I have a magical box that allows me to watch other people watch TV—their movies, their sports, their cartoons, and their hour-long procedural dramas. And sometimes, usually around 11:30 on Friday nights, their soft-core pornography.
My career as a TV freeloader began when I threw together an HDTV setup a few months ago. To pull in locally broadcast HD channels, I bought a Samsung HD tuner and a set of rabbit ears. This setup was unstable—breathing on the antenna made the picture vanish. My girlfriend suggested that I try plugging in the Comcast cable line. (I get Comcast service but I don’t have a cable box.) I screwed the cable in, and after performing the tuner’s “auto channel search,” I got all the D.C. and Baltimore broadcast networks in super-sharp HD.
But that wasn’t all. Further up the dial, past PBS and the CW, I found a big clump of hyphenated channels. Channel 86-4 delivered an episode of The Sopranos—odd considering that I don’t subscribe to HBO. The Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond appeared on 87-5. And on 89-11 … whoa, is that a nipple? These “premium” shows tended to appear and disappear in a flash—that Sopranos episode on 86-4 stayed on for five minutes, then transmogrified into The Devil Wears Prada. These programs also sometimes fast-forwarded and rewound spontaneously, as if an invisible hand were operating the remote.
At first, I assumed our tuner had formed a mind meld with a cable box a few apartments over. My girlfriend regaled our visitors with tales of our TV-obsessed neighbor, a heterosexual male who loved large-chested women and Hollywood blockbusters. But even the most ravenous viewer couldn’t have this kind of appetite—some evenings I was getting free movies and porn on 20 channels at once.
I solved the mystery by consulting online message boards. At tech-y sites like AVS Forum, other voyeurs described their adventures in freeloading. Apparently, I was intercepting video-on-demand channels through the power of my Samsung’s QAM tuner.
To explain how my tuner harvested a TV bonanza, I need to give a short primer on cable-television tech. Generally speaking, if you subscribe to basic-cable service—a $10 per month plan for around 20 channels, or a plan that gives you, say, channels 2 through 70—you receive nothing but analog signals. For more channels, you’ve got to go digital.
Depending on your cable company, “digital cable” service typically includes a mix of analog channels and channels sent digitally. QAM, or quadrature amplitude modulation, is the “modulation scheme” that cable companies use to transmit digital channels. Set-top boxes leased out by cable TV companies allow viewers to tune in to “QAM-ed” channels. The number of channels you receive depends on what level of service you’ve subscribed for and what switches they’ve thrown at the cableco for your account.
If you don’t have a cable box but do subscribe to cable, you can usually receive some digital cable if your television or TV receiver has built-in QAM support. A standalone QAM tuner, however, will let you tune in only unencrypted digital channels.
Which digital channels are unencrypted? Most cable companies don’t encrypt the digital signals that they pick up from local broadcasters. That explains why I get the HD versions of Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, CW, and PBS. My tuner also fields unencrypted digital channels that aren’t broadcast in HD, like the local NBC affiliate’s 24-hour weather radar and a music-video channel called The Tube. Cable companies encrypt premium channels like HBO, ESPN-HD, and BBC America to prevent nonsubscribers from getting a free ride. The reason I can watch all that hot on-demand stuff is because Comcast doesn’t encrypt it.
Here’s how VOD works: If you want to watch an old Sopranos episode, you click a button that tells your set-top box to transmit a message to a server at the local cable facility. The box receives a message back from the server identifying the frequency—say, channel 86-4—where the stream will start playing. Only this particular cable box gets the message about the frequency, but the show itself still gets transmitted to other people in your service area. According to Comcast, each of its cable “nodes” serves roughly 450 houses. So, when Joe Blow dials up Episode 67 of The Sopranos, the signal goes to 449 of his neighbors. They could watch along if the cable company doesn’t encrypt the show (which Comcast doesn’t here in D.C.), they know what channel to flip to, and they have a QAM tuner. If someone in my node makes an on-demand request for The Sopranos, all I have to do is scroll around in the upper-80s region of my tuner, and I’ll find it.
