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How I Watch Television
Written December 2, 2001


Updates:  I now have high-definition TV!  Read about my earliest experiences with the new aspect ratios in The Very Wide Screen, then see my new equipment in How I Watch Television, 2004, or even newer equipment in this 2011 posting.

Or continue with this older article for details about how I time-shift programs.


If you're like most folks, your dream setup for watching TV is a home theater.  You can view a movie or a football game in high definition on a screen several feet wide.  There are theater-style seats for all your friends.  And those seats tremble with a subwoofer and at least five surround-sound speakers.

Well, as you may have guessed from this website, I'm not like most folks.  I live in a small apartment and usually watch TV by myself, sometimes at odd hours.

Unless a program is of more than average interest, my attention begins to wander after about 40 minutes.  Only occasionally do I watch an entire movie in one sitting.

When I'm at work, it's usually from noon until midnight.  That means that I'm not home to watch prime-time TV; I'm busy making it.    

Yes, I work in the television industry (for the details, click here).  As a result, I expect certain viewing conditions.

For example, in a TV control room there's not one big screen to watch.  Rather, there's a wall full of screens of varying sizes, each showing the viewpoint of a different camera or tape machine or other source.  One learns to multitask, not staring at one screen but keeping one's eyes moving about the monitor wall.

Much of this video is at some point recorded on tapes or hard drives, then later played back on demand.  One learns to think not just of the present picture, but also to consider what was in the past and what will be in the future.

Therefore, when I view TV at home I use two concepts from work:  a monitor wall and extensive videotaping.

With the "house lights" up, here's a view of my monitor wall.  It's built into a 5-foot-high steel shelving unit and a repurposed nightstand.

At the top is my 20-inch "big screen."  Then three 13-inch monitors show the outputs of three sources:  one VCR on the left, another in the center, and a cable TV converter on the right.

Each source also feeds an old VCR at the bottom of the rack.  I can switch among this machine's three inputs.  The resulting output goes to the 20" screen, and also to a TV across the room and another in the kitchen.  The audio goes to a stereo amplifier.

So I can have three different programs on the smaller monitors and switch any one of them to the larger monitor.  And if I prefer to get up and pace about the apartment for exercise, which I often do for half an hour at a time, the chosen picture is repeated on the other side of the room and in the kitchen.

Below the screens, columns of text list my menu of 131 cable channels.

I've programmed a single remote control to change channels on all the sources plus the big TV, adjust two volume levels, and control the VCRs.  The diagram on the lower right reminds me which buttons on the remote do what.

For example, I might put David Letterman on one small screen, Jay Leno on another, and a late baseball game on the third.  I'm only mildly interested in the ball game, so I'll just glance at the score from time to time.  I'll switch Letterman to the big screen so I can hear him, but at the same time I'll look at Leno's monitor, reading his jokes off the closed captioning.  When Letterman makes one of his tedious phone calls, I'll switch Leno to the big screen instead.

(Incidentally, I often watch the closed captioning even when I'm also listening to the sound.  With captions, it's easier to understand song lyrics or whispered dialogue.  And sometimes you get extra information, such as the titles of instrumental music or alternate versions of Simpsons gag lines.)

During an event covered by multiple networks, such as election night, I might put ABC, CBS, and NBC on the small screens while using the big TV's tuner to select a fourth source like CNN.

But that's unusual.  More often, I'm choosing between only two sources:  one of the VCRs for a live or taped program, and the cable box for "channel surfing."  If I find something interesting there, I may switch it onto the big screen.  (With digital cable's many movie channels, I find myself sampling movies as I stumble across them, rarely watching them all the way through.)

I make extensive use of these two VCRs, plus another in the bedroom, for time-shifting.  From TV Guide, I pick the programs I'd like to see.  For some, I won't even be home; or if I am home, I'll be watching something else.  In such cases, I plan to record.  I don't miss much.  I've sometimes recorded three programs while watching a fourth. 

Using T-180 cassettes, I can tape eight hours at the slowest speed, which provides good-enough picture quality and "Hi-Fi" stereo.  One advantage of using this speed:  during playback, when I get to a commercial I can fast-forward through it in just a few seconds.

Each numbered cassette has its own index card.  A card has 16 rows, each representing a half-hour time period, on which I write what I intend to record:  title, channel, date and time.  Once the cassette is full, I file it and its card away.

I watch the tapes in a first-in, first-out manner.  Eventually, therefore, I get around to viewing what I've recorded.  Then, unless it's something I want to save, I reuse the tape.

Not wanting to miss anything, I tend to record too much.  Currently I'm trying to catch up to a seven-month backlog of more than 40 eight-hour cassettes.  I do intend to skip over some recordings without watching them, for example if the series has since been canceled.  Obviously, I'd never remember what I recorded seven months ago if it weren't for the index cards.

I've found I prefer to watch some shows on tape, rather than live.  Usually this is because I can zap the commercials.

On tape, I can watch a one-hour drama in about 40 minutes, thus fitting it into my short attention span.

Sometimes PBS chops up a 90-minute show and adds an equal amount of pledge breaks.  I'll tape the whole three hours.  Later, I can zip through the interminable begging and pleading.

Or suppose I'm scheduled to be the graphics operator for ESPN boxing next Friday.  To familiarize myself with what I'll need to be doing, I'll tape this Friday's fights, scan rapidly through the show until I come to a graphic, then freeze it for study.

How could I do things differently?  In place of my monitor wall, I could use one big TV set with a dual picture-in-picture feature.  This screen could display three sources at once.  But the smaller pictures would not be captioned, and the large picture would be partly obscured by the smaller ones.

In place of a VCR, I could use a digital recorder like TiVo.  It would not be suited to long-term archiving, but its advantages would include instant fast-forward and rewind plus the ability to "pause" live programs.  Such a device might be in my future.

So might a DVD player.  Although I don't watch many movies, the multi-channel audio and additional material on some DVD disks would be fun to play with.

And then I'd want a better sound system, and a better video display, and so on.  Before long, I'd end up with a "home theater" system after all!

For now, though, I'm happy with my versatile and relatively inexpensive monitor wall.



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