Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cutting the Cable?

In this installment, I'll discuss the gradual progression that's been driving my brand of AV enthusiast away from the cable TV monopolies and onto the Internet. I'll also focus on Aereo's local broadcast DVR service in both a mini-review and in the larger landscape.

The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.
- Princess Leia

This quote often springs to my (admittedly twisted) mind when discussing the lengths to which media distributors and cable monopolies such as Comcast, Time Warner, etc. will go to maintain control in a world of cheap recordable media and broadband Internet service. On the Internet, everything is just (potentially encrypted, unrecognizable) data. The media genie has long escaped the bottle. Somehow the RIAA and music distributors (MB/song) got the message, but the MPAA and cable companies (GB/video) are still refusing to give ground. I recall being young and poor and not wanting to pay for intellectual property I couldn't afford anyway; this is still the third world argument for rampant IP piracy. It's not a terrible argument. If duplication/distribution costs are negligible and legal distributors won't operate in your region, why should distributors be able to restrict your access to information and entertainment? Is infotainment for the producers or the audience? It takes both!

I now have the money to legally access the media I desire and the value system to resent overly restrictive controls and obsolete business models propped up by bad laws. Here is my manifesto.
  1. I will pay for the content I want if the terms are at all reasonable. I have bought (sometimes rebought) much of my digital music on iTunes and Amazon. I pay for Netflix and Amazon streaming.
  2. I am reluctant to pay a one-time fee to "own" or stream a piece of DRM restricted content.
  3. If the content owner will not sell into a region, I do not believe piracy in that region is wrong. Information wants to be free.
  4. I will not pay dozens of monthly fees to get the content I want. There is absolutely a place for content aggregators and streaming services.
  5. Whenever one distributor/studio "takes their toys and goes home" by establishing a separate service for their content, I will boycott that distributor. You chose to be difficult; there are other fish in the sea.
  6. I will not step back from the functionality of a TiVo to skip commercials or replay content. I will not pay money for locked-down content.
Wouldn't it be great if the industry could just work out a reasonable plan for both DRM-free video downloads and cross-platform video streaming? Kudos to Apple for absolutely forcing this on the music distributors back in the day and actually saving their revenue streams in a changing world.

Then there's the broadcast networks and cable companies still trying to eek out an existence from advertising, cable transmission fees, and monopolies and legal bullying. Since there's apparently no reasoning with all the broadcast networks at once unless you're a cable monopoly, we now have companies like Aereo. In case you haven't followed the drama, Aereo is trying to work within the law to provide each subscriber with their own tiny TV antenna and DVR streaming service in their local broadcast area. Cloud-based DVR streaming already has legal precedent behind it. Aereo's service is especially useful for those viewers on the outskirts of the metro broadcast area (like me) or with physical obstacles in the signal path (like me) or with intractable landlords. Aereo is specifically not for people who wish to receive extended or pay cable channels; it's for cable cutters for whom a physical antenna is difficult or impossible. You're paying Aereo a monthly fee to host your antenna and DVR. There's some interesting technology behind this, but the legality seems fairly straightforward. The lawsuits are flying and Aereo has generally been prevailing. Fox and CBS have threatened to pull their broadcast stations if Aereo ultimately prevails.

If Aereo is able to grow quickly enough to establish a significant subscriber base, they may be able to negotiate with the networks just as the cable monopolies do now. This is certainly my hope. This would also allow Aereo to reduce their resource requirements by storing a single (replicated for redundancy and performance) stream for each provider with whom they have an agreement. It's almost a given that broadcast TV will go away in the next decade, freeing up the spectrum for other uses. The FCC will need to change the regulatory landscape to provide some degree of free access to public news and alerts on TVoIP.

If I haven't mentioned much about the Aereo service itself, it's because it pretty much works as advertised. I'm on the $12/mo plan that provides two simultaneous channels and 60GB of DVR space. I'd love to know more of the technical details behind how they make their system work. There's apparently some serious transcoding going on at recording/viewing time. They're almost certainly not doing data deduplication for video storage; this would add a legal gray area, and they're absolutely trying to stay legal. I've tried viewing both on a laptop screen and across a room on a TV. Close viewing shows very obvious macroblocking artifacts, visible interlacing on some content, and horizontal line artifacts where 1080i content is being naively downscaled to 720p. At TV viewing distances, most issues become "good enough" for this non-videophile. Lack of macroblock dithering/blending for large areas of a similar colors are still visible. It may be possible to eliminate much of this by properly calibrating display brightness levels. I have not observed frame skipping or lengthy buffering problems.

Aereo is presenting a somewhat specialized solution. If you're tied to cable Internet, bundled basic cable may be a better deal. If you want cable/satellite-only channels, you'll need cable or satellite. I'm no longer willing to put a locked-down, slow, and awful cable box on each of my displays. The cable company has tightened their grip with encrypted digital content and threatened removal of unencrypted broadcast content (ClearQAM) formerly mandated by the FCC. The cable companies are trying to drag us back to the bad old days of the phone company ("Ma Bell") when everyone had to lease each and every phone from the monopoly provider. Grasping behavior like that has me slipping through their fingers.