"My Cord-Cutting Adventure", a Presentation for the Calgary Unix Users Group

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My Cord-Cutting Adventure

Presentation for CUUG: March 23, 2021 - Roy Brander, P.Eng.

The thumbnail graphics at left are links to full-screen 1920x1080 graphics, best viewed with your browser in full-screen mode. Click on the graphic to see the presentation slide as presented, then backspace to return to this page with the thumbnails and speaking notes. (You may wish to download the presentation in "ODP" format, from Open Office Impress, files which are read well by MS-PowerPoint, although fonts can mess up the appearance a bit. With that version, you can see the speaking notes and the slide at the same time.)

This presentation expands on my blog post, "My Cord-Cutting Adventure", at brander.ca.

For CUUG, I decided I had to do it all with OpenOffice Impress on my Linux box, and it's been fairly good, but has had problems. It's had lockups, restarts, and so on. We can fall back to a PDF of the slides.

Over-The-Air television recording is the only remaining loophole in the effective illegalization of having your own broadcast video collection, which was explicitly legalized over 35 years ago. Unix, the one platform that cannot be used to take away your intellectual property rights, is a perfect match for the job.

These images are what comes up when you search on "cord cutting". I hadn't realized so many other people saw it as this big break for freedom. I think most are just happy to be free of a cable bill, but I'm going way past that into intellectural property rights.


It's easy to find charts like this on the web, that map the whole electromagnetic spectrum governed by the FCC and CRTC. A public resource we let private companies use.

Each stripe of this chart goes up one order of magnitude - 300kHz to 3MHz, the next stripe from 3MHz to 30MHz and so on.


So, the whole AM radio allocation of 500 kHz, is less than the box below it allocating 600kHz to Maritime communications.

VHF TV, now empty, was two orders of magnitude higher, up around 50MHz, and UHF, where current HDTV lives, is another order of magnitude up, at 500MHz.

I'd wondered if HDTV was going to take up four old channels per HDTV channel, but it turns out, not.

Both VHF and UHF TV channels are all 6MHz of bandwidth, wide. 2-13 were 12 of those. Up in UHF bands, Channels 14-21 and 52-69 were sold off. I had thought that the term "600 Mhz auction" meant that little strip between the 96 and the 84; no, that was an earlier sale. They sold off the whole of 38-51, leaving only the 96 Mhz block, sixteen channels, for UHF TV.

We'll get back to that with my CBC story, later.


I knew so little about TV when I started this presentation, but, now, I have to admit something straight out: it was the mathy-est of us nerds that went into electrical engineering, the nerds among nerds.

The sheer genius that has gone into television proves it. I think most of us know about those fast-moving electromagnets that made the cathode-ray beam sweep over 500-odd scan lines, 60 times a second.

It took three signals: the horizontal jump-back, the vertical jump-back, and the intensity of each pixel changing every few microseconds.

All fit into one composite signal,at lower left. But the real genius was when they added colour. They tucked it in after the horizonal sync signal, using the previously-unused phase angle of the signal to encode it.

Not only did they squeeze all the colour information into the 6Mhz they were already using, they separated the B&W signal - "luminence", from the color for each pixel - "chominance". A B&W TV could still pick out just the B&W information . That meant that there never had to be separate colour channels and B&W channels.

This meant the B&W to colour transistion was long drawn-out, some 15 years. I was unaware my favourite 60s shows were mostly in colour, since we didn't get a set until 1970, the year it cracked 50% of households.


Their stupid fears were doubled and re-doubled by the TiVO, the first DVR, which had to digitize analogue video on the fly. It was bad enough it made it easier to skip commercials than with a VCR, and worse that TiVo were researching automatic commercial removal.

Infinitely worse, studios envisioned perfect, tenth-generation copies flying around the Internet, the dreaded "Napsterization of Hollywood".

Their agenda was to sneak in a third transition, on top of going digital and going to HD: the content had to be sealed off from the consumer. Part of that was HDCP, making sure you couldn't copy the feed from the cable box or disc player that went into the TV. No recording device has an HDMI input.

