Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Here's the Roku Streambar, which converted a 2008 Acer 24-inch monitor into a television set. At left is the USB dongle that lets me watch programs I have on the inserted 256-gb stick. The little black rectangle is electrical tape covering an overly bright power LED, annoying at night. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

The State of Television Around Here

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 9:45 AM

It was expensive as mute buttons go.

That seems clear to me, but anyone else might need a little explanation. For the last number of years I have had in my bedroom what was the cheapest little flat-screen television that WalMart had to offer in about 2015, so it wasn’t much good seven years ago and today no one would purchase even a telephone with its low video specifications and lack of inputs.

Over the years I’d added some things: it had a headphone jack, so I was able to put it atop a cheap (25 years old and not worth it then) Sherwood hifi receiver and attach a couple of small bookshelf speakers. The receiver’s remote sensor had died as a result of a nearby lightning strike that seemed to cause no other harm, but I could control the volume with the television’s remote, so it was no big problem. And the sound was now of quality well above the video from the television. Three years ago I added a Roku streaming stick, the tiny computer gadget that let me stream things after the AT&T company bought and instantly ruined DirecTV and they no longer received my custom.

Meanwhile, I had a good 24-inch Acer computer monitor from 2008. It has a perfect 1080p picture. But it has no speakers, headphone jack, or other acknowledgment of the gift of hearing. Hmmm. I wondered if there was a way around that.

If you can imagine it, chances are they make a gadget that will do it, and my situation was no exception. I was able to find and for $15 purchase an adapter that fit between the Roku and the monitor, but that split off the audio so that it could go to the hifi. It worked but for three things: I now had no remote volume control — the Roku stick didn’t control volume internally. Item two, it had no mute button.

Among the many malignancies metastasized by the increasingly evil Google is an awful and growing infestation of advertisements on YouTube. It has gotten entirely out of control and I can comfort myself only with the hope that those ads will stream nonstop during the Google executives’ eternity in Hell. The ads actually appear in places such as the middle of songs, at which times it is again demonstrated that God was wise in not giving me access to His Terrible Swift Sword. The only relief possible to me in absence of HTSS is a mute button. (I do wonder if YouTube advertisers realize that all they’re buying is ill will toward their companies and products.) The third problem is that I now had to walk across the room to turn off the monitor/television, as well as to adjust the volume. This made my brilliant idea a nice novelty, an exercise but not much more.

Then I heard about something called the Roku Streambar. It costs $100, or about as much as their best streaming gadget. But it contains in addition to the streaming circuitry an amplifier and four speakers. And its remote has a mute button. Not entirely certain I could just plug my monitor into its HDMI port, I ordered one, half expecting to return it. Last week it arrived.

It tidied things up considerably. The receiver and speakers could go back into storage, as could the little adapter box. The Streambar took five minutes to set up physically and an hour total to get working online. The first problem is that Roku emails a link for you to set it up — I already had an account with them — after which I had to click through a seemingly endless stream of “premium” channels, subscribing to none of them. This already annoying process got interrupted by the internet staging one of its twice-a-week — or on this day twice-a-day — outages here.

(I get my internet from Frontier Communications, an outfit that in my estimation should be less under the authority of the FCC than whoever it is that enforces the RICO statute. I do not like them and hope they end up alongside the Google execs, only Frontier’s eternity should include endless hours on the phone listening to terrible music in the false hope of relief when the person on the other end who does not really speak English finally picks up. The lone redeeming part of Frontier — and this is due to the guy himself and not the company — is that the local repair guy gave me a number where I can reach him. He’s knowledgeable and mirabile dictu speaks English.)

In overdue course the internet came back and I finished setting up my Roku Streambar. I was eager to hear this thing, which the many “independent” “unbiased” reviewers had said would just blow me away.

