In yet another sign of my advancing age or of widespread education failures, I find it really, really odd that a company is selling over-the-air TV antennas through TV commercials. It’s not that ClearTV is doing anything wrong, it just sounds to me like they’re telling viewers they can drink tap water for a fraction of the cost of bottled. It’s so obvious to me that I don’t recognize that some folks might need to be told about it.
On a related note, I’ve been experimenting with Simple.TV. (I got a killer deal on a first-generation unit with a transferrable lifetime guide subscription, all for less than the cost of a lifetime subscription. But I digress.) On the Simple.TV overview page, it says, “Most of us don’t realize it, but broadcast TV is available – free – to more than 90% of the U.S. population. It might seem like a retro way to get TV, but it’s the best kept secret ever.” So you and me, dear reader, we must be part of a minority that already knows that OTA TV is free. I guess we should be proud that we already know the best kept secret ever.
The difference between ClearTV and Simple.TV is the difference between a toaster and a food processor. ClearTV is simple, and Simple.TV is potentially powerful but not simple. ClearTV is just a flat square antenna less than 8 inches wide. That antenna will run you about $28 delivered, or you can order two for about $36. I’ve never tried one, but the site WafflesAtNoon.com reported what I would expect: “The Clear TV antenna does work, but there isn’t anything particularly special about it versus other (cheaper) antennas. It’s simply an antenna, and was not superior to the 20-year old set of rabbit ears we dug out to compare it against.” TV commercials are expensive, so their products need higher profit margins. It sure sounds like the ClearTV is a $2 antenna in a $20 box, but for a lot of viewers, that $2 antenna is all they need.
On the other hand, I can review the Simple.TV receiver, which took some work to set up right. It requires an external USB hard drive and didn’t like the thumb drive that I plugged in at first. Fortunately, I found an old 160 GB external drive, an awkward size that won’t help many computers these days. After restarting the installation process, I wrestled the receiver to the point of being able to watch OTA TV.
Then came the guide problems. Simple.TV’s program guide simply wouldn’t load on my Chrome browser. (Internet Explorer isn’t supported!) No error message, no indication of loading, just a blank page under the Guide tab when I’d click it. After poking around Simple.TV’s FAQs, I saw a note about slow loading of the guide caused by selecting too many channels. I unchecked some of the digital sub-channels that the receiver had found, then the guide worked.
Another Simple.TV guide problem is “To Be Announced”. Not just for obscure channels in the middle of the night. As I type, my local CBS affiliate shows TBA for 1 pm; NBC is TBA at 2. The program after Letterman? TBA. Every other TV listing service knows those shows are The Talk, Days of Our Lives, and Craig Ferguson, respectively.
Recording and playback have worked great, but there are far too few viewing clients. Simple.TV’s iOS app is only for iPads, not iPhones, and there’s still no Android support. At least there’s a Simple.TV app for the Roku.
Mind you, this is a year-old, first-generation receiver, so maybe I’m being too hard on Simple.TV. (You can read a much longer review of this particular model on cnet.) This should be the inspiring story of a couple of guys who won an award at the 2012 International CES, followed by a successful Kickstarter campaign. For widespread success, the Simple.TV team needs to get closer to the ease of use of a toaster. Except for streaming TV to the few types of devices that can watch it, I prefer my do-it-yourself Windows Media TV computer. We’ll see whether Simple 2.0 changes any of that.
Remember our old friend Aereo, the service that records and streams over-the-air TV programming to local-only subscribers for a small fee? Broadcasters are upset that Aereo is making viewers pay to watch free OTA TV. No, scratch that. Broadcasters are upset that Aereo is providing a way for some people to stop paying broadcasters (through retransmission consent fees) to watch free OTA TV.
As long as Aereo keeps winning in preliminary injunction cases in US District Court cases, it can continue to survive and expand until the matter is decided in a full trial. And then until that trial’s results are appealed and re-appealed to the US Supreme Court. A few weeks ago, broadcasters attempted to shorten that process by requesting that the Supreme Court consider the case this year. That request has brought out a lot of amicus briefs from everyone all the way down the money tree. ASCAP, The Media Institute, the Screen Actors Guild and other Hollywood unions have joined in urging the Supreme Court to slap down Aereo.
