Tag Archives: tv

Conflicting Interests and the Big Game

Another Super Bowl is done and despite the herculean last minute efforts by both teams, the game came down exactly as the prognosticators (read Vegas bookies) predicted it would. Funny how that happens. I’m not a big sports fan—never have been—and I usually only watch the teams for which I root. Since I live in Houston, I root for the Texans. Any other teams, I really couldn’t care less how they play or who they play and I rarely watch the games. In fact, I rarely watch the Texans because I have noticed that they lose the games when I watch. Of course, they lose the games I don’t watch too, so I’m not sure my strategy of support is working. It’s a moot point now anyway, as the Texans didn’t even make the playoffs this year. While the game had its intrigue, there are other shows on TV with more interest for me.

When I was younger, I watched the Super Bowl because my friends all did and I wanted to be able to talk about it with them the next day at school. This was before it became acceptable to miss work or school the day after the Big Game. Then, I watched primarily for the commercials, because the creativity if the commercials airing during the game were far superior to the regular commercials we were subjected to.

I spend most weekends, to my wife’s eye-roll, clearing out the week’s worth of recording on the DVR. Shows I missed because we were out, or because they aired opposite something else we watched or because the show came on after we went to bed tend to pile up. So, we were binge watching Unforgettable Sunday up until about 7ish. Once we finished the episode, I flipped over to the Super bowl just in time for the Half Time show. I thought the game started at 7, so I was a little disappointed that I missed the first half, not because I wanted to see the plays, but rather because I was expecting to see the commercials.

I’m not the world’s biggest Katy Perry fan. I have some of her music in the library, but there are only 2 or 3 songs of hers that I like, because I am not a teeny-bopper and I am male. Michelle holds her in slightly less esteem than I, even though we both acknowledge that she has an amazing voice and, if she wanted to, she could successfully sing much more mature songs very well. That having been said, I was very impressed with her Half Time show. It was a very elaborate and visually stunning technical achievement that used mechanics, pyrotechnics and holographics to accentuate the musical performance. One of the best aspects of the show, however, was that Katy actually SANG the songs, rather than merely dancing around half-naked to a pre-recorded track like Beyonce’s show last year. Big kudos to the half time show.

After the show, the second half started and I watched a couple of plays from both offenses and was impressed with the way the Seahawks were handling the Patriots in those few minutes of gametime. They stopped the drive with an interception and drove down the field for a touchdown to take a ten-point lead. I liked the way the running back fought through the line to get the yardage rather than falling down like a lot of modern players do these days. Impressive. Then it was time to switch over to something more interesting: Downton Abbey.

While the game I did see was good, and from all reports, the rest of the game was just as good, I had no dog in this hunt. I couldn’t get behind either team in this contest. Since Michelle and I have both become mad Downton Abbey addicts, we would rather watch Robert and Cora try to manage their wayward daughters while Mr and Mrs. Bates avoid a prison term for murder and Carsen and Mrs. Hughes flirt with each other in a stiff, starchy British way. It is the one show that exists on TV Michelle will look forward to watching.

Now that the football season is over for the next two weeks or so (there are those for whom the season never ends) I can look forward to watching shows when the schedule says they are going to start, rather than waiting for the game delays that mess up my DVR recording schedule.

If someone can successfully convince me that the NFL has gone back to the pure love of the game playing and officiating that isn’t predetermined by bookies and league officials, I may start watching games again. Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Depends if Downton Abbey is on opposite.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Media, Personal, Reviews

We Will Return After These Messages

Tech bloggers have been calling for and planning the end of cable TV for years. The first nefarious plot to kill cable was trying to break the bundles and force cable companies to offer ala carte programming. The second effort involved forcing companies to accept consumer devices with separable security in lieu of a company provided cable box. The problem with that plan was that the consumer electronics industry doesn’t want to make consumer set top boxes. Now the plotters are counting on the internet to break cable’s hold on the TV experience by allowing networks to offer content online. HBO recently decided to offer their premium content to internet customers without the need of a cable subscription. If other content providers follow suit, the anti-cable crowd believe this will kill cable TV as we know it. What they fail to acknowledge is that if content providers offer their content this way, it will kill the TV viewing experience all together.

