Fringe Finale

Tonight marks the end of Fringe’s five year run on Fox. Created by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who were the early showrunners for Alias, and would the latter two would go on to write Transformers and Star Trek, which Mr. Abrams directed as well. Fringe began as a cross between the X-Files and Alias, featuring a monster of the week story in addition to the overarching story lines about Walter’s past.

I’ve written of my love of all things J.J. Abrams before, and Fringe has a number of parallels with Alias. The show has had a couple of reboots similar to Alias, but where Alias focused solely on Sidney over its 5 year run, Fringe has morphed from being Olivia’s show, to a show about the father / son relationship between Walter and Peter. Like J.J. Abrams biggest show, Lost, before it, Fringe is also at its heart, a show about love.

Since the end of Lost, Fringe has been my favorite show, far and away, on television. I’m sad to see it end tonight, but I have to give kudos to Fox for sticking with it as long as they did amid struggling ratings (but a rabid fan base). Fox has released a two minute trailer for the series finale and it will be fun to watch Fringe wrap up its various storylines, but sad at the same time.

in TV | 234 Words

I have seen the future of TV

…and it is the ESPN app on the new Xbox 360 update that was released today.

I’ve been in the beta for the new Xbox 360 dashboard for the last month or so, and with its release today, the embargo on blogging about it has been lifted.

Since I cut the cord and got rid of cable TV last February, the one thing that has been missing is sports. I’ve been tied to whatever the four major networks want to shovel at me. And I’m a sports junkie. I’m a huge (American) football fan, cheering for both the University of Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay packers, and as soon as football season ends I dive right into college basketball. Having been a DirecTV customer for ten years I would pay hundreds of dollars for the NFL Sunday ticket and the March Madness packages. I’ve also started getting back into MLB the last few years cheering for the Minnesota Twins. And this summer I could only watch them on Sunday afternoons – the only time they were available over the air.

The ESPN app on the Xbox 360 changes all of that. It’s amazing – especially for college football. Branding the app as “ESPN3″, it’s a repackaged version of ESPN360 with more content available live and on demand. If you have ESPN as a cable subscriber, you’ll get to watch the game they pick for you at 11am (CST) on Saturday. With ESPN3 on the 360 you have access to every game ESPN has rights to – 4 or 5 games at 11, and about the same at 2:30. Using my IP, they did blackout the 2:30 p.m. game if it was on ABC but I still had access to all the other games. And the best part was, you could choose to watch it live or you could start at the beginning if you were tuning in late. On the 360, ESPN3 offers full DVR functionality – you could pause, rewind and fast forward. A number of games are also archived for a few days and you can watch them on demand after the game was over. It was fantastic watching the Badgers beat the Buckeyes a week ago on ESPN3 – without having to pay for cable TV.

Other content available includes NBA games, a number of second tier college sports, and selected ESPN content. There is no NFL content, including Monday Night Football games – not a huge surprise, considering the draconian rules the NFL has to protect their brand. The available ESPN original content is the only thing I’m disappointed with. You only get some highlights and clips from SportsCenter – I didn’t expect the whole show, but I did expect more. But where it really lets me down is ESPN shows like Rome is Burning, Around the Horn, E:60 and PTI (especially PTI!) aren’t available. They might have one or two clips from each, though with the official launch today I can’t find PTI at all. I don’t know if it’s a rights issue that they don’t show these original shows as they features clips and highlights from the sports broadcasts themselves or why they’re not available, but I had hoped for more original content. And the updates too those clips, at least during the beta, weren’t very timely.

The only catch with ESPN3 on Xbox360 is you have to have a broadband provider who has partnered with Microsoft. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it has to be someone who offers TV service of some kind. My dashboard shows co-branding with Comcast as I have Comcast cable internet service.

As a college football fan, and general sports fan, this fixes the one major downside I had in cutting the cable. It’s an awesome experience. Live and on-demand content available at my fingertips. This is what the future will bring once the content providers figure out their new business models. If they do.

Oh, and the Netflix app in today’s update finally added the ability to search so you don’t have to use your PC to add titles to your Instant Queue. Finally!

Six Months Without Satellite TV

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It’s been six months since I cut the cable and canceled DirecTV, going over-the-air and internet only.

Do I miss DirecTV?

In a word, no.

This past Sunday started the real test as I’m a huge (American) football fan. Living in Minnesota and being a Green Bay Packers fan, this season is the first in ten years that I haven’t had DirecTV’s NFL Sunday ticket to watch out of market games (luckily the Packers were the national game this past Sunday). I also missed my beloved University of Wisconsin Badgers play the last two weeks, but I think I’m going to make it (especially as they play tomorrow on ABC).

None of this would have been possible except for three innovations: Boxee, MythTV and streaming Netflix.

The only hiccup I had was my antenna setup – the first couple of months everything was great, except NBC was a bit flaky, which was to be expected. The local NBC affiliate is the only TV station not on the HDTV antenna array here in the Twin Cities, and the antenna they use is notorious for its weak signal. But after a couple of months, I started experiencing signal strength issues with almost all of the channels. After doing a bit of research, I climbed up on the roof, and turned the antenna 90 degrees, as seen in the photo above so it faces the direction of the antenna tower. I was worried that even if I did so, I’d still have signal strength issues as the antenna is now parallel with the roof but under the roof line – but thankfully all of my signal strength issues appear fixed going in to the fall TV season. And now my satellite dish just sits on the roof, unused.

