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Bring out the rabbit ears

Rajiv Sethi reports that, with digital TV, you can now get a good signal even in Manhattan. For years I told people, accurately, that I had no TV because I lived on the seventh floor and could get no reception. Cable TV always seemed silly to me, to have all these wires running around when the signal was already in the air to be picked up for free. Bob Shapiro once told me that not having a TV was bad for me as a political scientist, because I didn’t have a sense of what Americans were seeing. Maybe on our return we’ll get a digital TV receiver so we can watch the Super Bowl, Olympics, State of the Union Address, Miss America, and other spectacles as they come up. Or maybe people don’t watch Miss America anymore? I don’t really have a sense of this. When I was a kid it was a big deal, but now it seems like the Oscars get much more attention. The last time I watched the Oscars, though (about ten years ago), it was excruciating. I can’t imagine doing it again any time soon.


  1. Cody Custis says:

    I wonder why one cannot simply find a stream of current network programming on the Internet.

    Take live sporting events, which are notoriously hard to find on the Internet. A broadcaster such as NBC wants to provide content for consumers, which watch advertisments to provide revenue for NBC. Yet, when I wanted to watch the Olympics, I was not able to do so online. I would have happily watched the same commercials as seen in an over the air broadcast, and NBC could have probably obtained more revenue for showing me such commercials, as I could have provided them with valuable demographic information, such as age and gender. Thus, NBC could skip the Viagra advertisments, instead showing me advertisments for products that I might actually buy.

    I find your comment "signal was already in the air to be picked up for free" to ignore the importance of opporunity cost. I figured out a long time ago that I was better to pay $20 for a season of a television show and not watch three hours of advertisments.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    "maybe people don't watch Miss America anymore"

    No, they don't.

    Maybe it's our duty to recommend an "American TV re-entry" menu for Dr. Gelman: I'm thinking "American Idol" of course, but also "Biggest Loser" and "24" and "The View" and "Oprah". Is "Cops" still on?

    As Cody notes, there's a lot of TV online. Neither of my daughters (in their 20's) has a land line or a TV. They watch the good parts of the Daily Show and whole episodes of "The Office" and "30 Rock" (etc.) online.

  3. Ed says:

    I've not owned a TV for twelve years now. Going without one was not a conscious decision on my part, it just happened when I moved to a smaller place I decided that the TV would take up too much space (I also live in a small Manhattan apartment), decided I really didn't need it, and gave it away.

    I don't think I lack a sense of what ordinary Americans think. That is mainly because alot of internet discussions are about what people are watching on TV! I also am still exposed to watercolour coversations, plus TVs have been installed in a surprisingly large number of public places (you start really noticing this if you don't have a TV at home). Really, television is so entertwined with American culture that you get alot of this stuff by osmosis, just by being here.

    What I miss are the big spectacle shows, essentially sporting events. I went to a relative's house to watch the World Series. I got a little bit of the Winter Olympics in bars (in Canada, so I saw the difference in coverage), a little bit at my gym, and went to the relative's house to watch the hockey finals. This is one item of programing that I would pay to watch over the internet.

    People forget that the world managed to have a mass media culture -people even complained about it in the same terms people today claim about TV- in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s with little or no TV. Radio, newsreels, and tabloid newspapers provided it. What television did was to make this culture more omnipresent and possibly more corporate.

  4. Anne says:

    For similar reasons I haven't had a TV that received any channels for fifteen years. Every time I see some normal TV the ads make my head hurt — particularly in the US, with all that creepy prescription drug advertising. I've come to the conclusion that watching TV shows from DVDs is a vastly better experience. The two major drawbacks are that you're not watching them in sync with the rest of the world, and there's a temptation to go on a massive binge, watching all the episodes as fast as you can cram them in.

    If you want a very snarky, foul-tongued sampling of what people are really watching, you could try Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe (distributed over the Internet). Where else will you encounter the phrase "like taking a warm bath in university juice"?

  5. JF says:

    Ed, I'm imagining an alternate universe where people pass the time by having conversations about art. You probably meant watercooler conversations, but I don't care. I like it.

