The Internet might just make rabbit ears obsolete for local television

Have you ever had to use rabbit ears to pick up a local TV signal? I have, and I’d say most of us have as well at some point in our lives.

Quite frankly, it sucks.

Last year, I embarked on a cord-cutting experiment in order to save the money I had been spending on cable television. It is easier now than ever with online services like Netflix to provide affordable content and DTV broadcasts.

Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that has transformed the television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, and multiple channels of programming. Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format.

Federal Communications Commission

Despite these technological advancements and my modern flat-panel HDTV purchased new in 2010, my experiment failed miserably.

Apart from missing the programming from certain cable channels that could not be substituted online (I’m looking at you, ESPN), the most annoying thing was having to constantly adjust my antenna to get a good picture only to have it flake out on me a minute or two later. An omnidirectional antenna was still just as flaky, and I couldn’t even adjust it.

I live in the city — within 10 miles of all the local broadcast transmitters, in fact — so it wasn’t a matter of distance. I bought a newer amplified antenna that was a step above the basic, so there was no good reason why I should have trouble. Of course, in the city, there are a lot of tall buildings around that can interfere, but there is nothing especially tall between my apartment and any of the transmitters. I even contacted one of the local broadcast stations and told the engineer where I lived — he said something to the effect of “From where you are, you should be able to get a clear picture with a paper clip.”

Very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that I decided to pony up the cash and reinstate my cable TV subscription. There just seemed to be an inevitability about paying for television, and to me that payment was worth avoiding a lot of frustration.

Since that time, a few things have happened that lead me to believe this won’t be so inevitable for long.

  • Broadcaster/network/provider contract disputes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely intensifying. Here in Indianapolis, the parent company of local CBS affiliate WISH-TV refused to pay the CBS Network more money for broadcasting rights to network programming, so CBS just found another local station (WTTV-TV) whose parent company was willing to pony up. On a related note, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR-TV) got involved in a contract dispute with DirecTV that led to a brief discontinuation of NBC programming for DirecTV subscribers. The dispute was resolved, presumably with DirecTV paying WTHR more money…and those subscribers ultimately paying higher bills for the privilege. Presumably the pressure from WTHR to insist on more money came from having to pay higher broadcasting rights fees to NBC. And the pressure on both the NBC and CBS networks to charge the affiliates higher rates is coming largely from sports — especially the NFL. It was no coincidence that DirecTV and WTHR resolved the dispute just in time to get an important Sunday Night Football game involving the Indianapolis Colts back on the air.
  • Broadcast networks offering online subscriptions. In addition to Netflix, television networks have increasingly begun to post programming online…it’s a good way to catch up on missed episodes and the like. But CBS recently made a much bolder move: offering online-only paid subscriptions to live television and archived episodes. If the other major broadcast networks follow suit, then that will enable them to completely bypass the local affiliates and go directly to viewers.
  • Local news online. Those affiliates are even beginning to broadcast their local news shows on a live online stream as an alternative to over-the-air or cable/satellite.
  • Easier ways to get online programming onto the TV screen. One of my favorite gadgets is Google’s Chromecast. It’s small, it only costs $35, and it can use your WiFi connection to beam whatever is on your smart phone, tablet or on the Chrome browser on your PC to your TV with the touch of a button. I have one plugged into one of my TV’s HDMI ports, and I use it frequently. Now that the Chromecast device has been out for over a year, it has dramatically improved in terms of app support and full-screen casting. Dead simple. And even local affiliate stations are coming out with their own apps.

So, that begs the question, why do we need to broadcast television over the air at all anymore? The obstacles are more on the business side than the technology side. Here’s where the FCC needs to be bold (but probably won’t be).

  • Preserve net neutrality. Video content takes up a large amount of bandwidth (especially high-definition and 4K video), so it’s important not to have the telecom companies create slow and fast lanes. After all, the concepts that I’m talking about that could save costs for consumers are a major threat to their cash cow business. Right now, the FCC is taking public comments on this issue — so make your voice heard!
  • Mandate live, free Internet streaming for all over-the-air broadcasts. By law, television stations are supposed to be operating in the public’s interest. As a condition of having a broadcast frequency, the FCC could also mandate that the affiliates provide the same content over the Internet. At the very least, they should have to stream the locally produced content like the local news. This should not be too difficult a hurdle because a lot of stations are already doing this. Now that we have made the full transition to DTV, all of the video content is already digital anyway. But ideally they should also have to stream the network content too for people within their broadcasting area. The programming is free by antenna, so why shouldn’t it be free online?
  • Complete the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is already hard at work implementing the National Broadband Plan, which should dramatically expand high-speed Internet access across the nation. Now that the DTV transition is complete, the older analog television frequencies have gone to emergency response, and the remainder will be auctioned off — presumably to telecommunications companies. The FCC estimates that there are about 7 million households currently without any access to broadband Internet at any price because they are located in sparsely populated areas where telecommunications companies could not expect much of a return on their infrastructure investments. Of course, having broadband access available for a price does not equate to actually having broadband access.
  • Auction off the DTV spectrum. Just as the FCC is auctioning off the portion of the analog TV spectrum not being used by emergency responders, it could also raise funds by auctioning off the DTV spectrum and using those funds to help subsidize broadband Internet access for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, just like the National Broadband Plan is. With a mandate already in place to live stream all broadcast content, local TV stations would not need to change much.

