Media on a Diet, Cutting the Cable

RCA Antenna on Top of TV
RCA Antenna on Top of TV

We are pretty much done the scaling down process of selling our house and restructuring our life in an apartment – and we are loving it! The absence of maintenance headaches is a delight. Sunday morning cleaning lasts 20 minutes. It is heaven!

The other project we have been working on in parallel is putting the glutinous media service providers on a diet. In this post I will discuss a current hot topic – Cutting the Cable.

Once we made the decision to move to an apartment we also discussed what we wanted to do about Cable TV. Ten years ago we used to really enjoy cable TV. There was a lot of interesting content on cable TV. However, in the last 10 years, Nancy Debuc – CEO of the Arts and Entertainment network – has made it her mission to lobotomize all the “content” channels on Cable TV, one after another. “History Channel?” oh…I’m sorry, we meant: “Idiotic Reality TV Channel” Almost everything that was interesting 10 years ago is now mind-numbing drivel.

So, when we moved to our new apartment, we decided to purchase internet-only service – no Cable TV. Even though Time Warner Cable advertises internet-only service, they clearly do something to their sales representatives to give them a strong visceral aversion to selling it. I suspect they keep track of all the customers who choose to purchase internet service without purchasing Cable TV service and do something really unpleasant to the sales representative that handled the call. Needless to say, I had to be extremely assertive with the sales representative to get internet-only service and she was distinctly unenthusiastic.

Digital Broadcast TV Configuration
Digital Broadcast TV Configuration

The next problem was figuring out what it would take to get our prehistoric, large, cathode ray tube television set adapted to receive broadcast television service. It took considerable study and the product descriptions were not entirely helpful. Basically, there are three levels of difficulty:

  1. Flat Screen TV and Rooftop Antenna – You have it made in the shade. Your flat screen TV almost certainly has a digital TV tuner built-in. Just plug in the cable from your rooftop antenna and you are good to go.
  2. Old TV and Rooftop Antenna – Plug the cable from your rooftop antenna into a digital converter box and plug the converter box into your old TV.
  3. Old TV in an Apartment – This was our situation. You need a high-tech antenna that sits on top of you old clunker television. In theory you can just plug this antenna into your digital converter box. In practice, the signal strength inside your apartment is so low that you also need a radio frequency amplifier. Fortunately, a good antenna will come with exactly such a radio frequency amplifier.

For the antenna we chose the “RCA ANT1450BR Multi-Directional Amplified Digital Flat Antenna (Black)” which cost $19.99 from Amazon. While I don’t know exactly how this antenna is constructed, having spent a few years working on automotive radar, I have a pretty good general idea. Radio frequency antenna design is a black art involving boiling cauldrons, intestines of frightening animals, and ominous incantations. This is not your grandmother’s rabbit-ear antenna. The antenna itself is a small, light, black square that sits nicely on top of your television. See the picture at the top of this blog post.

RCA Antenna Amplifier
RCA Antenna Amplifier

The radio frequency amplifier is included with the antenna (no extra charge). It is an inconspicuous small box that sits between the antenna and the digital tuner converter box. See picture.

By the way, RCA makes several models of these antennas. It wasn’t clear at all to me what the difference between the different models was. However, Consumer Reports was very pleased with the RCA ANT1650 in their October 2013 magazine issue.

Next up – digital TV converter box. This subject took some study. The problem seems to be the fine distinction between “Manufactured in China” – a category that includes many very high-quality products such as the iPhone – and “Designed in China” which is a category of products that is still pretty rough around the edges. Reading the reviews, there were a bunch of “Designed in China” products that were extremely cheap and offered a huge list of amazing features, the only problem being that they didn’t actually work. I opted for a “Manufactured in China” product -> “Zenith DTT901 Digital
TV Tuner Converter” which was NOT that cheap ($113.98) but received rave reviews. Some of the other products were as cheap as $30 – a bargain if you don’t need a product that actually works.

We have been delighted with the Zenith product. It works very well. As soon as we plugged it in, it scanned and identified 22 active signals in our area. Not all of them are actually active. These fit into the following categories:

  • English – 12 channels
  • Spanish – 5 channels
  • No Signal – 5 channels

As for content, these include:

  • Cartoons almost 24×7 – 1 channel
  • Movies 24×7 (with advertisements) – 1 channel
  • Public Broadcasting – 4 channels
  • University of Texas – 2 channels
  • Local Weather 24×7 – 1 channel
  • General TV – 8 channels

The interesting thing is the Public Broadcasting offering. This is actually ***BETTER*** than Cable TV. The Cable TV industry hates public broadcasting (PBS offers content for people with an IQ of greater than 70 – an affront to Nancy Debuc’s mantra that all television should be aimed at an IQ of 45.) Among other things, this expanded PBS offering includes “Jacques P├ępin” a delightful cooking show in which the host: (“***GASP!***”) actually ***COOKS*** something.

As for the other programming, the movie channel is pretty good. You do have to put up with some advertisements, but I usually have a magazine in my lap while watching the TV anyway. Lately, I enjoyed watching “Sabrina” and being impressed at just how elegant Audrey Hepburn was. News programming is about as good as Cable TV. We watch KEYE news because meteorologist Chigake Windler is half Japanese – a subject near and dear to our hearts.

The quality of the news coverage is a really interesting aspect of this comparison: Cable TV provides 24*7 news broadcasts. Digital broadcast TV only provides a few broadcasts per day. However, the Cable TV news is deceptive. Yes, they broadcast 24*7. Faces appear 24*7. Lips move 24*7. However, how often do they actually have genuinely “new” information to report? Oh…perhaps a few times per day. The practical difference is less than profound.

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Dave’s opinion: The MBAs in Cable TV land are digging the industry’s grave. They are so clever. They are so smart. Content? Why do we need content? We can feed the public watered-down drivel. Viewer numbers skyrocket. Our “metrics” look great. We are geniuses! Unfortunately, these whiz-kid geniuses are too stupid to recognize the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” they are caught in: If all other players are producing great high-value content, any one “clever” channel can win by cutting costs and putting out mind-numbing reality TV drivel. However, if ALL the players start putting out content-free programming, eventually the public will begin to ask why they need to pay $100/month for….what?

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