Linear TV has been the model of watching entertainment for decades. Networks have spent fortunes and countless hours planning the lineup to give viewers the shows they want to watch. By necessity, this meant that the shows fell into a schedule to which viewers had to adapt. People planned their week around the TV and when their favorite shows aired. Now we have internet-based on-demand viewing and people can watch whenever and wherever they want. The problem is that this convenience comes with a hefty price tag. Content is not free and it is paid for by airing commercials. Networks quickly realized that the more commercials they could air, the more revenue they could generate. The networks program TV shows for the sole purpose of bringing more viewers to see the commercials. Linear shows have to fit into an hour-long programming block along with commercials.

Typically, the average “hour-long” show is actually only 42 minutes of content with 18 minutes of advertising broken up into 5 or 6 commercial breaks. That means, on average, a commercial break should be no more than 3-4 minutes long. This barrier is being pushed on linear TV. For example, on TNT, the network averages more than 6 minutes of commercials per break on TV and more than that during online streaming. In order to cram more commercials into the TV lineup, the network makes certain edits to the programming for length. Instead of getting 42 minutes of a show, you might get only 39 or 40, and forget about watching a themed intro to your favorite show. They chop those right off or run commercials over them. Once that content is taken online, TNT forces online streaming viewers to watch almost twice as many commercials per break than traditional linear television because there are no time constraints limiting how minutes are devoted to ad content.

Linear television has been surrendering to the onslaught of commercials since the first broadcast, but now there are whole schools dedicated to nothing more than planning and designing ways to get more advertising in front of as many eyeballs as can be. The push away from linear tv such as is provided by cable is not to give viewers more choices, but rather to remove an impediment to running more commercials.

Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) have given viewers control to skip those intrusive commercials. With the click of a button, the viewer can fast forward over anything on the recording, effectively bypassing that ad for Viagra, or the rerun of the Hershey’s kiss bell Christmas tree. With online streaming, you can also fast forward through the show, but not through the commercials. For those breaks you have to watch EVERY single commercial. In fact, some content providers are considering disabling the DVR ability to fast forward through commercials on certain channels.

One industry journal reports that most cable operators are suffering net losses on video customers year to year. Not huge numbers, mind you—there are plenty of people still enjoying linear television—but any gains in customers come from new internet subscriptions. If the internet kills linear TV, count on paying for the ability to watch commercials as becoming the norm. In the movie “Demolition Man,” Sylvester Stallone wakes up after 2 centuries in cryogenic sleep and finds that people are listening to old commercial jingles as the sole source of entertainment.

The thought terrifies me because it’s not too far off.