This week, the National Football League and Major League Baseball filed their anti-Aereo amicus. As reported in Multichannel News, they wrote, ”If copyright holders lose their exclusive retransmission licensing rights and the substantial benefits derived from those rights when they place programming on broadcast stations, those stations will become less attractive mediums for distributing copyrighted content.” And the leagues threatened to move their games to cable TV channels which aren’t available with Aereo.
This is goofy for at least a couple of reasons. The first reason is those sports leagues have already begun moving their games to cable channels. Unless you live in New York or Chicago, when was the last time you saw your local baseball team on OTA TV? Except for a scattered handfull, those games are already gone. The NFL hasn’t done as much yet, but it moved Monday Night Football, a cultural ritual for over 40 years, from OTA to ESPN, and its expanding set of Thursday night games are on the NFL Network. For the second this is goofy, consider who’s watching those games – viewers in their home markets. Viewers who could plug in an OTA antenna and probably watch for free anyway.
(The NFL says it’s concerned that the court case could open the door to out-of-market viewers and thereby undermine its Sunday Ticket subscription service. I had speculated that this was the main worry with nimbleTV’s early offering of New York City local channels to anyone who wanted to pay for them.)
It’s all about the money. If broadcasters get less retransmission cash, then they won’t have as much to offer when it’s time to bid on rights to sporting events. Fewer bidders means a lower contract price for the winner.
Yesterday at a Bloomberg conference in Chicago, Aereo financier Barry Diller summed up the NFL and MLB’s announcement pretty well. He said, ”They are just making noise.”
Two small boxes made for recording and streaming over-the-air TV hit the news recently. They both sound interesting, though I’m unconvinced that they’re better than a couple of alternatives.
Simple.TV is now taking pre-orders for its second generation DVR. The newest version includes dual tuners, apps for iOS, Android and Roku, and a “Download to Go” mode for offline TV viewing. You’ve got to provide your own hard drive, and for a remote control you have to use an app on your phone or other mobile device.
If you’ve ever used a DVR, you know that an important benefit is browsing future TV listings and scheduling recordings to watch later. (Simple.TV’s new device will pull its data from TitanTV.com, my favorite source of programming information.) In free service mode, the Simple.TV will only be able to record what’s on now, and it will only be able to stream it across its local network. Subscribers to Simple.TV’s Premier service (about $60/year, $150 lifetime) also get the ability to schedule recordings in advance using a full program guide, plus unlimited global streaming for up to five users.
The Tablo sounds remarkably similar. According to its Indiegogo campaign page, the Tablo device is designed to stream OTA channels to HDTVs and devices, especially tablets. Just like Simple.TV, the Tablo requires you to add your own hard drive and uses an app on your mobile device as its remote control. The Tablo streams globally, just like a subscribed Simple.TV. And the Tablo will require a subscription of about $50/year, according to Engadget’s Tablo review.
Compare those costs to two other alternatives I’ve described here before. First, a Windows Media Center computer costs maybe $200 to put together, and its guide data is free. Side benefits: Also provides access to any video programming available over the internet. Probably plays DVDs and local video files. Also includes full computer, useful for sending email and reading blogs. Drawbacks: Microsoft might stop providing free guide data one of these years. Form factor is often unwieldy, and typically requires more electricity. Adding streaming or even a good remote isn’t that easy.
Second, consider an Aereo subscription, currently $8/month. With no upfront cost, you get the same functionality as the Simple.TV or Tablo. Side benefits: Works even where OTA antenna placement is impractical. No device to plug in or place on a shelf. Includes Bloomberg. Easily streams to lots of device types. Drawbacks: Requires third-party device to stream to most TVs. Only available in certain TV markets. Won’t stream outside of home market. Might not be legal.
That question of Aereo’s legality continues to gather amicus briefs as it heads towards a possible Supreme Court decision. More about all of that in tomorrow’s column. And later, I owe you a review of the Roku 3, which does a lot of things really well.
