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Naughty But Mice
with Herman

Sling International is out of Fashion TV

Sling International showing Dish Network notice that "We apologize for the interruption of service."Long-time readers might remember that I maintain a subscription to Sling International’s World Sports pack. It’s a pretty decent set of live sports channels and a few other interesting English-language bits thrown in, if you don’t mind watching stuff you’ve probably never heard of. But my main reason is not to watch live baseball from Japan or cricket highlights; it’s to keep track of the delivery system and channel lineup. Unlike what happens to Sling TV’s normal US channels, if anything changes, I can’t find anywhere else on the web that talks about it.

Case in point. One of the benefits of keeping that World Sports subscription is being able to check in on an old favorite that I’ve known since its FTA satellite days, Fashion TV. I’ve written about this channel for over eight years. It was one of the first free satellite channels to upgrade to HD, then it moved to Dish Network for a while, then it was gone, and then it surfaced among Dish International’s free English channels, thrown in with almost any other package.

In recent years, it looks to me as though Fashion TV is shifting its emphasis away from mostly showing models walking funny and wearing clothes that make them look like they lost a bet. There are more swimsuits on runways, and photo shoots of swimsuits, and lingerie. Or maybe those were just the snippets I checked in on as I was keeping track of available channels. Honestly, if you added up the time I’ve spent watching Fashion TV, it’s got to be less than an hour total over the past five years, but I know which shows I prefer there.

About three weeks ago, when I checked on Fashion TV, what I saw looked like the image embedded in this post. It’s the standard Dish Network card for a temporary technical difficulty, most often a weather-related outage. I shrugged and moved on – Ebru still has Doctor Who reruns.

A week later, that card was still there for Fashion TV. A second week later, still no change. I chatted with Sling customer service, and the rep’s only information was that they were having problems with the signal. Now it’s a third week (or more) and the card has stayed the same.

Notice that there’s no suggestion that Fashion TV is gone for good. I can still scroll back to see program images from the past week; they just don’t work.

If this were ESPN, or heck, even if this were the DYI network, a “temporary” outage that lasted two days would light up some corner of Internet discussion, but I can’t find anyone else who’s noticed this one. I’ve reached out to Sling / Dish, and I’ll update this post when I hear anything. Till then, weird, huh?

Simple.TV is turning to the cloud

ShowDrive logoVariety reported yesterday that our old friends at Simple.TV are launching a cloud DVR service called ShowDrive. That’s the payoff to the company’s new direction that I wrote about in April.

According to Variety, ShowDrive will debut in the UK, where an unnamed third party will sell special devices to record Freeview over-the-air TV and store those recordings in the cloud, “where they are instantly transcoded and made available for streaming.” The devices will also allow users to use some online video apps.

That article also said that Simple.TV will announce who it will partner with in the US in January at CES. (Which was the International CES last year, but now is simply CES. But I digress.) For more details, you really ought to go read Variety.

Sometimes, the problem is just the cable

Close-up of antenna splitter box with many cables connected to it.

My antenna signal splitter

The UPS driver delivered my new DVR+ from Channel Master yesterday, and I got to work setting it up. I needed a new HDMI cable and another quad-shield coax cable, so I bought those from the hardware store down the street. I connected the HDMI cable from the DVR+ to my Slingbox, then connected the Monster coax cable to my powered antenna splitter (shown at right) and the DVR+. Next came the internet and power connections, and soon I was running through setup.

I was a bit surprised and unhappy with the DVR+ after it scanned my channels; there weren’t as many of them as I could see on my other devices. For example, KCDO, my local Channel 3, was invisible to the DVR+ even though it was loud and clear everywhere else. In particular, it was easy to switch my desktop TV from HDMI to TV and watch KCDO.

Channel Master has a support page devoted to that very symptom: Why Does My TV’s Tuner Receive More Channels Than My DVR+? To summarize, the page says that just happens sometimes, and the best solution is to improve the signal by moving the antenna to a better location or getting a better antenna. What that page doesn’t mention is what was the real cause and solution in this case. If you read the title of this post, I’ll bet you’ve figured it out.

