John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.

The New Apple TV

The new (4th generation) next-to-or-under-your-TV box has received mixed reviews, it’s fair to say. On the one hand, tvOS looks pretty good, and the existence of an App Store improves the experience. Reviewers have heaped praise on the Siri Universal Search feature, which allows you to search for a title and see results from multiple services with the free ones defaulting to the top of the results lists.

Others have praised the new remote, which is diminutive but intuitive. It pairs easily with your TV so you can control the volume, but you can also override that setting and have it control another device like an A/V receiver. The swiping and tapping works pretty well for navigating those on-screen menus: far better than using the buttons or rocker on a traditional remote. It fits nicely in your hand and is no bigger than it needs to be. On the other hand, it has as much non-functional empty space at the bottom as it has functional empty space at the top, so it’s easy to pick it up upside down and find yourself fumbling in the dark for the right button or place to swipe.

As I did with the iPhone, I waited for this 4th generation until there was something I thought might be useful. We’ve never had a games console for the kids, but here was a way of getting one that would also serve as a telly box. Over the years, I have actually bought a lot of iTunes content (mostly SD, so I can use it at work through the projector), and it mostly just sits on my laptop. So here was an opportunity to put that content on the TV for all to use, as well as use Airplay for non iTunes content also on my laptop.

On top of that, I’m hoping to reduce the number of remotes in the living room. I barely watch live or HDR-recorded content anymore, relying on catch-up services through my NowTV box for the most part. But there was a NowTV app for the old Apple TV, and I could, in theory, lose one box and one remote (as well as the HDR box/remote) if everything was available on the Apple TV.

NowTV gives me a number of Sky channels as well as access to BBC iPlayer, All4, ITV Player, and Demand5. On my Sony BluRay (another remote), I access Amazon Prime video.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I fired up the new Apple TV and there was almost nothing available, other than Netflix, to which I do not subscribe.

So I added a 6th remote to the existing set up and had to order a 4th HDMI cable to fill the last empty slot on the Sony TV.

A week on, and the NowTV app has finally appeared. Which is great: the sound and video coming through Apple TV seems to be higher quality than that supplied by the white box. But there is still no iPlayer, All4, ITV Player, or Demand5, so I need to keep the NowTV box plugged in for now. And, of course, Universal Search doesn’t seem to work for NowTV, so I’m just seeing iTunes results. And Amazon seem to be playing some kind of ridiculous game and not intending to support it at all. Which means I might switch from Prime to Netflix when my first year expires. Clock’s ticking, Amazon.

Hum. As for games, well. I’m not big on games. So far we’ve tried Alto’s Adventure and Crossy Road. Apart from the difficulty in jumping the first chasm (with little momentum) on Alto, it seems fine. But it’s not as if the graphics or sound blew my mind or anything. I’ll wait till the kids want some kind of heavy adventure or shoot-em-up to see what it’s really like.

As to the major complaint about the Apple TV: that it doesn’t support the old iOS Remote app and neither does it support the BlueTooth keyboard, so you have to enter passwords etc. with the Siri Remote, well. The chance to enter *some* passwords when I first launched it would have been nice. As it was, I waited a week to enter my NowTV account details, and that’s it so far.

What’s on NowTV?

MI9Ec14Back in April, I bought a NowTV box and a 6-month entertainment pass. I was wondering at the time whether I’d want to continue the experiment beyond 6 months, but here we are in October, and I can say it’s a categorical yes.

In fact, I love my NowTV so much I barely watch TV through any other service. It’s a great example of unbundling and why it might be the future of TV. Instead of paying over £20 per month for a basic satellite package, which inevitably includes loads of channels you would never watch, NowTV gives you a smaller selection that has plenty of good stuff to watch, for a much lower price. £6.99 per month is the post-offer price, which I wouldn’t be prepared to pay if the service hadn’t also been fairly glitch-free and reliable. So you don’t record anything, but everything is available on demand, on your TV, your laptop, your iPad, or your iPhone.

The family ploughed through Game of Thrones fairly sharpish, and then watched season 4 as it was broadcast. That was worth the first £35 I paid. At the same time, we watched all of the episodes of Mad Men that we hadn’t seen (i.e. since it moved from BBC2 to Sky). We watched Season 5 of Modern Family and a whole bunch of other stuff, such as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Girls (season 1).

I’ve tried a whole load of other shows, not all of which were worth pursuing. For example, Ray Donovan did nothing for me, and Enlightened seemed like a bit of a clone of The Big C, which I grew tired of before the end.

So what have I been watching lately?

