I like Reality TV

There. I’ve said it. I like Reality TV. Alright, I’ve actually said it before.

It shouldn’t be a shocking thing to say though, should it? Just like any genre has its good shows and bad shows, liking the genre shouldn’t commit you to liking the bad shows.

Admittedly, Reality TV is full of bad shows. I am not a fan of The Farmer Wants a Wife orĀ  The Bachelor. And looking back at the grand-daddies of Reality TV – Big Brother and Survivor – who have been with us for about a decade now, I’m not a fan of them either.

However, I do like some Reality TV. There are basically three principles that work for me:

  1. The participants should be there because of real talent.
  2. The judges/hosts should be supportive of the participants.
  3. The outcome of the show should not depend on audience votes.

When I look at the Reality TV shows that work for me, there’s not actually a great deal of difference from the “game shows” that I watched on TV when I was a kid, with the exception that the contestants have to sleep on set. Sale of the Century plus a sleep-over, if you will.

One example of a show that I enjoy that almost follows the three requirements above is So You Think You Can Dance. There’s real talent molded into amazing performances by expert choreographers, the judges are there to provide tips and guide the contestants, but there is audience voting. However, the way voting is set up (until the top ten) gives the judges the ability to save the top contestants from poor choices by the voting public. Still, the drive to get the audience to vote (and pay for that privilege) distracts the show from its pursuit of excellence. I prefer watching the US version of the show, as when it’s re-screened in Australia, some of the pleading is edited out.

Another edge case is The Biggest Loser. While the casting is oriented around weight and motivation rather than a generally recognised “talent”, I did enjoy watching the emotional journey as contestants rebuilt their self-esteem. However, now I feel that requirement #2 is lacking also, at least in the US version of the show. It seems that off-camera, the contestants are engaged in the opposite of the sort of practice that the show outwardly espouses. In this case, it would be better if there was more reality in this Reality TV show. This one’s now off my list.

At least, one clear case of good Reality TV is MasterChef Australia. The competitors can really cook, the judges try to help them, and competitors win through decisions of the judges alone not through votes of the audience. It’s also light-hearted and fun.

Clearly, I’m not the only fan, with an estimated 4 million people expected to tune in for Sunday night’s finale. I realise that 95% of them (give or take…) are from Melbourne, but apparently it does have national appeal. It is Australia’s most watched, non-sporting event. Given it’s now-so-obvious-appeal, it’s hard to understand how when TV media experts first saw the pilot, they didn’t think it would survive.

I’m not sure who I should be barracking for in the finale. Should I go #teamadam or #teamcallum? Although I respect both competitors, I’m not sure if I should be wishing my favourite the fate of Julie or the fate of Poh.

In any case, this is at least a Reality TV show where the judges decision is final.

If your TV was like a Book

Last month, Apple released their latest device – the iPad. It is capable of many wonderous things, and has many fabulous properties, but of all of them, for now I am interested in just three: its screen, its weight, and its ability to show video.

As various other manufacturers rush to market with devices to compete in the segment that Apple has just legitimised, they will most likely produce things that share those same three properties. However, as it is still early days, we don’t yet know for sure what people will end up doing with these devices. That’s why it’s so much fun to speculate!

The iPad has a 24cm (diagonal) screen, weighs about 700g (WiFi version) and can deliver TV quality video from the Internet to practically wherever in the house you decide to sit yourself down with it. If you hold it up in front of your face (about 60cm away), it’s as big as if you were watching a 120cm (diagonal) TV from 3m away. And, while lighter than a 120cm TV, it’s going to feel heavy pretty quick.

However, 700g is not very heavy if you’re willing to rest it on your lap, and there’s another category of content consumption “device” that is comparable in this regard: the book. I am willing to spend hours intently focused on a book while reading it, and a quick weigh of some of my books (using the handy kitchen scales) suggests the iPad is not unusual…

Which provides some legitimisation of a “TV-watching” scenario of a family in their lounge room, with everyone watching a show on their tablet device. (Assuming that you have overcome issues like individuals’ TV audio interfering with others and ensuring adequate bandwidth for everyone.) However, this scenario feels strange, even anti-social.

I am perhaps conditioned by the ritual of people coming together to share a TV watching experience. And before we had TVs, people came together to share a radio listening experience. But before broadcasting technologies, what did we do? In reality, this sort of broadcasting experience is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before that, presumably we all sat around in the lounge room and read books.

I’ve previously written on the idea that people prefer the personal, and that a personal TV experience will be preferred to a shared TV experience. The iPad and similar devices have the potential to enable this, through becoming as light and portable as books.