But for people like me who love to build up a library of movies, the early 2000s were brief golden era. I used this Pioneer, that was the best standard-def DVR ever: a hundred some hours of hard drive capacity, and it could burn DVDs. Those are a few I made; just a hobby I enjoy.

I started off in the 80s with that shelf of cassettes. My legal rights were defeated with technology, not laws.


I can only hope I don't sound like Donald Trump, saying "not many people know this" about something only he didn't know. I didn't know that all digital TV, of every resolution, was just the same, mid-90s, MPEG-2 format that DVDs use.

Cable, Satellite, Over-The-Air, DVD, are all just MPEG-2 bitstreams. Only the tuners differ in your satellite and cable boxes. Satellite did also start using MPEG-4, but it has controversies I'll come to.

The fact that all the delivery systems are the same underneath gives lie to the claim that they had to go proprietary when they went to digital and HD.



I cannot explain, because will never comprehend, the 8-VSB system that transmits bits with radio waves. I tackled a short paper on it, and it's certainly super-efficient. It uses amplitude, frequency, and phase modulations in amazing synergy to somehow stuff over 18 Mbps into 6 Mhz. These graphics from that paper, are only to communicate the fact that, "it's complicated".

You can apparently do decent 720p with 12 Mbps, and 1080i with about 15, so you can actually stuff both an HD channel and an SD channel into one old analogue channel, and Global does it.

And it explains why everybody looking at OTA, coming off of cable or satellite HD, immediately remarks on how sharp it looks: it's because we've got guaranteed bandwidth. There's no point chopping it down to save your cable bandwidth for other channels.

The dirty secret of so-called HDTV, is that there is no quality standard at all for HDTV. The standards are just for number of pixels, but if you compress the crap out of the overall show to squeeze in another channel, 1080 pixels of blur, count the same as 1080 with information. So on cable, the Superbowl gets 15 Mbps, but most shows get less than 10, and local news gets as little as 6. Technically, they all count as HD. On Over-The-Air, every show gets eighteen, and real, actual, HDTV.


"I want my HDTV", so I went along with the TV providers' solution, which was that only they could sell you the DVR for their content stream. I tried both for a few years' each, and I concede they performed well, were reliable DVRs. We also left the cobalt-blue era with our new flatscreen.

By not requiring the cable and satellite providers to work with 3rd-party recording equipment, government handed them a whole new business. They got to become technology salesmen, not just entertainers. Gone were our 20 years of competition for your VCR and DVR dollars, between Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, and others.

We'd been turned into a company town, where you could only buy the one company product, at the prices set by the company store.

It was outrageously anti-competitive, would never have been allowed in a pre-established market. It slipped by because it was new, and we were all getting digital DVRs and HDTV we'd never had before.

However: my legal right to that hobby library of movies, was now technologically impossible. The Bell DVR even let you plug in an external disc to hold more recordings - but encrypted. When we quit paying Bell, my library - or, rather, their library - vanished.


When we started anew in Vancouver, we got just the basic TV channels for $25/month. The new DVR was a hot mess. I'm talking about spontaneous reboots, often. Maybe one show in six or eight would be half-missing because it rebooted while recording.

If you clicked "jump ahead" more than three times, it would stop responding for a minute. You'd be clicking and clicking trying to get past the ad block. Then it would reboot.

This is where I got furious, because we had no options. The company store was no longer trying to get people to switch to HDTV, so you got crap at premium prices,and no choice.

I decided I had to get DVR capability for that Over-the-Air TV; that plus NetFlix would have to do. The antenna I got in Calgary was no longer just backup.


We cord-cut first in Calgary, to save money, our cable bill was $1500 a year, and money was tight while we were moving.

We kept in the news by getting what was, and pretty much still is, the best indoor HDTV antenna, which is also very swoopy-cool looking.

I noticed right off that all the HD channels looked especially good, really sharp.

In Vancouver, unlike Calgary, I had pretty spotty reception at times until I put the antenna in a terrible position. That was after doing everything right.

