For years, a la carte, the notion that pay-TV viewers could subscribe to individual channels instead of big bundles, has been a thought experiment as likely to become real as soup on a stick. Now there’s something similar brewing in the US Senate Commerce Committee, and it has already prompted interesting revelations from broadcasters and pay-TV operators.
Quick Background: To allow Dish Network and DirecTV to retransmit local stations to their markets, Congress had to pass a law; the most recent version of that law is named STELA, for Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act. That law expires every few years, forcing Congress to pass a new version or renew the old one, as it did in 2010. That extension expires on Dec. 31, 2014.
In July, the House Judiciary Committee quietly passed an essentially unchanged version. In August, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and its ranking minority member tacked on “Local Choice,” a bipartisan, cunningly simple plan to overhaul the retransmission consent system. Under this plan, each local station would offer its signal to pay-TV subscribers for a given price. Each subscriber could choose whether to purchase each local channel. This way, stations would get market-based value but viewers would avoid pay-TV blackouts from retransmission contract renewal disputes. The senators also released a dull slideshow explaining this relief from “one of the fastest growing items on cable and satellite bills.”
Local Choice’s status is still uncertain, partly because it’ll be difficult to get such game-changing legislation passed by the end of the year. What I find most interesting are the unusual, revealing comments that it has sparked from both sides.
First off, Local Choice is strongly supported by the pay-TV industry, as you might have guessed. That stance refutes a common pay-TV argument against full a la carte – cable and satellite companies have no problem handling the billing and logistics of individual subscribers choosing individual channels. Keep that in mind when you hear the industry claim that separate charges for MTV and Comedy Central would be too difficult to manage.
On the other side, broadcasters hate Local Choice. Robert C. Kenny, in his blog for TV Freedom, a broadcaster-backed group, wrote that “the Washington pay-TV lobby is manufacturing a crisis regarding broadcast TV blackouts when, in reality, hundreds of deals are quietly reached each year through free-market retransmission consent negotiations.” Broadcasters often claim that their deals with pay-TV companies are “free-market,” but they’ve actually got them over a barrel; how many subscribers will stay with a service that doesn’t include the local CBS channel? Local Choice provides an unusually frictionless example of free market economics, and that scares the heck out of broadcasters.
Just yesterday as I watched football, I switched from my Dish Network feed to the sharper OTA signal sent from my local broadcaster to my rooftop antenna. If I had the option to save a dollar or two, I’d drop some of my satellite-delivered locals and use OTA instead, but that’s because I’m hip to the fun of free TV. In the unlikely event that Local Choice passes, it could launch a renaissance as more people discover the power of the antenna.
Our old friend NimbleTV, the streaming TV service that supplies New York City broadcast TV channels and more to its subscribers, has expanded into Chicago. Only active cable-TV subscribers in the Windy City will get the opportunity to subscribe to NimbleTV’s watch-from-anywhere Chicago streams.
“We’re delighted to offer Chicago residents a new way of viewing their TV that’s on their terms,” Anand Subramanian, founder and CEO of NimbleTV, said in a press release. “By allowing them to ‘Nimble-ize’ their cable subscription, customers can change the way they access their TV while also respecting the existing TV ecosystem that pays creators for their content.”
As with the NYC cabler package, the Chicago offering for Comcast subscribers appears to offer mainly the over-the-air broadcast channels and digital sub-channels, along with a collection of little-watched news and shopping channels. NimbleTV forces viewers to validate their cable subscriptions before viewing the OTA channels, which would verify that those viewers are indirectly paying some kind of retransmission consent money to those stations.
NimbleTV is also still offering that collection of mostly news and shopping channels for free to just about anyone, but the lineup has changed since May. Gone are Antenna TV and the movie channel This, ending my speculation that NimbleTV cut a deal with WPIX. Also gone is Al Jazeera, replaced by five other international news channels: Russia Today Documentaries, SkyNews, i24 News, Deutsche Welle, and France 24. Those aren’t as good as Antenna or This, but what do you want for nothing?
Hi there. I’ve been holding off on adding a new post until I had some good news to share, and that’s taken longer than I would hope. Aereo is trying to go down ivi.tv’s path, and we know how that ended even without the Copyright Office getting snitty about it. Several movie studios are pursuing criminal charges against some Koreans for the offense of adding subtitles to their soap operas. And my Fourth of July trip to Mount Rushmore found it hot and crowded with overtired children pleading, “Why are we going outside?”
We need some seriously good news, and this installment comes from a most unlikely source, the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Every for-profit broadcaster has two responsibilities: to its shareholders, and to the viewers it serves. I think I know which responsibility weighs most heavily on Sinclair’s mind, but I digress.
