“I’m Not Watching TV! I’m Doing Research!” Or, How to Turn Your TV into a Research Tool…

Every serious student of popular performance — whether an academic, an aficionado, or both — probably has a story of “the one” (film, tvshow, recording) that has for so long so stubbornly eluded capture. Just a few weeks ago, I discovered through a friend’s blogpost that I had — for the 4th or 5th time in as many years — missed one of mine on Turner Classic Movies. A quick but thorough search confirmed that this 1950s flick (which was both directly relevant to my current manuscript and had just a few nights before been on my tv) might possibly be accessible at the usual film archives in NY or LA. Or through a number of sketchy online retailers selling unauthorized copies for anywhere from $30 to $115. Or I could just cross my fingers that I wouldn’t miss it the next time it came on TCM. This recent near-miss triggered my stubbornness and acquisitiveness in equal measure. I figured — with the broad array of screening services and devices that have proliferated in the last few years — there had to be a better way to stalk these pop culture obscurities. Some sniffing around confirmed that, yes, the current tv-landscape presents more opportunities to see more film/tv rarities than perhaps ever before but, no, there’s no easy way to determine whether, where or when a particular obscurity is accessible. The trick remains knowing where and how to search within an ever-changing digital landscape.

But even though I didn’t find a simple fix, I did discover a few productive strategies. What follows is a deeply idiosyncratic (and overlong) summary of some of the websites, apps and general trickery I have stumbled into in the weeks since I determined to redeploy my tv as a research tool. To be clear, I claim no especial expertise here. This post merely documents my own haphazard strategies. I likewise have received no subsidy or other benefit in exchange for my promotion of these tools. And I recognize that my particular setup — full digital cable with dvr subscription (plus Roku, HuluPlus, Netflix, iPad and AmazonPrime as accessories) — might reasonably strike some as either too idiosyncratic or too over-the-top. But this is my tv-reality and I’m sticking with it. At least until something better (?) comes along.

Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 9.43.53 PM

Most Useful Website for TV Tracking: LocateTV
hack-LocateTVLocateTV lets you customize your own tv schedule by flagging when any of your “picks” (ie. your chosen performers, shows, episodes or movies) are slated to appear on whatever cable, dish or antennae system delivers programming to your television. So what? Well. Remember 2009’s controversial DigitalTV transition? That so-called transition to DTV “added” a number of channels to virtually every dial, many of which (under titles like MeTV, ThisTV, Cozi, AntennaTV, RetroTV, Centric, Aspire, INSP, etcetera) fill their schedules with movies and programs from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Many of these tvshows in particular have not been commercially released on home video/dvd and many have rarely (or never) been in regular syndication. LocateTV is especially valuable if you’re interested in particular performers or particular titles (episodes, shows, films) and, take my word, you’ll probably be surprised by just how many weird treats your existing channel lineup has in store for you. A handy email alert system also lets you name your picks and forget about it.

Most Useful iPad App for Figuring out What Streams/Rents Where: Fan
Hack-FANFan (formerly Fanhattan) scans the holdings of the major streaming/rental services (netflix, hulu, itunes, amazon, vudu, etc) and tells you whether, where, how and at what cost a given title might be available. I only signed on a few weeks ago and I’m already so reliant it’s scary. That said, I mostly use it to identify where things are, not as a platform to stream content. It’s only an iOS app, alas, but web-based and android versions are supposed to be on their way. I’m also hoping they link soon to more paid-subscription streaming services (like WarnerArchiveInstant) and begin to include all of their streaming services (especially Xfinity and HBOgo) within their general search results, but this newish, ambitious app seems off to a productively promising start. So we’ll see…

Most Useful but Frustrating Email Alert System: TCM Reminders
Hack-TCM1Turner Classic Movies, in the last couple years, has added a reminder feature to their web schedule. All you have to do is search within the schedule for a particular title or name and, if anything’s scheduled in the next two calendar months, the movie’s title should come up with a little grey clock next to it. Clicking on that clock permits you to set up an email reminder for that screening, which can be handy if your dvr is like mine and only likes to program 10 days in advance. Alas, however, this reminder feature is not available throughout the TCM catalog, so it’s no help in catching anything that’s not yet on the schedule. Also, the search function only scans titles and cast names, not keywords or descriptions, so you must still scan the schedule every couple months if you’re tracking particular themes, genres or plots. (It’s a total pain, but I’m now reminded that “manually” reviewing each month’s TCM schedule is totally worth doing.) The TCM web setup mostly makes me sad, but, when you do figure your way through to what you need, it can pay off.