First, let's go over how to do it right.


Mount Seymour has a commanding view nearly all of Metro Vancouver, more than 2 million people, and it's home to a forest of antennas. The indispensable web site is "tvfool.com", lower right, where you put in your address and just get a map of stations around you, and their azimuth, sorted by signal strength.

The only ones I can get are all along 62 degrees azimuth, that line of numbers east-northeast on the map, are all the green ones, at top. Even if I point the antenna around at others in Washington, no signal strength at all, so that's what grey means on tvfool.com

I'd never needed the in-line amplifier the antenna came with; it actually ruined the signal to turn it on. With the help of google maps, I could even draw a line to the exact antenna location and know that 62 degrees was just right of the corner of Chilco Towers across the street. Not much need for the phone app you can get that works, badly, as a compass. I could get very exact, which will be pretty funny when you hear the end of the antenna story.


This TV dish installer, maintains crowdsourced document like this, one for every province, that just lists every possible channel that can be had in every tiny town.

Here's the document for BC, showing most of the channels for Victoria with a yellow-highlight at left, meaning "fringe", as in "bad". On that list, CTV Vancouver Island is "fringe" in Victoria but not Nanaimo, is pointed out with red arrows.

I pick up it up pretty well, in Vancouver, as a second CTV channel, because it's also on Mt. Seymour. That's fine for Nanaimo, straight across the strait - but is useless for Victoria and most of the Island population. Clearly, CTV used their license to set up a second station that can sell ads to the 2 million people in the lower mainland, and convinced the CRTC that Mt. Seymour would work.

Anyway, little time on the web, looking for sites like this, can tell you how well your Over-The-Air experience will go, before you buy and antenna. Over-The-Air is now uncommon, but we seem to be quite the web community when it comes to sharing tips.


So while Vancouver has all these channels, in theory, in practice, only the Mt. Seymour ones, marked in blue, came in, none of the American.

More fun facts that I, at least, never knew before this presentation research: 720p vs 1080i is a decision you make once for your whole TV station, and only CBC went with 720p.

Your TV screen shows you only the "virtual channel number", which is just a made-up number often based on the same station's old VHF channel number. The actual UHF channel number is at right.

I was also baffled at decimal points in the virtual channel number, but it's just a commercial fiction, when three companies share one antenna as three channels that broadcast 8 hours a day each.

But notice Global Channels 8.1 and 8.2, both on UHF 22 - on HD, one SD. Here's how.


There are whole pages of debate, online, about the relative merits of cable vs. Satellite. Satellite mostly uses MPEG-4 video encoding, more efficient than MPEG-2, squeezing more channels to sell. But, they overuse it, claiming it lets them halve the bits-per-second without quality loss, when it's more like 35%. So satellite reportedly has many motion artifacts from it. Online arguments debate that you can have sharper frames with satellite, or smoother motion with cable, pick one.

Well, screw ‘em both, I don't have to choose, now that I'm hooked on a steady 18 Mbps. I can have both sharp pixels and smooth moves.

Those 16 6MHz channels come to 288 Mbps, every second of the year.

A useless resource, perhaps? What does broadcasting even offer any more? Turn the question around: what if we'd just discovered this capability? Wouldn't we assume it was valuable, and go looking for a use?

I ran across a US Government document explaining how to build a local public transmitter. It's about $10 million, maybe a million a year to run, but can reach a million households. That knocks down to two bucks a year per household, to cover capital and operating for 70 terabytes of content delivered, per channel per year. Per capita, broadcast television costs society almost nothing, save for content.

But, there's about zero free content.


And the lack of free content, is of course, another story.

Not many noticed that 2019 was this big year created by the 1998 Copyright Extension act, which basically added 20 years to copyright. Since 2019, the movies of the early 1920s now enter the public domain every year.

Look what might already be free now if that act had been defeated: the movies of 1945 would be entering the public doman this year, rather than 1925.

The previous 1976 act cleared up a very complicated copyright situation, but mostly, it added decades to most movie copyrights; we could be talking about the fifties and early sixties: The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, Psycho, Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, Dr. No.

