Budget

Dropping Satellite

Posted on October 8, 2008. Filed under: Budget, Lifehacking | Tags: , , , , , , |

The World Up To Now

For the past decade and a half, there have been two major options to receive passive video entertainment (aka “television”) in the home.

One could choose cable service, which in our case would mean Comcast. Comcast has “basic” cable (meaning, none of the channels we watch, except the local stations) for about $30 a month, or “standard” starting at a smidge over $50.

Alternatively, one could choose Dish or DirecTV, which start at $63 for the shows we watch, plus $5 to use the DVR we bought from them. This is what we’d been subscribing to, more or less continuously, since 2000 when we first moved into our own house. Our actual cost for DirecTV is $85/month, after all the add-ons and taxes.

A few “third party” equivalents (digital TV from your phone company, for instance) have come up in recent years, but they are mostly in the same mold as the other two: a large monthly fee for a wide choice of “channels” to choose from.

But, times have changed since our household last consciously chose our source of passive entertainment. Costs have gone up; DirecTV when we first subscribed was $40 for the “Total Choice Plus” collection of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink channels. At the same time, other avenues for home video have opened up.

We sat down a week and a half ago to look into our options and ended up with a stunning conclusion: we’re dropping satellite TV completely and moving to “fully on-demand” television watching.

New Sources for Video

There are two main types of new video sources we are planning on using: pay-per-episode and ad-supported. The for-pay service of choice (simply because it works with the computers in our house) is iTunes, and by extension our Apple TV device. The ad-supported services are exemplified by hulu.com.

“Premium” shows will be bought for viewing via iTunes and our Apple TV. The quality of shows on the Apple TV is absolutely stunning, far superior (in SD at least, which is my only frame of reference) to DirecTV’s offering. A few weekends ago we noticed we’d missed the premier episode of Primeval, which we had been wanting to watch. So, we bought the premier on the Apple TV and watched it, then immediately watched the second and third episodes directly from DirecTV; the difference was highly noticeable, especially in the “matrixing” of the darks. At $1.99 – $2.99 per episode (the higher price for HD episodes, where those are available), we come out far ahead using the Apple TV’s buy-what-you-watch model for our most “discriminating” viewing; I’ll get down to dollars and cents on this later though.

“Regular” shows will be watched via one of the ad-supported online video outlets. Currently, these include:

  • Hulu: Aims to be a “hub” for multiple networks’ content. Includes a smattering of movies and a lot of TV shows. Point of aggravation: it is eager to mix clips with full-length episodes, and so you never know if it really has a particular show available until you click down to the show. Major conveniences: queuing and subscriptions to shows allow us to turn it on and see what we haven’t watched yet. Episodes are up the day after they air, and remain up for “a while” but not indefinitely. Also experimenting with live broadcasts, although we’ll have to see how that goes!
  • NBC: Most of this content is also on Hulu, but sometimes things will “expire” from Hulu and live longer on NBC.com (or vice-versa).
  • CBS: Only outlet for CBS shows (Hulu will link over here). Major aggravations: too many clicks to find available full-length shows.
  • ABC: Only outlet for ABC shows (which we don’t usually watch anyway, but this is the Lost outlet!).
  • Nick Jr: Kid shows, including Dora, Diego, Backyardigans, etc.
  • Adobe Media Player: Largely an “also-ran”. Nothing really interesting here, but it might fill out in the future. Downloaded AIR-powered client.

All of these are “free” ad-supported sources, and so all of them display ads at the start, end, and often in the middle of the shows. You generally can’t skip the ads, so there’s no avoiding them, although the length of the ads is much shorter than those on broadcast TV (15-30 seconds every act or two rather than 2-3 minutes every act). The ads are definitely tolerable, although the lack of variety on some shows has already gotten tiresome.

Connecting

We have three televisions which need to be “fed” content: our living room, the kids’ tv upstairs, and our bedroom tv. The main focus is of course in the living room, but the other two can’t be left out in the cold indefinitely.

In the living room, the Apple TV quite nicely handles displaying iTunes “premium” content. We can order new shows directly from the television set, and everything gets stored both locally and up on our home server. The television set has a DVI input, but that is already taken up by the DVD player’s HDMI output (which I’d prefer to keep “pristine”). That leaves a few component, composite, and analog VGA inputs as options for connecting a new source.

Obviously, to watch browser-based content we’ll need a computer with a browser next to the TV. For the downstairs set we’ve conscripted either my wife’s MacBook laptop or an old G4 PowerBook for that purpose; we generally use the PowerBook, but it also tends to “stutter” on Flash video as it’s a bit underpowered.

For both of these computers, we have a VGA adapter (the Apple MiniDVI-to-VGA adapter for the MacBook and an Apple DVI-to-VGA adapter for the PowerBook). We also obviously have to hook the headphones output up to the receiver.

