There are some who suggest, with well documented justification, that television is a clear and present threat to rational civilization. While I may intellectually agree with the basic points of those who advocate TV avoidance, I have space to fill in the newsletter. So in the spirit of venal publishers and compulsive contrarians down through history, I'm going to write about how to watch "more better" TV!
Traditional American television has acquired a well deserved reputation for being trivial and superficial. A case in point is the typical brain-dead prime time sitcom. The broadcast schedules of the major networks are arguably about as far from intellectually challenging and mentally stimulating content as it is possible to get.
I find it difficult to watch conventional TV since it only occupies part of my brain, while the unwillingly idle remainder seeks out more interesting distractions. Next thing I know the show is over and I missed most of it because my mind drifted off somewhere along the line. Sometimes the source of the distraction is contained within the show itself. I quite often find myself losing track of the latest contrived twist in the story line because I've gotten distracted analyzing the thinly disguised propaganda and psychological manipulation embedded in earlier scenes.
There are a lot of computer activities that are cyclic/episodic in nature - periods of intense activity and concentration interspersed with relatively idle periods waiting for a process to complete. These relatively idle periods provide problematic opportunities for an active mind to drift and lose focus. It's useful to have something available to occupy my attention during these periods that is sufficiently interesting to keep my mind from drifting into more distracting alternatives, but isn't itself sufficiently intellectually involving that it interferes with returning to the task at hand.
So I had a productive activity with periodic idle time and an entertainment that could only hold my partial attention for short periods. An opportunity for multitasking! Over the years I've gotten in the habit of working on my computer while watching TV - or watching TV while working on my computer...
In the early days I was obliged to watch whatever some network programmer decided to allow me to watch, when he decided I should be allowed to watch it. These programmers typically had terrible tastes, and their schedules rarely fit with mine.
Being on-call for tech support greatly complicated the whole concept. Clients only seemed to call needing help just when a TV show was getting interesting. There was an obvious potential for "adverse customer relations" when having slogged through all the false clues and misdirections of a typically insipid mystery show, I'd get a tech support call just when the murderer was about to be revealed.
I needed to figure out an "interruptible lifestyle".
Listening to music was relatively easy - a pause button is a standard feature of CD players and audio software. In order to pause TV, I started using VCRs. The concept was simple enough - tape a show when it's on, then watch the tape later. I could then stop the tape when interrupted, and some time later continue where I left off.
There were a couple significant additional benefits to switching to "tape delayed" TV. One of the more obvious was that I could fast-forward through the commercials. After avoiding commercials for awhile, I had occasion to watch "real time" TV. Vague feelings of alarm, pending doom, and that something was very wrong with the world nagged at me until I realized I was reacting to the now unfamiliar exposure to commercials. The numbing desensitization from relentless exposure had faded, and I was experiencing the raw psychological violence of modern TV advertising. The longer I taped delayed and sanitized my viewing, the lower my tolerance for watching real-time TV became.
Not that there was much worth watching. Intellectual stimulation is not a high priority in mass market entertainment. Those few shows that were worth watching tended to get scheduled all at the same time, late at night, or canceled entirely. In the distorted environment of real-time TV, the objective is to exploit content to maximize viewer market share, not to distribute content. As such, TV shows were scheduled to compete for target demographics - to keep viewers with similar interests from watching similar shows on other channels, not to maximize the content available to that demographic. There might not be anything of interest all week, and then all of the channels would schedule their only interesting shows at the same time.
The most valuable/usable time slots were dominated by content aimed at the lowest common denominator demographics. Shows of interest to less exploitable demographic groups tended to get pushed into inconvenient time slots - late at night, Saturday afternoons, etc.
The net result was that there was rarely anything I wanted to watch when I wanted to watch it. Overcoming the adverse effects of the "market share" competition between channels required multiple VCRs so that I could tape multiple programs at once. I typically used two VCRs for recording and one for playback.
The greatest benefit of having multiple VCRs was extending how far into the future I could program recordings. In practice, I could only program as many recordings on each machine as would fit on a single tape. Remembering to change tapes as they got full rarely worked out as intended. In cases of extreme scheduling abuse, I could record programs on three different channels at once while watching a fourth in real time.
Watching tape delayed shows also solved another problem. I have a tendency to get involved in what I'm doing on the computer and lose track of the show I'm watching on the side. With a tape I could back up to the point where I stopped paying attention, and try again. Sometimes it took a lot of tries before I managed to watch an entire show.
There were a number of downsides to the multiple VCR approach. There was always some loss of quality - even with premium tape in a new recorder. My experience also revealed that consumer grade VCRs aren't designed to actually be used. They're intended to just blink 12:00 while occasionally playing rented tapes until replaced with a newer model. It was rare for the heads and motors to last a year when actively used for time shifting.
The next evolutionary stage was triggered by the last of my conventional TVs burning out. I'd gotten accustomed to working on a computer while watching TV, but the low resolution TV had to be much further away than the high resolution computer monitor. This created substantial spacial problems.