    Like Ed, I have stopped watching TV without making a conscious decision to. Every once in a while I decide to watch a little, just to see what's on, or reconnect with mainstream America, and every time I get bored or feel hollowed-out. I prefer to get recommendations for shows, and like Anne, get whole seasons on DVD and sometimes binge. I watched the entire last season of Deadwood (~12hrs) in a couple days.

    I agree that you don't need to watch TV to get a sense of what Americans are seeing. Watching will just give you more familiarity with surface details, and you can get the highlights from other sources. For instance, I haven't seen an episode of American Idol in at least five years, but I know that Ellen Degeneres is now a judge and that she was fairly quiet on her first episode or two (I think I got this from newspapers), and she was probably chosen for this because of her popular daytime talkshow, where she likes to dance with her guests (clips on the internet), and she's married or has a civil partnership or something with Portia de Rossi (friends).

    If you're looking for recommendations for good TV, here are my recent favorites (your mileage may vary):
    Friday Night Lights, season one (stopped watching in season two)
    The Office, UK version, all
    The Wire, all
    Deadwood, all
    Firefly, all
    Breaking Bad, season one (stopped watching in season two)
    (Warning: violence and profanity in several of these shows.)

    The list here is pretty good, judging by the opinions of people I know.

  6. Corey says:

    I canceled my cable about seven years ago, when I realized that the only thing I used it for was was Law & Order reruns, and I'd seen them all.

  7. Phil says:

    My wife and I have cable TV (but not HBO or the other premium channels, although we do pay extra to get more than just basic cable) and an HD TiVo. It's hard to imagine watching TV without a TiVo or something similar; being able to watch what you want when you want, and to skip the commercials, are huge benefits. All told, though, this adds up to quite a bit of money. It's something like $50/month for our cable service, plus maybe $13/month for TiVo. Adding in the amortized cost of the TV, and the electricity to run everything (TiVo stays on 24/7, it's horribly wasteful) and it's gotta add up to, I dunno, $1200/year or something like that.

    But my wife loves to watch the major tennis tournaments; we both like the Olympics and watched a lot of the summer and winter games; during July I get up early every morning so I can TiVo quickly through the day's Tour de France stage and still get to work on time; we recorded the whole Ken Burns National Parks series and watched at our leisure; plus we have some favorite shows, including a guilty pleasure: Project Runway. The TV is rarely off for 72 consecutive hours.

    And yet, as a method of keeping up with what the Common Man is thinking about, the TV doesn't work for me at all. I watched only half an episode of Lost, for example. About the same for Survivor, and that was years ago. If you don't watch the popular shows, and you TiVo through the commercials, you're not really keeping your finger on the pulse of America, any more than if you listen to the radio a lot but only keep it tuned to NPR.

    This whole comment is so pointless that I can't believe I wasted my time writing it, but now that I've done so, it won't make it any less wasteful if I delete it. So, here it is.

  8. Rajiv Sethi says:

    Andrew, leave the rabbit ears in storage and get yourself an amplified indoor antenna. Mine is a Philips PHDTV3 that cost me $35, half the monthly price of basic cable from Time Warner in NYC.

    Here's a comment someone by the name of Darren left on my blog:

    "OTA (over the air) HDTV broadcasts are simply amazing with a modern set (the price of which seems to be dropping further every time I turn around)… noticeably better picture quality than cable. It's a digital broadcast, so there is no ghosting or fuzziness – it either works perfectly or not at all. Pro sports and the Olympics were absolutely jaw dropping, over the air for free.

    This is FAR from being obsolete technology… allocating this spectrum elsewhere is not a no-brainer."

  9. MBer says:

    I just dove into the OTA pool with a ClearStream 4, a preamplifier, and a rotor, all installed in my attic. I'm getting over 90 subchannels, including everything from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Rockford, and about half of Madison's. 4 ABCs, 4 PBSs, 4 CWs, 3 CBSs, 3 Foxs, 3 NBCs, & 2 Ions. Across the UHF 14-51 spectrum, there's only about 5 frequencies that I can't get.
    The real payoff: If you can get the CBS and FOX stations in an NFL market other than your own, you're going to gain games. I will get the 14 Packer games that aren't against the Bears, plus other Milwaukee market doubleheaders that aren't broadcast in Chicago or Rockford.
    OTA is a hidden gem that is only slowly being rediscovered by a public too used to paying a Benjamin a month for TV.