castle later. I find it horrendously difficult watching live TV. One night I was watching, and there were 14 commercials in the middle of a special TV show. I really can’t take those long commercial break anymore — PVRing has ruined me for regular TV watching. Except sports, on that I seem to be okay, partly as the breaks aren’t usually for as long. So I ruled out VMedia last year for the lack of PVR option, and when I went to cut the cord this year, I re-considered it as an option as it now has a PVR option, but I was already committed to another (much cheaper) option.
Third, some people consider running something like Graboid. It is frequently described as being totally legal, that you can download all these shows for free, no risk. It’s totally untrue. Graboid is really just a torrent application that pulls from torrent sites and downloads the content to your computer. It isn’t legal, although it is slightly more legal than the raw torrent option as you don’t do any filesharing yourself and it usually doesn’t tell you where it’s pulling it from. A legal slight of hand, but not enough to make it legal. You can pay them $20 a month for better access (unlimited downloads, etc.), and some people think, “Well, I paid, so it’s all good.” No, you just paid them to let you download more stolen content than previously. It’s slicker than a torrent site, but it’s still not legal. I confess I fell for this one for awhile, they had a decent selection, and since I was only after TV shows, I didn’t notice anything strange. Then I happened to look at the movie offerings. And discovered that they had some of the movies that were STILL IN THEATRES. Here’s a red flag for you — if any site is showing you something that is still in theatres, particularly if it is just recently released, you are well into the illegal world. And downloading that stuff is a really good way to attract the interest of the companies being ripped off. I cancelled my Graboid account shortly thereafter.
Fourth, there is one option that exploits a big giant grey area with respect to online resources. If I go to ThePirateBay and download the latest episode of Castle, a law was probably broken somehow. My local providers signed contracts to have exclusive rights for set amounts of time and paid for the privilege so that they could make the money back selling advertising. Here I am, bypassing them entirely, accessing unlicensed content and DOWNLOADING it. That point is important. By contrast, if I go to CTV.CA and pull the same episode off their site and STREAM it from them, no issue. It’s freely available, but they show me advertising with it. Interestingly, I can go to ABC.COM or NBC.COM or CBS.COM and try to get this week’s shows from them, and I’ll be blocked — if you’re not in the U.S., you’re blocked entirely. Enter live streaming through a program like KODI. It used to be called XBMC video player, and while I had looked at it, it held little interest for me. Too techie in the config, not very user-friendly, and quite frankly, I couldn’t get it to work hardly at all. Plus I had other video players, so why bother?
Well, the program improved and became a new product altogether — Kodi. It is slick, it has decent menus, it has a reliable code base, lots of online user supports, etc. And what does it do besides play music or local videos or show local photos? It streams from the internet. Give it a URL of an internet stream, more or less, and it will stream just fine. And therein lies the grey area — streaming isn’t illegal. You didn’t make a copy of anything. You didn’t download anything. You didn’t share anything. You just watched what someone else put on the net. And you didn’t pay them anything for it, they don’t even know who you are. Most jurisdictions have no legal block for this activity. You can watch it because YOU didn’t do anything illegal and nobody is profiting from it through payments or advertising. So Kodi users around the world have set up free feeds. Streams of U.S. websites that are streaming it for free already. Some are streaming from copies on their own servers. Thousands of options, you don’t see hardly any of it. Because you don’t care. There’s nothing illegal about it for you. Sure, maybe the person who is streaming it might be doing something legal, illegal, or quasi-legal in whatever jurisdiction they are in, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are no Canadian / American / European / Australian laws that say there is anything wrong with watching something someone else put on the net. You don’t possess it at any time, you don’t own it at any time, you don’t share it at any time, you just watch. And while it does require a bit of setup to get it working on your computer, once it is up and running, everything is available. TV shows. Movies (although again, lots of pirated material in there that shouldn’t be, and easy enough to avoid). You want to see episodes of Castle? Yep, they’re available. Not just the latest episodes, all eight seasons, including the latest from this past week. It is way more manual than a standard cable package, but I PVRed everything already — this is like the entire internet is my PVR. Sure, it buffers occasionally (hence the faster internet package).
