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My Trip to Seattle to Watch TV

In Redmond, some bald guy named Steve in a discussion of the Sports Channel on Microsoft Media Center.
In Redmond, some bald guy named Steve in a discussion of the Sports Channel on Microsoft Media Center.

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I was in Seattle for the weekend.  I don't think I ever shared with you the reason for my trip.  Basically, I was there to meet with some of the folks at Microsoft to look at the Sports Channel on Windows Media Center.  Long story short, the PR firm working with Microsoft to help publicize the Media Center tools started working with one of the SBNation bloggers, who got some others involved, and we've formed something of a focus group of sports bloggers to provide feedback.

You can go to the TV on your PC blog to find out a little more about what is going on.  I'm a charter member of their Sports Club.  So there's that.

The trip to Redmond was very interesting.  One great thing was meeting some other SBNation bloggers.  Brandon Worley, the Dallas Stars blogger from Defending Big D, Michael Bean, who covers the Steelers at Behind the Steel Curtain, and Joel Hollingsworth, the Tennessee volunteer who edits Rocky Top Talk were the other members of the group who made the trip.  During introductions, when everyone was talking about how great it was each time their team won this championship or that championship, I got to talk about making the playoffs a couple of times.  Sigh.

Here's the thing - it turns out, I didn't even know what Windows Media Center was.  I thought it was more or less a different OS, and before Vista I guess that might have been closer to the truth.  It used to be that people would talk about buying 'a Media Center PC'.  But when they asked me if I wanted to join this group, they said I needed to have Vista, which I do.  Then they asked what I thought about Media Center, and I said I didn't have it.  How embarrassing!  Turns out, you click on Start, then you click on the big green button that says Media Center, and there it is.  Sure, if they're going to bury it like that.

As it happens, Media Center is trying to address some of the things that have bugged me for years.  Back when I had a real job (and it's been a while at this point), I was telling anyone who asked that it wouldn't be long before the TV screen and the PC screen merged.  I mean, they're both displays - they have the same basic function.  Why do we have both?  I've been saying this for 15 years at least.  It's taking much longer than I expected, and there are some forces that could continue to delay it (for one thing, hardware manufacturers WANT to sell you different displays, thank you very much).  But it's happening.

Another thing - why do I pay a subscription for a DVR?  It's a piece of hardware.  Why can't I just buy the thing?  I will admit that I have an abnormal aversion to subscription models - for whatever reason, I just have always disliked them.  I even bought a TiVo box that came with a free TiVo basic service many years ago (they stopped selling those pretty quickly).  When that box broke earlier this year, you may recall that I was without a DVR for a week or so - stuck in real time, unable to bend the space time continuum to my will, watching COMMERCIALS for FSM's sake!  It was harrowing. 

I really wanted to replace my free DVR with another free service - something, anything, that would give me basic DVR functions without a monthly fee.  (I just don't get it - IT'S HARDWARE!  Why can't I just buy the damn thing?  Motorola, LG.... somebody!  Why?)  Media Center was about the only alternative I could find that provided DVR functions without a subscription.  But I just didn't understand.  Frankly, it sounded ... hard.  Like something for total techno-geeks.  I'm a blogger, but I'm no geek.  (Stop laughing.)

So I bit the bullet and got the DVR from Fios. 

Now I find out, I had Media Center all along, and in theory I could rewind and record and do all those cool DVR things to my heart's content. 

I say in theory.  In fact, it is still a little harder than perhaps it should be.  Which is certainly a big part of the reason that people just sign up for the extra $10 or $12 per month for the set top box.  Just plug it in and it works, more or less like you old VCR worked. 

To watch live TV on the PC, you need a tuner.  No big deal, I have one of those now thanks to the guys in Redmond.  Only problem is, it's sitting in the package still.  Basically, I know it's going to be frustrating getting it working and I haven't carved out the time yet to focus on it.  But I will.  After installing the tuner, maybe it will work will with Fios, and maybe it won't.  Maybe I can plug the coax directly into it, and maybe I'll need another set top box.  So this is why people pay the subscription fee - because they know that box will work with that service.  But still - it can't be that hard.

To find out more about Media Center, go to PC on your TV.  They have a YouTube video on some Media Center features.