When it comes to online TV viewing, Aereo and FilmOn get all the headlines, partly because they also get all the lawsuits. Our old friend nimbleTV, on the other hand, stays supremely quiet, content for now with its single programming point of presence and its unusual relationship with Dish Network.
So I found it remarkable today when nimbleTV added over-the-air digital subchannels from New York City to my package. (Remember that I only get NYC locals because I have a NYC mailing address.) Normally, I receive the NYC locals exactly as Dish delivers them; for example, when Dish upgraded WNYE from SD to HD, so did nimbleTV’s version.
We still don’t know exactly how nimbleTV retransmits its Dish channels to its subscribers. My best guess is that nimbleTV records every program from every channel it receives, then streams a copy of that to every subscriber who requests it. If that’s true, and if Dish and nimbleTV have an agreement for such virtual Dish subscribers, that all makes sense.
So how can nimbleTV add these extra OTA sub-channels that it can’t get from Dish? Well, I know that nimbleTV’s offices are on a 12th floor in Manhattan, and when I was in a hotel room about that high, I could pick up those same sub-channels with a simple OTA antenna. (What, don’t you pack one?) In the absence of any direct knowledge, my guess would be that nimbleTV has hooked its own OTA antennas into its content retransmitter. For the reason why, I’d guess that after watching Aereo and FilmOn connect their subscribers to NYC OTA antenna banks, nimbleTV figured that it was fair game.
As we teeter on this potentially unstable pile of guesses and theories, let’s try to add just one more. If all that I supposed happened to be true, then local broadcasters would probably pounce on nimbleTV because, according to these guesses, each nimbleTV subscriber probably isn’t directly connected to an OTA antenna Aereo-style. So that means that I’m probably wrong about this logic problem somewhere along the way, but at least I showed my work.
Mind you, I do enjoy these OTA sub-channels, although they might not be available to me for long. A worker there told me that nimbleTV was just “running a test with our platform”. But as I type, those channels are still there.Update: Between the time I posted this and when I tweeted its link, the sub-channels were gone again. Let’s see whether they return.
One of these days, FilmOn is going to win a case in court, but it probably won’t be today. Washington DC District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer slapped down FilmOn’s request to be allowed to stream over-the-air TV in Boston. Her earlier ruling that bans FilmOn from carrying OTA TV without permission still applies everywhere but in the New York-based Second District.
This chapter of the FilmOn saga began last Thursday, Oct. 10, when Boston District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton denied broadcasters’ request for a preliminary injunction against Aereo, allowing it to continue to stream OTA TV in Boston. Within hours, FilmOn founder Alki David announced that he would “defy” Collyer’s earlier injunction and begin streaming major network stations from Boston.
Yesterday, FilmOn officially requested that Collyer revise her order to reflect the Boston court’s finding. Tim Bukher at LawTechie.com saw this as a slam dunk. “It is fairly likely that Washington will accede to FilmOn’s request. If it does not, FilmOn could just sue for declaratory judgment in Massachusetts nullifying Washington’s injunction within its borders,” Bukher wrote.
Instead, Collyer responded today with what I would consider a worst-case scenario. Not only did she refuse to modify her order, Collyer also asked FilmOn why she should not hold it in contempt for streaming Boston TV stations before her ruling. According to Multichannel News’ John Eggerton, “FilmOn countered that was only an antenna test.”
As of this writing, the Big Four network stations in Boston are no longer available on FilmOn, but it’s still carrying Boston’s PBS, CW, and ion affiliates. (Probably still testing those antennas.) And as of now, FilmOn is still looking for a US court that will give it a win.
The Honourable James Moore, Canadian Minister of Industry
Canadian Industry Minister James Moore made a bit of news over the weekend when he told The Canadian Press that the government plans to require cable and satellite TV companies to offer a la carte programming choices to their customers. ”We don’t think people should be forced to buy bundled television channels when they’re not interested in watching those channels and those shows,” Moore said, according to a story in the Edmonton Journal.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates TV in Canada, had already nudged the industry in that direction in 2011. Rogers, one of the country’s largest cable operators, responded by offering London, Ontario viewers a “skinny basic” package with extra channels available as add-ons, and that plan proved very popular there. But many other companies resisted such plans, which were optional, so Moore said the government needs to step in.
