We are free, free at last, from the preposterous monstrosity of cable television . . .
The hundreds and hundreds of channels we will never, ever watch—and, in many cases, wish the rest of humanity wouldn’t (well, I wish that, anyway).
The cable box UIs that never, ever change—except for the worse.
And, most onerous of all: the God-awful monthly bill.
We get everything we really wanted, for about half the price. And it’s all contract-free (even the connectivity, although my local choices are pretty limited), so we can change it up any time we want.3
I, for one, am thrilled that we’ve done it at last. Indeed: had it been totally up to me, we’d have done it years ago.
Thing is, we married nerds can’t make such changes until everyone in-house is willing to accept such an adjustment. You younger folks, probably only vaguely remembering the pre-web era, have no idea how hard it can be to move that boulder up the hill, particularly if one’s Significant Other is already somewhat of a technophobe.
In our case, the successful job of persuasion that, yes, it’s time for us to make the big jump and I “think you’re gonna love it,” had to wait until both of two things had happened:
I could show her that we’d save a boatload of money each month while keeping all the channels we really wanted (more on that in a moment). Actually, the money-saving part was true long ago, but I had to wait for the next part.
There was a choice from among several vendors which offered a near-to-cable experience. By that, I mean: getting all our local network affiliates; getting all the channels we—and, by “we,” I of course mean “she”—would want to watch4; having a decent UI which I can convince my wife is worth navigating even though it’s a lot different from the cable-box experience with which she’s become familiar over the last few decades; and getting a cloud-based DVR that is sufficiently flexible yet either doesn’t cost extra or, at worst, costs only a little extra.5
So, having joined all you folks who’ve been happily thumbing your noses at the cable jungle for some time now, permit me to give you an idea of where my generation has been, TV-wise. That way, you’ll have a better grasp of how greatly the whole video landscape has changed in the millennia that your faithful correspondent has been around. Think of those stories you’ve heard of people around the time of the first moon landing who could still remember back to 1903 when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane. It’s kinda like that, but without the profundity.
Eons ago . . .
Back when pterodactyls ruled the skies and I was but a wee lad of two, I had my first encounter with television.
Everything we watched came over the air to a big, goofy-looking antenna, looking kind of like the “stacked conical” design shown on this page. My father mounted the antenna on what, to a little boy like me back then, seemed to be a really tall pole next to our home.
At least, we had all three channels until my father was transferred to another state for several years. In that place, we had two-and-a-half channels: a station that carried a mixture of CBS programming and NBC programming; a station that carried almost exclusively ABC programming, except for a handful of CBS shows in daytime6; and, on those rare times when its weak signal made it to us, an affiliate of what then was NET and later became PBS.7
When my father was transferred back to our home area in late 1965, I—a typical representative of my raised-on-TV generation—was utterly delighted to have all three networks on separate channels.8 Bliss. I finally got to see shows I’d missed for years, except where the station which chose not to air them at their actual network-fed times would record them as kinescopes9 to run days later.
Around this time, in the mid-1960s, I began hearing of something then called community antenna television (CATV), in which people who lived in areas with bad over-the-air reception would join together to share ownership and/or renting of a really tall antenna and some retransmission equipment so they could see distant channels.
This was the birth of the cable TV industry.
By the time I was in my twenties, satellite-delivered programming was becoming available on cable systems, which were popping up even in little towns like mine where antennae worked just fine. I still remember when my home town first got cable TV, around 1980 or so. My parents’ initial cable subscription included: the local channels (i.e., the nearest network affiliates); a couple of pay channels (which you could hear but not see if you didn’t subscribe to them, since the primitive system couldn’t fully shut out all the signal); the “superstations” WTBS and WGN; a couple of religion-oriented channels; and a short-lived movie channel which aired only two or three hours of prime-time programming per night.
I didn’t see, much less subscribe to, anything like a “real” cable system—i.e., one that was overwhelmingly satellite channels—until a couple of years later, in another town nearby. Since I then was a radio announcer who often checked the Associated Press teletype machine at work, I was fascinated by one channel in particular: a live text feed from the AP. Waking early each day for my morning-drive “air shift,” I’d sit in the living room of my apartment, quickly eating breakfast off a TV tray while using this feed to get an advance look at what I’d later be yanking off the radio station teletype machine.
Incidentally, this was all prior to the “cable box” era, at least where I lived. Back then, the signal came through an adapter that connected directly to your TV. Only years later, in the early 1990s, did I first have a setup which had a cable box. Of course, the purpose of this box wasn’t to give you anything more, other than another remote control to keep out of the hands of one’s rug rat(s); it was to decode channels which the cable company had encoded so you couldn’t see or even hear channels to which you weren’t a subscriber. (Unfortunately, this encoding/decoding also could make using one’s VCR more of a hassle; but that’s another story for another time.)
This was all analog cable, so the signal strength usually varied quite a bit from one band to the next. While it seems strange now in our era of got-it-or-don’t digital signals, we often saw “snow” on some channels—not because of a crappy antenna somewhere in the cable system, but because of the crappy infrastructure that was delivering it, or attempting to deliver it, to our home.