Hopefully by this point in time — let’s say 10 to 15 years into the future — almost no one would still be using a TV without at least an HDMI port. And we already have lots of cheap Internet-based devices today like the Chromecast or Roku that could simply have buttons for local channels right next to their Netflix buttons. It would not be a huge leap. Much like the FCC created a coupon program for DTV converters, they could create something similar for an Internet-based device like this.

Television stations, of course, make their money from advertising, and the amount advertisers are willing to pay is driven by Nielsen ratings. But even Nielsen has said that Internet-based devices have reduced overall television viewership. Of course, you can still measure the number of hits a video receives (see everything on YouTube), and online video advertising is quite common these days. Getting the type of demographic information that Nielsen measures is a little harder than that, but having users complete a web-based questionnaire is a lot easier than having Nielsen install boxes in people’s homes. The Internet provides a far larger sample size to measure all the hits — not just a select few to extrapolate from.

What do you think? What other obstacles might there be to permanently throwing away the rabbit ears and the huge rooftop antennas?

Stop the megazoom insanity

Note: If you are not familiar with basic photography terms like exposure, sensor, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and focal length, this article will make a lot more sense after you read a primer on photography. I recommend Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 of the Photo Basics Series. Really, the whole series is worth a read if you’re a beginner.

Trouble of their own making

The camera industry is in trouble once again, and camera manufacturers only have themselves to blame.

Just as the advent of digital photography killed the film business, the advent of smartphone cameras is taking a major bite out of demand for dedicated consumer cameras. Smartphone cameras have gotten so good, in fact, that the best ones can replace entry-level “point-and-shoot” cameras.

Enthusiast and professional photographers seem to be undeterred from buying and upgrading high-end gear, but the mass market is shifting.

What went wrong?

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/
A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/

For years, digital camera manufacturers sold new point-and-shoot models in droves and then convinced consumers that they could take much better pictures if they only upgraded to a new model with a longer zoom lens and more megapixels. For example, the Nikon Coolpix P600 has a 16-megapixel sensor and a 60X zoom lens.

While there were indeed some legitimate improvements in consumer camera technology during that period — the move from CCD-based to CMOS-based sensors led to huge gains in low light performance — consumers would need to dive deep into the spec sheet to notice gains in ISO flexibility. The megapixel counts and the zoom ranges, on the other hand, were printed right on the camera itself.

Yet these were exactly the wrong things for consumers to key in on when buying a camera. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of ever-increasing megapixel counts on consumer cameras, including smartphones. But now I want to talk about why you probably don’t want a point-and-shoot camera with a 60X zoom lens.

What you should know about super-telephoto lenses

We’ve all seen the professional sports and wildlife photographers standing behind their massive telephoto lenses mounted on monopods, and maybe we wanted to be just like them.

A pro like this is most likely operating a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) to match the image size on a roll of 35mm film, so just to keep things consistent, I’ll talk about lenses in terms of full-frame equivalency.

If a professional wildlife photographer with a Canon camera wanted a really long telephoto lens, he or she might buy this one: the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS II USM. Purchase price: $11,999.00. The lens is a massive 17.6 inches long and weighs in at 8.64 pounds, and the focal length is fixed at 600mm…no zooming.

Let’s compare that to the 60X lens on the Nikon Coolpix P600: when fully extended, it reaches out to 1440mm of focal length in 35mm terms: that’s more than twice what the long, $12,000 pro lens can do, and of course it’s much smaller and covers the whole focal range below 1440mm all the way down to 24mm while being much smaller.

Sounds great, right? A quasi-telescope that fits in your hand and takes pictures…all for under $400. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and there’s a reason that the pros buy huge $12,000 telephoto prime lenses to mount on their $7,000 full-frame DSLR camera bodies.

For the best possible image quality, a prime lens — that is, a lens with a fixed focal length and no zoom — is the way for a photographer with an interchangeable lens camera to go. Of course, sometimes pro photographers are willing to trade off a bit of image quality for the focal length versatility of a zoom lens. For example, the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. If you divide 200 by 70, you get 2.86. That’s not even a 3X optical zoom, and yet the sticker price is $1,449.00.

