Sometimes the big changes creep up on you, and it’s only much later that you realize you’ve had your own little digital lifestyle epiphany. Having read about “the death of scheduled television” and the migration to on-demand content for years now, it still all seemed like a distant – unfeasible – dream. Yet somehow, without really intending to, I’ve been weened off broadcast TV and liberated from the schedules, without really trying.
[Image credit: Pierangelo Rosati]
It all started when we moved our TV away from the comfortable reach of the in-wall TV outlet. If we owned the apartment then I’d have drilled some holes, run a length of coax, but it’s a rental and they’re less enamored with my DIY whims. We’d been relying on Freeview – free-to-air digital TV – here in the UK, and that doesn’t like portable, indoor antennas, especially when you’re using them in garden-level flats.
For a while, we had a Slingbox hooked up, next to the main antenna socket – usefully next to the master phone socket, so thus close to the ADSL wireless router – and used a laptop hooked up via HDMI to our TV, streaming through Sling’s browser-based UI. May sound silly, but the company actually tells us that’s a very common use of its system. Whereas the expectation was that people would “sling” content to remote and/or mobile devices, in fact the majority rely on their Slingbox to placeshift around the home.
It worked, sure, but after a networking blip that saw me unplug everything from the router (and come close to throwing it through the window, though that’s a different story) the Slingbox never got plugged back in, and we didn’t really miss it.
Instead, we’re relying on a mixture of on-demand streaming and downloads. Hulu and Netflix are blocked here in the UK, but we do get BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD, the streaming versions of the main networks. All have back catalogs of varying sizes, which can often help out when you’re in “but there’s nothing to watch” mode. The BBC even offers live streaming, in time with its regular broadcasts: if there’s something we simply have to watch as it happens, we can stream it in real-time, as if we were using an antenna.
The gaps get filled by rentals and downloads, though streaming rental services are still behind what’s on offer in North America. We abandoned our Lovefilm subscription – basically the European equivalent of Netflix – a year or so ago, since we were never organized enough to arrange for DVDs to be mailed out. In the meantime it’s started offering streaming content, but the selection is still poor. Hopefully, now that Amazon has acquired Lovefilm, that will begin to change, but if content owners want to replace piracy like BitTorrent with legitimate, paid services, they need to start offering content in a timely and affordable manner.
The odd DVD and some YouTube clips, and our digital home entertainment is pretty much complete. Best of all, we now generally actively choose what to watch, rather than slumping in front of whatever’s showing and zoning out.
Next step is an HTPC, which will liberate the laptop and hopefully save me from walking over to the TV every time I want to change the “channel.” Is this setup for everyone? No, not yet: iPlayer, 4oD and other services are good, but the UI still falls short of picking a channel from a cable or digibox GUI. Sometimes there’s a show we’d like to watch, but whoever screened it on broadcast TV didn’t also secure the streaming rights, and so it’s not available online. They’re the times Hulu Plus and similar start looking tempting (or, indeed, less legitimate options like torrenting).
Still, it’s getting better all the time, and that’s movement in the right direction. Anybody else out there finding they’ve been liberated from their broadcast, cable or satellite service?