Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I (heart symbol) DVR

If ever there was any doubt that sometimes progress, in the form of technological innovation, can be good, one should look no further than the annoying and overpriced cable box that most of us have these days.
'Rabbit ears' antenna for set top use.
Once upon a time, tv signals were acquired for free via over the air broadcast. Well, nothing is ever really free, I suppose. Except the squandering of my charms, and even that had a cost - but that story is not the subject of this post. If there was a cost beyond the purchase of a television, it was the purchase of some form of antenna. Many people, living near the point of broadcast origin, could make due with nothing, or with rabbit ears. If you lived a little bit away from the source of the broadcasts, there might be a further cost with the purchase of an outdoor antenna, and once the evening network schedules began converting to color the follow up purchase of an antenna rotator to get a clear ghost free image.

Outdoor antenna with motor.
When cable came along, it was cheap, needed no set top box decoder, and carried only broadcast tv - because that's all there was. Broadcast then included the recently arrived UHF channels, which showed old movies and old tv shows. I still treasure the year I lived in my first 'on my own' apartment in Ocean City, NJ, where the cable brought Star Trek (then newly syndicated for re-runs) from a Philadelphia station at 6pm and from a New York City station at 7pm (a bit preferable, as the series from New York was shown in original broadcast order).

The Rotator control, which usually
sat by the 'easy chair'.
Eventually, HBO started up as a pay channel devoted to recent movies, shown uncut. Set top cable box decoders entered the scene. Other 'cable only' channels joined the fray. I suppose this plethora of entertainment could not have happened if the remote control hadn't come along about the same time as the antenna rotator. I was quite impressed by the first remote control we had, which was acquired with my Dad's purchase of our first color tv. Before that, I was the remote control. I didn't mind being told to jump up and change the channel - we didn't know anything different. (And I didn't mind being the remote in visits to my Grandmother or my Uncles. I supposed it was part of the deal of getting fed and being the kid.) Plus there was an extra added benefit of a bit of exercise.

One of the great inventions of all time, the remote control.
When home video recording began, I dove in. I loved recording programs (mostly old movies) that I would otherwise miss, and watching them later. I loved being able to fast forward through the commercials. And I really liked the idea of archiving the movies and programs I liked - at the time the Betamax and VHS cassettes weren't all that expensive.

Yes, I had a Betamax. Just like this.
Later models had better quality and stereo sound.
I got one of those, too.
And I still have it - but it needs a minor repair.
Fast forward to today. Cable now brings ever changing numbers of hundreds of 'stations', can provide what some advertising executive must laughingly refer to as 'high speed internet', Wi-Fi broadcasting that can't be turned off (although a passcode would be require to use it), and a 'land line' telephone line for those of us who prefer to be somewhat old-fashioned with that form of communication. (Today's everything to everybody media device telephones, and their cost, is worth a post of its own.)  Add in high definition and Digital Video Recording, and one's monthly bill for cable can easily reach a level which could inspire expense guilt in rich people (if they were to ever think about it).

The cable companies have, for many years now, given new shades of meaning to the concept of perfidy. They have created a world in which the cost of service isn't the cost of service. There is a rental fee for the set top box, a fee for high definition channels, a fee for this, a fee for that, various taxes, and service levels that boggle the imagination. I was lucky to get the classic movie channel as part of a promotional package - normally, I'd have to get all of the available sports channels to get the one channel in said group that is different (i.e. the classic movie channel). Hmmm, I'd best stop before the subject of this missive changes completely.

After years of ignoring requests to have my bill delivered electronically,
(known as 'going paperless'), I finally gave in and signed up.
It was truly wonderful not to have to deal with all that paper,
make decisions about how long to keep the bill after it was paid, etc.
The only problem? It took the cable company 9 months to stop sending a paper bill.
I should also note that a couple of years ago when I made peace with Comcast and got their service back, I was given their brand new cable box dvr - one of the first of that model given out. Within a year there was a replacement available that would do more - a lot more. Record up to 6 programs at once, and store many, many, many, many more movies and programs - among other improvements. I have yet to get it - I have too many movies and programs stored on my cable box that I haven't had a chance to watch. Oh, the problems of the modern world, eh?

The thing I enjoy the most these days is the DVR. At first I used it just to record programs I wanted to see but which weren't on at my preferred viewing times. Then came the discovery that the rewind function works for 'real time' tv. Let's say that yet another director let yet another actor mumble important lines of speech so badly that they could not be heard. (This problem is sometimes exacerbated by digital sound recording which can't seem to reproduce music and dialogue without it being either too quiet or too loud. Goldilocks would have never found 'just right', if you get my drift.) With DVR, one can simply hit rewind, raise the volume, and watch that part again. With DVR I can start recording a program like the Grammy awards, start watching the recording an hour or so into the program, fast forward through parts I have no desire to see, commercials, and so on and so forth, eventually catching up with the program's actual live broadcast before it is over. With DVR, 'Dancing With the Stars' can be reduced to a half hour's running time. And should a call of nature intrude while watching a broadcast, with DVR one can press the pause button, go outside and take care of business, and return to pick up where the interruption occurred.

The DVR also records in high definition (when you pay extra for the high definition in the first place) which includes the tv version of wide screen. Now there's a topic - wide screen tv uses a picture ratio of height to width that is not used by any movie company anywhere, ever. But these days we do away with much of what is possible and exist in the land of someone's definition of "good enough".

Now, I've been enjoying the possibilities of DVR for awhile. But last Saturday, my use of it turned into a triumph. The 4,727th Republican Party's Presidential-Candidate Debate started at 8pm, just as my radio show ended. I used the DVR to record it - in widescreen, color, high def, stereophonic sound, and watched it later. If the candidates had worn different costumes, it might have been mistaken for a World Wresting Federation brawl. The trick when watching is to realize that it is entertainment. Taking any of it seriously would result in a trip to the passport office just in case.

Speaking of my radio show (you must have known I'd get around to it) the first half of last Saturday's show took note of several birthdays, including a few of my favorite performers, like Jimmy Durante. The second half celebrated one of the composers of the Great American Song Book, Harold Arlen.

A young Harold Arlen, about the time he was composing revues for the Cotton Club,
and songs like, 'Stormy Weather', 'Get Happy', and 'Let's Fall in Love".
Arlen never promoted himself the way most of his contemporaries did. As a result, his contributions have been somewhat overlooked. It's odd, really - he composed some of the best pieces in the American Songbook, yet he rarely used the standard song form. He's often thought of as a composer of show music 'blues', yet he only composed a couple of songs in that form. If I'm still doing the show this time next year, I'll have to devote the entire 2 hours to him - there just isn't enough time to play most of his songs that should be played in such a program. Hopefully, I won't have another of my 'senior moments' - this time around I gave the wrong lyricist credit on one of my favorite Arlen songs, "Last Night When We Were Young". The wordsmith was Yip Harburg. As always, I hope any listeners enjoy the show.