For this column, I am going to break format and write about something that still is related to media but without much connection to Asian-related subject matter.
(Well, sort of. I suppose there is a tenuous Japanese connection since the name of one of the companies I’m writing about is derived from the Japanese word for the number six. But that’s a real stretch.)
Ever heard the saying that sometimes to save money, you have to spend money? It’s certainly true with regard to being a contemporary consumer of content that was traditionally viewed on what used to just be known as your television set.
But first, let’s lay out the past and present before we get to what might be in your future with regard to your TV viewing methods — and how to save some money.
For many years now, the “TV set” of yesterday has been supplemented by Internet-capable personal computers (desktop or laptop), not to mention tablets and smartphones. Chances now are also that your TV is no longer a squat, heavy box holding a cathode-ray tube but rather a 50-inch high-def flat-screen model so thin that you’d be hard-pressed to lay something on top of it. (I’m still using an old-school standard-def TV, for full kechinbo disclosure.)
Compared to years ago when there were just the Big Three networks, whose analog signals came in over the air into your house via a large aerial on your roof, there’s probably also a pretty good chance nowadays you’re getting your programs via satellite, copper cable or fiber-optic line.
And, if you’re like many Americans, you may be a bit fed up with and possibly even a bit alarmed at how much you’re paying each month to your provider — even if you’re getting nothing more than basic cable. To pay close to a hundred dollars a month or more for TV is not out of the question.
That’s why there is now a growing trend known as “cable cutting” or “unbundling,” whereby consumers weary of paying substantial sums of money for stuff they neither want nor watch are using alternatives to find something worth watching — and cutting their cable or satellite bills, while keeping their broadband Internet access.
So, what are the alternatives if you keep your broadband while cutting or unbundling whatever tier of TV service you’ll no longer pay for?
The answer: get a streaming video device and use over-the-air digital TV. The former is simply a small receiver most observers compare to the size of a hockey puck that serves as an interface between the Web and your TV that allows you to “stream” TV shows, movies and music. The leading maker of streaming boxes is Roku, but NetGear and Apple also make their own variations.
The latter, meantime, is the digital TV signal that in 2009 replaced the old analog system. All the terrestrial broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS — now send their signals digitally, as do the old UHF channels. They also have subchannels (Channels 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, for example) with additional programs.
The key is getting those terrestrial channels without paying for them via cable. (Turns out that providers like Time Warner Cable offer a tier below basic, in which you can pay $20 a month to get all the over-the-air channels that are supposed to be free.) Getting a decent signal that can decode the digital info is the big obstacle. (This also presumes you have a TV that has the built-in capability to decode the digital signal or that you’ve purchased a converter box that allows the digital signals to play on an old-style analog television.)
First, let me address streaming via a Roku device. I own one. It’s great — but you need broadband Internet access in the house. But that is fairly common now; Census data show that Internet usage for people with a bachelor’s degree is now just a touch under 90 percent vs. 2000, so much of that figure has to be at home and not the office. Also, 76 percent of U.S. households now have a computer, so I’m going to presume you have or could easily have the requisite broadband.
Regarding the Roku, it’s made by a California-based company whose founder invented the personal digital TV recorder. Roku is Anthony Wood’s sixth company, hence the name.
So far, more than 3 million Roku receivers have been sold. The current model is the new Roku 3. To use it, you must own a TV with a modern HDMI input and broadband, which is why I instead have a Roku 2 XS, which has both HDMI and conventional audio-video output. The Roku 2 XS, incidentally, was recently supplanted by the Roku 3. You’ll still be able to buy this model for a while online, although I have to note that Sunday’s Radio Shack flyer has it on sale right now for $79.99.
If you can find one at a brick-and-mortar store, it’s a great deal if you don’t have an HDMI-ready TV. What’s good is that if and when you get such a TV, the Roku 2 XS will still work.
The fact that I don’t have an HDMI set yet is also why I didn’t even consider the Apple TV unit, even though I’ve been an Apple Mac user for decades. When I get a flat-screen with HDMI, I may consider shelling out $100 for the more-expensive-than-Roku Apple TV box; it does offer YouTube integration (Roku doesn’t have it), Airplay (the ability to send whatever is on your Apple laptop, iPhone or iPad to your big screen) and iTunes integration. But under my status quo, that’s all unnecessary.
