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How Will You Watch the Olympics?


Published January 28, 2010 at 10:00 a.m.

According to a recent Zogby poll, only 29 percent of Americans in the 18-29-year-old demographic still prefer to watch TV live. The rest would rather use a DVR or watch on a DVD or website. Two-thirds of them watched some TV online in the past year.

This raises a question: What about the big events that a huge audience used to watch live, such as the Academy Awards, the Grammies and the Olympics? How will people watch them this year?

OK, I know. Many of you don't watch TV at all and have no plans to start. I applaud you. However, some of us are in an awkward in-between place. We want to watch TV in new ways, ways that might involve only paying to access content we choose, but the cable companies seem all set to make it difficult for us.

I'm one of those Vermonters who has not killed my television. However, I have killed my cable. More than $60 per month was too much to pay for a bunch of channels I mostly don't watch, such as Fox News and the various ESPNs. (According to a recent New York Times piece about why fees are so high, the cable company pays ESPN $4.10 for each subscriber who gets it — the highest fee of any network. So if you don't watch sports, that's money down the drain.)

Meanwhile, channels I did want to watch, such as Turner Classic Movies and BBC America, were only available if I bought a bigger digital package. (From what I've heard, this is not the case over at Burlington Telecom.)

So when "Battlestar Galactica" ended, I cut the cord and started renting a lot more DVDs. Thanks to the excellent selection at Waterfront Video and (yes) a certain rent-by-mail service, I started discovering shows and movies I would otherwise never have watched. I finally caught up on "The Wire."

I'm not alone. Back in November, our associate publisher and online editor Cathy Resmer wrote about watching all her favorite shows on Hulu — for free. She may not own a TV set, but she knows what's happening on "Glee."

There's even a helpful website called

But here's the thing. I can wait for season 3 of "Mad Men" to come out on DVD. I can't wait for the Oscars or the Winter Olympics.

A couple of Sundays ago, when the Golden Globes broadcast started, I felt left out. NBC claimed to have a live feed, but my older (pre-Intel) Mac couldn't handle it and crashed. Then I found a great live feed from a UK network on a site called Justin TV. The best part: Instead of long commercial breaks, it had snarky commentary from British movie critics, who are less polite than their American counterparts.

With any luck, I'll find a similar option for the Oscars. But the Olympics are a problem. NBC has big live streaming plans, yes. But you have to download Microsoft Silverlight — which, again, doesn't work with pre-Intel Macs.

Worse, it appears that you have to verify you subscribe to "a cable, satellite or IPTV provider in partnership with NBC." Way to squeeze out options, soon-to-be-Comcast-owned media conglomerate.

So I have a choice: Ask the cable company to turn back on the lowest level of cable, the one with broadcast channels, or get a receiver box so I can receive the digital signals.

Meanwhile, and more importantly, Comcast and Time Warner Inc. have teamed to concoct a little scheme called TV Everywhere that could, in the future, make it difficult or impossible for non-cable subscribers to get TV legally on the web. It would also open up way more web content to cable subscribers, for what that's worth. There's a good explanation here.

I don't believe I have a right to absolutely free TV content. There's a reason "Mad Men" is better than old broadcast shows like, say, "Dynasty" (much as I love it). Great acting, writing and production design cost. Those craftspeople deserve to be paid more than web ads can bring in.

But we need a new system that enables us to pay for only the stuff we want to watch — an à la carte type thing. Like iTunes, but with more stuff. If Comcast and other cable giants continue to hike fees without offering such options, even as TV Everywhere starts limiting web content to cable subscribers, they could face a consumer revolt in that younger demographic. The next few years will be interesting.

Any other cable cancelers out there? How are you watching the Olympics?