Leave a comment

Filed under Media, Society, Technology

Roll The Tape

In this day of rapidly developing technology, it is fast becoming a curiosity to see remnants of the old ways.  I was in a Family Dollar and saw that they still had VHS video cassettes for sale two for seven dollars.  The first thought I had was “gee, that sounds expensive,” followed up with “who still buys video tapes?”
My mother was a video tape archivist.  She still has cardboard boxes full of VHS tapes of shows she recorded from back in the 80s.  She had them stored in book cases for years along with tapes of movies she bought at the store before she started buying DVDs and Blue Rays.  She still has the VCRs plugged in and still records some things to tape for permanent storage.  For daily recording, she, like most people, uses a DVR, but she still has that collection of cassettes.
I built quite the collection of tapes myself over the years.  I still have several of those VHS tapes in storage somewhere.  In the bottoms of cabinets, in boxes in the garage, in plastic organizer totes shoved under beds in guest rooms, they sit waiting in futility for a day when they might again see the tape player.
I still have a VHS tape recorder.  It probably still works.  I wouldn’t know.  It’s sitting on the floor next to my desk from the last time I plugged it in to transfer a video tape to digital storage.  I cannot remember the last time I bought a video tape.  It would have to be around 1994 or so.  Zorro, the Gay Blade was the title, I think.  It is one of my favorite movies; one that I can still quote from beginning to end and my sister, Diane, and I both bought a copy when it went on sale.  That was the movie I was digitizing the last time I used the VCR.
I DVR everything now.  I even built my own DVR out of a computer to make it easier to record four shows at once.  Now most providers can do that, but when I built mine four years ago, it was not so common.  The DVR is so ubiquitous that it is almost surprising to run into people who don’t have one.
I was in an elderly neighbor’s house this morning; he was having a problem with his cable and the technician was going to fix it for him.  He had an old pre-HD reverse-projection TV and a cable box that was plugged into a VCR.  He still used the VCR to record his shows from the cable box.  He had tapes across the top of his TV and his living room was littered with unlabeled VHS cassettes.  I was standing in awe of what I was seeing when it hit me: this is the guy that still buys video tapes from stores like Family Dollar. 
I’m not sure Wal Mart even stocks VHS anymore.  The cable tech was trying to explain DVR to the guy, but he wasn’t interested in a new way to record his shows, because it wouldn’t be permanent.  This guy has his tapes and his VCR and he’s good to go.  He doesn’t want the new tech.
The mind boggles.  At least now I know who still buys tapes.

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Society, Technology

Does Technology Die?

I read a tech column that was posted on Yahoo about 15 devices that children born today will never know and it has followed a running trend in the field of technology writing that assumes wireless is the answer to all that ails the world.  This is a fallacy and a common mistake made by many who do not truly understand the limitations of the technology.  The article also makes some pie in the sky assumptions about where today’s tech—TV, computers, remote controls and optical discs—will go.
Wireless communication is a fabulous thing.  Being able to talk to people untethered, not chained to a wall or even to a building is a marvel of the modern age.  It wasn’t that long ago that if you had a long cord on your receiver that allowed you to walk around the room, you were living large.  Now you can talk to someone while walking throughout your house, outside to the drive way, getting into your car and even driving down the street (don’t talk and drive people).
Wireless internet on handsets is also fabulous.  Being able to lookup directions, settle arguments about trivia, find sports scores and now even watch streaming videos in the palm of your hand is quickly becoming commonplace.
These applications are the basis for techno neophytes to assume that everything needs to be wireless.  If watching a video on an iPhone is cool, then who could ever need or even want wires.  Surely those who make tech products understand that wires are dead.  But the truth is that wires are not dead and will never be dead.
While 4G LTE networks are making broadband speeds available to the wireless handsets, the speeds are nowhere near the speeds of which cable modems are capable.  Comcast offers 105 Mbps downstream and the fastest LTE network barely offers 10 Mbps (actual consumer speeds, not theoretical throughput).  That isn’t the only problem with wireless either.  In the wireless world there is a little discussed phenomenon known as frequency contention.  If you have too many wireless devices using the same frequency, they tend to get lost in the chatter.  It is kind of trying to have a conversation in a stadium where everyone is talking at the same time.  This slows down data transfer dramatically and high bandwidth uses get severely curtailed by packet loss.  Also, the more devices trying to connect to the same receiver also slows down data transfer.  Kind of like all lanes of a 5 lane freeway merging into a single toll booth.  Certainly, there are ways network designers can mitigate these problems, but the point is that wired connections are more stable and wired networks are far more secure and wired networks are always faster.
The writer of that article also maintained that remote controls will soon go the way of the dodo as capacitive touchscreens get big enough to become televisions.  I seriously doubt this will happen.  Two things will prevent the television from becoming a touch-controlled device: eye strain and fingerprints.  To interact with the television by touch, one must be so close that it becomes difficult to take in the whole picture, especially when the size of the TV is larger than 36 inches.  And who wants to constantly be windexing the fingerprints off the front of the set?  Kinect style motion capture and voice control may replace the push button remote, but not capacitive touch.  I have used my Kinect; I still prefer the remote control.
3-D TV will never become mainstream.  I realize that I am in the minority with this assertion, but trust me, no one wants to watch TV wearing glasses all the time.  If manufactures can develop a successful 3-D image that can be viewed without glasses, then maybe—and only if content producers are willing to invest in that technology to produce shows in that format, which they probably won’t.  We still have a lot of TV shows produced in SD and up-converted for HD sets, but they are not true HD.
The death of the PC will never happen, though the PC will not look like it does now.  Apple and HP have shown us where the PC will be going.  The desktop/tower/workstation will evolve into a slimline footprint integrated into the viewscreen.  Keyboards and mice will continue to exist for the same reasons that TVs will not go touchscreen.  People do not want to get too close to the monitor when the monitor is larger than 30 inches or so.
Optical Discs are falling out of favor for mainstream consumers in favor of streaming.  This is more convenient, to be sure, but streaming does not come close to the image quality of Blu Ray.  Streaming offers at best progressive scan DVD quality, which is not bad at all, but it doesn’t offer the immersive experience of watching a blue ray on a 52-inch or larger display.  Add the fact that owning a library of DVDs which one will always have access to is preferable to accessing content on the internet which may rotate the titles every few months (as Netflix and Xfinity do).  Having the movie archived to an optical disc in how true film buffs will continue to operate as long as discs are produced.  Hollywood is, sadly, the only entity that controls how long Blu Ray will last.
Technology is ever evolving, and new products are being developed every day and others are being improved.  And while many products have died (video tapes, laser disc, 8-tracks, etc) not everything that exists today will disappear.  Even the vinyl LP record, which people predicted would die when cassettes came out then again when CDs came out is still hanging in there in niche markets.  Yes, that means the record companies are still pressing new vinyl records.  So, while young people can dream of a day where there are no wires and everything fits in the palm of your hand and is controlled with a swipe of your finger, some things just won’t die.

