Television Man

Mar 10, 2011, 10:29 AM

Tags: projects

A couple months ago, I set out to cut down as many expenses as I could, and my Comcast bill stuck out like a sore thumb. Thanks to a couple weeks of daily five-minute outages, I had already been switching over to (similarly-priced) FiOS service, but my TV service remained. Not only is cable service with a DVR, reasonable channels, and good HD coverage an expensive proposition regardless, what really gnawed at me was how ludicrously out of proportion the cost was to the actual use I got from it. TV service was about twice as much as my Internet service, but, whereas I use the Internet just about 100% of the time, I only watch a couple hours of TV a week... most of which is available from those channels for free online.

One option was to switch from Comcast TV over to Verizon. It'd be cheaper for a while, but I have no illusions that Verizon wouldn't creep up the price over time as new-customer deals start to wear off, and even if they didn't, the price/usage mismatch would remain.

So I set out to tackle the nigh-insurmountable problem of successfully replacing cable service with a computer with a good net connection. I had a circa-2007 Mac mini laying around that fit the bill nicely, so I cleaned off the old Leopard Server installation and got to setting it up. There are a couple things that make replicating a good TV setup such a sticky wicket:

  1. Many shows have their own, usually-crappy delivery mechanism. Some of them, conveniently, use Hulu, but some aren't even readily available at all.
  2. Even when shows ARE available, the image quality is pretty much universally far inferior to real HD TV shows.
  3. Much like replacing radio with an iPod, it's tougher to discover new shows without seeking them out. Fortunately, this isn't a huge problem.
  4. Media center apps, while impressive, tend to have at least one crucial flaw that undermines their utility.

The first two problems have necessitated a step into questionable morality and technical complexity. Namely, I set up an RSS reader to pull torrent files for new TV shows in pretty-much-HD quality, then a torrent client to download them, categorize them by name, seed to 200%, and then stop the torrent. I still don't have EVERY show we used to watch, but I have the big ones, and they're in pretty solid quality.

The last one is an ongoing project. I started out using Plex, which is pretty great and edges out the competition with some Mac-specific support. However, its YouTube plugin is pretty lacking and I'd rather not resort (yet) to learning Python and writing my own. I've switched over to its progenitor XBMC for now, which has a pretty solid YouTube plugin, but took a step back on other video sources. I'm considering setting up a Windows partition on the thing to see how the options are on the other side (like MediaPortal), but I'd rather avoid having to do that.

Overall, my TV experiment has worked out pretty well, but it's primarily due to my specific situation. If normal TV was a bigger deal in the apartment (say, if we had kids), this would be a woefully inadequate replacement. Similarly, if I didn't enjoy doing crap like setting up RSS feeds for torrent processing or manually managing TV-show libraries and video-output settings, it'd be too much hassle to be worth it. And I certainly don't miss the Comcast bills.

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Krissie J - Mar 10, 2011, 11:04 AM

Scott abhors Comcast and the only thing keeping us in their customer-base is the fact they have a tyrannical grip on the broadcasting of the Phillies and Flyers games. Once that gets changed, we are dumping Comcast. I almost did when I moved across counties. Apparently, that meant they had to change my account username and password without telling me. When I called to get them, they wouldn't give me the password or reset it without a pin number they never sent. The whole situation involved a lot of angry yelling while driving home from work. I ended up putting Scott on the account and made him deal with them. He's a good boyfriend. :)

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