No time for this topic, but suffice to say that recording technologies are just part of a multi-pronged assault on the public, that constantly strives to redistribute society's riches from the public domain, to the private.

Mind you Spectrum always was about big companies, of course. Bell owns CTV and its antennas, and a phone company, and their cell antennas; they're really just switching traffic from one department to the other.

When a dozen news channels became possible, we got news channels that ignore the truth. When private citizens could run news sites, we got Qanon. I'm kind of glad to be back to the ten-channel universe, where the scarcity means all the news have to have some sort of truth standards and traditions, to not lose too many of those million households they can reach.

Just sayin.


In Praise of CBC, and the customer service of CBUT Vancouver:

In February, 2020, I couldn't get "The National" to come in at all, and it had been the strongest channel, always.

I found this web page, called the 1-866 number, and got, not a queue, not a ticket number...I got..Jason at CBC.

Jason didn't have tickets or anything, just stickies on his keyboard. Several of them. From downtown Vancouver.

He explained that CBC was going from Channel 43 to Channel 35, because what "600MHz Spectrum Auction" had sold off Channels 38-51. The only remaining TV channels are now 21-36. And that maybe the phone guys were testing their new G5 equipment, too soon, months early, while CBC was still using Channel 43.

Jason called back soon, asked if things had gotten better, and I reported that they'd cleared up completely a few hours after my call. I asked if anybody admitted to testing that G5 equipment around downtown Vancouver. Jason just laughed, and said the technical guys were on that call, so he "couldn't say". Then we both laughed.

So there's another thing about Over-The-Air: you get direct support from the TV station. There are so few of us, that there are no queues, no ticket numbers. Just impressive results - go CBC, my tax dollars at work! It was exciting to spend a few hours on the front-line of the War For Spectrum between TV and G5.


I had to have a DVR that could store HDTV.

All video recording devices,are gone from our stores. Once we had shelves of options from many vendors at Future Shop. Staples does carry, online, the $228 successor to our tuner,which has no storage at all. Now, there are all-in-one OTA DVR devices you can get, online, with built-in storage. But mine is the cheapest, and all you need if you have a spare computer.

As you can see, it's the size of a pack of cigarettes, takes about 8 watts from a wall-wart. The antenna signal comes in from the Coax, an MPEG-2 bitstream. The little box just grabs those bits from the air and formats them as IP packets, and sends them down the CAT-5 Ethernet cable, job done. Recording them is a client-side problem.

The included app has no DVR capability without a fifty bucks a year for the program guide access. $4 per month. Cheap enough, after $120 a month.


So, a few slides for my funny antenna story.

I went through a very long period where the reception would be good while I was trying a new antenna position, I'd think I'd cracked the problem, and then I'd get more shows with the image and sound breaking up.

I started doing what the map said: a smidge right of Chilco Towers, exactly 62 degrees.

It got good when I rotated the antenna 90 degrees to be flat. Aha! That's it.


Then I thought it needed to be pointed up at 45 degree angle. Tried that with both vertical and flat rotations.


This pic shows the HDHomeRun and blue CAT-5 cable, which slips from the glassed-in patio, to the house proper, through a window at right. At one point just a few weeks back, I thought I suddenly got good reception by extending the rabbit ears, which was nuts - they're just for VHF frequencies.

My relief, that the world was actually sane, was short-lived. The final solution was even weirder.


I tried another antenna, a simple one for $40, that you just paste up flat in the window. Terrible: very bad reception on CBC, nothing on other channels.


At one point, it fell over, and the image seemed to actually improve. It spent a weekend in that position before I realized, with some relief, that it was still flaky.

My relief, that the world was actually sane, was short-lived. The final solution was even weirder.

Facing that way, I put the antenna down for a minute, to get my hands free, and while picking up some tape, I looked through the living-room window at right, where the TV is, with antenna pointing right at it, almost exactly away from Mt. Seymour. It was also way down at my knees, lower than the top of the concrete balcony wall behind it.

