Sunday, June 29, 2008

Making it without cable

A number of years ago, in anticipation of the birth of our first child, we purchased a home. At the time we decided not to connect the cable and, since the reception was poor, have lived without TV programming since. Sacrifices were made, but we coped: I went out to pubs, my brother's and friends' places to watch sports and we borrowed heavily from libraries and video stores. In the beginning the internet offered very little as an alternate source of programming; now, due to changes in technology and mind-sets known as Web 2.0, it provides for the bulk of our watching.

After years of watching clips, trailers, as well as short films on sites such as iFilm and AtomFilms, I can now watch prime time TV on-line (for those who care, it's legal): in 2007 the big three TV networks began streaming prime time content. ABC was the first to do so, and they did it well. In the player, you can select which show and episode of their line-up you wish to watch; the programs load fast and then you watch it commercial-free in full-screen. ABC broke ground again by offering the four seasons of Lost in HD. (So far, they're the only ones to provide HD content.) NBC's HULU player not only contains their impressive line-up (e.g., The Office and 30 Rock), but an extensive library of past shows and movies. On the whole, I've found that their player operates a little slower than ABC's player. CBS took their time getting on board and has only done so half-heartedly: CBS provides very few full-length episodes of prime time shows and consists mainly of clips, which are not always clearly marked as they are in HULU. CBS, however, does provide a good selection of older shows. On the cable side: Showcase provides streaming of many of their awesome shows, HBO does not.

Now if you live in Canada, like me, CTV is your destination. Not only does it provide great Canadian content, such as Corner Gas, but it also has a wide selection programs, from Mad Men to The Colbert Report. This like the American network offerings is commercial-free and loads quickly; the only catch is that CTV, only hosts programs that are currently being broad-casted, presumably to reserve bandwidth and server space (ABC does this to a lesser extent: only affecting the previous season's episodes). The only downside is that none of NBC's programming has made it to the site. Although HULU, like ABC and CBS, are restricted, there is an easy work around. Just download, install, and run Hotspot Shield prior to going to the respective web-site. It also offers decent protection in wi-fi hot-spots. An alternative is to install and run Tor bundle; this method can be slower, depending on the server choice and requires some effort to set up (Torbutton works well with FireFox).

Watching movies, except through HULU, is somewhat less legal; however, if they are streamed it's pretty much a grey area since no content is actually stored on your computer. In effect, you're just using an on-line service. However, since storing content is illegal most of the movies are difficult to find without using an indexing service. (Although some surprising finds can be made searching YouTube and GoogleVideo, particularly in the case of documentaries.) I have found that OnclickVideos and alluc are the best. Although both present the material differently, Onclick with thumbnails and alluc with listings, they provide links, often multiple ones, to a wide variety of movies (including new releases). Most links are current. Nevertheless, the quality and buffering speed varies greatly depending on who hosts the material, so try the alternate links.

Since news broadcasts have been available on-line for years, the big vacuum on-line is sports coverage. Very little is available and when it is it's not available in a decent resolution. Sports, like the movie industry, are hampered by distribution rights and neither has come up with an adequate distribution model. Even when a pay-per-view system is attempted, networks use the awkward and antiquated DRM in MediaPlayer rather than Flash or DivX. Today I tried to watch the EuroCup 2008 final via the internet and was disappointed with a message noting that all available bandwidth was used up. This occurred after I had paid and after the website showed it was available. I am currently in the process of trying to get a refund. I came across Jumptv, which promises unlimited access to nearly every sports match, but have not yet tried it. Of course, this would be easy if I lived in Britain or could subvert the British system as easily as the American one, for ITV and the BBC show a number of sports live. If you know of a way let me know. I have tried Tor and Hotspot Shield.

As a side-note regarding Canada: Although I really enjoy Canadian content and the CRTC's promotion of it, I bristle at the CRTC's slow adoption policy. Come on! Two years to get iTunes in Canada, and then another two to get TV shows via iTunes (by which time the service had become irrelevant, not to mention the poor selection). The same also applied to satellite radio. In general, Canadian distribution seems to be far behind in everything; I should know as I've paid a ridiculous amount in duty and the courier's extortionate broker fee just trying to get unavailable items shipped up here.


Anonymous said...

Hey D.
Looked into the ABC and NBC site. Does not let me stream any shows as I am not in the US. Any ideas how to get around it??? Have been interested in LOST having never seen an episode but have heard it it good.

D. said...

The second half of the next paragraph talks about this, basically installing Hotspot Shield. Lost is good, but prepare to get addicted. If you want to save some time and start in season 4, watch some early episodes and "Lost in 8:15" (


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