Internet: The Decline of Movies and TV

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 3)


In part 1, I complained how the internet has ruined culture, and in part 2 how it is ruining politics and religion.  Today I delve into an area that is a little more personal: movies and TV.

1999: The Year That Didn’t Change Movies

1999, is a year I consider the year movies peaked in my lifetime. The list of great movies that came out in 1999 is amazingly long. There was Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, Three Kings, Being John Malkovitch, Mumford, Galaxy Quest, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Dogma, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, South Park, edTV, Notting Hill, American Pie, Boys Don’t Cry, Cruel Intentions, The Limey, Forces of Nature, Mansfield Park, October Sky, Pushing Tin, Stir of Echoes, Entrapment, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Magnolia, and The Blair Witch Project. Not all are great films, but they were at least creative and inventive. I haven’t even mentioned the biggest movie Star Wars The Phantom Menace, or the film that swept all the awards that year American Beauty. Entertainment Weekly even touted 1999 as the year that changed movies forever!

You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors—weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy—snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ”making a movie” got turned on its head.

Except that it didn’t. Instead it was apparently the year that studios dropped the ball and let the creative people take over, and today the studios have a new stranglehold on film making. Most movies I see today are good in concept, formulaic in delivery. The other thing that happened in 1999 is that the Internet started taking over entertainment and it forced a change on how Hollywood does everything.

It was around 1999 when movies went from making a small fraction of their over all box office on the opening weekend to eventually making more than half. It is easy to see that the internet is to blame.  It used to be a few people would go to a movie on opening weekend and then tell their friends, family, and co-workers about the movie they saw.  If the movie was good, often the second weekend would be better than the first weekend.

The internet changed the rules. Now a few people go see a movie on friday night, then post online their opinion so all their friends, family and co-workers see it by the next morning.  This helps Saturday’s box office take, instead of next weekend.  Buzz spreads shockingly fast now, and the marketing opportunities disappear after that first weekend.

This changed the priority of movie studios completely.  Throughout the decade of the 2000’s, the priority of movie studios in making movies is not whether a movie will be good or not, but whether a movie is marketable enough to generate enough buzz to get the big opening weekend.  Notice my list of films from 1999, the list has one sequel and one prequel, and one based off a TV show (there were others in 1999, but they are not worth mentioning).  The rest are fresh new titles, some of which spawned sequels of their own.  Today it is all sequels, remakes, ties to popular TV, comics, and books, all of which are much easier to market.  There are still good movies every year, but there are fewer in number than there used to be.

And TV?

Meanwhile, I believe TV has actually gotten better since the internet got big, at least from a certain perspective.  While priorities changed in the movies from “good” to “bankable”, TV has gone from “bankable” to “buzz worthy”.

The goal of TV in the internet age is to make TV that will stir a lot of discussion online.  Lots of discussion means lots of people tuning in each week.  The result are three trends in TV: 1. Every drama is a soap opera. Regardless of the type of show it is, there is always dramatic interplay between the regulars.  Think back to the ’80s: TV dramas that weren’t night time soaps, was there a lot of sleeping around?, or dramatic tension between the characters?  If there was, it was over by the end of the episode.  Today most shows have large ensemble casts, and while there are weekly plots, there are scenes between characters that make up larger arcs, over the season or even series.  2. Every sitcom pushes the limits of outrageous behavior.  The only successful comedies are “water cooler” worthy shows as the old standard, today it is blog worthy or tweetable.  Who had the most hits on Get Glue?  3. The ultimate in buzz worthy shows are of course the elimination style reality shows, which is why there are so damn many of them.  Advertisers love them, because people actually watch them live, which means networks love them.  If reality shows generated syndication deals and DVD sales, there would be nothing on TV but reality shows. Luckily, syndication and DVD sales matter, which is why they still make dramas and sitcoms.

Personally, I don’t watch reality TV, and very few sitcoms (outrageousness is not my kind of humor), but dramas suck me in all the time. I usually have between 8 to 10 going every year, and there are lots of good ones.  The TV Drama has been experiencing a “Golden Age” thanks to the internet.

I can probably pin point the first show that lived off the internet: Babylon 5.  Sure there were genre shows (X-Files) and space dramas (Star Trek) that preceded it, but the risky genius J. Michael Strazinsky actually had a planned out 5 year cycle for the show ahead of time. This made the show buzz worthy as the audience saw plots develop over many episodes, incidences in season 1 pay off in season 4.  No one in the history of TV had ever plotted out a whole series in advance before.  These days it happens all the time.  But the other history making advance that “JMS” did was to regularly get online and discuss the show with fans.  Fans appreciated it, and it increased the shows loyalty even more.