On the upstairs kids’ tv, we have a computer sitting right next to it. It’s an older-model iMac G5, which sports “Mini-VGA” output (one of the few machines ever made with such a connection). Another $20 adapter from Apple, and we can output it’s screen to SVideo, which the TV up there can accept (no VGA or DVI inputs on that old CRT clunker!) The sound goes through a pair of RCA jacks, or if we forget to connect the audio outputs, through the computer’s speakers. Here, unless we move the AppleTV from downstairs (which isn’t a big deal), we can watch AppleTV premium content via iTunes’ “bonjour” networking; turn on iTunes and connect directly to our home server’s library to watch a bought show.

On our bedroom tv we are set up to move one of the laptops in and output DVI video direct to the TV. We have a little alcove up there where the DVD player sits, perfectly ready for a laptop to be set and the audio/video connected.

The next issue is the 10-foot interface. Specifically: how do we control that interface from the couch?

With the AppleTV this isn’t an issue at all. Our Harmony remote controls the little box with aplomb.

Hulu et al are not at all set up to make this easy. We have to use a mouse and keyboard to get anywhere (keyboard only to search). One option is that we have to physically get up, walk over to the computer next to the television, and click the mouse there. The other option is a little bluetooth mouse, like the Apple Mighty Mouse. For the downstairs set (and if we move the laptop upstairs), we will be using the latter option. For the kids’ set, the room is small enough that they can just get up and push the mouse button. With a bluetooth mouse, we are still lacking a keyboard; to keep us from heading across the room, we have enabled the Mac OS X “Input Menu” (under “International” in System Preferences), so a click on the flag in the menu bar and we get a floating “keyboard” on the screen. This way, the bluetooth mouse can act as a keyboard in the cases where we need one (for instance, when searching for something).

Implications

The implications of this shift are significant in our household.

  1. TV is no longer “background noise”. This is a good thing – from sociological and energy perspectives – so you won’t see me bemoaning it. At the same time, though, it is a change from the status quo, and so will be difficult. We’ve already felt the sting of not being able to lay down in bed with the local news rambling in the background.
  2. TV “events” are no longer available. This is the most worrying effect. Instead of local news, we can read up on the local stations’ web sites, and we can get opinion pieces from national sources. We won’t be able to participate in the “watercooler conversations” (although half the time we couldn’t in any case because the hot show was sitting on our DVR waiting for us to watch it the next night anyway). I’m excited to see if the live streaming model of Hulu’s Presidential Debates and NBC’s Olympics takes a stronger hold.

Sociologically Speaking …

The television can no longer act as background noise. That’s an alarmingly drastic change in our household. I suspect we’ll be watching significantly fewer shows overall, and be much more discriminating about which we spend our time in front of.

If we are watching an hour-long shows each night of the week, that’s 7 hours per week. Taking all 7 as “premium” shows would mean us paying $56 per month for SD quality. Obviously, that isn’t the best option here.

At the same time, the “TV Schedule” has been a major drag on us. We haven’t been able to get to bed early because shows we (Jodi and I) want to watch are aired later at night. We haven’t been able to go out for the night because some “event” show was going to be on and we’d “miss” it. DVR recordings help somewhat, but we never know where to record things because it’s hard to say where we’ll want to watch them later on.

This move forces us “off” the TV Schedule. There is no schedule any more. Everything appears at about 4:00 in the morning on Hulu, and can be watched whenever we find the time to watch it. It also forces us away from “background noise”; each show must be consciously selected from the list of available shows, and nothing just “comes on” because the other show ended (although Hulu’s queue does act that way).

At the same time, it also moves the living room centralized viewing area to a more decentralized system. It’s not much worse watching the show you want to watch upstairs or in our bedroom; we no longer have the “it was recorded on the living room DVR” excuse to force us all to watch something in the same room. I don’t see this as overly significant now; we’ll have to see if it does become a factor.

Energy-Wise

The TV consumes a lot of energy. For “background noise” it’s about the least efficient of the options available (“silence” and “radio” coming at the most efficient end).

I fully expect our energy bills to go down as a result of this shift. At the same time, there are competing factors. The following calculations are based mostly on guesses, not actual power readings, so may be slightly off.

  1. The living room TV uses about as much energy as 4 100Watt bulbs when on (it has a 300W rear-projection bulb; I’m estimating the circuitry as wasting another 100W but may be over in that estimate). Having this off for three hours in the day (where it was merely background noise) is a significant energy savings (1.2kWh)
  2. The computers we are using are all fairly efficient energy sippers. Adding these to the circuitry mix when watching shows adds about 35W to the overall system (0.035kWh per hour; this is a very high estimate; Apple puts a PowerBook G4 battery at 58Wh and lasting for 4.5 hours, for a run rate of about 13 Wh or 0.013kWh per hour; I’m assuming the demands of Flash use much more energy, and the battery life of our G4 when watching Flash is more like 1.5 hours, which would be around 38Wh).