I’ve previously talked about my setup and with summer TV being mostly re-runs, I’ve been using Netflix. A lot. I’m glad to see Netflix continue to focus on expanding their catalog for streaming titles and was interested to read how much cheaper streaming is for them vs. mailing DVDs. With the new fall TV season starting, MythTV has proved invaluable in recording off-air TV shows and automatically removing the commercials helping make watching TV more enjoyable. I’m probably only using 20% of what MythTV is capable of. And for the cable shows I don’t have, Boxee’s Hulu integration continue to works pretty well. It’s standard def quality – but you get what you pay for, so you won’t find me complaining. Additionally, I’ve converted all of the movies I own and store them on my NAS, adding another library of content to watch through Boxee as well as stream to my old Netgear Eva in my bedroom.

I’m also keeping an eye on the Boxee Box, launching later this year. I’ve been using Boxee with my 60″ Sony HDTV in my man cave and if and when we replace the old analog TV in the living room, I’ll have some interesting choices to make. Between Google TV, Boxee and even litl working on a set top box, there will be some interesting choices to bring internet content to the TV. And with CNBC reporting this morning that 37% of adults 25-34 who subscribe to Neflix now use Netflix instead of cable and satellite service, DirecTV, Comcast and other satellite / cable providers are going to need to find a new business model. Fast.

Cutting the Cable, Part 3 (or Why Customer Service Matters)

I followed through and canceled my DirecTV service today. My MythTV / Boxee setup has been running great the last couple of weeks and I kept DirecTV through yesterday just as a backup as I hosted a Super Bowl party.

This all started due to extremely poor customer service from DirecTV. My high-def DVR was dying in November, specifically the hard drive, as I could hear it grinding from twelve feet away over the sound of my speakers and the buffering and audio / video playback was terrible.

I had to reboot my DVR every 2-3 days, and performance would be better, then degrade. Calling DirecTV, they made me jump through a number of hoops to diagnose it which resulted in it taking almost a month and three phone calls before they agreed to replace it. Now, I don’t own this HD-DVR receiver – I lease it from DirecTV. When I first signed up for DirecTV 11 years ago you had to buy your hardware, now you just lease it from them for $5 / month.

They finally agreed to replace it, but they were going to charge me a $20 shipping & handling fee. My wife runs a small business out of the house, and I know it doesn’t cost $20 to ship one of those, especially in bulk. To say I was livid that I had to pay to get a receiver repaired that they own is an understatement. Each time I called in, they also tried to “upgrade” me on the last receiver that I actually owned – so I’d have to pay them another lease fee. I always told I’d only upgrade if it was a DVR, not just a standard receiver, and they always declined. (I had been able to take advantage of this a couple years ago, so I know they can upgrade old receivers to a DVR).

I emailed and called their customer service to complain – and their response was: “Sorry, that’s our policy”.

So now they’ve lost a customer. I may have had their lowest tier of service, but I also bought the March Madness and NFL Sunday Ticket packages each year, so from a revenue per customer standpoint I was above average.

When I called to cancel, they offered me $20 per month off for the next twelve months and a free DVR upgrade. Too little, too late. When they asked why I was cancelling, I said poor customer service for my HD-DVR experience this past November. So the customer service rep processed my cancellation, and then let me know I’d be receiving a box with pre-paid shipping to send my HD-DVR back to them. Where exactly was this pre-paid box when I needed to get it repaired? (The state of Washington is suing DirecTV over hidden fees).

What gets me is the focus DirecTV, cable companies and cell phone companies have on customer acquisition rather than keeping existing customers happy. Even though I had already contacted them and complained they weren’t willing to do anything about it until I actually cancelled. In my opinion, they need to keep a balance between these two groups of customers. This wasn’t the first customer service incident I’ve had with them over the years, but enough was enough. Thanks to innovations like Boxee I can make up some (but not all) of the content I’ll be missing from going over-the-air only. A loyal customer will pay dividends – do you think I’ll be recommending DirecTV to friends in the future?

The Mutliplayblog today published the results of a survey measuring customer satisfaction levels in satellite, cable and telco TV subscriptions:

Low Perceived “Value for Money” among all Digital Pay TV customers

Virtually across the board—and irrespective of platform—respondents reported low satisfaction in the metric of `Value for Money.’ There was very little measurable difference by platform among respondents, and in all cases, fewer than 22% of respondents felt the service “exceeded” or “greatly exceeded” expectations of value for money.

This is among the most important findings of study, as it underlines the vulnerability of pay television in its current state. Indeed, in a report published in 2008, we found that over 50% of US digital pay television customers would be willing to scale back or completely drop their television service if household budgetary circumstances dictated.

I highly recommend reading the rest of the blog post, as these companies are at a tipping point. We’ve seen it in the music industry, the video industry is feeling it, and now pay TV services will be feeling the pressure as technological innovations will put their business models at risk. Will they embrace their customers and these new technologies or will they become extinct? First they need to look in the mirror and see if they’re keeping their existing customers happy before trying to sign up more. And I’ve already had a few people ask me about my setup and express interest in ditching pay TV…