It didn’t blow me away. It produces audio nearly but not quite as good as that offered by a $39 discount-store baby-boombox cassette player and radio of a generation ago. It’s not awful, but it’s a step down from the fairly bad receiver and mediocre speakers I’d had before, though it can be improved to some extent through adjusting its settings. Still, there’s a lot of audible harmonic distortion. Placement of the device has proved to play a big part in its effectiveness. It can improve the intelligibility of dialogue, which is useful in programs such as anime with its often screechy, squawking voice acting. (Nothing but HTSS can fix the Marvel movies, though.) Oh, and while a computer can put the monitor to sleep, the Streambar cannot — the monitor uses something called DCC/CI for sleep mode, while the Roku uses something else, called CEC. Nor can the Streambar itself be turned off. (Were the monitor a little newer, it probably would support some of the features my old one lacks. In any case, try to find a 1080p television smaller than about 40 inches. You can’t. Even my 14-year-old monitor produces as good a picture as you can find on a television of its size, even now.)

I did now have a volume control, a mute button, and a USB port where I stuck a big USB stick containing a few hundred hours of programs for when the internet goes down (which, as I mentioned, is all the time). I can listen to online radio, via a Roku application, with the screen turned off. And as I said, the picture is unsurpassed.

What is that picture? Well, for a start, not the stream from Sling. I subscribed to Sling some time ago in that it was the cheapest way to get all the various news channels. But then the prices crept up. Worse, Sling kept rearranging its home screen, moving channels around in real time in what seemed to be an attempt to lure me into watching murder porn. I suspect money changed hands in getting the awful streams up top. Hint for Sling: if you have to trick people into watching something, it’s probably no good and the people you tricked won’t thank you for it. What’s more, the various “news” channels have themselves turned into jokes. Fox News metaphorically does for Trump what Monica actually did for Bill, while CNN and MSNBC are the corpses of long-ago-almost-good news channels. None of them offers intelligent coverage of the day’s events, and I can get poor news coverage for free, from outfits like “Newsy” and “Cheddar.” So long, Sling.


Here’s my cobbled-together television set, on a table whose top is a 17-inch square. The Roku-amplifier-soundbar has four speakers, two front-firing and one angled off at each side. On the screen is episode 19 of “Toradora,” the best episode of one of the best anime ever. It’s playing from the little USB stick at the left. Not many years ago, this much technology and storage would have taken an entire wall. (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

Feeling liberated, I undertook my every-other-year one-month subscription to Netflix. I was able to watch everything there of interest with two weeks to spare. Netflix is hard to cancel online, but I was able to be rid of them by calling their toll-free number.

My monthly pay-for-it television bill is now down to $7.99, and that’s for Crunchyroll, the anime channel. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep it around. Its interface is maddening, its wokeness department changes the scripts of dubs, and it is wont to drop series for no particular reason. If Crunchyroll wonders why people pirate anime, that’s why (not that I would ever do that — pirate sites are illegal and dangerous — but a lot of people do, and it’s understandable). I also have annual subscriptions to HiDive, a decent anime provider, and Asiancrush, a good packager of far-Eastern movies and shows. All of these are free to a limited extent, but I pay about $50 per year each for HiDive and Asiancrush in addition to the monthly Crunchyroll toll.

The free streaming lineup has changed and in some ways improved since I last wrote about it. Let’s take a brief look.

My streaming lineup contains 35 “apps,” which one can think of practically as being like streaming websites (and you can in fact stream most of them on your computer or, Heaven help you, your cellular telephone, via your browser). As with sites on the world-wide web, no two are arranged the same and there are few conventions, though there is some slight movement towards standards (for instance, there’s more though by no means complete consistency in whether and how you can turn subtitles on and off, which is important if you follow broadcasts from overseas). There are aggregators who produce little or no programming of their own but instead offer a long list of usually unsorted individual channels, not unlike the internet news aggregators who produce a page of links to other news sites. (In both cases, the price of admission is the advertising you’re expected to embrace and the information the sites collect about you. And in both cases the ads are ham-handedly placed.)

