Cutting the (Virtual) Cable

I just cancelled my DirecTV subscription. There's a long string of archived posts that mention DirecTV in some form or another, primarily centered around them turning on the MPEG-4 HD streams for many of the "basic cable" channels, such as the one formerly know as SciFi, USA and so forth. You can search the blog for "DirecTV" if you'd like to see the nitty-gritty. As you can see from the archives I was pretty enthusiastic about DTV back then, and was willing to sign a two year contract to get my hands on the HD-20 DVR that would store these HD signals. I don't regret that but a lot can change in two years.

I realized over the past few months that easily 95% of the programming we watched was coming in from the antenna. The only things we used DTV for were the "basic cable channels" - Karin watches some things on USA, my science fiction programming on the channel with the stupid name and so forth. But here's the kicker: We were paying $80 a month to pretty much access three of our channels. That's stupid. Even worse, when I started looking I can find EVERY SHOW in question on either Hulu, iTunes, or some moderately janky "stream in a web browser" channel site. Hulu Desktop is producing ... well I wouldn't call it full HD quality but it's better than DVD in a lot of cases and seems to carry almost everything we lose. I'll watch something like Warehouse 13 in HD, but I have trouble selling that as worth let's say $10 or $20 a month. Meh. Hulu Desktop is good enough for so-so TV.

So I bought a new "TiVo HD" unit and an external drive for it from Amazon. The pair costs less than $400 and give me over 150 hours of HD programming storage with a new generation TiVo receiver. It can record ABC flawlessly, which both of the older PVR's were still having trouble with as of a week ago. So you figure that will pay for itself in five months, maybe six or seven if I end up buying a lot of iTunes season passes. But so far it looks like a rooftop antenna, a TiVo, a computer hooked up to the TV, and Hulu Desktop are going to get us every show we used to watch, and they are going to do it for free. (OK, they are going to do it for the TiVo Guide fee, which works out to about $10 a month.) Hulu makes you watch a couple of ads, but it's not super-obnoxious about it.

This is the future people. There's no reason to pay cable or satellite fees in most of the country if you own your rooftop. Used to be cable and later satellite were the only ways to get a decent picture, but the antenna is a better picture than DTV provided and it is much cheaper. When I talked to the customer service rep he kept stressing 200 channels, but I never watched 99% of those channels, so those don't count.

Hulu lets you subscribe to shows and it just puts new episodes in your queue as they become available. Watch' em and they are automatically removed from the queue, so you can get a list that works an awful lot like Season Passes from TiVo.

I've had Hulu Desktop on my system since it first came out but I was sort of stunned to start using it again this fall and see how far it's come. It's not bad, not bad at all. The biggest drawback is that it has limited number of series, or only the last three episodes or whatever, but that will all get better over time. The TV networks have no reason to prop up cable companies (except in cases where they are OWNED by cable companies of course, cough cough, too much deregulation, cough cough Rupert Murdoch), so I think this will improve fairly quickly. Especially if they ever realize that two unskippable ads in a Hulu stream is a better deal than dozens in a TV stream that I just blink right on past.