While Babylon 5 was never a huge success, it had a loyal fan base, and TV producers took notice.  Almost every “genre” show today, from Once Upon A Time to Game of Thrones follows a similar formula of long story arcs, and developing loyalty online.  Fringe probably lasted two more seasons than it should have thanks to a loyal online fan base.  Even though it means a lot more work, TV writers are loving the myriad of story telling opportunities they have.  It shows in better written TV over all.

The danger is that if TV imitates what was success too much, it gets formulaic. I believe that is already true of reality shows and sitcoms, which is why I don’t bother. It is also true of certain TV tropes like the “procedural” or the “legal drama” or the “medical drama”.  In these types of shows, I generally watch for the character interplay of the cast.  The episode plot or mystery rarely matters.  Luckily every season there are shows that do not follow these tropes, and those are the ones I usually enjoy the most.

If TV is getting better, how come the ratings keep falling?

How bad are TV ratings today?  Lets go back to 1999 again. The top scripted TV show that year was ER with an average 18.6 rating.  In 2012, the top scripted show was Modern Family with an average 5.8 rating.  Had Modern Family been released in 1999 with the same rating, it would have been ranked 82nd, and probably cancelled.

The internet provides a smorgasbord of viewing options to choose from. Families don’t sit down in front of the big screen and watch the big 4 networks anymore. Today the average viewer has 300 channels to choose from, plus Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

And that is if they watch TV. Video games, or just web surfing in general eats a big chunk of the TV audience away as well. How long will the erosion of ratings go on before TV networks no longer consider scripted shows to be cost effective?  The death of TV will be when TV stops producing dramas and comedies all together.  I doubt that will happen very soon, but the trend is pointing that way.

TV will never disappear, just as radio still continues to exist.  However radio, especially the AM dial, exists as nothing but talk shows: news talk, sports talk, political talk, religious talk, paid advertisers talking about their products — every station, all the time.  I see all of this on TV these days, especially during the daytime hours.  Scripted TV is becoming the exception to the rule.  TV is turning into AM radio with video.

Next Part 4: Internet and Society

The TV/Internet Wars

As expected, I have been playing Guild Wars 2 for most of the month, and as in times past when I get occupied with a new game, the blog suffers.  I’m in a temporary hiatus with the SITA game, and while I have some new stuff about GW2, I think I’ll save it until I actually get a character to the end, which should be surprisingly soon.  Another topic I occasionally delve into is TV, and with the new fall season, it seems appropriate.

The last few years, if I have nothing better to do, I watch all the new pilots in hopes that I find my next favorite show.  The freshman class of 2011 was a bumper crop with 5 new series I watched every week.  Unfortunately, two of the 5 got cancelled, along with a couple of other regular shows I watched. So I have slots to fill, and so far the freshman class of 2012 feels a lot like the 2010 class (none of the new network fall shows of 2010 ever got a second season).  My TV viewing may be down this year as a result.

If I do watch less TV this year, I will be following a trend.  TV viewing is down everywhere.  People don’t turn on the TV and watch whatever is on anymore, they are becoming selective.  I don’t even have cable TV, or satellite… I have the internet.  Primarily I watch Hulu Plus because most of the shows I am interested in are on it.  The small handful of shows that are not on Hulu Plus that I like I can usually get on iTunes or just wait for the DVDs.  To watch live TV, I use rabbit ears, and if it is not on broadcast, I don’t watch it.

Once the darling of internet TV, Netflix has hit some rough times.  A lot of people consider Netflix a better deal than Hulu Plus due to commercial free content, but Netflix is having a hard time getting and keeping content it can show without raising prices… which it tried already resulting in a mass exodus of subscribers.  It also does not help that Amazon and Google have joined the fray of streaming TV content.

With stiff competition it is the content providers — Disney, Warner, Newscorp, Viacom, Columbia, Universal, and Paramount — that hold all the cards.  Their prices for movies and TV shows to stream are going up.  They also own the majority of network and cable channels, and are primarily the reason your cable, satellite, and IP TV bills keep on going up.

Cable vs. Satellite vs. IP TV

As someone who is in the know on these things, I thought I’d address the question of which is better: Cable, Satellite, or IP TV?