Leave a comment

Filed under Society, Technology, Uncategorized

What’s On the Tube?

Summer brings great opportunities for family togetherness from vacations to the beach, or trips to foreign lands or even just relaxing around the house gardening and doing crafts. Many people take this opportunity to break out of the hum-drum routine that defines the rest of the year by going to the theater, concerts or movie house to catch one of the summer blockbusters. The reason for all this activity is simple: There’s nothing good on TV.

For decades, the networks have released new episodes of existing shows and premiered new original programming in the fall; typically around the end of August to mid September. The shows would continue to air new episodes every week until Spring; usually around May. Oh, they would air a rerun or two during the holidays if the competition with another network was too great, but in that time—20-25 weeks—there were new episodes most weeks. In fact, in the 60’s, some shows were one two or three times a week.

A prime time television series ran approximately 16 episodes in a season over that 20-25 week fall/winter span. The time slot remained assigned to that show over the summer, but the series reran the episodes from that prior season for those who missed them and of course, to make more money from commercial breaks to offset the cost of production and licensing.

Today, things have changed. It seems there is no season anymore. Shows air episodes whenever the network chooses, and that appears—for the most part—quite random. Some networks run shows on different nights of the week—even airing two separate new episodes the same week. Some shows will just skip a couple of weeks and the network will air other shows instead; not always new shows either. It is getting to the point where a person can no longer plan on regular viewing of their favorite show.

Some shows are filming fewer episodes as well, as few as 13 episodes in a season instead of 16. “Game of Thrones,” a new series on HBO, only aired 9 episodes in its premiere season and announced that the next season won’t air for another year. “True Blood” made fans wait for more than a year for the season premiere of its fourth season.

Networks have long had to balance the cost of producing shows against the revenues generated from selling commercial airtime. For each hour-long show that airs, only 40-42 minutes is actually allocated for the show; the rest of the time is for commercials. The production costs can get quite cumbersome, with some shows costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode once actors and writers and producers and directors and crew salaries are factored in with effects, set design and construction and special effects costs. Networks, looking to maximize profits, are looking for cheaper shows to air. This is where ‘Reality TV’ came into being. Shows like “Survivor”, “American Idol,” and too many others to list here fill the program guide. No name-brand actors, no scripts, no special effects means cheaper production and, if the show is popular, they can get just as much ad revenue. This means more profit and that is the defining factor in network executive’s heads.

