Weekend Tech Scan: Sorting through the exploding options for viewing TV, film, everything

Oddly enough, the familiar presence of Roger Ebert is one way that it's becoming easier to sift through the many retail and streaming sevices and find what you want to watch.

Crosscut archive image.

Roger Ebert, center, at the 2010 Hawaii International Film Festival with his wife, Chaz Hammel-Smith (left) and actress Nancy Kwan.

Oddly enough, the familiar presence of Roger Ebert is one way that it's becoming easier to sift through the many retail and streaming sevices and find what you want to watch.

More and more, the decades-old question, “What’s on TV” is morphing into “What do we want to watch — and how do we find it?” 

Virtually every week, some new program or entertainment pops up that’s not necessarily from a traditional programming source, or there's some new technology or toy lets us watch our programming on something other than our big screen living room TV.

Could you even guess that Little Stephen, guitarist with Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band and a former HBO "Sopranos" standout, is starring in an eight-episode hour-long TV series, "Lilyhammer," paid for and only available on Netflix?

So, forget about your cable guide.  How do I even learn about all the good stuff that's out there, and then how do I get my hands on it?

This first suggestion may surprise you: some of the best new-media news is coming from an old, esteemed source.

Over the last several months, legendary film critic Roger Ebert has turned to Twitter  and Facebook with a vengeance ,  sending out messages about intriguing films or TV shows we may want to see.  Sometimes he just comments about items of cultural interest, or news that appeals to his highly developed cultural appetites. He frequently dips into the Netflix streaming film catalog and recommends obscure films that normally don’t play at the metroplex (an example, his recent recommendation of The Housemaid, a very definitely R-rated Korean film with large dollops of sex, submission, and horror; Roger gave it 3 stars).  If you’re a Twitter fan, or if you want an excuse to try it out (it’s free), follow Roger.

My daily Twitter dance with Roger recently led me to two new alternate sources of what to watch. He told me (as well as the rest of his 599,565  —  as of Friday afternoon — Twitter BFFs) about a website called WatchIt, a new operation still in beta testing form, that gives people a search platform to find virtually any movie across any platform: in theaters, on DVD or Blu-ray, on demand from your cable system, or online websites.

It certainly sounded promising and well worth checking out. There is no one voice — no TV Guide — for this new generation of multiple media sources and multiple devices to view it on.  I once believed that search engine would be Google TV when I installed it in my home entertainment center.  I tried Clicker, another website that does roughly the same thing.  WatchIt, even in its beta phase, seems to be better than any other similar service I've tried.

I picked Casablanca, an easy choice, to put WatchIt through its paces.  My film query came up instantly, giving me a site to look at movie reviews called MRQE, or Movie Review Query Engine, a site developed by WatchIt’s parent company.  It then offered me choices of seeing it on DVD or on-demand streaming over the Internet. WatchIt tracks media on several sites including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes, Vudu, Redbox, Snag Films, You Tube, Sundance Now and a generic cable-on-demand service.  If I wanted to watch Casablanca, I had two choices: Netflix and Amazon.

If it’s a current film I’m interested in, I can use WatchIt’s queue system to find out when certain films become available: whether it’s a new popular studio films with wide distribution or an independent film shown only at film festivals.  WatchIt will notify me by email when it surfaces, including its availability at a local theater.

My next test was for more obscure films.  What about And Quiet Flows the Don, directed by Sergei Gerasimov? Yes. They had it in their search engine. Then, what about A Matter of Life and Death directed by English director Michael Powell?  No  —but it did have it listed under its U.S. title, Stairway to Heaven. What about Edward Munch, directed by Peter Watkins? Alas, no . . . but WatchIt's performance even in beta was still impressive.

In an interview, David Larkin, president and CEO of WatchIt’s parent company, Plexus Entertainment,  noted that the company is exploring extending this kind of service to virtually every form of entertainment: TV shows, books and more.  It will also continue adding films (Larkin promised to look into Edward Munch) and adding sources as they become available such as Microsoft’s Zune film service for Xbox, and Comcast Xfinity’s on-demand library. (There's also an  interesting business side of this story, nicely told by TechCrunch.)

By the way, WatchIt has set up a special page listing Roger Ebert’s reviews of all 2012 Oscar-nominated films.  The Oscars air live a week from this Sunday, and can be seen locally on KIRO-TV starting at 4pm Seattle time on Feb. 26.

The other "what to watch" tweet from Roger Ebert is a blog called “The Demanders,” running in the Chicago Sun-Times, his home paper. Authored by outside contributors (e.g., non-staff writers), bloggers combs through obscure offerings in cable on-demand sections and offer reviews of films or documentaries that are usually overlooked in favor of more commercial fare.  For example, an independent 2011 British film called Perfect Sense, starring Ewan McGregor, listed in the blog's January archives, is available on IFC On Demand from cable companies (including, locally, Comcast Xfinity),  and can be rented or downloaded via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, SundanceNOW, XBOX, and PlayStation 3.  

Going through the blog’s recommendations, I also found The Off Hours, an independent film shot in Seattle, in the December archives.  It contains a long, thoughtful look at independent filmmaking in Seattle by Seattle-based free lance writer Jeff Shannon, as well as a review of the film.  The film will soon be available for viewing on Netflix.

Incidentally, David Larkin, you may want to be sure WatchIt lists this film as well. I couldn’t find it in your search engine.  


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