Watching my neighbors watch on-demand television.

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June 1 2007 4:11 PM

Other People's Porn

Watching my neighbors watch on-demand television.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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.

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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.

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