“It’s not a command economy, we’re not going to put in place onerous regulations. We’re a government of deregulation,” Moore insisted. ”But from time to time, we think that the best interest of consumers need to be enforced in the marketplace.”
Now there are plenty of people who will tell you that a la carte pricing is not in the best interest of consumers. At the CEDIA Expo last month, I was fortunate to share a table with Bruce Leichtman, brilliant president of the Leichtman Research Group. Our conversation about various topics was always friendly, but when I mentioned a then-recent a la carte news story, Leichtman launched into an impassioned lecture on the naivety of a la carte’s supporters and the widespread collapse of TV programming that would result if a la carte were ever implemented in the US.
I respectfully disagree. The vast majority of broadcast and pay-TV channels in the US are owned by just six corporations. These corporations routinely pad their packages with extra channels filled mostly with reruns from other channels they own. These extra channels serve to occupy space on cable and satellite operators’ finite channel bandwidth, blocking potential competitors and often eventually rebranded as ready-made launch platforms for completely different channels. If viewers actually had to pay 10 cents for H2 or MTV2, those programmers would probably throw them in for free with something else.
In an a la carte system, some current channels might die. Many others would experience profound changes. ESPN is getting around $5 per month per subscriber. If viewers could save $5 by opting out, ESPN would lose a lot of cash, but then what? Disney, ESPN’s owner, would be intelligent enough to set its price to achieve maximum overall profit. Considering that its advertising revenue is based on number of viewers, I think that ESPN’s price would stabilize at a point where any sports fan would want to buy it.
Even if some channels died, that would make room for new channels, and they’re out there. Just check out the continuing growth in digital sub-channel networks broadcasting over the air. These are networks that aren’t getting a dime of retransmission money, but they keep popping up. Maybe there’s something to this advertising-supported TV model.
For a long time, I’ve talked about Canada whenever the topic of a la carte came up. Canadian satellite TV companies Shaw Direct and Bell TV (and their predecessors) provided basic programming packages and a lot of small bundles of channels that were available to add on to those packages. Maybe it’s the smaller Canadian market, but this system hasn’t precipitated programming apocalypse. Even though channels such as Slice aren’t in every core package, they somehow survive.
Nobody really designed cable TV to be a bundled system; the technology at the time of cable’s origins demanded it. Nobody really knows exactly what would happen if each viewer were now allowed to choose individual channels. Some media companies would probably lose profits in an a la carte system, but maybe it’s something worth trying anyway. We’ll see what happens in Canada.
As we continue our occasional returns to music videos of the 1980s, I present one by Stray Cats that you probably haven’t seen before. In 1985, EMI released a “Video 45” VHS tape of the band’s four US top-40 hits to date. Three of them were well-known chart-toppers. Stray Cat Strut and Rock This Town got the band its first serious US exposure when they hit #3 and #9 respectively on the Billboard chart in 1982. A year later, (She’s) Sexy + 17 reached #5. Also in 1983, one more Stray Cats tune peaked at #35.
I Won’t Stand in Your Way by Brian Setzer sounds as if it had been written in 1959. The doo-wop harmonies mingle with the band’s signature three-piece style. (In fact, the flip side to the single had the same song recorded in doo-wop a cappella.) As with the best from that period, Setzer’s lyrics and performance add plenty of emotional depth.
Peter Heath, directing his first music video, did a magnificent job of using a few vintage vehicles and a lot of dark street scenes to take us back to 1959 New York. A young, shirtless Setzer looks vulnerable and dedicated during his guitar solo. Only one blatant anachronism always bugs me when I watch this, but the rest of it is so moody and so well crafted that I can’t help but overlook it. Enjoy the ride.
“Whether we like it or not, we’re a proving ground for the masses.”
- Dave Pedigo, CEDIA Senior Director of Learning and Emerging Technologies
One of four virtual golf products I saw at CEDIA Expo 2013
At first glance, the CEDIA Expo, held in Denver last week, might not look all that relevant to those of us who are more interested in finding new ways to watch TV than in where to buy rows of theater seats. Pedigo, speaking at a panel discussion sponsored by Dish Network, summed up the counterargument in that sentence. Today’s 4K video upconverters are tomorrow’s $40 Walmart DVD players. Okay, maybe day after tomorrow.