Now, you might think, “Well, that’s okay for the basic user, but I’m a heavy consumer, it wouldn’t work for me.” I know you might think that because I thought that too. I’m a much heavier than average user (not just physically, hehehe). I treat premiere season like some people treat fantasy football. I rate shows, I pick ones to watch, I review them, I add or dump some. And I raise the average hours watched per week considerably. I love serialized story telling. I love revisiting the same characters from the week before in a new story. I’m the same way with books — I prefer series whenever possible, and I’ll binge read as much as I will binge watch. NetFlix, Crave TV, Shomi, are all options for me, and I consumed them too. Up until I got Kodi. And this is the best part. You can try Kodi without doing ANYTHING on your existing cable package. Leave it exactly as is and try Kodi with no need to commit to ending anything or starting anything. It’s just a program to run on your computer. Like it? Keep it. Don’t like it? Don’t keep it. No risk at all.
I tried it over the summer, a few shows here and there. I basically wanted to evaluate it before I got to the fall premiere season. Turned out, I wasn’t watching my PVR anymore. Shows were still taping, but I was just watching them online instead. I weaned myself off the cable provider teat over two months. I have a laptop in my basement, so it was easy to add to the configuration. Kodi is like having Netflix, except with almost every show that has ever been shown, AND with current TV episodes available too, not just previous seasons. So my basement config was good to go.
The first-floor TV however was a different kettle of fish. It is generally used by my son and wife, neither of whom consume a lot of TV, occasionally NetFlix or regular cable offerings, and are not that interested in figuring out how to work tech solutions to get to their shows. If I cut the cable, they would lose their feeds upstairs too. Was there an easy option for them? It turns out there was. There are Android TV boxes that are sold, including a decent option by MyGica. Rather than having to attach a Windows PC to the TV, like the laptop in the basement, I can hook up the Android TV box, basically a little mini-computer running Android just like a tablet or phone but with full internet ports, USB ports, HDMI ports, etc. And oh look, there are NetFlix apps, a Kodi app, you can run the browser if you want to surf, etc. Is it as easy as the previous cable option? No, not quite, but they can do 90% of what they had been doing with two clicks. My wife tried it and said, “Okay, this will work.”
So, why doesn’t everyone go for the Kodi option? Four reasons:
- It’s more technical. You have to add some configurations, play with software setup, etc.
- You lose the live programming menu. I wasn’t using it much anyway, but if you often find yourself watching whatever happens to be on right then, without caring what you are watching, simple consumption browsing isn’t quite as easy.
- Grey area doesn’t mean white. Some people still worry about the legality of it. If you are, simple solution until the law becomes clear — run a VPN for $5 a month that hides your IP address. It is actually a good security practice ANYWAY, even if you aren’t doing streaming, i.e. highly recommended by most security advisors to protect your home computer from hackers and malware.
- Sports. Live sports is really hard to get, particularly if you want local stuff.
Most of the people who consume sports say this is the silver bullet for them…they can’t get their hockey, football, soccer, etc. I’m not a huge sports watcher to begin with, but occasionally we watch a hockey game or football game. Or golf. Or a lot when the Olympics are on. My son, age 6, really likes hockey now and wants to watch the Canadiens play. I thought this would kill us, which would lead to one of the extra options below (OTA), but I ended up with a free NHL Gamecentre subscription this season because I have a big Rogers cell package. It even comes with, you guessed it, an ANDROID app that runs on the MyGICA box. Instant hockey. Plus I found a bunch of feeds in Kodi called the SportsDevil add on that has amazing sports feeds. Half the time I end up watching those rather than the official feeds, just easier and sometimes more stable. With no regional blackouts either.
Hockey? All the NHL games are there. American football? There. Including some of the ones that are only available with super sports packages that cost you $200 a year. Soccer? Are you kidding me? They have every league around the world, teams you have never even heard of at levels you may not have heard of either. Baseball? MLB absolutely. After that, it starts to get a bit spotty. NASCAR, most golf, volleyball, etc. Few feeds likely for your local provincial teams (junior hockey, etc.) but they were hard to come by on regular cable too. A few weeks ago I was in Lindsay, and my brother-in-law wanted to watch the Eagles game. None of the local sports bars had the game, it was available on super sports packages only, and they didn’t subscribe. Yet we could have watched it on my laptop — I could get the feed, but I was trying to run it through the McDonald’s wifi, and it was buffering like crazy. I did a bit better at a local coffee shop, but still spotty. If we could have found a good hotspot, we were golden. I’ve been pretty happy with the options, nothing has been unavailable yet when I went looking. A bit more manual, harder to find than just clicking on a channel on your cable box, but doable.