I had a couple good used computer monitors on hand that had been displaced when friends and relatives upgraded their systems, while buying a new TV would a have been an significant expense. Watching TV on a computer monitor seemed to be the logical solution.
Turning a computer into a TV had some unexpected benefits. Using a Linux computer for frame-by-frame on-the-fly video processing, and then displaying the enhanced results on a high resolution computer monitor, significantly improved the apparent visual quality of the original analog TV signal. The video processing software had to calculate the "missing" pixels between the original pixels in order to roughly double the resolution. There were several algorithms available, and a few minutes of trial and error identified the one that worked best with my input signal. The result was virtual high definition TV except in the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original analog signal.
The final stage in my analog video experiments was to replace the VCRs with MythTV, a computer software PVR (Personal Video Recorder). The MythTV software uses a capture card with a hardware mpeg encoder to digitize the incoming analog signal and store it as a file on a large hard drive. I periodically download program listings for my local area and scroll through the chart to set up the recording schedule for the entire week. I can then pick something to watch from the menu of shows MythTV has captured.
My MythTV PVR gave me exceptional control over scheduling, fast forwarding through commercials, and jumping back when I missed something. But while it was great at manipulating video data, there wasn't much it could do to improve the content. What appeared on the screen was still largely superficial eye candy intended to capture the eyeballs of viewers without waking up their minds. My source of content was limited to hundreds of channels all competing for the lowest common denominator of brain dead couch potato viewers.
(To be fair, the History Channel, Comedy Central, and a couple others did occasionally offer content that rose above the typical trash, but that was a distressingly rare exception in the vast flood of mind numbing mediocrity. However, in order to gain access to the few channels with occasionally interesting content, it was necessary to also pay the cable company for dozens of unwanted additional channels ranging from uninteresting to personally offensive. Eventually the cable company raised their vigorish far beyond the extortive value of the bait, and I canceled their service entirely.)
The latest evolutionary stage was actually a byproduct of researching an article about changing distribution models for recorded music. The combination of broadband Internet and peer to peer file transfer protocols make it possible to efficiently distribute large files to large numbers of users. I also learned about "tracker" websites offering legal torrents (BitTorrent downloads) of tens of thousands of British TV shows going back over forty years. Of particular interest were the thousands of BBC documentaries. And then there was the lighter weight entertainment offered by The Avengers, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Connections, Scrapheap Challenge, etc., etc....
Note that there are a lot of tracker websites that offer content of questionable legal status. This is especially true of recorded music. The legacy media companies have been attempting to intimidate the millions of individuals downloading copyrighted works by filing very public lawsuits claiming outrageously inflated damages against a relatively small number of students, grandmothers, and small children. The actual statistical odds of being sued are probably close to the odds of winning the lottery, but the potential is arguably non-zero.
It seemed possible that writing this article might significantly increase my odds of attracting the attention of the copyright enforcement thugs, so I've limited my research to just content that I have a "reasonable good faith expectation" is legal to download. This pretty much eliminates any content owned by major American media companies. Not that this is much of a limitation - most of the hype-driven intellectually vacuous drivel cranked out by the hollyweird studios and legacy TV networks isn't worth the bandwidth anyway.
It didn't take long to notice I was developing a strong preference for watching downloaded videos over the local broadcast shows MythTV captured. While the selection obviously isn't infinite, the greatly expanded alternatives provide an effective approximation of user control over content. The partial illusion of being able to control the content to be displayed has been such a profound enhancement to my user experience that it's already hard to imagine going back to the claustrophobic limitations of time-shifted legacy TV. I suspect most people would have a similar reaction.
The technology is currently available and is getting progressively easier to use. It seems reasonable that most viewers have a similar strong preference for having control over content (content-on-demand). As such, the market will tend to strongly favor those offerings that give the user the greatest control over content. The legacy media companies are of course aggressively resisting this market shift since it directly undermines their ability to manipulate consumers, and force the market to support inferior content that would be rejected by a free market.
The residual obsolete media industry is currently seeking artificial legislative prohibitions against progress, and other measures, in a vain attempt to preserve their abusive monopoly control over the recorded music and video markets. Other obsolete industries have attempted similar market obstructions, but have all eventually failed. The only real question is how much collateral damage the obsolete media industry will inflict on society during its death throes.
The profound enhancement in content quality I've enjoyed has had an unexpected downside. Improving the quality of my video entertainment has had the adverse side effect of degrading its usefulness as "entertainment on the side". Turns out there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Higher quality content tends to require a greater percentage of my attention. For example, watching the documentary "The Birth Of Calculus" - full of formulas and graphs illustrating the importance of figuring out how to accurately calculate tangents to the development of calculus - requires a lot closer attention than a typically simplistic American sitcom. As a result I'm having to switch to music when engaged in something that requires careful attention. For example, watching downloaded videos may have been useful for "researching" this article, but I had to switch to music in order to write it...