“Netbooks” also have similar attributes to the iPad. However, they tend to weigh at least 1 kg and have screens that are smaller. So, while future Netbooks might have the right form factor, it certainly isn’t common yet. The iPad is the first mass-market device that properly fills this niche.

The issue of the scenario feeling anti-social is still a little troubling. While our ancestors might have looked up over their books and engaged in a casual chat, momentarily pausing their reading, this is harder to accomplish with a video experience. Not only are the eyes and ears otherwise engaged, making casual interruption more difficult, but the act of pausing and resuming is not as easy either.

I suspect that while we’re now reaching the point where hardware can fill the personal TV niche, the software is not yet ready. We may need eye-tracking software that pauses the video when the viewer looks away, integration of text-based messaging alongside video-watching, and other adaptations to the traditional video player software.

I’m keen to see what competition in this new segment produces.

Is PlayTV a good PVR?

Image via Wikipedia

For Christmas, we bought a Sony PS3 bundle that included a PS3 Slim 250GB unit, a Bluray Disc remote control, and a PlayTV peripheral. Before buying it, I read a few reviews on it, spoke to some PS3 owners, skimmed through the Whirlpool forum posts on PlayTV, and started to think that it would be a good PVR. It was also cheaper and larger than the TiVo 160GB units that were on sale at the time.

However, now that we’ve been using it for a few months, I now know whether it is a good PVR.

What it has going for it:

  • Has a very slick and responsive user interface. It’s moderately easy to use, although you need to be comfortable using the Sony square/circle/triangle/cross buttons to move in and out of menus.
  • Records SD and HD. A 250GB unit can record about 30 hours of HD programming, given that Australian HD TV channels currently consume about 6GB per hour.
  • Can either record a given channel/day/time or specify a show (which can be found via a text search of the EPG – Electronic Programme Guide), including repeat recordings. If you specify a show, the PlayTV will adjust the recording times if the EPG start/end times are updated (which they sometimes are on most channels, except Nine and Go!).
  • TV programs are recorded exactly as they are received off the air, in their MPEG-2 Transport Stream, so if you later want to read the subtitles, they are available.
  • You can copy recorded programs (up to 4GB) from the device onto an external USB stick or drive. Although, it does require some fussing around.
  • Can pause live TV and then fast-forward through ads to get back to the live TV programme.
  • Even though it is “just” a peripheral to a games console, it functions as you would expect, recording shows even when you are using the PS3 to do other things, and also turning itself on to record shows if you’ve previously turned it off.
  • The fact that the Bluray Disc remote is based on Bluetooth (wireless) rather than InfraRed means that it doesn’t need to be pointed towards the unit to work. This has proved particularly useful with a toddler in the house that loves to press the buttons on the front of the PS3. The PS3 can be turned so that the front is not visible from the front of our TV cabinet but the remote control keeps working.
  • The PS3 also provides the ability to watch ABC iView (although you need to pick up a standard PS3 game controller rather than the BluRay Disc remote), BluRay Discs / DVDs, and has a web browser that allows you to get to most web sites (including YouTube).

What is not so good about it:

  • It can record only one show at a time. Even though it’s got two tuners, it uses one of them for recording, and one for watching.
  • It is Freeview compliant. This means that the Australian version is crippled compared to the overseas versions, with the ability to skip ads or fast-forward at super-high speed removed. You can set the unit to operate in the mode of a different country, e.g. UK, but you lose the ability to tune in UHF channels like those of SBS.
  • It is overly sensitive to noise or interference on the antenna. If you live in a low signal area, use splitters or extension leads, then you could very well find that you experience visual stuttering when using PlayTV, even if other digital TV devices perform fine. Replacing our RF cable with a higher quality one helped reduce the stuttering a bit.
  • There is no RF-out (like you might find on a VCR or even TiVo), so if you want multiple devices in the room to receive TV signal, you’ll need to put in an RF splitter between your wall point and the PlayTV. Unfortunately, this will increase signal loss along the cables, and may increase the visual stuttering or worse. When I tried adding a splitter to our set-up, we lost several channels in the PlayTV.
  • The Bluray Disc remote lacks several buttons that we regularly use (and are on our TV remote), specifically mute and subtitle on/off. The lack of volume control is not such a big deal, as the PlayTV normalises volumes to a pre-set level.
  • The EPG is populated with information extracted out of the channels as they are watched. This means that the quality is variable, and not all the information is present when you turn on the device. Also, even after the full EPG (shows all channels) has information, the mini EPG (shows information for the channel being currently watched) sometimes does not. Other PVRs either have their own EPG feed or can make use of a third-party feed like IceTV.
  • Although you can add additional time to the end of a show to record it in case it runs over the scheduled time, the most you can add is 10 minutes. This is sometimes not enough, and we’ve missed out seeing the endings of quite a few programmes.
  • The PS3 DVD player is one of the few sold in Australia that is region-locked, without an easy way of removing the lock. We have a number of overseas DVDs that we can’t play in it.
  • The software (even though it is currently v1.21) still feels immature. There are a number of annoying bugs that have somehow slipped through the QA testing. For example, although you can jump directly to a channel by typing in the channel number, it doesn’t work for channels higher than #023. Also, the live TV buffer fills up after 30 minutes of buffering and then stops working (you can’t watch from the buffer any more and need to return to the live TV show). Also, sometimes its parsing of the EPG data sometimes goes a bit skewiff, and we’ve had it record 2.5 hrs for a 1 hr show. I hope these are all fixed in later updates.