I’ve run into enough weak cables in my years of satellite TV that I knew to try a simple test. I disconnected the cable that ran directly to my desktop TV and swapped it with the new cable connected to the DVR+. Sure enough, the DVR+ could now see all of my local channels, but when I tuned my TV to Channel 3, it showed a silent, black screen. Then as I began to unscrew the new cable from the splitter, the TV came to life. It could see Channel 3 now, although other channels were still missing.

I’ll need to find a better cable for the TV, but the good news is the DVR+ is working fine. The Slingbox runs it very easily, and I’ll write more about that combination after I’ve had time to try it out. I just wanted to stop so I could remind you that sometimes, reception problems are simply the cable‘s fault.

Update: I bought some new cables, tightened them the same way with the same bad result. Then I tried the suspect Monster cable on the last empty connector on my splitter and it worked fine. Sometimes it really is the cable’s fault, but this time, the problem was that particular splitter node. The deeper lesson here: Test everything.

What the new Hulu has in common with Voom

Voom and Hulu logos

Hulu’s announcement last week that it would offer almost* commercial-free programming for an extra $4/month reminded me of its connection to the former Voom Networks. That connection is only in my mind, unless you want to buy into the following conspiracy theory.

First, let’s talk Hulu. It’s owned by three of the six large content companies in the US: Comcast (NBC), News Corporation (Fox), and Disney (ABC). Hulu’s primary distinguishing feature as an over-the-top pay-TV service was its long-time insistence on including commercials, even though it knew that was an issue for potential and current paid subscribers. Then why did it take so long for Hulu to offer a higher-priced, ad-free* version? I assume it’s because its owners, three major TV networks, did not want audiences to get used to the idea of watching regular TV shows anywhere without commercial interruption.

Back in the days when TV stations used only the public airwaves as a free service, advertising was the only way to pay the bills, yet broadcasting was mostly a lucrative business. When cable permeated America, many stations also picked up retransmission consent fees, which have risen astronomically since. In time, the major networks got a piece of both of those revenue streams, but it must have been baked into the content providers’ minds that commercial interruption was a lifeline that they would not easily relinquish.

Now to the conspiracy theory. In 2003, back when HD programming was unusual, Cablevision launched Voom, a standalone satellite TV service with 21 channels of commercial-free HDTV. In 2005, Dish Network pretty much bought out Voom’s satellite lease and resold the Voom channels to Dish subscribers. That’s where I came in; I loved Voom’s colorful, uninterrupted programming, and they soon became some of my favorite Dish channels.

(It’s important for me to point out here that, although I was both a Dish beta tester and shareholder at the time, I had and have absolutely no inside information about anything that happened between Dish and Voom. The theory I concocted is based only on public news accounts, of which the Wikipedia entry is a decent summary, and there’s an excellent chance that it’s completely wrong. But my theory is entertaining to consider, and it mostly fits what we know.)

Voom was rolling along. It had a 15-year contract with to Dish to distribute its programming, which it was selling to over a million subscribers. The only hint of a problem was that Voom content was becoming a bit … repetitive. A lot of the series on its schedules, mostly foreign imports, remained the same.

In January 2008, Dish tried to end its contract with Voom, saying that Voom hadn’t invested its required $100 million in content in 2006; Cablevision offered what it said was proof that it had followed the letter of the contract. In May 2008, without warning, Dish dumped all of the Voom channels, replacing them with roughly equivalent channels, such as Palladia substituting for Voom’s Rave HD music channel. Without a major distributor, Voom closed up shop a few months later. Meanwhile, Voom’s owners sued Dish, and then things got really weird.

In November 2010, New York state judge Richard Lowe ruled that Dish’s then-parent Echostar had “systematically destroyed evidence in direct violation of the law” by erasing emails. Lowe said he would instruct the jury to assume that those emails would have helped Voom prove its case. Despite that hefty sanction, the case continued to trial in September 2012. Just before Dish CEO Charlie Ergen was due to take the stand, Dish settled the case, paying over $700 million to Cablevision.

To recap, it appears that Dish was making a profit on every Voom subscriber, yet it decided to fatally wound the service and then wiped evidence that would explain why, even though that would end up costing Dish almost three-quarters of a billion dollars. Until Ergen writes his memoirs, we’ll never know why Dish did that, so let me make up something that fits.