Fifth, people decide to just ignore the current TV season. Instead, they subscribe for $10 a month to NetFlix, or less for Shomi or CraveTV, and get access to previous seasons of tons of TV shows and movies. All great options, but again, if you are like me, and you want the latest episodes, you need a stronger option.
Sixth, people go for “website” options. For this, you probably need the VPN option mentioned above. If you try to access ABC.COM, it will let you get all the way to the part where you play the video and then it will tell you the content is not available in your region. It knows you are connecting from Canada. So, no show for you. However, if you first connect to your VPN service ($5/mth), and it is based in the U.S. (most are), then the network website thinks YOU are in the U.S. too and plays the content just fine. If you can find it on a Cdn website, play it there; if not, go VPN, and watch it on the U.S. site. The downside is not everything is available, usually not for previous seasons, usually not for more than a few weeks, and often with ads with it. Plus you have to search multiple sites for multiple shows. It works, but it was too much work for me. Note that this is often no different than running Kodi — some of the feeds are the same source, it just tricks the computer into thinking you are already in the U.S., without the need for a VPN. However, the website option worked GREAT for recent election results — I watched the CBC website rather than the CBC stream through Kodi, just in the website browser (Android version upstairs, regular Firefox downstairs). The website feed was perfect. Which is likely what I’ll do for the Olympics too when it comes, just boot up the browser.
Seventh and finally, people go the OTA option. OTA stands for “over the air” and is basically reminiscent of the old rabbit ears setups people remember either from early TVs or setups they had at cottages, etc. While the fancy options now don’t look like simple rabbit ears, they work pretty much the same way. You wire it into the back of your TV or to a box and then to your TV, and the antenna pulls the feed from the air by tuning the receiver to whatever frequency the channel is being broadcast through the air. The options for this are pretty extensive, and the results are varied — depends on the variables.
First and foremost, this isn’t much of an option if you live in a rural area. Or rather, you may already be doing this, but you only get a channel or two. Large urban centres likely have multiple channels to choose from. Ottawa has up to about 15. All free over the air broadcasts, and since it is all digital now, pretty dang good quality signals to pull in. Not that snow you remember from the cottage, or attaching extra pieces of foil to extend the reception or trying to hold it at a specific angle. Second, it depends on if you live in a house or an apartment. If you are in a single level house, with a big antenna, you may not get great reception compared to the guy who lives in an apartment building downtown on the 20th floor with just a little antenna out the window and perfect sight lines. Third is the antenna itself. External / outdoor ones pull in better signals than internal / indoor ones, bigger is usually better than smaller, and the best yet is probably an external one hooked to a rotor that will let it turn the antenna for better reception depending on the channel you want.
Ottawa has two towers, one to the North-East, one to the South-West, and depending on which channel you want, you can get better reception pointing towards one of the two. You can get a better setup with a rotor so that if you choose Channel 1, and it is on the NE tower, the little machine tells the rotor to angle NE; if you choose Channel 2, and it’s on SW tower, it will rotate to the SW. Once it is set up, you never have to worry about it again, it moves on its own. Completely free. Completely legal. You end up with an antenna on your roof probably and some wires coming in, but the main constraint is the number of channels you get. Anywhere from 3 to 15 depending on where you live. I was considering doing this at home in order to get the local feeds, which would have been perfect for watching the news or the Olympics when it is on. Same with local hockey games. But with the GameCentre pack, plus Kodi, my wife has said they’re covered for now. I might do it in the future, and there are some cheap internal antenna solutions ($30) I could try first, before going to a full outdoor antenna with a rotor setup (about $350 for equipment and installation).
Why did I go Kodi? Because it wasn’t that complicated to set it up or run it once it was set up, the tutorials were dirt simple to follow, and oh yeah, it’s completely free. I’ll add a VPN soon for about $5 a month, which is pretty dang good considering I was paying Rogers $85 a month before. I had to shell out $200 for the MyGica box (there are cheaper options available, I went for faster processor, later version of Android, and more ports), and I added a wireless keyboard for the remote for $30 (purchased previously downstairs, but ended up not needing it down there). Bought a long HDMI cable too, $40. Overall, I’ll spend $300-$350 for the first year, compared to $1020 last year, and about $60 a year going forward.
Not too shabby a savings. For $700 saved in the first year, and $950 a year after that, I’ll put up with a bit more manual configuration and a couple of hours of tweaking the setup to be exactly what I want and use.