Oddly and annoyingly, none of the “apps,” either aggregator or those dedicated to a single broadcaster, gives you what you want with a single click. Thus, when we learned on Wednesday that Queen Elizabeth II of England, etc., was gravely ill, in order to get the latest I had to open the Sky News application, then scroll down several rows to the box labeled “Live Television” or words to that effect. Only by clicking on that could I watch what I and I imagine everyone else had gone there to see. It’s not unlike working on a document on a computer, where you open the word processor, then navigate to the document you have in mind, then open it, and only then can you insert the sentence you wanted to add (if you still remember it, which you probably don’t). There is currently no way around this on Roku, and I’m given to understand the other streaming devices are even worse. And there is no way to minimize a channel, effectively put it to sleep while saving your place to return to later, and go on to something else, the way there is on modern computers. I wish there were an application that would let me list the places I want to go and would simply take me there. The scenic route is nice when you have time, but you don’t always have time.

One does need to take a little time to learn the flavors of various channels. For instance, having watched France24 since the sad day that Notre Dame Cathedral burned, I wasn’t very surprised Monday morning to see that channel’s “newsman” poking at a man from Scotland, trying to get him to call for insurrection against the Crown. The anchor’s disappointment was palpable when the Scot said that actually the recent events have probably brought the United Kingdom closer together. This didn’t bother me because having watched France24 for a few years I knew what Kentucky windage to apply to compensate for its bias.

So. What do I have on my Roku here?

For news I have Sky News, France24, Japan’s excellent NHK, the quirky local news application NewsON (which allows you to watch the latest local news shows from many stations around the country), Bloomberg for moderately useful business news, WeatherNation for weather (is there a Weather Channel anymore?), and occasionally — I’ve deleted it because it demanded my email address, which can’t be good — Haystack news, which has as its only selling point in my view the fact that it offers the somewhat promising NewsNation, which doesn’t have its own Roku app but should. (NewsNation comes out of WGN in Chicago.)

The aggregators all want you to think of them as your only source for streaming content but all fall far short in that regard. Still, they have television shows of varying age and quality, movies in the same range, and most have a bunch of live channels, some of which are worth the trouble. (They also have a lot of channels, particularly news ones, that are first-order trash.) The ones I have installed include the Roku Channel, Tubi, Pluto, Filmrise, and Freevee (owned by Amazon). The first three are constant, while the others and some ones I haven’t listed come and go depending on whether they currently have anything interesting. (Roku has a good search feature which tells you where you might find, and at what if any price, a particular current or ancient television series or movie. It was here that I learned the original “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” costs $1.99 per episode, which was sufficient to tamp down my curiosity as to how much worse it was than I remember.)

There are a multitude of other aggregators and channels. I have and make frequent use of the EWTN application, which provides live and on-demand Catholic programming. I love MyTuner, which lets me listen to local radio from all over the world, in local-broadcast quality. (I had the PBS app, but quickly realized that it has become just another pay-television service not worth the money.)

There are others, but this has gone on long enough.

It’s still early days for streaming. I suspect a rude awakening awaits many companies, and ignominious early retirement awaits many executives, who overestimate the amount of money people are willing to pay for, often, next to nothing. I can justify giving Netflix $16 once every even-numbered year. I cancel the subscription quickly and watch the two-year’s crop of decent Netflix stuff in that month. CBS and NBC have nothing that I’d pay even a month’s fee for; if they reduced prices to, say, $1 per month I might reconsider. If all the news channels were aggregated, as Sling sort of does, for $10 a month, I might subscribe. Disney and Apple and HBO sell nothing I want; if they were free I might install their apps but not even that is certain.

We’ll certainly see improvements in usability — the very existence of things like the Roku Streambar attests to that — and perhaps some uniformity across applications. I would not be at all surprised to see the rise of an open-source streaming platform that lets users decide what they want to watch and how they want to watch it. When that happens, I’ll try it.

And keep it if it has a mute button.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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