In the mid-2000s, fiber connectivity first reached our neighborhood. We were stunned by the quality of the picture, razor-sharp and perfect on every single one of the hundreds of channels it offered. And well it should’ve been: the video signal was so strong that the installer had to put an attenuator on it, up in the attic!
I thought that might be the zenith of my television viewing. It could, I figured, be the way I’d get my television channels for the rest of my life. How could it get better?
Oh, sure, I read and heard of so-called IPTV, among other interesting video-delivery technologies in the works; so I knew of more possibilities that loomed. Still, in a time when a really fast home Internet connection was measured in the tens of megabits, I couldn’t grasp how in my lifetime They™ would figure out a way to deliver all this new-fangled HDTV content to us via anything other than Same Old Cable, so to speak. Surely, I figured, I won’t live to see strictly Internet-delivered programming become either technically practical or financially sensible for the average home.
Well, sir, so much for my powers of clairvoyance on that.
And I’ve rarely been so glad to be extremely wrong about something.
Didn’t switch the channel?
Still with me?
Well, if so, thank you for letting me ramble on about both my new status as a streamer and the ancient times, TV-wise (and otherwise), from which I sprang.
I don’t know how I’ll be receiving TV channels, or whatever we’ll be watching, ten or fifteen years from now. I do know, however, that things have changed immensely in the sixty-plus years since I first watched a flickering Philco at a simple little house in northeast Texas and marveled at what I was seeing and hearing. Perhaps my little story has made clear to you young ’uns just how vast that change has been in this one old guy’s lifetime.
As always: I love living in the future.
FrndlyTV is just $8 a month for the plan we chose. It has only a small number of channels. I wanted it because it was the cheapest way to get the Weather Channel, which is a comfort for us old farts living in Tornado Alley. ↩︎
If you, too, want to go streaming-only but aren’t prepared to throw away an older TV that lacks the HDMI port a streaming device usually requires, I can suggest what worked for the early-2000s-model Sony we still have in the bedroom: a Roku Express+. Note that it’s an Express Plus. In addition to an HDMI jack and cabling, the Express+ also has a set of good ol’ composite jacks and the appropriate cable for hooking into most TVs of that vintage. (On the other hand, if your TV is too old or too low-end to have even composite jacks, well, you’re out of luck on that score. Better just hook it up to an outdoor antenna or “rabbit ears” and use it for strictly over-the-air reception.) ↩︎
For example, I no longer have NFL Network and NFL RedZone. But, if I want to get them again during the next football season (assuming YouTube TV doesn’t add them before then, which I doubt it will), I’ll simply grab another service like Sling Blue that does have them both and drop it when the season’s up. That last part is significant because, over the last few years, I’ve usually paid little if any attention to NFL Network in the off-season, other than perhaps during the yearly NFL Draft, yet I was paying for it—and the useless-except-during-the-regular-season RedZone—all year. No more! ↩︎
In my spouse’s case, that particularly meant Investigation Discovery, the loss of which due to a decision on my part would’ve sent her packing faster than you could say, “Just how many shows about women getting stalked can you stand to watch, anyway?” ↩︎
Lest you think otherwise, that cloud-based DVR is a non-negotiable part of making this ultra-palatable for the Not Quite Ready to Stream. When you’ve been hamstrung for years by the limited capacity of the hard drive on the cable company’s DVR—especially since the greater file-space demands of HDTV made that limit even more aggravating—the incredible freedom of virtually endless storage in the cloud is, shall I say, liberating. ↩︎
On weekday mornings, the CBS/NBC station chose to run mostly NBC game shows, like the original Jeopardy; so CBS arranged to get much of its weekday morning schedule—notably, reruns of I Love Lucy—on that usually-ABC station. ↩︎
The only times I ever got to see that station on a reliable basis came once I was old enough to attend elementary school, because the school had a sufficiently tall antenna to pick it up. The school showed us kiddoes the station’s “educational programming,” as the term went back then, for fifteen to thirty minutes every afternoon, right after lunchtime. My favorite show from that channel was the one—its name slips my memory—that ran on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. To this day, I can still hum the tune of its theme song. I have no idea what the words were. They were sung by children on a recording that was so poor, especially given the awful audio quality of most TVs at that time, that you couldn’t understand a word they sang. ↩︎
I’d been so young when we moved away, I had forgotten about that particular viewing advantage; but, on each of our as-frequent-as-possible visits back home over those years, I relished my relatives’ ease in watching things that we couldn’t see in the area where my father had been transferred because the two-channels-carrying-three-networks thing just didn’t make it possible. Here’s one particularly bizarre example of how that worked. On the day President Kennedy was assassinated, that CBS/NBC station joined the coverage with Walter Cronkite’s famous bulletin because, at usual at that time, the station was carrying As the World Turns on CBS. Then, at the top of the hour, the station switched to NBC, because either the normal schedule called for it or, perhaps more likely, it was the station’s practice to carry NBC News programs instead of CBS News programs (e.g.: in the evenings, it showed The Huntley-Brinkley Report, the highest-rated network newscast at that time, instead of the CBS Evening News). ↩︎
Yeah, kinescopes. I guess these smaller-market stations didn’t yet have the wherewithal to buy the massive video tape machines of that era. ↩︎