Most Surprisingly Useful Roku App: Pub-D-Hub
hack-PubDHubPub-D-Hub is one of those awesome fan communities that uses the internet to make marvelous things happen. What they do is scour the interwebs for digital content (mostly commercial film, television and radio, as well as audio books and educational films) and, once they have confirmed that something is in fact in the public domain, they upload the content to the Pub-D-Hub server, which is accessible exclusively through the Roku device. You do have to rummage to figure out what’s available but Pub-D-Hub can be a lot of fun (especially for old cautionary/hygiene/industrial films, lost 1950s tv shows, random cartoons, and really weird 1930s movies). “Search” and “Playlist” functions are only available to GOLD Members, which is a whopping $2 per year. True, most of Pub-D-Hub’s content is available elsewhere on the web, but there’s greater quality and stability in the Pub-D-Hub copies. (If you do go Gold, please note that the search function is pretty low-rent, scanning only for the exact sequence of letters, but Pub-D-Hub does poach program/title descriptions from IMDB/etc so well-strategized keyword searches can unearth unexpected treasures. Plus, the system remembers your previous searches, so you can quickly scan new additions for relevant content.)

Most Delightful New Feature on an Old Research Tool: eBay Feed
Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 8.34.51 PM Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 8.35.00 PMThis isn’t a tv thing, but whatever. I mean, most popular culture researchers I know have a love/loathing relationship with eBay. Still, for 20th century projects, eBay remains as indispensable as other crowdsourced data-caches like Wikipedia and IMDB when it comes to getting your bearings on pretty much any given popular performance topic. The capricious auction site also remains probably the single best database for clues/leads/finds when it comes to pop culture ephemera. But I’d not much used eBay for a while, so I was at first somewhat snarkily bemused by their new Pinterest-ish “feed” feature, which uses your recent searches to aggregate an image stream of possibly relevant items mined from recent auction listings. Once I fiddled with the settings to focus which searches were being aggregated, however, I must confess to finding the resulting feed a peculiar, contemplative pleasure, as well as a reliable source for evidentiary leads.

Most Mourned Service: InstantWatch’s “Expiring Soon” and QueueNoodle
Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 8.20.57 PMUp until March 2013, streaming megapower Netflix gave at least a little warning to subscribers as to when a given title would be removed from the streaming catalog. But whatever information a corporation gives, it can also take away. Which is what happened in March and which is what led to the demise of InstantWatch.com’s invaluable “Expiring Soon” list as well as QueueNoodle’s hugely popular twitter feed. All of which is an ominous reminder of how capricious and unstable each and every one of these “new” services and features are…

But then there’s Twonky…
Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 8.06.53 PMTwonky just blows my simple little 20th-century-mind. All it does is connect your Roku to your iPhone/iPad in order to “beam” a specific streaming link to your television. I know plenty of y’all are fine watching stuff on your computer, but I sorta hate it, especially when something’s more than 5-minutes long. So Twonky is great for me. There’s a handy queue feature and it does seem to work with most streaming content that is not password-protected, including YouTube, DailyMotion and Vimeo, with in-app connections to platforms like ComedyCentral, FunnyOrDie, Veoh and a variety of news channels. Configuring it can feel a little tricksy but I’m routinely delighted by Twonky’s niftiness…


* * * * *

That’s what I got. Not a lot, really. All tethered to the limits of my particular home configuration, totally left to the corporate whims of the powers that NSA us all, and current as of early July 2013, but probably not much longer than that. Still, these features, sites and apps have truly served my work on my current manuscript and are already anchoring my next project in productive ways. So I offer this post in the hopes that my stumblings might encourage you to see what happens when you try to use your particular media setup as a research tool.

SO: what I have I missed? What are your favorite home-tv hacks? Add your favorite additions, emendations and trickeries in comments…

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