Sinclair announced (PDF) yesterday that it had launched the American Sports Network, which will include “an extensive slate of live, local sporting events, including football, basketball, soccer, and other sports with the opening of this year’s college football
season” including over 50 schools. Different regions may see different games simultaneously. Sinclair’s stations will carry the games either on their primary signal or on a digital sub-channel.
As much as I would like this to be a 24/7 digital sub-channel a la One World Sports or, especially, Universal Sports Network, I think ASN looks more like Raycom Sports, syndicating college games to mostly independent stations. Oh well. Anything that spreads more live sports over more over-the-air broadcast stations sounds like good news, and at this point, I’ll take it!
I don’t usually talk about radio, but I’m inspired by Rocco Pendola’s column in The Street last Friday. In short, radio station KNDD in Seattle has issued the 2 Minute Promise, to never play more than two minutes of commercials at a time. Also, the promise includes cutting the number of commercials played per hour in half, and not firing disc jockeys to pay for the promise. Pendola wrote that a Fresno CA station followed by promising to play no more than five minutes of commercials per hour.
Pendola wrote that this makes the remaining ads more valuable because they aren’t buried 10-deep, and presumably they’ll play to more listeners. It’s a way to regain listeners who might have rejected radio for Pandora, Spotify or other streaming music.
That all reminded me of Americans For Responsible Advertising, or AFRA, a non-profit group dedicated “to make Americans aware of the extent to which they are exposed to commercial and noncommercial (e.g., political) advertising and to false, misleading, offensive, and abusive advertising in particular.” According to an AFRA report (PDF), the weeknight national news shows of NBC, CBS, and ABC average 8 minutes of commericals per half hour. If news shows run 16 minutes of ads per hour, it lines up with a Nielsen report, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, that the average commercial time on broadcast TV is over 14 minutes per hour, and on pay-TV networks, almost 16 minutes per hour.
The Times story mentioned one side-effect of so many ads. “The rise in commercials likely will concern some marketers who fear their spots are being lost in all the ad clutter,” it wrote. “Also, as more viewers embrace digital video recorders, many of those ads are being lost to the fast-forward button.”
Sounds like the same problem that radio faces, with consumers increasingly interested alternatives to an increasing load of advertisements. Imagine if broadcast TV tried a similar solution: Cut back on the number and length of ad breaks, and make sure the public hears about the change. Maybe if the change sweeps radio stations, it’ll leak through to TV.
I predicted that the US Supreme Court would find some excuse for a narrow decision to deny Aereo the right to stream over-the-air TV over the internet. But I couldn’t predict the reason because it’s just too goofy: Because Aereo is like a cable system, it should be bound by cable system rules even though Aereo was designed to avoid cable system rules. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has a much more thorough analysis that you should go read.
Aereo founder Chet Kanojia put it well in a post on his blog: “Today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court is a massive setback for the American consumer. We’ve said all along that we worked diligently to create a technology that complies with the law, but today’s decision clearly states that how the technology works does not matter. This sends a chilling message to the technology industry.”
In the Broadcasting & Cable article on the decision, FilmOn founder Alki David was his usual hyperbolic self. “This huge blow to net neutrality and consumer rights proves my mistrust of the courts is well founded and that the policies and agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest have failed,” David said. “They are indeed mere tools of a handful of corporations intent on keeping the people in a stranglehold of bad cable service at extortionist fees.”
David exaggerates, but I don’t know by how much. Our political system is broken. Money, mostly delivered by a tiny group of donors, determines who gets elected and therefore what happens. Congressional representatives have to spend half their time just raising more money from a well-connected few. As a result, corporate interests routinely trump the good of the people. That’s why I’ve donated to Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, which hopes to build enough support to implement meaningful campaign finance reform ironically by raising money to support candidates who agree.
Lessig had been interested in copyright reform, trying to find the right balance to give content creators a finite period to profit from their works while growing the pool of resources that other creators can reuse and repurpose. After a few years of writing on the topic, Lessig had the epiphany that copyright reform would never happen until the underlying problem of money in politics was solved. (You can find most of Lessig’s books available for free download at his personal blog.)
Click on the YouTube video at the top of this post and see for yourself. MayDay has ambitious goals, but they’ll need to reach theirs before we’ll all be able to watch live TV through Aereo again.
Aereo lost its Supreme Court case, and if you want to read more about that, check the post above this one. Meanwhile, I wanted to mention a few choices you’ve got for streaming TV over the internet.
(Mind you, as I type this, Aereo still has its signup page active and FilmOn still lists a few dozen out-of-market over-the-air TV channels, so we might be waiting for some lower-court injunctions to take effect before they go away.) Update: On Saturday, two days after the ruling, Aereo signed off and FilmOn began requiring a subscription to view its US OTA channels. John Eggerton has the full story at Broadcasting & Cable.