Dish needs decent relationships with the folks who create its channels. Those are some of the same people who fought so hard and long against letting Hulu subscribers watch TV without ads. Voom’s channels had no ads. What if the big media companies put pressure on Dish to dump the Cablevision-created upstart and substitute similar, ad-supported programming? There’s no way Dish would have chosen Voom over the six huge companies who control Dish’s bread-and-butter channels. Could they have wielded the stick of threatened channel blackouts or the carrot of improved contract terms to offset the cost of deleting all the emails associated with those conversations? There’s no way of knowing, but that sure matches the mindset of those Hulu owners.

*Even when it tried to create an ad-free service, Hulu couldn’t make it 100%. As the signup page states, a few shows are not included “due to streaming rights”. Subscribers still have to watch commercials before and after Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon A Time, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scandal, New Girl, Grimm and How To Get Away With Murder. Those all have ties to the owners’ production companies, and I guess they can’t let go.

What to do when the lights go out

Last night, in the wee hours of the morning, my bedside phone blorped a warning before going dark. When I looked around, everything was dark. Really dark. No reassuring electronic charging LEDs. No streetlights. Just the full darkness of a cloudy night in a neighborhood without electricity.

What was wrong? Had civilization collapsed? How widespread was the outage? All I knew was that a half-dozen UPSs throughout FTABlog World Headquarters were beep-beeping that I should gracefully shut down their attached computers. I grabbed a flashlight, brought the systems down gently, then silenced the alarms.

That took a few minutes, and then I returned to my original deep question: How bad was it? Fortunately, I had purchased a Portable LCD TV a couple of years ago and left it plugged in to keep it charged for just such an occasion. After sleepily forgetting for a moment that my rooftop TV antenna now relied on a powered splitter/amplifier, I attached the Homeworx Indoor HDTV Antenna that I had reviewed just a few months ago. With those in place, I tuned in the local CBS affiliate, which was rerunning the CBS Sunday Morning interview with Steven Colbert rather than the type of disaster coverage that makes me think of the SportsCenter ad embedded above. Now I knew it was safe to go back to bed. Forty-five minutes later, the phone awakened me with a fresh blorp to tell me that power had been restored. Thanks, phone.

This morning, with the internet restored, I surfed around to discover that somebody had driven into a utility pole, which I guess is what some folks do at 3:30 AM. The moral of the story is that a battery-powered TV and a decent little antenna can be really handy any time the power goes out.

And there’s one more side note. As I restored power to my OTA DVR test bed, my Simple.TV unit flashed a rapid blue light. I unplugged it for a minute, same problem. I hit the reset switch, same problem. On Google, the first hit for this problem was Simple.TV’s support page, What do the LEDs on the Simple.TV box mean? That page, last updated in October 2012, mentions a few possibilities but not rapid blue, noting “There are a few others, but these are the main ones you’re likely to see.” Which sounds to me like “We know of more, but we don’t want to worry you with them.”

Fortunately, the second hit on Google was to a thread on Simple.TV’s user forum where one member posted that the rapid blue light could be caused by a power supply failure. In another rare burst of forethought, I had purchased a Universal Power Adapter and put it on a shelf for just such an occasion. I set it to match the Simple.TV power supply, plugged it in, and voila, it worked like a champ!

Although I prefer my Tablo‘s superior ability to fast forward within recordings, I like my Simple.TV in some settings. (And I have to fix my routers after such outages to let the Tablo see the outside world again, while the Simple.TV handles it automatically.) But it’ll be difficult to recommend Simple.TV until it shows it can curate its support topics.

Fall 2015: What’s new in channel surfing

Pluto TV

Pluto TV

Summer break is over, so let me catch up with what’s available in free TV viewing. For sheer quantity, there’s more than anyone could ever want.

First and foremost, over-the-air TV remains strong. With digital sub-channels, the typical viewer has dozens of choices. Here at FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver, I receive 68 channels. Your mileage will vary, of course; according to TitanTV, there are over 90 channels available in New York City and over 140 in Los Angeles but only 32 in Springfield MO. There’s a storm cloud on the horizon with the FCC’s upcoming TV spectrum auction, which could cause some of those stations disappear to make room for more mobile internet access. We’ll have to wait and see how that shakes out.