Before I address that question, let me in on a little secret: If you are satisfied with your current TV/Internet provider, but are looking around for a cheaper price, DONT!!  Irregardless of what you have, if you like the service and then switch, you will regret it, guaranteed.  One reason is human nature. You will nit pick the new service until you convince yourself you made a mistake.  I’ve seen it happen.  The second, and more important reason, is that you will not save money.  The cost of all three services are about the same, and they all have install fees, and equipment fees, and tech visit fees, and early cancellation fees, and other hidden fees that the sales person, who is paid on commission, did not mention.  Even if your monthly charge is lower with the new service, that will only be true for a few months, then you are back to full price.

That said, which is the best type of service?  Well the very best, is IP TV run with fiber all the way to your house.  This is what is available in major cities all over the world, except the US.  It exists in the US only if you are lucky enough to be an early customer of Verizon Fios, or in a brand new housing development where Verizon or AT&T service.  For the other 99% of us, IP TV comes via fiber to a terminal box up to 2 miles away, then flows through old unreliable copper the last stretch.  While true fiber to the house internet can get 100 mbps speed easy, the aging telephone infrastructure means you are lucky if you can get 25 — enough to stream compressed HD TV streams, but not much else.

In the US, the winner is Cable TV.  Satellite is good if you can’t get anything else, and you have an unencumbered view facing south, but if Cable is available it is probably better since you don’t lose signals during storms or thick clouds.

So why is Cable better? Mostly it is for the internet.  Coaxial cable is not subjected to line noise, and technology keeps improving, pushing bandwidth higher and faster.  Also the primary negative of cable — sharing bandwidth with your neighbors — is becoming less and less of a problem as the tech improves.  The sharing bandwidth issue was why in the past I would say DSL is often better than Cable, but the game is changing.  In fact a growing number of customers (like myself) are getting cable only for the internet.  Paying an additional $30 for basic cable TV would be a waste for me.

What needs to happen in the US Internet market

It might surprise most Americans to learn that most of the world enjoys faster and more reliable internet at cheaper prices than we do.  The reason is that it is illegal for Telco/Cable companies to block other companies from using their lines to provide service.  The result is massive amounts of competition resulting in low prices for better speeds.  American Telco/Cable companies oppose such plans, because they make more money gouging American consumers.  Blame the corporatocracy for opposing deregulation and consumer choice.

The Future of TV: Instant Access TV Project

My post about the new Apple TV sucking has generated a lot of traffic.  I thought I’d follow it up with my own impression of what would be a whole lot better.

About a year ago I started a project that I continue to fine tune, but I have perfected it enough to explain.  This is a project so cool everyone will want to do it, and I suspect in the near future, there will be online services and special hardware to make this a lot easier than it currently is.

Basically the project involves doing to TV and movies what MP3 has done to music.  I am converting all video from multiple sources to unencrypted MP4/h.264 video.  It is all 480i format for compactness and mobility. MP4 files are playable on pretty much anything, though the best looking playback is on a Playstation 3 which has the best upscaling technology to turn 480i picture to 1080i without the picture looking slightly fuzzy.  I can also take the videos with me on my ipod touch and watch anywhere.

The bottom line is that I have instant access to all my favorite movies and TV shows without ever having to find a DVD to put in, and no buffering issues or commercials that you get with online TV services.  Just a few clicks, and there it is.  I pair this tech with online services to discover new shows, as well as an aerial antenna/TV Tuner card/Windows Media Center for local TV.  No cable, no satellite, no expensive fiber based TV service.

This all sounds obvious and you are probably asking why hasn’t anyone done this before, and the answer is that only recently the storage has gotten cheap enough and the tech good enough to do this with satisfactory results.

The Hardware

There are three components to instant access TV, a computer of course, a mass storage device preferably a networked NAS box with uPnP server software but a large (1TB or bigger) external usb 2.0 hard drive formatted in FAT32 format works too, and a playback device — ideally a PlayStation 3, but anything that can handle uPnP or that can read the external hard drive (Wii and XBOX360 both can) will do.

The computer converts all your files to MP4 format and moves them to the storage device, and the player plays the video from the storage device.  Its the same as ripping CDs to mp3 files and storing them on your mp3 player, only we are doing it with video which are significantly larger in size.

The Software

The software I use to convert all video to the same MP4/h.264 format is all free, or included in Windows.  The biggest challenge is that the ripping/converting process is very time consuming compared to audio ripping and converting.  The programs I use are Windows Media Center, DVD Decrypter, Handbrake, MCEBuddy, Avidemux, and Download Helper.  If you don’t already have it, VLC Media Player is very helpful too.  Everything I will be describing below is legal in the US as long as it is for personal use only, this may not be true in other countries.  Distributing copyrighted video in any format is illegal.

