The Frankenputer Media Server Chronicles II – What’s out there for Content?

Frankenputer Streaming Media Server part II – What’s out there for Content?

In a previous article I explained how I replaced my DVD player/recorder with a PC server to view my home media, stream it anywhere in the house wirelessly, and play / record DVD s with the PC. The other goal was to gain access on my HDTV’s to the wide variety of other streaming sources on the internet that you just don’t get from cable. So far it’s working out great but there are a few minor snags and gaps, which I’ll be covering in a series of posts as I work around them. My goals in doing this are below:

  • To eschew adding proprietary widgets, proprietary software, or special gadgets to view streaming TV
  • To use my media and to tie it all together. Open is the operative word.
  • To gain access to the richest spectrum of content without paying additional
  • To identify and explore the gaps in delivery of digital internet streaming content

Some of you are using your game consoles and/or other devices such as auxiliary boxes that connect to your television and the internet to stream, but those are somewhat limited. More on that in later articles on the technical setup and feature gaps and improvements needed, and I’ll also explain some of the benefits and drawbacks of streaming your own media through wireless.

The first gap is content delivery: the content available for streaming on the internet isn’t quite as rich in video quality or in diversity as that found in the average cable contract without a bit of work or adaptation. In a few short years pretty much everything will be streamed, and physical media sold over the counter will go the way of the dodo within two decades, but we really aren’t there quite yet.

Even though there are gaps in what is fully available, there are also things available on the internet that you just can’t get through cable. Indy content is working really hard to replace Big Content, and Big Content is in a variety of defensive modes from circling the wagons to exploring new paths in reaction to the large scale changes to come – the form they will take is uncertain but there are certainly going to be new media behemoths and applications coming.

Those video quality gaps exist in cable as well however. Cable is not full 1080p all shows all of the time and neither are the locations on the internet that stream. Cable sometimes stutters or “Pixelates”, so do the media streaming sites. All of that said, it’s not quite a full replacement for your cable DVR yet so let’s review the options for someone who has zero cable and a streaming internet media server. There’s also the ongoing war over Net Neutrality which is what most of the holdup in internet streaming is about. [ More on the full ramifications and foundational shakeup that this legal war between cable companies and FCC could represent at this Berkman panel discussion, which, since it’s at you tube I can stream to my TV upstairs, just as I could be editing this post upstairs on my big screen if I wished to. ]

The first thing you will encounter is lack of full HD at some internet streaming channels – except where you use a DVD; more on that in some of the capsule reviews below.

So what is out there now?

Non Premium Internet Media Outlets

Since the “Dinosaur” broadcast networks are operating on a model that makes advertising their main revenue stream, they are uniquely positioned to undergo a quantum leap in evolution and become the free flying “Avians” of internet streaming. If they can dig out of the tarpit of non compete clauses etc with their local affiliates things could get real interesting if all of the major players build or rent their own content delivery networks with streaming engines in all medium to major cities. Here’s a hint: it costs less to build out a content streaming network than to either build or maintain a Broadcast network. There’s even room for new Ted Turners in this space: if some local stations band together in a region they could leapfrog and also become major players, and even eventually cut ties with the majors.

CBS streams their prime time and some classic shows, their functionality is built right into Microsoft Media Center, and there’s even a section for them in the guide. At CBS you can watch classics like the complete 7 seasons of McGuyver, or you can watch all broadcast content such as Survivor and CSI as they run for free on demand. CBS also streams in “HQ / HD” for most shows, which really means “480P and 720P.”

Hulu has quite a lot of content that grows daily and they are the site of choice for the broadcast and cable networks other than CBS – much of the content from Fox, NBC, ABC, etc. is found there along with select content from subsidiary networks and affiliates. Hulu is where the timid broadcasters go to get their feet wet in internet media streaming by sharing costs.

They haven’t yet realized that streaming Content Delivery Network infrastructure across the country is a heck of a lot cheaper in terms of real money than buying and maintaining their old broadcast infrastructure was/is. They also haven’t weeded through all of the non compete clauses etc. in contracts with local affiliates, so I expect them to act slow when they really should leapfrog to their own network by network infrastructure. At some point the light bulb will go on and people will realize that other than creating local news feeds, being a place to buy local ads,  etc. that there’s little other real value add from those local affiliates.