The cable networks are in a slightly better position than the broadcast networks in that since the premium networks are subscription based, they know how much money is coming in ahead of time and can budget for it. This is why shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Pillars of the Earth” are so well done with cinematic production values. That coupled with the fact that there is no FCC censorship issues that networks contend with allows the cable channels to offer more titillating fare with sexual themes and nudity to draw in viewers that may otherwise not watch.

But here again, the cable networks do not subscribe to a season model. They debut a show whenever they want to, and end it the same way; even if it is only a 9 episode “season” like “Game of Thrones”. NBCUniversal, which owns the SYFY network, has been adopting the “half-season” model. Airing only 6-8 episodes at a time then taking a 3-6 month hiatus before debuting new episodes. This tactic seems particularly stupid because, in those 3-6 months, viewer loyalty wanes. The fan favorites “Heroes” and “V” fell victim to this programming dilemma.

Unfortunately, with the increase of reality programming like “Wipeout”, “The Voice”, “Amazing Race,” etc. and the decrease in scripted original shows such as “Law & Order” or “Smallville,” the complete lack of originality in the few shows that are produced like “The Vampire Diaries,” it is getting more common to hear people lament about what’s on the TV. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we all need to get out more and spend more time with our families, take in a play or go to the symphony. That way, people can look forward to saying “there’s nothing good on TV.”

2 Comments

Filed under Media, Society

Reviving a Classic

The eighties are nothing more than memories for most people now, bad memories for some music lovers, but good memories for fans of the simpler days of TV watching. TV in the eighties was innocent escapist fare full of fun and excitement and even thrills and chills without the explicit, gritty realism that passes for entertainment today. One show that was particularly fun to watch was The A-Team; an adventure series featuring a band of former Army rangers who wandered around helping people with problems that the ordinary law enforcement community couldn’t handle. It was not complicated—the plots were simplistic and predictable—nor was it overly violent. There were plenty of car chases, explosions and gun fire but nobody ever died on camera. I cannot even remember if anyone ever even got shot or seriously hurt. That didn’t matter, though, because that was not what drew in viewers. People wanted to see the good guys triumph over evil, even if the bad guy was two dimensional and spouting bad monologues.

Like so many former TV shows, The A-Team has been revived for the big screen. Ordinarily, I would complain about another movie based on an old show as demonstrating the lack of originality of Hollywood, but I can’t really complain about this one. Unlike other shows that flopped as a remake like the Dukes of Hazard and Starsky and Hutch, the A-Team is a roaring success for one simple reason: they kept it true to the original rather than try to make it into a farcical joke of itself.

The A-Team is the story of four soldiers, Colonel John (Hannibal) Smith, Sergeant Boscoe (BA) Baracas, Lieutenant Templeton (Faceman) Peck, and Captain H.M. (Howling Mad) Murdock, who escape prison after being wrongly convicted of a crime and flee to the Los Angeles underground where they exist as soldiers of fortune. The original series had the group as Vietnam vets where the movie bases the timeline as the Iraq war. The group is an elite fighting force with unique skills that enable them to do just about anything they need to and they use these skills to right wrongs.

Liam Neeson plays Hannibal, a part pioneered by the late George Peppard, the cigar chomping, leader of the gang who “loves it when a plan comes together.” Watching Neeson as Hannibal evokes the spirit of Peppard as he plays the character to a T. Bradley Cooper assumes Dirk Benedict’s Faceman just as transparently. He has as much fun being Peck as Benedict did. He also brings a new physicality to the role as he made Peck as much a fighter as a lover. Sharlto Copley is Murdock, the insane pilot of the group. His antics, while not as over the top as the original Dwight Schultz, drive much of the plot. Last but not lease is the character of BA. Originally played by (actually crafted for) Mr. T, UFC fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson brings a bit more depth to the otherwise 2-dimensional strongman of the team. The words “I pity the fool,” are never uttered in the movie, but BA’s dialog is delivered with a greater range of emotion.