For sheer versatility, nothing beats a Windows 7-based Media Center with a TV tuner. Getting it to stream is a little trickier; perhaps Remote Media Center is the answer? I’ll have to fiddle around with that one day.
I was very impressed with the Tablet TV prototype that I saw at the NAB Show a couple of months ago. I pointed out a couple of flaws: Its telescoping antenna was vulnerable to accidental bending (if my experience with telescoping antennas is any guide) and there was no way to plug in an exisiting TV antenna. But from what was working, Tablet TV had a nice interface for live OTA TV and maybe even a DVR. It’s something to look forward to.
Today, DVR+ maker Channel Master announced that it would offer Aereo subscribers a discounted package that includes an OTA antenna, a DVR+ receiver, and a USB WiFi adapter. That offer’s good through July 6; click the link for more information.
If you have a New York City address (cough), there’s always NimbleTV for the NYC affiliates of the major OTA networks, plus whatever package of Dish Network channels you want to buy. NimbleTV says it passes through subscribers’ payments to the content providers, or something like that, so it probably won’t be affected by the Aereo decision.
(Speaking of Dish, its Dish Anywhere service with the right receiver can stream OTA TV too. But that’s a fairly expensive alternative to Aereo, which was designed to attract viewers who didn’t want to subscribe to pay TV.)
My current favorite OTA delivery mechanism is my rooftop antenna and Simple.TV, which performed as flawlessly for me from across the Atlantic as it does on my home system. It requires an extra link such as a Roku box to make it to your TV set, but it streams fine to my phone or tablet anywhere. Simple.TV’s system for helping viewers schedule shows is still the best I’ve seen so far. Find an antenna and check it out!
I spent some time in Europe the past few weeks. It’s great to hang around in London and watch Sky try to lure subscribers with the very notion of relatively inexpensive pay-TV, because the set of free channels is so broad and culturally expected. (Yes, I know that Britons pay the equivalent of about $10/month as a license fee already.) It was also a great way to stop pondering Aereo for a while.
I don’t like to write depressing stories, and my take on Aereo is just that. As I wrote in a Broadcasting & Cable comment, I expect that corporate interests will compel the US Supreme Court to block Aereo, although I expect the justices will need to find a way to do so without breaking various cloud computing precedents. Therefore, my guess is that the court will rule narrowly that Aereo’s multiple-antenna setup is the same functionally as a single antenna, so it loses. Waiting for the Aereo decision, expected any day now, is for me just waiting for the shoe to drop.
Today, The Washington Post reported that an Aereo victory would “change how we watch football”. The timing of that story is interesting, considering that the New England Patriots’ web site carried an independent story with similar talking points hours later. Then the Consumerist came along to debunk the Post story, saying that the NFL would not be significantly damaged. I don’t think either side of this argument got it right.
At present, Aereo only serves subscribers in a particular home TV market. Even if a valid subscriber is on the road, Aereo won’t let him watch TV from home. (On the other hand, my home-based SimpleTV receiver performed like a champ, letting me watch my local shows from a Paris hotel room. But I digress.) The Consumerist seemed to take this as a permanent restriction, so local viewers would only be watching the local stations they could get over-the-air anyway. But FilmOn, which piggybacks Aereo’s justification, streams out-of-market broadcast TV now and would probably carry more Fox and CBS affiliates as soon as it could. And Aereo might do something like that after its legal clouds are gone.
Then the Consumerist suggested that because it’s not easy to switch between distant OTA channels, then NFL Sunday Ticket should remain untouched. No, you just don’t get it. A very large percentage of Sunday Ticket customers are folks who love one out-of-market team and watch to watch that team’s every game. Once in a while, the idea of a slightly less expensive Sunday Ticket, limited to one team, is brought up then quickly discarded. Letting that chunk of subscribers walk away to Aereo or FilmOn would cost real money. But the online model is so tech-driven (for now) and so dependent on reliable high-speed internet that such mass migrations wouldn’t occur for years.
If Aereo wins, I’m sure the networks and sports leagues will run straight to Congress to get new protection laws. Should the NFL move further to pay-TV (remember, it already moved Mondays and some Thursdays), it woud just join every other major US sports league in abandoning OTA TV. At least we’ll still have the FIFA World Cup, in Spanish.
A few weeks ago, I posted a list of Frontier Airlines’ inflight TV channels, but I never got around to posting a list of the TV channels that I had available on my Southwest Airlines return flight.
As with the Frontier list, I couldn’t find anything online that actually provided the names of each channel. On a page on the Southwest site, it mentions “17 live channels,” which is a very specific number. As far as I can tell, it’s also accurate. Here are the live channels I saw:
NFL Network (for real this time)
* That MLB.com is not the MLB Network; it showed live major league baseball games as served up by MLB.com.