So why doesn’t it cover a longer focal length range? There are three reasons:

  1. Size. This lens is already 7.6 inches long and weighs 2.86 pounds. Increasing the focal length would make the lens nearly unbearable to carry. Lenses attached to cameras with full-frame sensors have to be wide, and the focal length is dependent on the distance of the lens from the sensor as well as the width. That’s why point-and-shoot cameras with smaller sensors can pack on very long lenses while still being able to fit in your hand…if the sensor is small, the lens does not have to be as wide to cover the sensor.
  2. Aperture. There are zoom lenses available for full-frame SLRs that are cheaper and smaller than that one with longer focal ranges, but that is because they have narrow apertures. For example, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens is only 5.6 inches long, weighs 1.39 pounds and costs “just” $649. Because of the laws of physics and light, the wide f2.8 aperture makes the 70-200mm lens even larger at a given focal length. (You may sometimes hear photographers refer a lens being “fast” or “slow.” A lens with a wide aperture like f2.8 across all focal lengths is considered to be “fast” because it’s more accommodating for fast shutter speeds.)
  3. Barrel distortion. Moving from a prime lens to a 2.86x zoom like this is already a tradeoff because zooms inherently distort the picture a little as compared to prime lenses. The longer the zoom range of a lens from the wide end to the telephoto end, the more the image is distorted, generally speaking. By distortion, I mean the image is actually bent out of shape a little. Some lens manufacturers, most notably Tamron, manufacture “all-in-one” zoom lenses for people (usually amateurs just starting out with an entry-level DSLR) willing to make this distortion tradeoff in exchange for not having to carry multiple zoom lenses, but even those compromised lenses tend to hover around the 10X to 12X range. And you never see these all-in-one lenses with constant fast apertures like f2.8 because they would have to be absolutely massive.

So, circling back to the Nikon P600, how good is that long zoom lens? Not very. First of all, the maximum aperture ranges from f3.3 at the wide end to f6.3 at the telephoto end. That f6.3 is a killer in low-light situations, and with a compact camera, you can’t raise the ISO much to compensate because your images will get noisy very quickly. And barrel distortion rears its very ugly head toward the wide end of the focal length range…turning your nice, straight vertical lines into slanted lines to the point where you might be reminded of the opening text crawl from the Star Wars films.

Back to that huge Canon 600mm f4 lens…there’s also a reason (besides just keeping it from tipping over) that photographers often mount super-telephoto lenses on monopods or tripods. It’s to keep the lens from shaking while taking a photo. At wide, normal, and even short telephoto focal lengths it’s not much of a concern, but in the super-telephoto range, a little shake of your hand can totally ruin your image. So if the professionals need help stabilizing a 600mm lens, do you really think you can keep your hands steady enough to shoot reliably at a 1440mm focal length without a tripod or monopod? (And, yes, that professional lens has image stabilization — hence the IS in the name.)

Better alternatives

Fortunately, there are some newer fixed-lens cameras on the market that can really help you take better photos with a viewfinder and plenty of zoom…by emphasizing more important specs than megapixel count or extreme zoom range. Unfortunately, they do tend to cost more than more ordinary megazooms like the Nikon P600.

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (MSRP $599) offers a somewhat more reasonable 24X zoom (25-600mm in full-frame terms) with a constant bright f2.8 aperture across the focal length range. Because this is still a point-and-shoot camera with a small, 1/2.3″ sensor, you should probably consider anything above ISO 800 as a last resort due to noise concerns. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects at long distances, like sports or wildlife because those require fast shutter speeds in order to avoid motion blur. So having an extra stop or two of light at the telephoto end can make a big difference — and the f2.8 aperture delivers. Even at the reduced focal length of 24X, you still get to the super-telephoto length of 600mm. Barrel distortion would still be a significant issue with a 24X lens, just not as much as it would be with a 60X lens.
  • At an MSRP of $899, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 is the FZ200’s big brother. Instead of a 1/2.3″ sensor, it has a larger 1″ sensor for improved image quality and cleaner photos at higher ISO settings. A larger, wider sensor requires a larger lens for the same focal length and aperture, so this one only manages a 16X zoom (25-400mm focal length range) with an f2.8-4 aperture across the focal length range. A 400mm zoom is still a lot — this is typical for the long lenses you see on the sidelines of soccer or football games, and f4 is a full stop brighter than f5.6, so it’s still somewhat “fast.”
  • The excellent Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 has dropped from its original sticker price of $1,299.00 to a slightly less shocking $999. Like the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, the Sony RX10 has a 1″ sensor. The RX10 has an 8.3X zoom, which provides a focal range of 24-200mm and a constant aperture of f2.8 across the focal range. The shorter zoom may cause you to miss out on some distant shots, but the photos you can get should look great. Another advantage of cameras with larger sensors and wide-aperture zoom lenses is that you can get shallow depth-of-field effects so you can have those dreamy defocused backgrounds with the foreground in focus.
  • The Olympus Stylus 1 (MSRP $599) falls somewhere in between the Panasonic FZ200 and the Sony RX10. It has a 1/1.7″ sensor, which is larger than the 1/2.3″ sensor in the FZ200 but smaller than the 1″ sensor in the RX10 and FZ1000. It also has a 10.7X zoom with a constant f2.8 aperture across the 28-300mm focal range.

Cameras like these will inevitably fall in price as technology improves, and that’s good for everyone. Right now, for about the same price, you can also get an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and maybe even a 2-lens kit for long zooming. Changing lenses isn’t all that difficult as long as you don’t mind carrying two lenses with you. You won’t get f2.8 lenses anywhere near this price range, but with big DSLR sensors, you can dial up the ISO with a lot less of a noise penalty than with a point-and-shoot camera, so you may not need such a fast lens. Those are for the professionals.

Just remember, that when it comes to megapixels and zoom, more isn’t always better.