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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Channel Surfin’ USA: Watching American Television Live Via Internet

I’m not much of a TV watcher. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy video entertainment: I love to watch films, shows, and concerts. But for the most part I’m not a “plonk-yourself-in-front-of-the-TV-during-prime-time-and-see-what-flickers-across-the-screen” kind of person, with one exception: sometimes I feel a deep need to reconnect with American popular culture.

I’ve lived in Germany for more than seven years now. I love it here, but more and more I’ve become aware of a social disconnection I find a bit disconcerting: I hear American friends and family using unfamiliar slang or catchphrases, or quoting some hilarious commercial or social reference completely missing from my experience. It makes me feel uncomfortably alien, even with people I’ve known for years. In recent trips to the U.S. I’ve discovered a curious antidote to such feelings: channel surfing. I watch much more television during my infrequent trips to the U.S. than I do here or than I did when I lived there. Nothing reconnects me faster to (or more quickly confirms the intelligence of living away from) the common denominator of popular American culture than a channel-flipping session.

Of course the internet offers many ways to experience video entertainment (paid sites like iTunes, individual TV networks streaming their own content, free sites like Hulu.com, and filesharing protocols like BitTorrent). But there are problems with these methods. First, you have to already know what it is you’re looking for, and second, as an out-of-country resident you may not be technically or legally able to access the American shows you’re after.

Is this just a complicated philosophical argument concocted to justify using technology that’s amazingly cool? Probably! But the solution I’ve created delivers an American cultural experience over the internet, directly to my home computer. I am able to watch television on my computer as if I were sitting in front of a TV set in the USA. The only difference is the substitution of an on-screen clickable “remote” in place of the hand-held version (one big advantage: the virtual remote never gets lost down the back of the sofa!).

Here’s what it looks like:

Screenshot of my “virtual” American television (including a genuine American insurance commercial)

“How”, I hear you ask, “can this work?” The key piece of enabling technology is called a Slingbox (http://www.slingbox.com/go/slingbox). A device about half the size of a DVD player, it is physically connected to a cable or satellite set-top box in the U.S., and is itself also connected to the internet. Using the companion software installed on my computer (called “SlingPlayer”), I can log into my Slingbox in the U.S. and watch my “virtual television”. The Slingbox reads information from the cable/satellite connection and broadcasts it to me via the internet, and it receives and executes the commands from my SlingPlayer. Voila! American channel surfing from my house in Germany.

Our Slingbox sits in a friend’s house in Boston. We realized early on that with a six-hour time difference, we’d not be able to see many prime-time programs unless we were battling insomnia, so we took the functionality one step further. To our basic setup we added a DVR (Digital Video Recorder), in our case a TiVO, which we use to record programs. Not only can we watch recorded shows directly over the Slingbox connection, but we can download them as computer files to save or copy onto iPods or other computers.

Another screenshot of the “virtual television” with “virtual remote”, showing the TiVO channel guide

So what exactly, other than the Slingbox, is required for American channel-surfing? First you’ll need a paid cable subscription in the U.S., in a household that doesn’t mind hosting your hardware. This household also needs a high speed internet connection, and one cable/satellite set-top box or DVR exclusively for use by your Slingbox. On your end, you’ll also need a high-speed internet connection, and a computer with the SlingPlayer software installed.

There you have it, my own little slice of American pop culture heaven, available 24/7, banishing those feelings of alienation. Time to finish up and wish y’all happy surfing, because I think “Mythbusters” is on….

originally published in Currents Jan/Feb 2010

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