Yet Another Journal

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» Monday, August 17, 2020
The Long Road Back to Region 2
(or Region B, whatever the hell they're calling it these days.)

It all started with VCRs and the movie studios. You remember videotape, right? Initially VCRs were marketed as being used for "time-shifting." You wouldn't be home to watch Charlie's Angels or Laverne & Shirley? Back then it was over the air, no DVRs. If you missed an episode, it might be rerun in the summer. It might not. But VCRs solved the problem: program the unit, and when you got home, or the next day, you could rewind your tape and watch Bosley and the ladies or 1950s days at the Shotz Brewery. Then came places like Blockbuster Video. Were you a Get Smart fan who missed The Nude Bomb when it was aired in a mere 40 movie houses back in 1980? You could rent the VHS tape and realize that you really hadn't missed anything at all. (Trust me.)

But some people thought, "Wow, wouldn't this be a great thing to have so we could buy and watch our favorite movie over and over?" And they did finally start selling movies, at $80 a pop at first. But the movie studios were apoplectic. What if...what if, mind you?...people bought a movie and another VCR (yeah, a second one at $750 each back then—sure; let me tell you about this bridge in Brooklyn that's for sale..) and then started making copies of it to give to their friends! The movie studios would lose sales. And what if these same people started selling these copies?

Well, you could arrest them, of course. But that wasn't enough. So something called copyguarding was put on professional videotapes. If you did indeed try to copy one, the picture faded in and out and rolled. When DVDs got popular in the late 90s, copy encoding was put on them as well.

Alas, this didn't satisfy the MPAA. Once DVDs came along, movie studios had another concern: their overseas profits. Usually when a movie hits a cinema in the United States, it's another year before it's shipped overseas. So Galaxy Quest, for instance, which was released December of 1999, wouldn't reach cinema audiences in France, Great Britain, Australia, etc. until November or December 2000. But people in those countries who heard about this funny film...gasp!...might just buy the American DVD when it came out in May of 2000 and not go to see it at the cinema. The movie studio would lose their revenues from foreign countries. Quelle horreur! So Region Codes were devised. The US and Canada were Region 1, Great Britain was Region 2, Australia was Region 4, etc. (I just learned recently it's now Region A, Region B, etc. I'm still numerical. Sue me.)

This is just fine if everything that's released in Region 1 is also released in Region 2, etc. and vice versa. The problem is, that's not the case.

I've been an Anglophile since I read Lassie Come-Home in fourth grade and watched The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene in glorious black and white on TV. I love most of British television. I especially adore all their documentaries on mainstream television, the stuff that used to be on American television (remember the National Geographic Specials???) but are now usually relegated to PBS, Smithsonian, and other cable channels. And I have gobbled up any programming that was available: Britcoms on PBS, Masterpiece Mystery, Flambards (also on PBS), the British kids' book adaptations that showed up on Once Upon a Classic and Family Classics, British mystery and adventure series that used to turn up in the summer in the 1960s and 1970s (like Strange Report), the series that popped up after the FCC forced network television to give up a half hour of programming every night like Doctor in the House and Dave Allen At Large, shows that were brought to me by science fiction fandom (Doctor Who on PBS and grainy camera copies of Blake's 7 seen at conventions). And lots of them were eventually released on American DVDs: Doctor Who, The Good Life (a.k.a. Good Neighbors), All Creatures Great and Small, Pie in the Sky...

Alas, a lot of them weren't. This includes the aforementioned Blake's 7, The Goodies, Doctor in the House, Dave Allen of any persuasion, and, the unkindest cut of all, one of my favorite series of all time, Alistair Cooke's brilliant America which aired on NBC in 1972 and after that was only available to libraries until it was released on DVD—only in Region 2, of course—about a decade ago.