Once you configure it (easy to do, by the way) and connect it to the Net via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable (recommended but not required), there are many “channels” you can use to view TV shows and movies, many of them free. There is also content unavailable via normal TV modes, channels such as CNet, Revision 3 and Leo Laporte’s TWiT network. Those are all tech-y in nature but informative nonetheless. It’s actually the sort of thing in which I’m interested. Regardless, the attraction is that all this stuff is available on demand, when you want to watch.
But for your Roku (or other streaming device), paid subscription services are the best and Netflix — which formerly was exclusively a DVD by U.S. mail service only — is the leader in providing streaming content. For a flat $7.99 a month, you can get all sorts of movies and TV shows — it’s mind-boggling, actually — and you can watch it without limits other than the time you have in a day. If you’re into “binge viewing” of a particular TV show they carry, you’ll be in TV heaven.
Netflix recently made a deal with Disney for kid-friendly content. They’ve also been getting lots of press for exclusive content such as “House of Cards” and the revived cult show “Arrested Development.”
There’s also Amazon Prime Instant Video, which is a better deal than Netflix at $79 a year or less than $6.60 a month. They recently made a content deal with Viacom for Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon content. (An added benefit is you get free two-day shipping when shopping from Amazon.com and some other stuff.)
It’s worth noting that many flat-screen TVs are being touted as “smart” TVs because they come preloaded with software for streaming via Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and the like. Same thing for certain Blu-ray players and video game systems from Sony and Microsoft. (A Blu-ray player that allows Netflix streaming, however, sounds like physical media has lost the battle with streaming digital bits, doesn’t it?)
If you have a smart TV, vid game console or Blu-ray player with streaming capability already and you haven’t checked into it, give it a try — although performance can vary. Everything I’ve read says a standalone Roku works best.
What about over-the-air digital TV? Streaming doesn’t offer everything, after all. Traditional TV nets like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and PBS offer live news and sports, plus dramas, comedies, game shows and the like that we’re all used to.
But in the years since I cut the cable TV, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the ability to get a decent over-the-air signal. Here in L.A. County, I’m interested in getting Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13, plus PBS content and Channel 18.2 for Japanese programs. But I’ve been unable to pull in all those channels, due to the fact that every indoor antenna I’ve tried — amplified, nonamplified, rabbit ears, flat, etc. — has been unable to get all the aforementioned. Some were good with certain channels, but not others. Vexing, to say the least. I was actually contemplating paying Time Warner Cable the extra $20 per month to get those channels.
Fortunately, regarding antenna technology, someone has built the proverbial better mousetrap. It’s called the Mohu Leaf. It may be the least-impressive looking device that offers the most-impressive results. It looks like a thin rectangular piece of plastic with a coaxial cable connection.
Turns out, however, the Mohu Leaf is an example of trickle-down military technology. According to the GoMohu.com website:
“Mohu is a division of Greenwave Scientific, a team of engineers who have years of experience developing military grade antennas for the Navy. … Mohu’s antennas are an outgrowth of a hidden, ‘low profile’ antenna built into the mudflap of armored vehicles.”
OK. Whatever. All I can say is, it works. I can now pull in all the aforementioned channels. I got the amplified version, the Leaf Ultimate, which sells for $89.99 on its site — but dealing the kechinbo card again, I found a nonreturnable reburbished model on the GoMohu site for less but it appears to be unavailable now.
As far as I can tell, it’s available via GoMohu and Amazon for online purchase or Wal-mart for bricks-and-mortar. I’d say go to the Mohu site, research what you need and buy the model you want at Wal-mart in the event it doesn’t work for you so you can easily return it.
Well, here’s where the “spending some money to save more money” comes in. Let’s say in the course of a year, you pay $1,000 for basic cable, including fees like taxes and cable modem and DVR rental. (Simple addition says that’s $5,000 in five years.
If you spend $100 on a Roku 3 or Apple TV, $90 for a Mohu Leaf Ultimate, $80 for a cable modem (so you don’t pay the cable company a rental feee) and $95.88 for a year’s worth of Netflix streaming, with tax you’re just under $400. Voila! You’ve just saved $600. Over a five-ear period, adding the $4,000 you didn’t pay for cable, you’ve just saved $4,600.
Sometimes, being a kechinbo feels pretty good.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached via email. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.