CEDIA stands for the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association. These are the people who assemble and install wonderful entertainment goodies in the houses and mansions of clients who can afford the very best. They’re the type of folks who think that a $4000 Kaleidescape movie server would be a good fit for their home theater project. As a rep at the Dish booth told me, “This is not our typical customer.”
Pedigo’s statement also contained another truth – today’s new tech standard might be tomorrow’s Betamax. Already buzzards are circling around 3D TV, the tech darling of 2010. (I think that 3D will come back strong once it works out glasses-free, big-screen displays, but it’s not here yet.) Standards and technologies that are only recently available will be what we live with 10 or 20 years from now.
“Good design is about removing complexity from users’ lives.”
- Zean Nielsen, President of Bang & Olufsen America
Bang & Olufsen announced at its CEDIA press conference that it will be the first to launch a product certified by the Wireless Speaker & Audio (WiSA) Association. According to the WiSA site, it’s “an industry group dedicated to promoting the adoption of WiSA-compliant wireless audio technology.” That should give you a good hint about the nature of that product, for which I’m under an NDA until October 30.
I mention that announcement as another good example of what’s going on here. Companies line up behind different standards, and some of those standards are destined to be ubiquitous in a few years. Sure the prices are not those experienced by the median Dish customer. (A Sound & Vision magazine distributed at CEDIA Expo raved about the “crazy-affordable” Fluance XL7F speaker system, available at the “unbelievably low price” of $800.) But their wave of influence will reach that average Joe eventually.
“Convenience is Number One for consumers. Give them the best product so they won’t look elsewhere.”
- Vivek Khemka, Dish Senior Vice President of Product Management
What more can I tell you? Here are more of my notes:
More than 470 exhibitors and 17,900 attendees from 84 countries attended CEDIA Expo this year. That’s about an eighth of the International CES’s numbers from January. In almost every way, CEDIA Expo resembled a scaled-down CES, except that its training sessions seemed a lot more down to earth. Teaching real installers how to work with different technologies is useful no matter where you are.
Sony held its press conference in its 4K demonstration theater on the CEDIA Expo exhibit hall floor just as the show opened. Around 35 guys crowded into a black room designed to seat 20. As the Sony reps began to show off their newest and most dazzling products, the convention’s announcer’s voice boomed around us that CEDIA 2013 was underway. Even as the screen in the dark room showed the amazing glitter of the Carnaval in Rio (captured to the best of my iPhone’s ability here), we heard the swarms of conventioneers passing within a few feet of its walls. It felt as though we were taking cover from a hurricane in a packed storm shelter.
Dish Network opened the APIs for its Hopper, and that effort began to pay off as it announced its upcoming integration with Control4, one of the leading home automation and control companies. Dish promised that it will be working with more partners soon. As a Dish shareholder, I’m glad to see it go after this high-end market.
Only one exhibitor even mentioned over-the-air TV. Veteran satellite and OTA antenna manufacturer Winegard had a small booth to promote its new FlatWave AIR outdoor amplified antenna. On the other hand, TiVo was promoting its Roamio line of DVRs. Unlike the TiVo models that I fell in love with a decade ago, the Roamios have no OTA inputs.
On a related note, Bruce Leichtman of Leichtman Research Group pointed out that those early TiVo models, which were so influential and game-changing when they were introduced, never reached more than 2 percent of TV households, while today over half of households use a DVR. The lesson there is “consumers like it better when it’s incorporated in their receiver.” Personally, I can just imagine the sea change once a serious over-the-top service gets integrated with a standard pay-TV receiver. Dish Anywhere and Roku are closing in on this idea from different directions. Who will be the first provider to include include dozens of OTT-delivered channels in its receiver’s live TV guide?
“What nimbleTV is doing, Dish regards as illegal.” That’s what a press relations contact for Dish told me this afternoon immediately after consulting with Dish executives at their booth at CEDIA Expo. I had asked Dave Arland about the nature of Dish’s relationship with nimbleTV, prompting him to withdraw to a lengthy discussion before returning with that short answer.