The movie is a hoot—great fun to watch. It does stretch the imagination at times with some of the stunts (and that is a real problem in Hollywood) and the rollercoaster action, but it is so much fun to watch that it is easy to suspend disbelief a little more to enjoy the ride. They even play the original Mike Post theme song and the introductory narration from the TV show in the movie. Fans of the original show will love this movie and the younger generation who never knew about it will thoroughly enjoy it as well. It is a film for the whole family.

3 Comments

Filed under Media, Reviews

A True Original—Not!

I was discussing the recent merger (takeover) of NBC/Universal by Comcast at work today with some newly hired employees during their orientation. Someone brought up the fact that with the merger, Comcast now owns the SciFi (or the idiotic rebrand SyFy) channel—and maybe Comcast will change it back—and that, as a geek, I must be quite happy about it. And at first blush, it seems like good news. But then it occurred to me, SyFy is not the channel it once was. Once was a time when all SciFi showed was Star Trek episodes, Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and any number of classic Science Fiction tv shows and movies. Now they are more focused on creating original series and movies. Therein lies the problem: there is no originality anymore.

There are two main divisions at SyFy, original Series like Stargate SG1 Atlantis and Universe, BattleStar Galactica and many others; and original movies with titles like Android Apocalypse, Alien Apocalypse, Anonymous Rex, Aztec Rex etc. One division makes good content, and one makes garbage. The original series are fan favorites and get great reviews and big budgets, while the original movies have all the polish of a high school film club production. They trot out the same plot devices and recast them with either B-movie starts or A-list has-beens and shoot the same garbage over and over again.

It isn’t just the movie division that has originality issues. Stargate SG1 even made jokes about the plots they lifted and just barely retooled from Star Trek. It was an inside joke among fans and many made a contest of guessing which episode was being spoofed any particular week. The latest version of Stargate is called Stargate Universe where a group of scientists and soldiers are trapped on an Ancient starship billions of light-years from home and they have to survive while trying to figure out how to get home. Sound familiar? In the early 80’s the TV show Buck Rodgers spent its third season wandering the galaxy in a starship. Battlestar Galactica was predicated on a band of humans wandering the galaxy fighting to survive. The fourth series to bear the Star Trek franchise was about a starship named Voyager that was flung billions of light-years out of our quadrant of space and struggling to survive and find their way home.

Go to the movie theaters and you see the same problem played out in multibillion dollar special effects laden cinemascope surround sound. All of the big budget movies this holiday season are either franchise films like Harry Potter, sequels like Twilight, reboots like Sherlock Holmes and adaptations like Robin Hood. The number of films coming out of Hollywood that are not related in some direct way to an earlier film are exceedingly few.

But the problem goes even deeper than retreads of old movies. The movies that seem to be original actually borrow generously from other films of the genre due to film makers tendency to follow formula. One of the things I do that annoys friends and family members is predict the outcome of any given movie or TV show with consistent accuracy. I am not clairvoyant, I just understand the thinking of the writers who plot the films. The good guy gets the girl is the cliché, but it works, so it keeps getting used. It is a movie making machine that works like any automated production system; just using the cookie cutter mentality to score the box office dollars. How many vampire movies and TV series popped up after Twilight scored so high at the box office?

Sadly, this is one problem that won’t be fixed. Not because no one wants to fix it; I know of many writers working very diligently to develop original content. The problem is that in the course of human events, just about anything that can happen has happened and that story has already been told at least once. Nothing surprises people anymore. Once we start getting surprised, maybe we can see some original stories on the screen again. Until then, I’m looking forward to Iron Man 2 and Jurassic Park 4.

1 Comment

Filed under Media, Society