Now let's time-travel back to halcyon days...cue the flashback music, here come the calendar pages flipping backwards...those days around the years 2002-2004 when marvelous Media Play was still open and we used to play trivia on Saturday nights at Rockford's Bar & Grill (goodness, I still miss their Asian salad!). I think it might have been Jake and Nancy who came wandering in one evening saying they had found an inexpensive DVD player that could be region-hacked by entering a certain combination of numbers into the unit while it had no disc in it. Plus, at a time when DVD players were almost $100, this unit, a Cyberhome, was only $40.

We eventually ended up with three of them, all region-hacked, and they worked really well, until they started, one by one, to give up the ghost (we still have one somewhere; not sure if it still works).

Now we have to take a slight digression (I'll try to miss the left turn at Albuquerque). Ten, twelve years ago we were watching This Old House on PBS regularly as well as a series I really loved, History Detectives. (You can still find History Detectives episodes on PBS Passport.—highly recommended!) Unfortunately both Georgia Public Broadcasting (Georgia's PBS station) and WPBA (Atlanta's PBS station, two different entities) pretty much run fundraising every two months, weeks and weeks of This Old House and all the regular programming pre-empted for Joel Osteen preaching, Suzi Ormand talking money, some doctor advising you on your diet, old rock and roll specials, endless repetitions of the Presidents episodes of American Experience, etc. When the regular programming did return, we had missed two or three episodes. Now we can just go on PBS Passport and pull 'em up; back then you had to go to PBS' web page and watch it, of course, only on your computer.

So what I used to do was attach my laptop to the television with a serial cable, change the Windows settings so it had two screens instead of one, move the browser screen from screen one (the computer) to the television (screen two), and then play History Detectives full screen on the television. Yeah, it was going around Robin Hood's barn for the result, but it worked.

Around 2010, around the time the Cyberhomes started to go belly-up, we found this small, Windows 7-based computer at Microcenter, a Lenovo IdeaCentre. That's all it was, a computer: 6"x7 1/2"x1.25", but it did come with a DVD player. So after that we could watch History Detectives on this little computer via a Firefox browser, and since the DVD player on a computer is region-free, we could use that to play the Region 2 DVDs. And every so often I'd wander on to Amazon and check the prices on Region Free players.

Amazon Vine came to the rescue two weeks ago: they had a free-for-an-honest review Region Free DVD player on one of their lists! The listing was confusing; it said it only came with RCA cables (composite video) but the pictures showed it coming with HDMI, and so did the visual literature. So it arrived last week and sure enough, it was only coaxial or composite video (white, yellow, and red plugs), and when I hitched it up, it was not Region Free. (For a $20 DVD player, otherwise it was fine: played older fullscreen DVDs (Flambards) and newer widescreen video (Airport) well, the sound through the sound bar was good.) So I posted just that, that it was a good inexpensive player, but was not as advertised. I also found the manufacturer's e-mail on the manual and contacted them. They apologized, fixed the Amazon page, and sent me the hack for Region Free; like the Cyberhome, it was a matter of entering a certain code on the machine while it was empty.

So basically I'm back to Cyberhome territory again, except the Cyberhome video was a little better (component video, the red-blue-and-green plugs). There is an HDMI version of the unit that also has component video. To be perfectly honest, since only one of my Region 2 DVDs is HD, I'm not broken up about it not being HDMI. When we replaced (under extreme duress; the on-off switch on the previous set died) our television in 2014, we paid extra for a model with four HDMI ports. Every single one is in use and we have a splitter on one of them. So having this go from HDMI to composite is a ::shrug:: moment. I'm not one of these videophiles that has to have videos in pristine condition. To me the story on the DVD is the thing: I watched fourth generation, mostly blue camera copies of Blake's 7 for years, not to mention snowy episodes of Ask the Manager before my dad bought a signal booster and an antenna rotor for our outdoor antenna. The pictures were terrible, but I still got to visit with Vila and Avon, or Joe and Dana. That was the important thing. If using composite video means I can't see the pores in Dave Allen's skin while he's telling a falling-down funny joke, be it. HDMI would be nice; maybe some day...

And that's, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

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