When I pointed out that Dish had already shut down nimbleTV once and asked why Dish didn’t simply continue cutting off its service, Arland replied, “It’s not that simple.” He said that nimbleTV had “workarounds” and declined to elaborate further.
That description of nimbleTV contradicts its often-stated goal of keeping its programmers fully paid and therefore happy. I’ve reached out to nimbleTV for a reaction to today’s Dish comment, but at the time of this post, I haven’t received a reply.
Clearly something happened in the weeks between Dish cutting off nimbleTV and the resumption of nimbleTV’s Dish-based packages. I had theorized that Dish required certain changes that nimbleTV implemented in the interim – local channels restricted to in-market subscribers, and fewer simultaneous recordings. There was one other change that I hadn’t mentioned, one that Dish would be unlikely to request. In my bottom-tier package, drawing from channels in Dish’s Welcome Pack, my non-local channels such as Comedy Central and TBS are now in HD. Before the service interruption, nimbleTV had delivered those in SD, matching the quality that direct subscribers to the Welcome Pack would see. If Dish mandated those changes, why allow HD upgrades to Welcome Pack subscribers? If Dish didn’t mandate those other changes, why did nimbleTV make them?
If Dish is right, could it have been that nimbleTV’s programmers somehow created some “workarounds” to continue offering service despite Dish’s desire to cut them off? Is nimbleTV account stacking, running too many receivers on each Dish account and letting too many subscribers view the results? I have a hard time believing that nimbleTV’s slow, careful buildup would culminate in aw-heck-with-it illegal access. NimbleTV could clear the air by simply telling the world how it delivers all those Dish-originated channels to all those streaming customers. In the absence of those facts, I’m confused as usual about nimbleTV. And even now, I sure hope it’s legal.
After I wrote about DishWorld last week, I knew I needed to give it a try so I could let you know what it’s like. It turns out that DishWorld offers some interesting wrinkles on how to stream TV over the internet.
DishWorld offers TV programming packages in 15 non-English languages. All of them include a bonus set of international English channels, and some also include a few English sports channels. I chose the Mandarin package, which includes 22 Chinese channels plus the English and sports sets for $14.99 per month. Other languages are more expensive. For example, Filipino provides just two native channels plus English and sports for $19.99, and Hindi provides almost as many channels as Mandarin but for $44.99. Since I don’t get any special discounts for being a Dish shareholder, and since I can’t speak any of the 15 available languages yet, the cheapest package works best for me.
In addition to all that programming, there are plenty of on-demand movies available on DishWorld. A few dozen Bollywood movies are free on demand, and hundreds of US-made new releases and older films are available to rent, most for $3 or $4.
Universal Sports – Former over-the-air digital sub-channel concentrating on Olympic sports.
BeIN Sport – Qatar-based channel with lots of soccer.
BeIN Sport 2 – Bonus soccer that wouldn’t fit on BeIN. Off the air otherwise.
That’s an interesting set of channels for $15/month, not to mention the bewildering (to me) variety of Mandarin channels I can watch. It’s all available to stream on PC and Mac, Android devices, and particularly Roku. DishWorld offers a free Roku LT or half off a Roku 3 for prepaying the first four months of service. (I picked the Roku 3, which is very interesting in its own way. More about that Roku 3 in a future post.)
Unlike nimbleTV, FilmOn, and Aereo, DishWorld doesn’t offer a cloud-based DVR, but it provides an interesting alternative. DishWorld’s guide shows the last eight days of programming on each channel, and every show from that period is available on demand. When I first activated my subscription, I was able to watch an episode of Doctor Who that had aired a week earlier on Ebru. When I change channels in the middle of a program, DishWorld asks whether I want to watch it live or from its beginning. It’s like having the PrimeTime Anytime feature from Dish Network’s Hopper, except all day for all channels, but without automatically skipping commercials. This week-back feature is so cool, I almost don’t miss being able to record. Almost.
For some channels that are hard to find anywhere else, $15/month is okay. For plenty of entertainment in your non-English native language, it’s probably worth whatever your package costs. For a glimpse of how all TV might be delivered 10 years from now, DishWorld is priceless.