News

Web video developing into cable alternative

Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

For consumers fed up with their cable companies, a new alternative is emerging.

Call it Cable 2.0: You get many of the same TV shows and movies, often with fewer commercials. Better yet, you get to watch what you want on your schedule, not the cable network's, and you don't have to pay for anything more than a simple broadband Internet connection.

But there are some catches, the biggest of which is that there's no easy way to get the video from your computer to your TV - yet.

The next-generation cable TV is coming to consumers via video aggregation sites on the Web, including Hulu, Joost and Veoh. Joining that group on Nov. 24 was Sling.com, a similar site from the makers of the Slingbox.

Getting their content onto your TV is just one current shortcoming of those sites, but for some they are starting to become an alternative to cable.

"Not only is that a theoretical thing, but we're seeing more and more people (saying) that that's what they've already done," said James McQuivey, a media analyst at Forrester Research.

The Web video business has been developing rapidly. Digital media leader Apple didn't start selling television shows through its iTunes store until three years ago and didn't add movies until a year after that.

Apple has sold millions of videos through iTunes and has since started a video rental service. But its offerings and similar ones from rivals such as Microsoft are more a replacement for buying a DVD at Target or renting one at Blockbuster than for tuning into the SciFi Channel on your cable box.

Over the last year, however, Web video has begun to look like what you get on cable. It has moved from a download model to the streaming one pioneered by sites such as YouTube. Through such sites, consumers often can watch video for free nearly instantly through a Web browser.

Sites such as Hulu, Joost and, now, Sling.com offer thousands of television episodes and a growing number of feature films from a wide variety of networks and studios. You can find everything from the latest episodes of "The Office" to "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

Sling has made deals with about 150 different networks and brands, including CBS, NBC, Fox, USA Network and the SciFi Channel. There are some big holes in the lineup - it doesn't include ABC or ESPN, for example - but consumers can expect the selection to grow, analysts and insiders say.

"I think we've landed on Plymouth Rock and are on our way to L.A.," said Jason Hirschhorn, president of Sling's entertainment group. "It's in the very early stages."

Among the advantages of Web video is that you're not limited to watching it just where you have a coaxial cable or set-top box. Instead, you can watch it wherever you can get an Internet connection and on a range of devices, from laptop and desktop computers to mobile phones and handheld devices.

That appeals to younger consumers in particular, notes McQuivey. "They're more open to the idea that it's not even TV anymore," he said.

But other than the young, few consumers may be ready to ditch their cable service and tune in to something like Hulu or Sling.com. Such services offer few live broadcasts, an obvious drawback to sports fans or news hounds. And while cable and satellite services are rapidly expanding their high-definition offerings to satisfy the demand of the growing number of HDTV owners, you'll find very few high-definition video streams today.

While you can watch free streaming videos of many current TV programs, the latest episodes often aren't available until days or weeks after they are broadcast on TV or cable. So you might have to plug your ears if the water cooler talk turns to last night's episode of "House."

Worst of all for the classic couch potato, it's just not easy to get streaming video from the Web to your TV. Gadgets such as Apple TV or the new Roku box allow you to watch videos from only a limited number of sites. Other devices, such as Sling's SlingCatcher, allow you to watch just about everything on the Internet, but they work only if you have a PC running and connected to them.

Meanwhile, cable companies aren't standing still. Comcast, for example, has launched Fancast, its own Web video site, and is expanding the number of on-demand videos available through its traditional set-top boxes.

That's why some analysts think that for most people the Web won't be a real competitor but more of a complementary service to cable for the foreseeable future. Dealing with the rights issues around when and what content is available online is likely to prove thorny, said Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst with Jupitermedia.

"Until (the content producers) are really willing to disrupt their core business model, you're not going to see this stuff change," he said.

But others think it's just a matter of time before Web video is a major market force.

"Should a cable provider be worried today about losing subscribers in 2009? I don't think so," said Greg Ireland, an analyst who covers consumer video services for industry research firm IDC. But he added, "The value proposition of Internet video will get stronger and stronger as the years go on, and that will diminish the value proposition of pay TV."

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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