Here’s a taste of what on-demand subscribers in my neighborhood watched during two recent one-hour sampling periods: an old episode of Scooby-Doo, several episodes of The Office, a Cinemax women-in-prison movie that was hard to follow plotwise thanks to the fast-forwarding, The Da Vinci Code, another soft-core movie (frequently fast-forwarded to the dirty parts) that focused on the salutary effects of bubble baths, an exercise show (“let’s circle the rib cage up to the right”), a scare-movie channel called FEARnet, the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Something’s Gotta Give, Just Like Heaven, The Break-Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Children of Men, Borat, The Wicker Man (Nicolas Cage version), The Queen, The Good Shepherd, Deja Vu, Derailed, ATL, and episodes of the HBO series Big Love, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Real Time With Bill Maher, and Da Ali G Show.
Comcast insists that it scrambles all pay-per-view adult movies—that encompasses hard-core titles like Exxxtasy Island and Co-Ed Nymphos 31 (both cost $11.99 to order). According to a Comcast spokesperson, the company has “begun to scramble VOD channels and is working toward scrambling all of our content on VOD in the future.” The company’s spokespeople also want me to tell you that its customers’ privacy is not under siege—that it’s impossible for QAM users to identify who requested the VOD content they’re watching. (I should make it clear that I don’t mean to single out Comcast. They just happen to be my cable provider. An acquaintance of mine who gets Time Warner Cable filches on-demand movies, too. According to Internet forums, most cable companies occasionally provide unencrypted content that QAM users can grab.)
Why doesn’t Comcast encrypt all of its VOD streams? Again according to a spokesperson, it’s not that it’s more technically challenging than encrypting a regular channel. Rather, it’s an issue of volume: Comcast has 9,000 programs in its VOD system each month, and that’s a lot of stuff to scramble. Encryption also can’t be implemented by fiat from corporate headquarters—it has to be done market–by-market at each local cable facility.
Perhaps the main reason cable companies haven’t bothered to close the QAM loophole is that so few people know or care about it. Ken Holsgrove, an audio/video consultant and the lead moderator of the HDTV sections on AVS Forum, says there are three barriers to entry for the wannabe on-demand swiper. First, you have to know what a QAM tuner is. (That eliminates roughly 100 percent of the U.S. population.) Second, you have to buy either a standalone QAM tuner (mine cost $170) or a TV with built-in QAM. Third, as cable companies add channels to their lineups, they tend to change QAM channel designations—the on-demand stream that appears on 86-4 today could be on a different channel tomorrow. In order to keep up with this movement, QAM users must rescan their channel lineup frequently. How many people have the patience to do that?
Besides, Holsgrove argues, it isn’t that satisfying to watch secondhand on-demand. “The odds of you actually seeing a movie from beginning to end are virtually impossible to predict,” he says. “That’s stabbing an avid TV viewer right through the eyeball.”
Other downsides: You can’t control what’s on. Not much of the content is in HD, which is unfortunate for those of us with HDTV setups. The show you’re watching also might suddenly stop or fast-forward, like you’ve wandered inside someone else’s TiVo. If your neighbor pauses Entourage to go to the bathroom, you’ll just have to wait until he finishes. If he wants to skip the exposition and go right to the sex scenes, then you’re going to the sex scenes, too. And if he stops watching Stranger Than Fiction with five minutes to go—well, you’re just screwed.
But you can’t beat the price (free), and sometimes it’s fun to cede control. My friend who grabs on-demand stuff from Time Warner calls it “mystery cable”—it’s fun to flip around the channels and hope you get lucky.
There is a science to watching other people’s on-demand. If you want to catch the latest Sopranos or Entourage, start looking on Monday night—some of your neighbors will be catching up because they missed their shows on Sunday. Browsing during prime time will yield more programs than snooping in the middle of the day. If you start looking around 9 o’clock on a weeknight and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, you’ll generally find a well-stocked buffet of recent movies.
On-demand voyeurism works the best for guilty pleasures or movies that you’ve already seen. If you’re dying to see The Queen, get the DVD. If you’re in the mood for popcorn fare like Deja Vu or Derailed, you probably won’t mind if the movie starts in the middle or if the action pauses for a few minutes. And don’t worry: In my experience, only the porn viewers really lean on the fast-forward button. If you sit back on a Friday night to watch someone else’s movie, there’s a great chance you’ll see it all the way through.
My magical box will eventually stop working. Comcast plans to scramble the VOD content from premium networks (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax) first and move on from there. In the meantime, I encourage the people of Washington, D.C., to continue to order on-demand movies. For one thing, I still haven’t seen the beginning of Deja Vu. If someone could queue that up for me tonight, I’d appreciate it.