And the TV picture was like a Blu-Ray, just perfect.


A little experimentation found that exactly, 180 degrees away from Mt. Seymour, was great on all channels.

And raising it higher than the concrete wall ruined it.

I haven't dared touch it. There was no camera on to capture my reaction, and I am not a good enough actor to duplicate it for you. However, there is this image, on page 23 of the greatest graphic novel, The Watchmen...where Edward Blake, the Comedian, has found the edges of the great villain's conspiracy, but can't imagine what the final goal is, though he knows he's going to be killed for what he does know. I felt like him:


I try not to think about it.

It's a happy ending: I got free TV.

Added weeks later:
That was written a day or so before the presentation, and I really didn't want to mess with it. But later experimentation showed that I could put the antenna almost anywhere outside the house, and many places inside, as long as it was pointed 180 degrees away from the stations. It now sits right behind my computer, at the far south end of the house patio, and a half-metre from the router, convenient!

As for "explanations", well, the directional antenna is still pointed at Mt. Seymour, because it's not a dish antenna. Why the wider "back" of the triangle shape is better than the "front", pointy-end, to direct at Mt. Seymour, is not clear. I did double-check the manual:

"1. Rotate the antenna base so that the small end of the UHF element faces the broadcast tower..." (emphasis mine).


SiliconDust provides a basic DVR program, didn't get great reviews.

The Win10 and Mac versions of this work perfectly. Win7 has gone out-of-support, a problem for me that I got around.

The Linux install failed on a dependency issue, and rather than fight it, I tried the KODI app and its HDHomeRun plug-in, with partial success, that's most of my blog post. But, finally, I lost interest, because I only watch TV on the 60" TV controlled by the Win7 laptop.

When that laptop goes, I can replace it with Linux, because I can run the competitor, Plex, as we'll see.


Here's the Windows 10 version watching live TV. One mouse click brings up the live-TV pause and record controls, and a list of other channels to switch to. A click on the tools menu...


Brings up the schedule, which goes up to two weeks ahead. You can scroll through chronologically, or do a search string.

Call the Midwife, in upper left, shows a red dot for "recording set". Just click on a show icon to set it to record one or all episodes.


And, for the two weeks coming, you can look through all movies or shows, or filter by name or actor...


And, review your set of recording tasks.

In short, it's like every other DVR you've seen for nearly 20 years now, on every cable or satellite box.


The Win7 machine is what runs our TV,because it's a laptop with a broken screen and the only job it can do. But we're actually OK, because there's this configuration application that shows you the actual signal strength, signal-to-noise ratio, and the "Symbol Quality", which seems to be the percentage of properly-formed MPEG-2 packets, or something, because it's the only one that counts. This snap shows the signal strength down in red levels, the signal-to-noise just middling and yellow...but the final bar is a green 100%.

The diagnostic app has a "view" button: VLC comes up tuned to this RTP protocol, which is streaming over IP. So we can watch anything that's live.

But then, I found even that wasn't necessary for Live TV: the protocol is a standard, and the HDHomeRun shows up in Windows Media Player as a streaming device, pick your channel, and up comes the window. When I saw that, I realized how unsupportable , and thus rapacious, it was for Shaw and Bell to claim that only proprietary hardware, sold by them, should be receiving their signals: obviously both could have just sold streaming devices that would also work with Windows Media Player, Mac, and 3rd party solutions.

For me, though, because it's all just shared files, Watching recorded content, even as its being recorded, requires no app at all, except VLC.


The SiliconDust software was clearly developed first for Unix, then ported. Every control for the box has Unix command-line access.

The config program with the three signal bars is just a GUI wrapper around these command-lines at lower left.

If you want a Windows or Mac box to be the server, where the MPG files end up, you check the "Use This PC for Recordings", at upper-left, and config installs the Windows or Mac server program.


But the original software is hdhomerun_record for Linux, which you just grab off their server and put in your favourite directory.

You then type hdhomerun_record start or stop or status to control the service, like any other Linux service.

I should't say "Linux" - notice that they even have a BSD version.


