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Boxee, Me & Free TV

Lately, one of the hot topics around our shop has been how to cut the cable. At least 5 of us have canceled our cable contracts, added OTA HD, or both. For me, it’s been an interesting project and I thought I’d share the experience.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had a while ago when I was explaining my plan to get off the TV grid. Someone said to me, “it makes sense that you’d do that, you interactive guys think TV is dead.” But I don’t. I love TV and I think it’s far from dying. According to the recent Neilson 3 Screen report (pdf), TV is thriving.

“Viewing of video on television, Internet and mobile devices continues to increase and has hit record levels.”

What is changing is how consumers access and consume TV shows and movies. To me, that’s the real issue because it illustrates how networks need to adapt in order to meet our changing consumption habits. If they ignore the new reality they risk a similar future as the music industry and will become irrelevant. Networks must reinvent themselves mostly because that’s exactly what consumers are doing.

After years of dishing out big bucks to Bell ExpressVu I finally got my act together and canceled my $100/month satellite service. I’m no longer tied to a traditional source for my entertainment needs. My path to freedom took three simple steps.

First, I re-configured my existing home network to automatically collect and organize content. The main computer in my home is a G5 tower and it handles the bulk of all the data coming in and out of my home. It’s not an actual server, but that’s basically what it does. This box moves content around, modifies it, and then parks everything on a 2TB network accessible storage device. I also upgraded my Rogers Internet connection to the 10MB Extreme package. I’m reasonably happy with it now that my system is optimized to deal with throttling. For the most part, bandwidth caps are no longer a concern. To monitor the content I want and access it the moment it becomes available, I use TVshows and Ted. And apart from my newsgroup client (Thanks Chris Erwin), I use Transmission for the heavy lifting.

Next I had to get the content from my network onto my screen(s). I opted to integrate a 40GB AppleTV into my home theatre as my media server. Some people have asked why I didn’t use a Mac Mini, and the simple answer is cost. The secondary purpose of this project was to reduce the amount I pay for home entertainment and the AppleTV integrated perfectly into my existing home network for around $150. Plus, I’m storing all data on an NAS device so I didn’t need the larger capacity version, and I really didn’t want another box to maintain.

I patched my AppleTV to run both Boxee and XBMC. The process was remarkably simple and easy to do – with all the code, how-tos, and decent video walkthroughs at my fingertips. From start to finish I was up and running in about 20-mins.

I’m a huge Boxee fan, but I actually find I use XBMC more often. I use Boxee to watch Internet channels like the Revision3, Make and TWiT – thanks to the simplicity of the repository and apps service. But I rarely use Boxee for movies and TV shows. Instead, I rely on XBMC with the MediaStream skin which pretty much makes it an AppleTV version of Plex. (UPDATE: Andreas correctly points out that XBMC for AppleTV is “not ‘like Plex’, it is Plex that is like XBMC”. Sorry for the confusion). It’s easy to configure. Simple to use. And looks absolutely stunning on a 50″ screen (thank you teamrazorfish). I also love how it indexes any new content it finds on my networked drive, scrapes IMDb and IMDbTV for names, titles and plot summaries, and then downloads things like artwork and cast details in the background.

Channel Master 4220 OTA HD antennas

The last part of the puzzle I wanted to solve was how to get local TV station programming for things like news and sports. Thankfully, most stations now broadcast over-the-air ATSC signals (which is uncompressed HD) and all you need is the equipment to grab them. I removed my satellite dish and mounted two Channel Master 4220 antennas. I aimed one at the CN Tower and the other at Buffalo, NY. Now I have access to around 15 crystal clear HD channels.

My 50″ Panasonic plasma is a commercial unit and doesn’t have a built-in tuner so I needed to find an ATSC decoder box to convert the OTA HD signal. After pouring through various forums I considered the HD HomeRun. But decided that the Samsung DTB-H260F was the one for me. Unfortunately it’s not available in Canada. Fortunately I found one on eBay (incidentally, the only thing I use eBay for these days is to buy/sell second hand geek toys). I think this unit was taken off the market because of a beef with the MPAA because it allows straight pass-through of the HD signal to any recording device. Newer ATSC decoders – especially ones with built-in recorders – down rez the HD signal to SC for storage, the uprez for viewing, resulting in a degraded HD signal and something I wanted to avoid. With my setup I grab uncompressed HD signals over-the-air, my Samsung box takes the signal data to create the channel guide and passes the unaltered 720p/1080i signal through to my home theater receiver which then uprezes it to 1080p and passes it to my plasma. And voila, free HDTV programming.

So, why did I do it? Mostly because I could. I’ve always hated being tied to someone else’s schedule, especially one that defines when and how I can consume media. I tried time-shifting with Bell ExpressVu and even that left me annoyed. With my new home system I can watch whatever, whenever and however I want. I can watch it on the TV in my living room. I can watch it on the computer in my den. And I can watch it on my iPhone in the backyard. I’m the one that decides. And that’s what networks can’t wrap their heads around. They insist on creating systems that define the habits of viewers instead of delivering an experience that their customers want. If they don’t switch gears they are doomed. TV will live. Networks will die.

And this brings me to one last point… Hulu. Guys, open up access. Track viewer habits. Analyze the metrics. Then sell it back to your advertisers. People might not love commercials, but they definitely watch them. Mostly because they’re too lazy to do anything about them.

I’m pretty sure that what consumers hate most is paying bundled rates for channels they don’t want, restrictive scheduling practices, and not being in control. Listen to your consumers. Learn about what they’re doing and change the way you do business. Set up your network distribution properly and no one will ever need a Tivo or PVR again. This is a new era of media consumption where the viewer controls their access. Figure it out and we all win.

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Make an AppleTV Patchstick
How To Install AppleTV Patchstick
Boxee Setup on AppleTV
XBMC Setup on AppleTV


Over The Air HD Info & Equipment:
Free TV in Toronto
Digital Home Forum
Save And Replay Equipment Sales
Sensuz Equipment Sales

(UPDATE) OTA Station Listings:
US – FCC database search
US – Transition Plans by City
Canada – Available OTA stations

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Dave Stubbs More posts by Dave Stubbs