Before the magazine industry entered its current collapse, there were slick monthly publications on just about every area of interest, among them photography.
Some of us read the articles and columns in “Popular Photography,” “Modern Photography” and “Petersen’s PHOTOgraphic,” but sooner or later we’d succumb to the lure of camera porn, the pages of advertisements in the back of the book.
Many of the camera dealers offered things like “36-piece Pro Kit,” which included such important professional accessories as a rubber band on a string with a disc of stickum on the other end of the string, so your lens cap could be made to dangle annoyingly while you were making pictures. Another “professional” accessory would be a little packet of useless lens tissue.
Always present was the “fanfold B.C. flash.” These were rip-offs of the decent Honeywell Tilt-A-Mite flashgun, whose battery (the “B”) would charge a capacitor (the “C”) sufficiently to set off a single-use flash bulb. The cheap imitations were flimsy and often failed to survive a single use. (Sometimes there would be a “Super Deluxe Pro Kit” that included perhaps a terrible no-name 135mm f3.5 preset telephoto lens or maybe a teleconverter that would make a mediocre normal lens into a fuzzy, short, telephoto.)
All of this trash was padding, designed to get you to buy the camera you wanted from this vendor instead of that one. You couldn’t, though, trade all the bundled crap – think of the free but useless applications that come on a new computer – for something you really wanted, like a good wide-angle.
WHAT BRINGS THIS TO MIND, strangely, is my recent experience with streaming television instead of the satellite teevee I’d had for most of the last 15 years. Some call this practice “cord cutting,” but not me, because I do not want to be mistaken for an obstetrician.
There are a lot of streaming aggregators, some free and some so-called “cable replacements” that cost varying amounts of money. All can be viewed on a properly equipped television set or a computer, tablet or “smart” phone. The free ones include the Roku, Pluto, Tubi and others. The for-pay ones are Hulu with Live TV, Sling, YouTube TV and AT&T TV, as well as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
As with the camera bundles of a bygone day, there are a lot of filler channels. For example, I tried out several paid services (more about this shortly) before I settled on the one that provided the regular channels I wanted, and found that most or all of them are larded with stuff available for free, either from one of the free aggregators or standalone. Weather Nation, in my view the best of the dedicated weather channels, is free through its own app or on, for instance, Pluto. It’s also one of the channels Sling TV uses to inflate its channel count.
Everybody, it seems, offers as news channels “Newsy” (which was founded in my hometown and looks it), and “Cheddar,” which is a sort of business news thing that has been unable to hold my attention for five consecutive minutes ever.
In news coverage one finds the greatest lack among the free offerings. CBS does have its CBSN free service, and ABC and NBC also both offer free apps, but they remind me why I didn’t watch broadcast network news when I had satellite television and could get both broadcast network and cable news. The broadcast network news channels are also included in many of the aggregators’ packages – the television equivalent of lens tissue and fan-fold B.C. flashes. Likewise Great Britain’s Sky News, which is a good and useful channel available for free with its own app.
The paid services generally offer free trials. As a result, I tried out, and discontinued, several of them. I’d canceled all the paid services until a few weeks ago, when I found that Sling’s “Blue” service now includes Fox News, CNN, and, for those with strong stomachs, MSNBC, as well as a bunch of other cable/satellite channels, for $30 per month. If you want CNBC, Fox Business and BBC News, it’s $5 more.
While I’m mentioning free trials, they’re also available for premium cable channels – HBO, Cinemax, Starz, and the others, through their dedicated and bundled streaming services. I’ve found it best to hold off a free trial until I have time to thoroughly explore a channel during the free period. For instance, I subscribed to the free week of HBO only to realize that all it had that interested me was the final season of “Game of Thrones.” (I think there’s money in it for HBO if they’d re-release the whole series, only this time with a laugh track.) I polished off GoT in a few days, canceled the free trial, and was happy. Here’s an important tip: if you sign up for a free trial, cancel it the next day; you’ll still have it for the trial period. Otherwise, time might well get away from you, and you end up with a month’s charge on your credit card. If you decide to keep the channel, you can always un-cancel it.
An irritating thing about streaming television is that there’s nothing close to a common interface. It’s like the old days of DOS applications for computers – knowing one is of little help in using others. What the interfaces do have in common is that they are uniformly terrible. With a paid service and maybe a half-dozen free aggregators, it can be difficult to remember which channel is where. For this reason, my experience has been that I most often use the free-standing applications for things like Sky News, France 24 and Weather Nation. Even so, you’ll have to click the remote (or poke at your tablet or phone screen) multiple times to get to the actual program you want.
It’s early days for streaming television, though, and we can reasonably hope that the days of a standard interface for streaming programs, perhaps even a bookmarking function, are not far distant. (This is nota request for Windows for Televisions!) But for now, it’s a kind of mess.
What is cool is that you can also watch on your phone pretty much anything you can watch on your home television, a boon as you wait for your tires to be rotated (if you have headphones or are very impolite – both methods work).
While I’m at it, another real annoyance: some channels are much louder than others and, worse, some channels have commercials that are much louder than the programming that contains them. You can have your speaker cones turned inside out because online broadcasters have never heard of limiters. Standardization here is necessary before streaming can be thought mature.
There will be no Super Bowl on television here this weekend but that’s not the only advantage of streaming. I might watch the thought provoking “Mad Doctor of Blood Island,” a cautionary tale of human interference in the relationship of the plant and animal kingdoms within a delicate island ecosystem.
Or, hey, I might just leave the screen off entirely. I’ve heard that such a thing is possible. Maybe I’ll look at some old camera magazines instead.
[ADDENDUM: For "big game" hunters who have cut the cable or freed the bird, there is a free Fox Sports app for Roku, phones, tablets, and so on. It will carry the Super Bowl, with a bonus: The streaming app will provide the game in 4k HDR, meaning that it will be noticeably higher quality than that provided over-the-air or on cable or satellite systems. For the highest quality, though, one must have sufficient bandwidth -- there are a lot of data in a 4k signal!]
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.