The “to stream or not to stream” question is one that’s easily answered… antique content or even newer content sitting in an archive is collecting dust, content streaming to even 0.01 percent of the populace is collecting some ad revenue. Something for antique content is still better than nothing for antique content. Trying to do this on the cheap via the joint venture of Hulu is a mistake to my mind. Trying to make Hulu “premium” is also a mistake, you can’t compete with the others unless you are ready to get into bidding wars for “exclusive” content with the HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and Blockbuster crowd.

Bottom line: ABC, NBC, and the others need to lose the “B” for broadcasting in their acronym and replace it with an “N” for netcasting if they know what’s good for them.

Hulu site | Wikipedia on Hulu.

Independent Media: These guys are the ones to watch, and this is where the experiments and innovators in new television are coming from. Among them you will find media distributors like Vimeo, Youtube, Bloggingheads, Motionbox, and even Old print magazine sites trying to claw back to relevance in this century, etc. There are channels, and original content at all of the above, but it’s going to take a while for them to reach maturity. In the meantime you still need to surf them on occasion just to stay in touch with the current buzz and memes.

The Premium Streamers

Netflix has quite a rich offering of movies, shows, and DVDs. The newer content streams for the most part, but some movies are “DVD only,” while most of the really old content is available as mailed DVDs.  Watching “The Legend of the Seeker” season 1&2, which just wrapped its finale May 21st was easy through streaming to Microsoft Media center, but watching Stargate Atlantis season 1 & 2 takes a series of mailed DVD’s. The turn around on the mailed DVD’s is prompt as long as you are good about mailing them back. Of the premium streamer/DVD outlets, this is my choice because they seem to be the best value as long as you keep your flow of DVD’s flowing along with the instant streaming items. Either alone is not enough, both together are great. Netflix has a tiered (1,2, or 3 DVD at a time plans)

Wikipedia on Netflix

Blockbuster is the competition, their advantage over Netflix is that if you just have to have a movie now that’s not available by streaming, then you can drive down to the nearest Blockbuster. Like Netflix they have a tiered set up and price plan, which I won’t quote since some of these are in flux due to WII deals market competition at present.

Wikipedia on Blockbuster

The Other Premium Option: Redbox

Redbox keeps DVD kiosks stocked at many grocery stores and fast food chains, and you can pick up a selection of the latest releases for $2.00 per day rental – by leveraging their McDonald’s connection Redbox actually surpasses Blockbuster in locations. That said, this would be my last resort – used only if I had a must see movie right away, which isn’t going to be often. At two bucks minimum per rental, you could easily over run your media budget, and I much prefer the flat rate commodity pricing of Netflix and Blockbuster over that of Redbox.

Educational Media

UC, Yale, MIT, PBS, TED, all provide online educational programming, most also have Youtube channels, but the real points of interest are the online open course ware offerings.  You can audit courses all the way up to master’s for free and you can’t beat that with a stick.

What’s interesting is that private schools stream tons and tons of actually valuable video on the web for free while Public Broadcasting System puts little up on their site, typically snippets and teasers vs their whole series archives complete online.

This follows the course of the current private broadcast companies and premium channel cousins, who don’t stream much from their sites, mostly from HULU. The point to make here once again is that unwatched, archived content that collects dust doesn’t collect revenue, everything online and running some ads collects some revenue. The question to ask is will the private Universities streaming open course ware eventually put in ads to support the infrastructure?

Finally: The internet is for Pr0N!

Or so the saying goes — it’s not a secret that Porn sites receive the most traffic on the internet. Since I am using a computer the ability to use a brower with flash and other video codecs is built in, and that means that Porn sites also work from this setup on the HD tv. Another big plus over the hardwired “use our widget” environments you find built into special set connecting boxes and TV channels.

Summary:

A computer hooked to your TV will not give you full premium channel cable package equivalence, however it will give you a lot of freedom to go beyond that pre-packaged big content box with methods to gain 80-90 percent of the content you get from the packages and tiers at your cable co. I would recommend it to everyone, and have trimmed all my premium channels from my cable package at this point. Sometime in the near future I could see even basic cable becoming unplugged.

Update 7/19 – Blockbuster Delisted on stock exchange.