I wanted an auto-starting daemon, so I put the one line into /etc/rc.local, and that was that. I had to put one line, the Linux directory where the files and logs would go, into a config file.

The long ID string in the .conf file is put in there by the server itself on first run, presumably to skip having to scan the network every startup.


...and here's the result a few days later: a standard Linux directory, with standard MPG files that you can manipulate as you please, totally freed from proprietary hardware and software.

The narrative has been that streaming has been the freedom movement, freeing you from the tyranny of the channel bundling shows together, free from the TV schedule, to watch at will, video more like a library than a series of performances.

But most people use the queue, the time you pick shows to watch is not the time you watch them. And, once the DVR was invented, the difference between performances and a library is just a few weeks of patience.


I was already using my Linux box as a video files server, via Linux's Samba, which emulates Windows Fire Sharing. I've used that to watch any of my large existing library of DVD rips, home movies, and other video files.

Now the TV directory is just another of those, a section of the library. I was surprised that Samba, not seen as a fast-response network file system, works fine for streaming.

So the DVR player application is, well, any file directory window, like this one. This one is my TV queue. I just double-click on a file, even one still being added to by the server, and VLC plays it for me. That's it.


For a dramatic contrast to SiliconDust's DVR software my friend Pat Valentine picked the right video library managment product right off the bat.

Plex supports HDHomeRun better than SiliconDust itself does. At upper left, it's scanning the network to find the device. At middle, it's found the device, and already offering the option to process the file while recording - I'm envious.

At lower left, it's gone on to scan the airwaves and present a list of channels. It can be convenient to just ignore some channels, if you hate televangelists, say.

At right, the basic DVR settings, like how many minutes early and late to default to, but I wanted to blow up the really interesting Plex DVR options in the red box: for one thing, it will attempt to spot and remove commercials, that most-dreaded of the TiVo functions. For another, Unix fans, get a load of the ability to specify any arbitary post-processing script you want. That's real Unix support!


I'm passing lightly over this, because again, everybody has used DVR controls for a couple of decades now, and they need no introduction.

I'm just showing, I hope, how Plex is frankly also better-looking client software, as well as more-featureful and stable.

At upper left, the channel listing, and the ability to just ignore some channels, as mentioned.

Below that, your usual DVR schedule, and highlighted from it, a show or two, and click on the show to record.

That brings up a dialogue for the one show, at top middle, to confirm the recording, or bring up the long list of options, at far right, for tweaking that recording, say recording extra minutes early or late, auto-delete after viewing. Every convenience I ever saw in any DVR software, Plex has them all.

All this, again, for the same $50/year Canadian that I'm paying for the SiliconDust schedule service. I think I'll switch.


HDHomeRun also had that Network Storage support, but so does Plex - here's Pat's huge NAS directory of all his media. I should explain that Pat takes the same attitude to video discs that everybody does to the CD: only for playing once into the computer, then straight to the storage box. He uses Plex to watch everything.

He mostly looks at his NAS from his Mac screens, but he provided a Unix "ls" of his Colbert video files for us at CUUG.

I had to look up that ".ts" file extension, but it's just another container for MPEG-2.

So, thanks to Pat, who showed the full story of a Colbert over-the-air show, going from being selected off the schedule, to the recording settings, and the final destination as a .ts file on Pat's NAS.


Pat can run any post-processing script he wants, but, of course, so can I.

If I want to move a file in the long-term library section, and really time-shift it by months or years, I'd like to compress it down from up to 12 GB per hour, if I don't lose too much detail.

The key here is that I control the compression ratio; the satellite company doesn't decide if I see blur or motion artifacts to improve their bottom line; if the visuals are not the big thing, I can decide to save space.

Video compression is free, courtesy of "ffmpeg", a free software suite that runs best on Unix. It has a labyrinth of options I would never figure out, just google "mpg to mp4 with ffmpeg" for advice.

At top is the command you need. The video option of libx265 is new, but also needs is audio with the new "aac" rather than good old "ac3", or you still get huge files for some reason. And without -strict and -2, it failed on some error. With ffmpeg, I've learned not to reason why. Just trust me and copy this.