As for the Sports Channel itself, that's another thing I didn't know was out there.  And actually, it hasn't been there very long.  The team of engineers working on it had about a two month window to get it launched in time for March Madness - yikes!

The Sports Channel (and there are many other channels as well) contains a whole mess of sports media content from providers like CBS Sports and Fox Sports.  The NCAA tournament was the focus for the launch, and for instance you can watch a condensed version of any game, or just the highlights, or just the last five minutes of close games.  CBS edits the content after the game and makes it available on Media Center.  Who knew?

One of the first things we discussed was why this was separate from the web?  After all, there's lots and lots of video content available on Hulu and the network sites and just on YouTube.  One advantage of something like the Sports Channel of course is to aggregate the sports content in one place, and that's certainly a good thing.  But we discussed at length how this seemed to be a parallel universe to the web, and how it seemed like that might be a bad thing.

The big picture for the softies is to really integrate the two experiences - TV and PC.  And that's where the bloggers come in of course, since we're at the forefront of any target audience that would benefit from that integration.  The idea is, you're watching the game, while commenting on the blog, while keeping an eye on your fantasy team stats, all in one place, all seamlessly integrated.

I'm dubious.  Not that it's not an interesting idea, but why do I necessarily have to have all of that in one and only one place?  I definitely would like to have the option of watching a (quality) game broadcast on the PC - if only because of the possibility that the ClipperKids want to watch Hannah Montana and the ClipperWidow wants to watch Dancing With the Stars - but I can have the blog open in another window and the stats open in a third.  Would it be nice to have all that in one place?  I suppose.  But it's not easy being all things to all people, and if the stats, for instance, aren't as robust as what I'm used to, I'm going to just use another window instead.

Still, there are some really interesting things going on here.  There are some trends that are working towards this sort of integration, and others that are working against it.

Obviously bandwidth and technology are enabling these things.  So the very fact that it's technically feasible is going to mean that these features will begin to arrive.  It's inevitable in that sense.

At the same time, the DVR-ification of America is pulling people away from the real-time experience at the same time that connectivity is pushing them towards it. I've felt this tug-o-war on Clips Nation many times - I love my DVR, being able to re-watch plays, doing in-depth analysis the next day, or even just pausing the game to help the kids with homework.  But it's impossible to participate in a game thread if you're even five minutes behind - everyone's always giving away the ending! So the community, socail networking aspect of web 2.0, which is pretty much the only reason Clips Nation exists, thrives on real time (or at least near real time) interaction.  But I don't want to watch commercials.  So that's a dilemma right there.

Another huge factor is HD.  Sports is ground zero for HDTV, and it's going to be difficult to get fans to adopt a PC paradigm for their sports viewing.  Occasionally... in a pinch... as a last resort.  Sure.  But the quality is going to be a huge issue if they expect people to actually switch their habits.  It reminds me of Jerry and Elaine when there was only one seat in first class

Jerry: Elaine, have you ever flown first-class?
Elaine: No.
Jerry: All right then. See, you don't know what you're missing. I've flown first-class. I can't go back to coach. I can't, I won't.

Well, I've seen HD.  I can't go back.  I can't.  I won't.

Still, there are some fascinating possibilities.  For one thing, I think there's a real possibility for service providers in better understanding the DVR issues.  For instance, the NCAA brackets feature on the Sports Channel has an option to hide the scores.  Great idea.  A tournament fanatic whose at work on Thursday like a normal person, can get home and watch condensed versions of all 16 games that day if he wants to.  But the default was to have the scores display on.  Ooops!  By the time you turn them off, it's too late.  (Joel was the first to tell them about this problem, and it was fixed before we left Redmond.)

How about a recorded broadcast that also records the stats and syncs them up with the playback?  You didn't watch the game live, but you still want to know how many assists Baron Davis has at this point in the game, and Milph refuse to tell you?  Now you're talking Microsoft - integrate the box score with the game replay.  Feed the mayonnaise to the tuna.

I'm sure this topic will be an ongoing discussion.  Hopefully I'll get the tuner hooked on to my desktop soon and I can let you know about that experience.  I'm curious to hear from the citizens out there.  I know plenty of people watch the gray market broadcasts on their PCs (an interesting topic in itself).  Anyone else doing anything interesting?