  1. Number one on my list has to be The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin scripted television news fantasy starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. So it tanked, and it has been cancelled (with just six episodes to come in a truncated Season 3) and I can see why, but I confess I love that fast-talking screwball comedy script style and I absolutely loved losing myself in the fantasy of what TV news could be. I also have a giant soft spot for Olivia Munn. I might watch The Newsroom again from the beginning. The day I realised I’d watched the last one of Season 2 was a dark one indeed.
  2. A surprising hit with both myself and the kids was the surprisingly funny Adam Buxton’s Bug. Watching interesting music videos and then reading out the genuine YouTube comments in funny voices doesn’t sound like it ought to work, but it is hilarious.
  3. The Leftovers has recently started, and you get to be an episode ahead on NowTV. It is complete nonsense, of course, and being from the team that brought us Lost will inevitably end in disappointment, but for now I tolerate it.
  4. Veep – watched in the wrong order (Season 1, followed by Season 3, now Season 2), but still funny at times. And it has Elaine in it, so…
  5. The Blacklist. Has now appeared as a Boxed Set, with Season 2 ongoing. It’s part of the new brutalism, which I’ll be writing more about at some point. I’d watched a couple of episodes from the middle of the season before, but watching from the beginning was better. It’s pretty good, though can be horribly violent.
  6. Unforgettable. A kind of Mentalist clone with Poppy Montgomery (from Without a Trace) as a woman who is unable to forget anything. Apart, natch, from the murder of her own sister, or something. It’s bearable.
  7. Perception. Another Mentalist (or Castle?) clone, with him out of Will and Grace, and her out of The OC, and her out of She’s All That. Yes, Rachael Lee Cook is the main reason to watch this show about an FBI consultant who suffers from schizophrenia and is ‘helped’ in solving crimes by his hallucinations. It’s moderately entertaining.
  8. Forever is very new. It’s an, um, Mentalist/Sherlock/Castle clone about a doctor who is both immortal and accident prone. He teams up with a cop to solve crimes and gets killed a lot. I’ll watch it as long as they don’t become a couple.
  9. The Last Ship. Another new series, produced by Michael Bay, it’s a preposterously stupid show about the last US Navy ship in a world brought to its knees by a virus.
  10. Legends. Sean Bean plays an FBI agent who lives his cover so deeply that he seems to have forgotten who he really is. Also appearing: her out of Heroes. Another new brutalist show featuring graphic violence.
  11. The Alternative Comedy Experience. Proper standup in a small venue, some of which is brilliant, some of which is… not. Curated by Stewart Lee, who interviews some of the comedians about their craft.
  12. The Tyrant. New show about a fictional Middle East country, its dictator, and his westernised brother. Kind of soapy, but a bit different.
  13. Justified. A boxed set and the new Season 5. I’ve been a big advocate of Justified over the past few years, but I’m less into this. It’s all a bit repetitive and samey. Seems to have fewer interesting female characters this time around, too. So I’m in one of those I’ll watch anything else moods with it.

Not bothering with: boxed sets of 24, Prison Break, Lost, The West Wing, Without a Trace, Scandal, etc.. There really is quite a lot to choose from.

Now TV Box and Entertainment Month Pass

Springsteen DVD included for scale!
Springsteen DVD included for scale!

You may have seen this advertised interminably on Pick TV, if, like me, you’ve been watching the re-runs of Futurama and/or Stargate Atlantis etc.

NowTV is Sky’s version of internet TV, offering a way of getting Sky content without a long-term contract or satellite dish or Sky+ box. The current introductory price for a NowTV Entertainment Month Pass is £4.99.

You can buy the pass and watch on a tablet or laptop, and you can also purchase (for just under a tenner) the NowTV Box, which is smaller, even, than the Apple TV box. It connects to an HDMI port on your TV, and your wireless network.

I’ve been wanting to sample Game of Thrones, among some other things. Pick have shown a few GoT episodes. I thought it looked all right, and at least had some interesting female characters. But I wasn’t interested enough to spend £55 on a Blu-Ray boxed set. Neither was I interested enough to pay £1.80 something per episode on Amazon’s streaming video service.

It occurred to me that with the current offer, NowTV is probably the cheapest way to watch GoT without committing yourself too much. For £35, I bought the box and a 6-month pass, which should give me plenty of time to plough through it. As others have pointed out, the box is a bargain, as it ships with an HDMI cable, which would cost you close to a tenner, or even more, if you were foolish enough to buy one at high street prices.

It arrived promptly, and was dead easy to set up. I must say, shipping the thing with the HDMI cable in the box takes a lot of hassle out of the situation. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain entering passwords and user names using the arrows on a remote control, but it was glitch free. Once up and running, it’s extremely efficient, getting to the Home screen and loading content much more quickly than any other internet content through my Sony TV and Blu-Ray.

Video quality may be an issue for some. I’ve read reviews that the live sport streams (paid for separately, a much more expensively) are a bit ropey. For me, 720p content is absolutely fine. You have to remember that most of the content being broadcast on Freeview is Standard Definition anyway. Most of the stuff I’ve got sitting on my shelves is SD (on DVD), and so 720p is already better. Anyway, if GoT was to be shown on Pick (or Five, if Sky/Discovery end up buying it), it would be shown in SD.

I’m inclined to only work with 720p on my own account, and I’ve always wondered why people are obsessed with 1080p, which only hogs more bandwidth and disc space than it really needs to. How clearly do you want to be able to see peoples’ chicken pox scars, anyway?

As to the service itself, be aware that only some Sky content is available from the beginning. Game of Thrones can be watched from the beginning of Season 1, but The Blacklist, which also interests me, perhaps because it’s still being broadcast, is only available on a Catch-up basis, which means, the most recent few episodes. I guess it depends whether Sky own the repeat rights, or something. With GoT, I would guess its availability is a sign that it won’t be available on a Freeview channel any time soon. Whereas The Blacklist? Maybe it will turn up on Four or Five at some point? Who knows. Anyway, I’ll watch what I can, and in six months I’ll decide whether to cancel the pass before paying for any more content.

(As well as Sky content, you can access iPlayer, 4oD, Demand Five, and other channels, including Vevo music videos.)

You have the option of buying passes for Movies and Sport, but (as indicated above), these cost more. I’ve got very little interest in either.