As with Frontier, only ABC is missing from the Big Four broadcast networks. There aren’t as many live channels, but I appreciate getting the Travel Channel and the real NFL Network. Southwest also offers a bunch of on-demand TV episodes while Frontier adds a couple of passive channels of TV shows and movies. Based on the lineups alone, Frontier and Southwest are pretty similar.
There are two big advantages for watching TV on Southwest. Thanks to a promotion with Dish Network, which provides the programming, all those channels are free to watch. And instead of being stuck with a phone-sized standard-definition screen mounted in the seat back, these channels are streamed over inflight WiFi to the carry-on device of your choice. I saw a lot of passengers watching on laptops and tablets, all of which had better picture quality than the pioneering Frontier screens.
So there you have it. If you really want to know what to expect to watch for free on your next Southwest flight, that list will probably stay good for the rest of 2014 and maybe longer. Bring your tablet and enjoy the ride.
I subscribe to Simple.TV because I bought a closeout unit with a lifetime subscription included. The service works pretty well, making it easy to find upcoming shows (via local over-the-air TV) to record to the USB drive I plugged into my device, then letting me stream those recordings back to me anywhere on the internet.
This morning, Simple.TV emailed me a request to take a short survey. The survey included the usual satisfaction stuff, such as what I like about it and what features I’d like to add. You know, the usual. Then near the end of the survey came a surprising statement and question: “We are considering offering an optional ‘hosted’ service, to improve your Simple.TV experience. … Would you consider having your Simple.TV ‘hosted’ in a secure location, to give you high-quality streaming of ALL the TV channels in your local area?”
Wow! The only way that Simple.TV could legally offer such a service, as far as I know, would be to set it up just like Aereo, the streaming TV service whose fate awaits a Supreme Court ruling in a month or so. Simple.TV appears to be signalling that if Aereo wins, Simple.TV might jump in as a competitor. I wonder if there are any other potential competitors (besides FilmOn) that are just waiting to get started.
Earlier this year, our old friend NimbleTV added service from several cable systems in India. Since CEO Anand Subramanian is from Bombay, I always figured that was NimbleTV’s primary goal, and from what I can tell, it’s a strong competitor to DishWorld’s packages for Hindi and other Indian languages.
Then some time last month, NimbleTV quietly introduced a free tier* of US-based, English-language channels. (Of course, NimbleTV does almost everything quietly.) The most remarkable of these is New York superstation WPIX and its two digital over-the-air sub-channels, which carry This TV and Antenna TV. Since these are the only OTA channels included, and since NimbleTV has always stressed paying for its content, I’d guess that NimbleTV must have worked a deal with WPIX.
This could be a milestone in the history of television. WPIX went on the air in 1948. It later became known as the TV home for Yankees baseball games and was distributed via satellite in 1978 as one of the first superstations. As one of the five federally recognized superstations, WPIX is still carried via satellite to Dish Network subscribers across the US and to Bell TV subscribers in Canada. Now WPIX might be the first major OTA station to sanction full-time internet-based delivery of its signals. Assuming again that WPIX sanctioned all of this.
There are a few drawbacks and oddities to NimbleTV’s free tier. The main handicap is the lack of recording ability. Viewers get to watch any channel live, and that’s it. All of the record buttons are still in place, but attempts to use them only prompt suggestions to upgrade. The strangest part of the tier is NimbleTV’s numbering scheme. Bloomberg is shown as 7012, WPIX is 7030, and the other 13 channels are numbered consecutively 7032-7044. That doesn’t match the numbering from any other source, so I think it marks the first time that NimbleTV invented its own numbers. If you know anything about it, such as what was supposed to be Channel 7031, please leave a comment to let us know.
Another nice benefit of the (presumed) WPIX deal is that those channels were added to my basic $30/month plan, based mostly on Dish’s Welcome Pack. I presume that they were also added to NimbleTV’s higher levels of service, corresponding roughly to Dish’s Top 120 and Top 200. Those channels might even be available to subscribers who don’t get Dish’s NYC broadcast channels set, which includes WPIX but not This, Antenna or any other sub-channel.
As a way to introduce prospective customers to NimbleTV’s innovative service, this seems like a smart idea. For any viewer interested in checking out these channels, I can’t see any downside. Click the link and go for it!
Update: Thanks to a tip from a commenter here, I see the WPIX is now gone from NimbleTV’s free tier, less than a month after it started, yet This and Antenna remain. Weird!
*The lineup of the free tier: WPIX, This, Antenna, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, CCTV News, BYU, NASA, Free Speech, C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2, Pentagon, HSN and QVC.