DVDs to MP4s

Most DVDs contain 4 to 8 GB of data, and yet converting it to an MP4 file will reduce a movie to around 1 GB file, Half hour TV shows are around 200mb, and hour longs are around 400mb.  A 1 TB drive can store 2500 hours of TV and movies in the MP4 format.

DVDs are the best source for MP4 data, which is odd because DVDs are supposed to be a dying format.  Until a service like itunes can sell unencrypted mp4 files, DVD is the best source.  DVDs are themselves protected, but easy to unprotect. For 32-bit Windows you can use DVD43, have it run in the background, then just use windows to copy the files from a DVD to your hard drive, and DVD43 will unencrypt as they are being copied.  For 64-bit I use DVD Decrypter, which is a little bit buggy but quickly creates an unencrypted mirror to your hard drive.  You can use VLC Media Player to test your decrypted image.  Not all DVDs are convertible this way, though I know tricks to get around more stringent protection.

Once you have a decrypted image, you can use Handbrake to create MP4 files. For maximum compatibility  and best file compression, you want to use “Regular Normal” for everything.  For movies there is one really big title, for TV show DVDs there are multiple titles to convert.  You can use VLC to figure out which titles go with which episode.

Note: Handbrake will use every last bit of CPU power available while converting, slowing your computer to a crawl while converting. I set up a queue of conversions to do, then let my computer do them in the middle of the night, so they are done the next morning.

Windows Media Center DVR recordings to MP4s

Even though DVDs are the best source for MP4s, DVDs themselves are not free, and not all TV shows end up on DVD either.  It is possible instead to record TV and convert that to mp4.

Windows Media Center is the best DVR software out there. Just like all other DVR software, you can schedule recordings, pause live TV etc.  The problem is that to record HDTV programs it uses a hell of a lot of hard drive space, about 6 and a half gigabytes for an hour long program, and you still have to fast forward through commercials.

I record my shows to a dedicated folder called “Recorded TV”.  Within this folder are two sub folders called “To Convert” and “Converted”.  I have a program called MCEBuddy which runs in the background looking to see if any new WTV files have been added to the “To Convert” directory.  When it sees one, the program efficiently converts the file to mp4 and stores it in the “Converted” directory about an hour later. Again MCE buddy uses a lot of CPU resources, so don’t drag and drop WTV files while playing video games.

Now the finished mp4 files are still going to have commercials, and that is where Avidemux comes in. Avidemux is a quick and dirty editor, which is worthless if you want to do anything fancy (it has a tendency to unsync the audio and video tracks, especially if you try appending files) but all we want to do is edit out the commercials, which once you get used to using the program, can be done in a few minutes per episode.  When you start Avidemux, set the format to MP4.  When you load a converted show, it is going to say h.264 detected with a warning, say YES to this. There are 3 ways to move through the video, there is a slide bar (the fastest), arrow frame buttons < >, and double arrow key frame buttons << >>.  There are two select buttons, “A” begin block, and “B” end block.  To edit out the beginning, use the KEYFRAME buttons to find the beginning of the program (your final video must begin on a key frame) then hit B to select the non-program stuff at the beginning. Then just hit the Del key and it is gone.  Then use the slide bar and frame buttons to find the beginning of commercials, press A, find the end of the commercials, press B, then Del, and the commercials are gone.  Once at the end of the program, press A then Del to get rid of the end stuff.  Now you can save your commercial free MP4 file.

Online Videos to MP4s

Don’t try this with Hulu,, Netflix or other protected sites like that.  There are programs out there to do those sites, but they are not free, not entirely legal, and they record off your video card, recording all the buffering stutters in low format video and ultimately look crappy.

This is for collecting video from sites like You Tube that you can’t get any other way.  All you need is DownloadHelper.  Some sites like You Tube offer video already in MP4 format, which DownloadHelper will download for you, or if all you can get is FLV files, you can use Handbrake to convert them to MP4.


Once you start collecting MP4 files, it is all a matter of organizing them. I keep them on an NAS for easy access, and also on an external drive as backup.  Having all this video instantly accessible is far superior to all other forms of tv watching.  The chore of finding the disk, putting it in, wading through all the warnings and previews and menus before your movie starts is gone.  Its commercial free with no buffering issues.

This, and PlayOn,  is how I watch TV now.  The money that I would spend on cable or satellite TV, is being spent on new video acquisitions, which I can spend as much or as little as I want each month. I stopped buying TV and movies from Apple, because they are encrypted and only viewable on certain devices. MP4s are viewable on anything.