Watching TV in the Electronic Jungle

Watching TV was so simple for anyone who remembers life before cable. Today, we have more options than ever before – and more confusion. If you’re ready to go back to Square 1 and start all over again, here’s what to look at to reset your TV – or streaming content.

If you are still into watching live broadcast TV, which many do for news and sports, you could start with good old rabbit ears. That’s the term for an antenna – just in case you hadn’t known. Channel availability and picture quality depend on whether you can get a strong broadcast signal. Cable solved that issue nearly 50 years ago and gave us more choices. (Digital channels for broadcast offer more choices, though quantity should not always be confused with quality.)

Cable was simple. A cable company got the franchise for your community, and you paid – more and more without any recourse until satellite and the internet eventually gave you more options. The old cable companies and telephone carriers still have lines that carry the internet to most of America, but our “TV viewing” is changing at the pace of a revolution.

We have countless ways to get our programming because there are so many content providers and so many companies that package or bundle the programming we want to see. Even the carriers are becoming content bundlers and creators.

For this discussion, let’s focus on the systems that deliver content for viewing on a TV. Comcast’s Xfinity and Verizon’s Fios, the two major cable carriers in my area, still offer the most programming from traditional broadcasters and other producers. With more people spending more time at home, you probably want the most variety you can get to keep everyone happy. The cable companies still deliver by coaxial cable, and we know how to use their systems. You can watch content from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, etc. through your cable system, although you will need to pay for them either through the cable company or the content provider. However, convenience comes at a price. You can pay $5 or more for every cable box you have.

If you get your internet service from a cable/phone company, you may be able to stream your cable channel and – maybe – save the cost of the boxes. Why maybe? Xfinity, for example, has an agreement with Roku to stream content over TVs that use it as the streaming service. If you have a Roku-equipped TV, you can add the Xfinity channel from your Roku Home page by clicking on Add Channels. If you don’t have a Roku-equipped TV but have a TV with a USB port, you can buy a Roku connection device for as little as $30 and use your home Wi-Fi network. Your payback period is six months, and quality depends on your network.

You can get Roku boxes from Xfinity, which you pay for as with the old coaxial cable box, but we found a price break of sorts. We have nine TVs in our house, including one we carry out onto the back deck. By paying $40 per month for DVR service, we’re only paying for five Roku boxes; the rest are “free.” The advantage to the Roku boxes is that they’re not tied to a coaxial cable, giving us more flexibility.

We just installed this system, so we’ll need to get some operating experience before we can report on its success – or lack of it.

If you watch all your content on a computer or mobile device, the question of a cable box or Roku box is moot. If you don’t want to use your cable company to get cable-like viewing for broadcast TV stations and programming such as news and sports, there are numerous streaming providers.

What will work best for you? The variables include:

  • Broadcast signal strength for some live TV
  • The provider of the content you watch
  • Your preference of cable or internet-based content delivery
  • The devices you watch on and the number of devices you use at any given time
  • Your internet connection
  • Your Wi-Fi network
  • Your TV/internet budget

We can help you sort through the possibilities to put together a package that will meet your priorities, and we can install and configure any equipment you need. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your wants and needs.

‘Free’ Streaming

Not all streaming is meant to be shared – or least not shared with dozens of strangers around the world. Cable companies and content providers are concerned about lost fees as access credentials to programming are increasingly abused. They’re cracking down on piracy.

Stealing service has been a problem since the first electrical wires and meters were installed more than 100 years ago. For cable and content providers, it became an issue when the first cable wires were strung up. The problem has grown as technology has developed more content and more ways to get it. Putting aside the issue of whether it’s all overpriced, it costs money to develop and deliver the content we love to watch, and too much of it is “falling off the back of an electronic truck.”

We can watch content for free on our TVs when they receive broadcast signals. But for the most part, the only people who watch broadcast TV are those who have cut the cord and stream through their TVs on their internal Wi-Fi or wired networks. For them, a TV is a device, just like a tablet, wireless phone or computer.

Cable providers have relationships with content providers that enable subscribers to stream cable-delivered content or simply stream it from the content providers. You get a username and password, and you’re good to go. You can even share your account with others, and almost all of us have done it at one time or another, especially with Netflix or Amazon Prime. Some providers encourage it.

Unfortunately, some people have taken sharing too far. The content industry has been OK with sharing info with a few friends or family members, but the problems arise when those friends and family members start sharing access with their friends and family. It’s all gone viral, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Every provider who issues usernames and passwords also has the means to track who is accessing content and where they’re watching it. They expect that subscribers will stream their programming when they’re traveling, and they can usually verify access privileges are being properly used. Most vacations are a week or two, and even if you move around a bit, you’re generally not in locations a world apart within the space of two days – or on the same day.

The industry can track possible abuse, and there are steps they can take – if they haven’t done so already – to limit access without alienating honest, rule-abiding subscribers. They can require all subscribers to re-enter or change passwords more frequently. It’s a risk for them because some subscribers may find this an inconvenience and drop their service. However, it’s one way to shut off access to a large number of pirates in one fell swoop.

They can also limit the number of shares they’ll allow. While Netflix, for example allows up to four shares for its most expensive plan, and providers such as HBO and DirecTV allow limited sharing. ESPN may have limits on how many streams are allowed, but that could be independent of limits placed by cable or satellite carriers.

The industry can threaten to cut off subscribers – or actually cut their cords – but that gets into all sorts of sticky legal and customer-service issues. For example, do you take action against the parents who gave their college-age kids access? Do you go after their kids? Do you go after the users of devices they believe are “invalid users?”

This problem will become more prominent on the industry’s radar screen because a lot of money is at stake. Content producers need to be paid for their product, and that payment depends on how many subscribers watch it. Cable and satellite companies pay fees to producers and collect fees from advertisers and subscribers based on the number of valid users. Nobody wants money taken off the table because of a discrepancy between subscribers and viewers.

Finally, all this sharing raises a nagging question in the back of our mind: If someone has access to an account that you pay for, how can they use this access for their own gain at your expense? Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for help in tightening up your access controls.