Speaker by Various Artists

6

Freeviewer Diaries: Family Unity

by Freeviewers 4

It must have been the early 80s, or late 70s. Ian Fraser (I think) was working up quite a sweat, and so was my family, with Felix Donnelly explaining why he thought New Zealand men should spend more time talking about masturbation with their sons. My mother, father, two brothers and I sat there like stunned mullets. Tricky situation. Can't leave. Don't wanna stay. Check the room. Nobody flinched. Just watch and listen.

Lately, TV's not been so intense. Sure, The Tudors can intercut the ratification of the Church of England with a wild, wobbly-bosomed shag-fest, but that's just another Sunday night Brit drama. Not in the mood? Click. Miami CSI. Click. E bloody R. Click. Click. Click. Ads. Ads. Ads. Click.

With endless choice, and increased advertising hours, it's no secret that audience engagement in the medium has plummeted.

Now, my JC Matthew 320T Freeview DTR (translation: digital telly recorder) has granted me mastery of time itself, which, you'd think, should be sufficient to drive my engagement up a bit. And you'd be right. If the plan works out, I figure I should be able to build up a sufficient library to always have something good to watch on telly. In fact, that's a weird idea, that TV could actually be good. Still weirder that it could never be bad. It hints at that long lost possibility, in a time of one channel and few ads: someone actually sitting down and focusing on a TV programme, rather than flicking through them like a magazine.

I took longer than the other PA panellists to set mine up. I'd never seen one before, and I wasn't even sure which bits of gear on my roof (VHF, UHF, dish) were connected to the cable leading into my TV room. Breaking with a longstanding masculine tradition, I went straight for the instruction book. It was written in clear English, good thing, but didn't mention anything about what sort of roof-gear was required, or what to do if I didn't have it. I ditched the guide and just started plugging. Whatever it is I've got up there, the box duly got on with the job of auto-tuning. Whew.

There are two sets of component RCA outputs. For reasons I really don't understand, it seems that one set's for the telly, the other for my stereo amp. So, why do I need two complete sets? The first one didn't work, the second one did. Er, great. Also, some further tedious cabling technicalities regarding S-VHS and a fallen-from-grace DVD player.

I also noticed, with regret more than surprise, that the box quietly hums. Well, it is a computer, and computers hum. But my telly didn't hum before. I foresee an enclosed cabinet with a glass door. God, how grown up.

Anyway, after initial set up I spent about 2 hours missing things I might otherwise have seen on standard FTA channels, exploring the basic functionality and staring dumbfounded at The Krypton Factor (clearly, I lack something). I finally caught up with John Stewart in time for the Al Gore interview, wondering to myself if the benefits of all this new telly-tech will outweigh the effects of the pollution caused by its manufacture. I noticed no reference to this subject on the JCMatthew's packaging or user manual. But I reckon that would be of interest to many a TVNZ 6 & 7 viewer.

As with other PA panellists, the quality of my old cathode set is vastly improved with the DTR. Whereas a lot of channels were grainy, now none are: hooray. On the downside, I can also see areas at the edge of my screen where the image is starting to collapse, so I'm not even getting the full quid lo def, so I can't appreciate the improvement without being permanently reminded of the downside.

By the time I hit the hay, I'd scheduled about 15 or 20 hours of material to record: several series and an entire morning's worth of kids shows from TVNZ 6, but I'd failed to find any indication of how much of the hard drive I'd committed to recording future programmes. All I can see is how much I've used up with recordings I've already made (which on the first night out of the box, was none).

Worse, I've also found myself getting nixed from the recording scheduler because I've hit the two-shows-at-once limit. So it would help to indicate in the EPG if a programme falls at a time when the box is already scheduled to be maxed out. Show me what they are, and let me choose there and then, rather than have to exit the EPG and open the record list. Well, you can't.

Why give people control of the aspect ratio? How did this ever happen? Never mind black bands. Why not just let the footage roll in whatever aspect ratio the producer chose? Changing that default should be an active opt-out, and preferably.

I've noticed "software upgrade" potential. Can't wait to learn what that's all about.

I struggle a bit with the remote: the critically functional EPG, play and record list buttons are buried in a forest of image controls. "Info" is in number pad Siberia. I also need to apply reading glasses to read the tiny button labels, which I need to remove to see the screen. Maybe some different shapes for the basic EPG and play/record lists would help the kinetic use of the hand piece.

But hey, fair's fair. One minute, I've never laid eyes on one. The next, I'm picking it to bits. Thing is, three days into my hectic recording schedule, I've already got more stuff worth watching than I can view in a week. Or a month. That is a drastic shift from the previous, time-is-linear TV schedule. I love it.

In terms of content, my first few days have tended to focus on the expanded current affairs diet on TVNZ 7, and there is certainly a step change in this genre compared to the analogue offering. But it seems extraordinary that so much of this should be ghettoed on Freeview. Where are the masses supposed to get 10 uninterrupted minutes of the minister of finance throwing press releases at Guyon Espiner (who I thought did a great job deflecting them)?

Also in content-is-kingsville I watched a single ep of New Artland twice, and the ability to fast forward through Paul Holmes's intro to anything (such as Q&A) should be a minimum standard requirement for any media device. In another vein, I'm looking forward to Mad Men (Prime's been one of the grainy ones).

I seem to be missing some channels. I see on the Freeview website that the content on the satellite platform is different to the HD platform. This baffles me. Is "HD" code for UHF? I want Hi Def (despite that my TV isn't up to it) and I want all the channels. WTF? I want the lot, regardless the def. But I can't find out how, or even whether that's possible. Can I feed both the satellite signal and the UHF signal into the one box? Show me how.

I also miss Triangle. Besides not getting Stratos, I want the kooky local stuff. Of course, I can always just watch analogue.

Here's a thought: now that I've got my head around the basics, I'm going to have to up-wise my family members, some of whom have only just figured out how to turn on the old telly. And on a similar note: what's gonna happen to my recording capacity when I schedule it to capture one whole series of Coronation Street? Don't laugh. We have a fan in our house who's usually pre-occupied with baby-care when it screens (like, that would happen in the coro audience). Clearly, we can expect a settling-in period.

Telly is something that generates strong feelings in people, despite what they say. Everyone says telly's a load of crap, and everybody has their favourite programmes they'd never do without, which just goes to show you can't trust audience researchers. With DTR, it's a whole new gig. I can say with certainty that yes, this will change the way I watch TV.

Channel surfing FTA is like reading a glossy magazine. Tattler, say, or Nat Geo. You're there, but you're not. Ad's come. You finish the dishes, make a pot. But take the live element out, and the ability to select what you want to watch, and suddenly, there's something worth paying attention to. You know this is something you're likely to engage in, and there'll only be minimal interruptions (or as many as you like).

It's remotely conceivable, both from my early experience and anecdotally from others, that I may never watch live TV again. Which is sad, in a way, because it sort of lets broadcasters off the hook: they'll be able to pump even crappier dross to the linear masses in prime time, leaving the more fortunate with an $800 workaround, using downtime broadcast hours not for viewing time, but for real-time content downloads.

I don't mind the proliferation of media. It's the dispersal of audiences that scares me.

James Littlewood, JC Matthew 320T Freeview DTR

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