Friday, December 30, 2005

TV: Stuff That's Just not Ready for Prime-Time

I'm not a tech expert--I neither know nor care to know what nifty stuff lurks inside my television and makes the pretty pictures appear. I like the pictures, and I usually have no trouble restricting my thought processes to TV content. Once I figure out what cable plugs into what jack to get the whole thing to work, I'm done with the technology. But a couple of things have got me started thinking about technology as it relates to TV: The FCC recently mandated that television broadcasts in the U.S. have to be all-digital by 2009, and iTunes started selling TV shows for download.

First, the digital issue. We weren't planning on buying a huge, HD-ready television set in early 2005. Our old TV had different ideas--it was ready to retire and did so quite without ceremony (or warning). With the old one doing the electronic equivalent of heaving its last breath, we headed over to the local big-loud-box store and purchased the 50-inch techno-whiz behemoth we'd been putting off for several years.

So then we had this swell new toy, and I called up the local cable provider to inquire about HD service, which they were only too happy to come out and hook up, promising dazzling clarity and CD-quality sound. My first inkling that something might be just a bit, well, off came when I was told the new HD service wouldn't cost any more per month than our existing digital cable--suggesting that, in fact, it might not be worth more.

It's not.

In fact, if it cost more, I would've told the cable company to come haul its HD box outta here. As it is, it's not worth the cost of the service call to have it hauled out, although it would feel satisfying to do so.

I have three problems with the HD service I receive:
  • "Crystal clear?" What crystals have these guys been looking at lately? Annoyingly blurry with weird white snow at the top of the screen is the reality. And that's when it's not actually breaking up and getting all pixelized, which happens far too often to suit me.
  • "CD-quality sound?" Maybe if the CD's been left in the car and gotten warped by the heat. Actually, the worst part is that the sound frequently either drops out altogether or isn't synchronized with the picture, so that you get left with the feeling you're watching a foreign film with bad dubbing even though you're actually watching CSI.
  • Many of the plain digital, non-HD channels actually look a lot better than the high-falutin' HD channels. Seen BBC America lately? Why can I get BBC World Sport in better quality than the HD version of Lost? Some channels I watch all the time look significantly worse via the HD tuner box than they did through the old digital box. Sci Fi Channel, in particular, really appears to be transmitted via an antenna made of crumpled-up Reynolds Wrap.

I called the cable company to complain, and they were (gasp!) unhelpful. They blamed it on everybody else--the broadcasters, the satellites transmitting the signal from the broadcasters and even the producers for shooting shows in other formats.

I don't care whose fault it is. Like I said, I don't care what makes it work.

So when the FCC came out with its mandate, I laughed uproariously. I was picturing the commissioners looking at their brand-new, humongous flat-screens and cursing eloquently, just like I have been for the past nine months. Lots of luck enforcing it guys--my guess is, it won't do me a damned bit of good. If my experience so far holds true into the future, HD will really be ready for prime-time about five years after my new TV has collapsed and died. If then.

On the question of iTunes video downloads: Look, anybody who reaches for my iPod is going to draw back a bloody nub. I love the thing. But the video iPod didn't initially grab my imagination. My eyes (not to mention the rest of me) are too old to watch TV on a screen that small. But then it occurred to me that I could play the videos on my computer, as well as on an actual iPod. Or even, possibly, on my actual television.

Then I discovered that, unlike music downloads from iTunes, you are prohibited from copying the video files onto a disc for storage.

Can anyone explain to me why I would want to turn my $2,700 laptop into a glorified DVD player? Especially after just spending a bundle on a brand-new 50-inch TV?

No? I thought not.

I get the producers' wish to eliminate the risk of piracy of this material. I read somewhere recently that episodes of Battlestar Galactica are illegally downloaded more than 300,000 times a week. But if I wanted to get it illegally, why would I go to iTunes and pay $1.99? You think the pirates are depending on iTunes for their material? This prohibition won't stop illegal downloads, but it will discourage honest users like me from buying the files on iTunes.

I don't want to make dozens of copies and sell them on eBay. I just want to be able to use my hard drive for something other than video storage, and you can't tell me there's no way to rig up these files so that they can only burned onto a disc a single time.

This concept, like HD-TV, is just not ready for prime-time.

Update: I predicted that at least two of the new science-fiction series on mainstream broadcast channels in fall 2005 wouldn't make it past mid-season, and apparently I was too pessimistic (or too optimistic, if you factor in quality issues). CBS has killed Threshold, but NBC's appallingly bad Surface seems to have been given an undeserved reprieve. Maybe they're being gentle because its poor ratings aren't that much worse than most other shows on NBC. I notice they're occasionally rerunning it on Sci Fi--like SFC's core audience isn't made up largely of geeks like me who have seen the material Surface was stolen from a thousand times. Hey, if I want to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I'll turn on the VCR and watch the original.

The one remaining show worth watching in the group, Invasion, is scheduled to return sometime in 2006. I think Invasion is somewhat overrated, but now that Alias has gone to the dogs, I've got the time.


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