Last month, I moved to Spain, and I took my TV with me. Not the actual TV set, but my shows. As I write this, I’m watching a live episode of “Larry King Live,” where politicians and pundits are discussing the implications of the Obama victory. It’s 9:00 in the morning here in Spain, and even though I’m having breakfast, late-night Larry King and everyone else is truly live, thanks to Slingbox.
The Slingbox is a device that allows for “placeshifting,” letting me watch live (or taped) TV programming in any other place in the world where I have an Internet connection. In simple terms, I can watch my U.S. TV on my computer in Spain almost perfectly. And in my case, the device has allowed me to keep tabs on what’s going on back home so closely that it almost feels like I’m still there.
U.S. TV Abroad: The Way it Was
I’ve spent large chunks of my life living outside of the U.S. and have been very well integrated into the places I’ve lived, reading the local paper and engaging as much as possible in local media. But the one media indulgence I have always missed is U.S. television.
Living in Latin America in the late ’90s, I could access a bit of American TV. Sony has a television channel throughout the region which broadcasts shows from the States. Plus I could watch reruns of “Seinfeld” and “Friends” with subtitles. Then there were standalone channels available in Mexico, with some rather random selections such as E! Entertainment channel, which broadcast original U.S. shows with localized programming. This was almost enough back then, but I remember a fellow expat neighbor who would come back from her visits home with VHS tapes of stuff she had recorded to supplement the limited viewing options. I would jump at the chance to join her in watching month-old episodes of “20/20” and “The People’s Court.”
Then there was the Internet. Before broadband, dial-up service in Mexico, for whatever reason, wasn’t bad at all — better than the one I had in the U.S. — and I could even access a couple of broadcast news clips online from time to time. But because of the connection and the technology of the day (probably Real Player), the video was choppy and watching TV content was frustrating.
Real, Live TV Online, Straight from Home
Before moving to Spain, I made several trips abroad and would think, “I could really live here.” The thought was normally followed quickly by another: “If I could only watch American TV.” I know it sounds vapid when you put it like that, but try watching an episode of Family Guy dubbed into Spanish. The humor doesn’t translate.
Unlike a lot of my snobby Bay Area or New York City acquaintances that claim they don’t watch TV or (and I question this one) don’t even own a TV, I’m not ashamed to say that I can’t live without it. From “Good Morning America” to CNN to The Discovery Channel, my media diet consists of a healthy helping of broadcast news and another of mindless fluff — with a daily dose of PBS to round things out, of course.
The dilemma of how to get that while living outside of the United States was haunting me until I found the Slingbox. Would I see the finale of “Dancing with the Stars”? What about “Nightline”? “Frontline”? Comedy Central?!
Or would I have to resort to the not-so-ready-for-primetime online TV services that have been cropping up over the last year? Last year I wrote about the future of TV online and my observations weren’t very positive, because these services are less than accessible. The difference between something like Joost or Hulu and Slingbox is that the latter is just regular old TV. No selections based on what the networks want you to see, no downloading, no blocked access (most of these services require a U.S. IP address) and no money out of your pocket — except the one-time device fee and whatever you pay for cable.
The choice of what to watch is as much yours as it is when you are at home. All you need is to hook the box up somewhere in the U.S. In my case, I had my mom hook it up in Texas so what I get here is whatever is available to anyone in the Houston area.
Another thing I couldn’t stand about the online TV experience back when I wrote that post was the leaning forward rather than kicking back involved in watching and controlling online television. Desperate to replicate a normal TV viewing experience, I’ve found a rudimentary way around that. I connected my Macbook via a video adapter to my television so that it acts as a monitor, and then connected a headphone-type of cable to run sound from the computer to the television. It’s all very wiry and unattractive, but it allows me to kick back and relax.
A less technical and unexpected virtue of Slingbox has come in the form of a cultural reality check. After living in Bay Area isolation for so many years, I’m once again exposed to local programming from my home state of Texas. I’m reminded that at any time of day on at least three channels one can watch some kind of religious programming or high school football, and that not everyone in the world will be voting Democrat this election season. It’s almost like being home again.
Less Than Perfect
Placeshifting TV via Slingbox, with all of its advantages, is not without its flaws. A pretty important one isn’t related to the device itself — it’s the time difference. As I mentioned, when I log on to Slingbox, I’m watching whatever people in Houston are watching at that very moment. With a seven-hour time difference, that means that if I want to watch in the early afternoon, Spanish time, my options rarely go beyond “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and infomercials for ProActiv acne treatment. However, I have found that it works in my favor for shows I never could watch before because I was working during the day. And if I could get my mom to figure out how to set up TiVo, this wouldn’t be such a problem.
Then there’s the broadband issue. My service here is extremely spotty. Sometimes it’s great and I can watch an hour-long show with no skipping in the video stream or sound; other times I can’t get an Internet connection at all. If your television depends on a less than stellar broadband connection, you aren’t guaranteed TV all the time.
But perhaps the biggest disadvantage is having to be tethered to a computer. While I can technically kick back and watch TV, my “remote” (my laptop) is connected to a short cable, and I have to get up to change the channel or adjust anything. Because I don’t want wires stretched across my living room nor my laptop running all day, I have to pack it all up and set it up again when I want to watch. This means I watch a lot less Slingbox than I do local TV.
Last year Sling Media, the makers of Slingbox, announced the upcoming release of a new device called Slingcatcher which would put an end to all the wires and the need for a computer to watch live TV anywhere. When I heard about this, I immediately bought into the idea and was ready to get the thing (it has a remote!) only to find that the company has missed its launch date by several months and the Slingcatcher is still in development. If this device ever does make it to market, and does everything they say it will, this important disadvantage will no longer be an issue.
Unlike Mark’s experience with Slingbox back in 2006, I feel this device is something that serves a real purpose and that I actually need (I feel guilty using the word need for a gadget, but I mean that in the way someone might need a TV). But I can see why it might seem useless to someone who isn’t living or traveling abroad. The other uses, such as watching on a mobile device, also aren’t appealing to me. I like TV, but not so much that I need to be watching it everywhere I go.
The Slingbox, however, has kept me feeling close to home. It’s a scary thought, but I wonder how much of our own identity — both as individuals and as a nation — we derive from television. Watching U.S. TV, the humor clicks (for the most part), the language is spoken with a familiar accent, and there is a feeling of home. Even though thousands of miles separate you and you’re up when no one else is, there’s something comforting about the ability to be in touch with what’s going on in real time.
What do you think? Do you think the idea of placeshifting TV is appealing or is it useless? Do you use a Slingbox or another device to watch your TV remotely? Do you use Slingbox for other purposes, such as watching local sports when away from home? Share your thoughts in the comments below.