So, if we watch TV under the new model for 1 hour, we will be using 0.035kWh extra, the extra energy equivalent to about 5.25 minutes of “background” TV. If we eliminate only 1 hour of “background” noise watching in the day, we are energy-positive so long as we watch less than 11.5 hours of “real” television.

Imagine two scenarios: we have the TV “on” for 5 hours in the day, and then we have the TV and laptop “on” for 2 hours the next day. Let’s compare the costs (Assuming Tier 1 rates for SMUD, rounded up to 10 cents per kWh):

  • TV on 5 hours
    • Energy Used: 2.0kWh
    • Energy Cost: $0.2/day : $6/month
  • TV and laptop on 2 hours
    • Energy Used: 0.870kWh
    • Energy Cost: $0.09/day : $2.70/month

This doesn’t take into account the fact that the electricity rate might go down due to our conservation (higher usage customers get higher rates), or that “2 hours” of television is almost 3 full 42-minute shows on Hulu instead of 2 42-minute shows plus 36 minutes of ads on “regular” TV. It also should be noted that we’re not taking the electricity usage of the DVR into account on the old-model side.

Overall, the monetary effect is small, but the narrow energy usage effect can be huge. We’d never dream of having four 100 Watt bulbs burning all day long just because we were in the same room! Why should we have been so complacent about the TV having been on all day?

Premium Content Cost Breakdowns

We have several “premium” shows that we want to watch. Assuming for the moment a “premium” month where all are showing every week (four episodes), this is the max monthly costs:

  • Lost. $2.99 * 16 ($48)
  • Heroes. $2.99 * 22 ($66)
  • ER. $1.99 * 22 ($44)
  • The Closer. $1.99 * 15 ($30)

The “season” costs of these four shows (bought on a show-by-show basis, not as season passes) comes to $188 over the course of the year (with a max of $40 in any particular month were all four to show four episodes that month).

DirecTV costs $85/month for us, all told, which comes out to $1,020 over the course of the year.

If these are the only “premium” shows we watch, we’ll save $832 in a year.

The other benefits are budget flexibility (money tight? Move a show from “premium” to “online” viewing), storage flexibility (these can all, unlike the DVR’d shows from DirecTV, be backed up), and a better overall viewing experience (no skipping through commercials because they’ve already been pulled out!).

But, I hear you saying, you haven’t factored in the cost of the internet connection! Well, that is true. Obviously, we’d have an internet connection anyway (we are paying $50/month for internet and phone combined), but we might want to upgrade our connection to allow for the increased bandwidth needs. Moving from 3Mbps to 6Mbps internet will cost us $10 per month, eating another $120 in the year. However, the need for this is not foregone: we haven’t had any latency or bandwidth issues yet in the week we’ve been trying this out. We’ll see, though; the phone connection is switching over to digital as well, so the overall bandwidth needs may be going up soon. We’ll see, and adapt. No matter what, though, it’s not going to bust the budget.

Assuming we move to a higher-bandwidth internet service, and add two additional shows in the “premium” bucket ($2 per episode and 22 episode seasons), the cost comparison is:

  • DirecTV: $1,020
  • New Model: $396
  • Savings Total: $624
  • Monthly Savings, Total: $52

This is the “all bells and whistles” option, and it’s still over 60% less than DirecTV!

Future Options

As I just mentioned, it’s definitely possible we’ll be expanding on this new model in a number of ways:

  1. Increase internet bandwidth
  2. In-house, beef up networking (saving $50/month here we can put aside funds to pay for these upgrades quickly)
  3. In-house, beef up connected laptops (much less likely to happen, but a better laptop or Mac Mini in the living room without having to take my wife’s laptop away would decrease the need for “premium” shows some of the time and enhance the overall Hulu-class experience)
  4. Additional “premium” shows without removing existing “premium” shows from the lineup

In addition, there are other avenues:

  1. Subscription movie services (Blockbuster, Netflix). We’ve canceled Blockbuster as we just haven’t been getting $18 worth out of it each month. However, we might reconsider this once we’ve lived in this new model for a few months.
  2. Upgrade to capture Over The Air HD (purchase an EyeTV USB dongle or home server for $100-200). This would move all “network” content off the “premium” cost table in exchange for a one-time cost and excepting scheduling mix-ups. It would also allow realtime viewing of local TV shows (ex, the nightly news and late night shows), should we be feeling too deprived without that.

The Future Now

This is a paradigm shift for our household. We’re excited to be moving to this new model, and definitely ready to realize the savings it will entail. Our trial week on this has gone well. I’ll keep you up to date as we move forward.

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