Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Where is TV Going?

I've mentioned a few times that our cable service is provided by a small local cable company that does only advanced fiber-optic transmission and pretty modern technology in its receivers and other electronics.  We have had them for about five months and are certainly happy with what they provide.

Accordingly, we had some discussions with friends who were visiting us from Virginia this past weekend and who have not changed cable providers in a long time.  I was struck by the nature of the conversation.

What is TV these days?

I'm 66 years old, and I go back to being three or four years old, living on a farm, and having one television, a black-and-white affair with a big ol' honking antenna on the roof of our house, which I assume my dad put up there at some point.  It would be ever thus for many years before the next innovation, which was color TV in the 1960s.

Now, what we watched was a whole 'nother thing, and that is where we hop off for discussion this fine morning.  You see, back then there were three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and our big ol' honking antenna on the roof pulled the most-local station for each -- and gave us whatever choice of shows we could see.

We grew up with three options to watch, plus another couple independent, not network-affiliated stations that we could occasionally get.  Five program choices at any one time was it.  Or you could go outside and play, or read a book.

I went off to college in 1969, and lived in a fraternity house in Boston the whole four years.  There was a TV there, but no cable had come into being in the neighborhood, and it would not -- TV programs arrived via rabbit ears on the set itself.  As a senior, I had a little portable TV in my room, with rabbit ears and iffy reception.

After getting married and settling down, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we were still back to the antenna on (or inside) the roof routine, since we were in a pretty rural area up in the foothills without cable.  We could get our signal from DC, and by now there were a few more UHF channels to pick up, but not much improvement.  It would be 1995, when were still out in the mountains, when we became very early adopters of DirecTV service, the first within a number of miles.  I was 44.

[Note -- "how" early adopters we were is indicated by the fact that current DirecTV user IDs are eight-digit numbers, reflecting the fact that they have well over 20 million users. Our user ID was six digits.  Sometimes we would be talking to a customer service agent on the phone who had never seen a six-digit ID, and one in particular who was not born when we got our service]

Immediately, of course, we had 300 more choices at one time to watch than we had had in 1994.  That was a paradigm shift, of course, and we discovered networks we had never seen at home, like ESPN and CNN.  And the Food Network, of course.  The function of TV in our house really changed.

Over the 21 years we had satellite service, not a lot changed.  New networks were added; HD TV became a reality, and eventually packages came out that allowed us to watch every MLB baseball and NFL football game.  The technology improved dramatically to where it was pretty much all wireless.  And most importantly, the DVR allowed us no longer to be tethered to our TV lest we miss the week's episode of this or that show.

But then, streaming happened.

Now I don't necessarily have my arms wrapped around streaming.  I know that you can log into Netflix if you have an account and watch all the TV shows that are offered there, including past episodes and, of course, those series that are produced by or for Netflix.  There are also apps on the Amazon FireStick I've heard about that allow you to access pretty much everything that's ever been on TV anywhere, back to Dobie Gillis and even earlier.  Of course, I don't think they're particularly legal.

What I do know is that somewhere along the line, it became unnecessary to have a cable or satellite service.  I don't know how that works, but my younger son is 36 and he does not have cable service.  He uses only a tiny device (I assume it's a FireStick; we can assume it is) and is able to watch whatever he wants, and that's just with the normal, "legal" apps on it.  No cable, no satellite.

Clearly his setup is being replicated by Gen Ys and millennials all over the place.  And we have to ask ourselves whether there is a point where cable service will just dry up in favor of just an "on demand" capability, for everything except news and live sports shows, and maybe for customers over 60.

It's a big shift coming.  AT&T bought out DirecTV, and I'm reading that within five years they expect to be more of a content-delivery model without the need for individual satellite service.  I don't know if that's overly ambitious, but they're talking about it.

I may just be searching a local cable guide for reruns of 1960 episodes of Dobie Gillis.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
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