Published December 24, 2008
| Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA – It's Day One of a weeklong experiment to see if I could live without satellite TV.
That means I have to wait a day before I can watch the season ender of "Heroes" to learn whether Hiro Nakamura, trapped in time 16 years ago, can escape to the present and destroy a formula that, in the wrong hands, would plunge the world into chaos.
The show will start to be available online a day after its Monday evening broadcast on NBC.
For one whole week, I tried to see if I can survive watching only television shows online and movies through Netflix.
No live broadcast TV. No real-time cable news. No pay-per-view.
Success could mean the end of bills for cable or satellite television.
The savings could be substantial. Netflix costs $5 to $17 a month and Internet access with decent speeds costs around $30 a month from the phone companies. By contrast, cable and satellite bills could easily exceed $100 once you add on the set-top box rental for multiple rooms, digital-video recording and movie channels.
I've flirted with the idea of getting rid of my subscription before, but I've always hesitated about taking the plunge. I grew up watching free over-the-air television, but for more than a decade now I've been paying for TV — starting with the expanded basic cable TV package, to digital cable and now to satellite.
I concluded that I could definitely survive pulling the plug on satellite TV — but whether I'd want to is another matter.
Monday night is my big TV night: "Gossip Girl" at 8 p.m., "Heroes" at 9 p.m. and "My Own Worst Enemy" at 10 p.m. I also watch "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," but since it conflicts with "Gossip Girl," I usually catch it online.
Without live TV, I suddenly had three free hours on Monday. My early feeling of elation, however, quickly gave way to indecision. As I sat on the couch thinking through my options, I noticed that without the blare of a TV, the ticking of my wall clock sounded so annoyingly loud. I decided to clean house.
Tuesday night rolls around and I'm eager to catch up. I go to Fancast.com, which is operated by Comcast Corp. Fancast has a nifty feature that lets you resume watching a show where you left off, which I haven't seen at the more popular Hulu.com. Both Fancast and Hulu, a collaboration between NBC and Fox, strike deals with networks and studios to carry their content.
Sure enough, I found the season ender of "Heroes" that I missed on Monday. Video was a bit jerky at times but otherwise played well. As the story line reeled me in, I quickly forgot that my laptop was no match for my 32-inch flat-screen, high-definition TV with stereo surround sound.
Fancast and Hulu are one-stop Web sites for shows, even old ones like "The A-Team." I can also go to the networks' separate Web sites to watch, but they're usually harder to navigate. Only if I want schedules and other details do I go to, say, CWTV.com.
You can watch ESPN games live at ESPN360.com, but only with certain Internet service providers. Last Saturday afternoon, I tuned in to an NCAA men's basketball game pitching Temple against Kansas.
Professional sports typically charge a fee to watch live online, such as $99.95 for a broadband season pass at NBA.com. But I can't imagine rabid sports fans settling for a PC-size screen instead of big screen in HD — unless they are traveling or sneaking in a game at work.
CNN has what it calls "live" TV, but it's not the same as what's on cable. Many cable networks have full episodes on their Web sites but the selections can be rather thin. They include Comedy Central, HGTV, Disney, TBS, Lifetime, Discovery Channel and USA Network. Still, it's not a guarantee that the episodes or shows you want to watch will be available online, and they may not always be easy to find.
As for movies, I tried to replicate pay-per-view with Netflix Inc.'s "Watch Instantly" option. Under the selection for "new" movies was 1990's "Pretty Woman" with Julia Roberts. I guess "new" is relative. "Pretty Woman" is certainly newer than 1985's "Back to the Future," another selection in the "new" category. Good thing I still have the DVD-by-mail option for truly new releases.
I decided to hook the computer up to my TV with a VGA cable so I can watch my shows on a big screen. It didn't translate well; the computer-size picture was blown up but without any adjustments to make the visual sharper. It was serviceable but not what I'm used to.
I also had quality issues with movies Netflix makes available for instant watching through a deal with Starz Entertainment LLC. Those movies came out blurry, such that the movie credits looked somewhat smudged.
That's too bad. The more decent titles, such as the critically acclaimed "No Country for Old Men," are distributed through Starz.
Sure, I could buy the Roku set-top box, an Xbox 360, the LG BD300 Network or the Samsung BD-P2500/BD-P2550 Blu-ray players for $99 to $399 to more reliably watch Netflix movies online. But who needs another box next to your TV?
At the end of the week, I concluded that indeed I could live without paying for TV as long as I have good broadcast reception.
But the question is this: Would I want to?
I look at my cell phone, which takes photos and videos, stores music and sports a browser. Although I really only need a phone that can make phone calls, I like having the other features. I can't imagine buying a phone today whose sole function is to make calls.
Likewise, I can't imagine going back to watching live TV over an antenna.
I would miss the sheer variety of shows available over satellite TV, and I'd want the ability to watch CNN or Fox News live at any time — online news usually isn't live, and you have to hop from site to site.
I still balk at paying more than $100 for television, but with operators offering bundled TV-phone-Internet packages, it's easier now to lower your bill.
The only question in the future isn't whether I continue to pay for TV, but who gets the money. An alternative to the current cable, satellite and phone companies could emerge, letting customers watch better TV in multiple formats — even in HD.
But I bet it's not going to be free.