In summary, I would not currently recommend the PlayTV as a PVR, compared to others with similar prices. Certainly, if you are considering getting one, borrow one from someone and check to see if you get all the channels and any visual stuttering before you buy.

We are mostly used to our PlayTV now. Although, I would like to get someone in to check out our TV antenna system at some point, because if we could get rid of the stuttering, the PlayTV would be a nice, basic PVR.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

People prefer the personal

Following up on my last post, the reason that the big TV on the living room wall is going to become less relevant is because it’s a shared device. The way of the future is personal devices.

It’s sad but true – we prefer to have our own personal versions of things rather than share them with others. Maybe this is a particularly Western trait, but I suspect not. For example, despite the additional cost, most people prefer to travel in their own car rather than use a taxi or use public transport. Car sales are booming in China, showing it’s not just something that happens here.

When it comes to video devices like TVs, pretty much all actors in the economy are benefiting from move to selling household video devices to individual video devices: the screen manufactures, content providers, telcos, and most of all, the viewers. It’s part of a larger trend. Initially, all households in a city got the pretty much the same video content at the same time, broadcast from TV stations. Then, with the uptake of VCRs, DVDs, PVRs, and so on, different households were able to get different video content at the same time. Now, with PCs and iPods, individuals within the households are getting different content at the same time.

We saw the same thing happen with audio devices. The Consumer Electronics Association in America published this year in their Digital America 2008 report that

U.S. factory-level dollar sales of portable audio products, consisting overwhelmingly of MP3/portable media players (PMPs), exceeded the combined sales of the home audio and aftermarket car audio industries for the first time in history in 2005, and again in 2006 and 2007, according to CEA statistics.

Another aspect to consider is that portable media players and PCs are increasingly becoming connected to the Internet, and support communication as well as media consumption. There will be growth in triggers to watch video content, received over those communication channels (such as friends sending you email, IM, or messages from Twitter or Facebook), and given a desire for immediate gratification, people will not want to wait for a shared device to become free, so will watch the video content on their personal devices, even if the quality of experience is less.

I don’t think shared video devices, like the expensive LCD or Plasma set that takes pride of place on the wall, will ever become completely redundant. They will simply evolve to niche uses when it is more convenient or appropriate to use a shared device, such as when hosting a video / games party with friends, or displaying a loop of video to display in the background.

TV Set Obsolecensce

In an email to friends back in August, I wrote this..

We saw an old TV out the front of one of our neighbours today. Perhaps someone who has replaced their ancient set with something better suited to Olympics viewing?

The TVs of old were like furniture, while today’s TVs are like pictures. They used to have pride of place in the living rooms, in cabinets made from expensive-looking timbers. There were fancy looking knobs, boxes for the speakers. They were substantial pieces, indicating their substantial role in the entertainment and education of families.

But now a TV is a thin, fragile screen that can barely hold itself up straight. They need a stand or a bracket. Some plasma screens need professional installation or they can be damaged. Just like the cost of framing a picture can be a substantial fraction of getting artwork on your wall, this precious screen comes with additional costs to enable you to properly appreciate it.

I wonder though, that at the very time TVs are becoming flat, thin, and almost insubstantial devices, that their role in entertainment and education is at risk of becoming equally insubstantial. Or perhaps more like high-tech decoration, providing ambient audio and vision in modern living rooms.

And in reply, George said..

What an extraordinary pile of codswallop.

That may be, but it’s true all the same.

I’m posting this ancient thread of email because I’m going to explain myself in the next post.