Here's a bit from Global news today, with a square cut from a frame in the original 4.3 GB half-hour file, and the same from the compressed version that was one of the most-crushed yet, 250 MB, nearly 17:1. News shows do compress like crazy because of all the talking heads, and the new codecs take advantage of the huge similarity between frames.

If you look closely at the edges of leaves on the hedge, against the white fence behind, at 300%, you can spot the very slight losses.

You can see why the cable and satellite companies figure they can shove in more channels by just compressing, it does work very well. They just push it too far, they push until people complain. Every decision they make is guided by what the traffic will bear.

After a burst of enthusiasm for H265, I read those discussions of satellite vs cable, and I'm now watching more for motion artifacts, than blur. I've spotted many when the camera is panning across a scene, especially if it pans horizontally across a scene with vertical straight lines like building columns. Maybe they'll nail that in the H266 codec.


The ultimate in automated management is nightly cron jobs.

This is the cron job I now run at 2AM. I've set several news shows to record every day. Some DVRs will let you set it to drop old shows when it runs out of space.

A cron job, of course, can delete JUST news shows, and after one day.

It also changes the long file names that have embedded date stamps, to short ones, and with underscores instead of spaces, like God intended.


After reading about those motion artifacts, I tweaked it to only crush MPG to MP4 after a week. If a show ain't appointment viewing, I can probably stand to see a few artifacts. But my hard drive is still safe from filling up with dozens of huge files.

I won't go over the wait-a-week hack, the slide's available later for those interested.


Like any good cron job, it leaves behind a report file in the morning.

A list of news shows deleted, long file names shortened, and the shows that were crushed down to MP4, last night.

Unix was structured to make all this kind of management easy for working with text. I did a paper on it in 1984, where I found a 1970s study showing the first Unix adopters, University science professors in everything from physics to medicine, averaged 30 shell scripts each, to push around their TROFF text documents. Forty-five years later, I'm doing the same thing with multi-gigabyte video files, happily managing my little library.


The enclosure of TV into proprietary access can't be good for media scholarship. It was always expensive to get transcripts of news programming, $20 per show, here. It's pricey to use the LEXIS/NEXIS service, a database of all news sources, that lets you search for, say, how often "Afghanistan" still appears in news stories, month by month.

Messing around with ffmpeg got me hacklng video with it. I discovered that you can use it to literally edit a file - cut down the resolution, here in half, tossing out 75% of the pixels, and compressing even further. Easy to throw on a phone, by the way.

Above, a 4.2 GB news show, or it's first 25 minutes, before it goes to human-interest stories about heroic dogs, but still watchable as a news show - is down to 100MB. A database of four channels, two shows a day, forty hours of news shows per week, would now take over two years to fill a one-terabyte hard drive.

I discovered that while Over-The-Air may not have subtitles, it does have the cruder, older closed-caption data embedded in the file - and there's a utility to extract it.

So here's a tool for media scholars that Shaw and Bell can't give you. These commands would extract the closed captions as a text file, showing all the words said in the news show, and the time-stamp to when they were said. The file names include date stamps and news-show names.

It's nothing compared to a real transcript, but I don't have to tell a gang of Unix veterans that structured text files with time stamps in them would need only a few hours of shell programming to turn into graphs of how often "Afghanistan" came up - broken down by date, channel, and even time-of-day: maybe the Global day producer is a war hawk, and the CTV night editor a dove. They can't hide from statistics.

Needless to say, Bell's DVR has no function to let you analyse CTV news, which Bell also owns.


I squeezed in that last editorial comment, because it's also a fun bit of hacking to make that database; I started last night, and can show the scripts and results if anybody is interested.

So, that's my cord-cutting adventure. Over-The-Air video may be an obsolete technological appendix that will wither away for lack of love.

But: when I bought the cheap antenna, I saw shelves of antennas in both BestBuy and Canadian Tire. 400,000 Canadians dropped cable last year. We cord-cutters are not going away yet.