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Multimedia & VoIP How To

It's Baaack!

Our three month DirecTV hiatus ended the other day when I realized that the June 1 expiration date for our service hold had expired. Sure enough, when I logged into the account on the DirecTV website, I found my partial month charge ready and waiting to be billed.

So it was time for a gut check. Was I really ready to pull the plug on a much more convenient way to get our video entertainment and face another two-year commitment if I later had a change of heart?

After consulting with Ms. SmallNetBuilder, who had gamely endured this experiment, I decided to take the middle ground and have a chat with the DirecTV customer retention folks who have the job of talking potential escapees like me back into the fold.

The short story is that I ended up with a deal that got me the DirecTV Choice channel package, plus DVR and basic HD service for a little less than $30 a month. And my guess is that if your needs are basic like mine, you could get a similar deal.

I started the conversation by setting a $20 /month budget, but really expected to end up at $30. After all, $29.99 is what you see plastered all over DirecTV's come-ons for new customers. And since my HD DVR had long been paid for via my $80+ monthly tithe for two years for essentially the same services, I figured I could get that deal, too.

Turns out that I could, but in a roundabout way. The total of my new service package ended up at $42.99 per month, which itself was about 50% less than I had been paying. But the rep gave me a $170 credit, which calculates out to around $28 / month over a year. When I asked what happens after that year, the rep didn't answer directly. But if I'm still with DirecTV then, I got the sense that I could have another chat and get the same deal.

Ya Gotta Have Options

Our time without DirecTV ended up being not that painful. But it was a hell of a lot less convenient when it came time to settle into the couch for an evening's viewing. I ended up with three sources for TV.

An upgraded UHF antenna brought in our local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS affiliates, so the major networks were covered. Our faithful little Roku box brought us older TV via Netflix' ever-expanding offerings and current season episodes for many of the shows we watch from Hulu Plus.

The last source came in a bit later after the purchase of a Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual networked tuner. This little puppy connected right into my utility room distribution center, with quick connections to the OTA antenna drop, power and network switch. After a driver installation to connect me to Windows Media Center running on the Acer Revo 3610 I played with back in Part 4, I was good to go with an OTA DVR.

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I ended up sorta liking WMC, or at least being glad that I could pause and fast-forward through programs again. After a brief check of WMC's "Internet TV " offerings, I stuck with using WMC as a way to get CBS programs and those from the other networks that are still "web only" on Hulu Plus.

Actually the fourth method—torrent downloads— was used when all else failed or we wanted to watch back episodes of series that were between DVD and Netflix streaming release windows. We used this method for only one series and deleted the episodes when we were done. With all the content that's out there, I have no interest in building up a library of one-watch-is-enough TV shows on the 250 GB of NAS storage that has served me well for years.

Lessons Learned

Netflix eliminated trips to the local DVD rental store almost overnight. And so will Internet video distribution will eventually replace (or become a viable alternative to) the existing cable and satellite companies.

But the rate of change is going to be more gradual since the lawyers are at it tooth and nail trying to slice and dice rights agreements down to the operating system and browser level and demanding new payments for each one. The video industry seems determined to not repeat what happened with music. But to paraphrase a famous princess, the more they tighten their grip, the more consumers will slip through their fingers.

Yes, we're now in the age not of "cord cutting", but "cord shaving". And while it might seem that I've come full circle, this experiment has permanently changed our TV viewing habits. Ms. SmallNetBuilder turns to Hulu Plus and Netflix more now than before DirecTV was put on hold. Netflix has been doing a great job of expanding content and it seems like something new appears in the streaming offerings each time we look. And since DTV has been back on, we still find ourselves switching over the Roku when we've finished catching up on our handful of weekly series.

With DTV back in the picture, I'm probably going to shut down the PC and Windows media center. It was the least used option during the DTV hiatus and doesn't really offer anything unique now.

We could have continued along just fine without DTV, although we might have had to use Torrents a bit more since some of our favorite series are on USA and TNT, which are still "web-only" on HuluPlus. But what our $30 per month is really buying is convenience.

The biggest take-away from the experiment is that depending only on the Internet for TV often turned I-just-want-to-zone-out-with-the-tube time into why-won't-this-work-debugging sessions. Ms. SmallNetBuilder was patient when something in the persnickety Internet delivery chain hiccuped and intermittently paused or blacked out or froze the show we were trying to watch. And she tried to remember which box held what show. And frankly, I got tired of the all-to-often Friday night debugging sessions that did not go better with a couple of cocktails in me.

The main thing the cable and satellite guys have right now is that they have all the content agreements and technology in place to have their one box provide everything (or most everything) that you want to watch, all delivered from one easy-to-drive-with-one-hand control.

No other method delivers this sit-back experience. Not GoogleTV (are they still even trying?). Not Boxee. Not PlayOn (although it seems like AirPlay for both audio and video now works). Not Windows Media Center / MythTV / XBMC / Plex, etc.

I'll continue to monitor the steady progress that Netflix is making in breaking us all free from the cable / satellite provider hegemony. I hope Hulu can help too, although with their network ownership, they're fighting with both hands tied. And if the rumors are true, Amazon may emerge soon as a more powerful change agent in this area, as they were for books.

In the meantime, though, I'll pay my $30 a month and keep monitoring the interwebs. Because I hope that my next conversation with DirecTV can, hopefully, be my last.

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