Next is FTABlog’s raison d’etre: free-to-air satellite TV. There are almost 300 free TV channels available with a pretty small Ku-band dish. Over 90 of those are in English, and that doesn’t include the many news feeds, sports feeds, and other such transient satellite signals. If you have a big C-band dish, there are another couple hundred interesting free channels to watch.

With broadband internet access, there are plenty of interesting options, although they haven’t changed much lately. With Aereo and Nimble TV gone, there aren’t any good ways to watch streaming US OTA channels, unless it comes from your own antenna, but there’s still a lot to watch. FilmOn continues to provide a wide range of channels, and internet video aggregator Rabbit TV (not quite free) got a mention at USA Today this week. Pluto TV includes dozens of channels including live news feeds. For ad-supported free TV that isn’t live, there’s Crackle and some parts of Hulu, and for more old TV and movies than you’ll ever have time to watch, there’s the Internet Archive.

There’s a chance we could see an avalanche of streaming channels, OTA and otherwise, if the FCC gives online services full rights and responsibilities as multichannel video programming distributors like cable and satellite providers. Imagine if broadcasters had to negotiate in good faith with the likes of FilmOn. This could open up a whole new category of video service.

Hey, I even had to update the About page here to reflect a change in free (as in free speech) TV. For years, it was nigh impossible to watch reruns of Spenser: For Hire. Period. No reruns on any network, no streaming services, no DVDs. Now that last option, at least, is available as print-on-demand sets on Amazon. Robert Urich, rest his soul, is no Spenser, but Avery Brooks was born to play Hawk. Now I’ll have to start wishing for something else, maybe the complete Fernwood 2 Night?

All in all, it’s a great time to be watching free TV. Discover something you like, kick back, and enjoy.

Sinclair mini-blackout could be a retrans milestone

Mean, angry TV set with teeth

© Depositphotos / herminutomo

Last week, we got to see the full lifespan of a retransmission consent dispute condensed to just a day or two. When Sinclair Broadcasting tried to tie an unrelated pay-only network to permission to rebroadcast 129 over-the-air channels, Dish Network and the FCC blocked them, and Sinclair’s blackout ended in less than 24 hours.

At least that’s what happened if you believe Dish, and since I’m still a Dish shareholder, that would be my inclination. Sinclair has a completely different view, and I’ll get around to that.

First, the details. A couple of weeks ago, Dish filed a complaint to the FCC saying Sinclair was refusing to negotiate. The day after that formal complaint, Dish said Sinclair had resumed talks. Then last Tuesday, Sinclair pulled its 129 TV stations off Dish solely “to gain negotiating leverage for carriage of an unrelated cable channel that it hopes to acquire,” according a Dish press release. Dish also restarted the FCC complaint.

The next morning, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sprang to action, calling for an emergency meeting with Dish and Sinclair. “Just last year, Congress instructed the Commission to look closely at whether retransmission consent negotiations are being conducted in good faith,” he wrote. “That’s why I have proposed to my fellow Commissioners a new rulemaking to determine how best to protect the public interest.” By the end of the day, Sinclair had agreed in principle to a long-term deal with Dish and lifted the blackout.

BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote in a blog post that Sinclair’s short-lived blackout may be the last straw for unfettered retransmission demands. “The government is looking for reasons to get more involved to help consumers,” he wrote. “Sinclair may have finally given them a blatant enough excuse.”

On the other hand, Sinclair later claimed that the FCC’s actions had literally nothing to do with the speedy end to the blackout. Seriously. “In fact, the FCC process actually delayed the resolution, because it added more issues to negotiate, which lengthened DISH’s service interruption, not shortened it,” Sinclair wrote. So without that meddling FCC, the blackout would have been over in maybe eight hours? I guess we’ll never know.

If this incident signals a new willingness for the FCC to protect the public interest in retransmission fee negotiations, Greenfield might be spot on. If stations have to negotiate on price alone without leveraging unrelated networks, and if the FCC will nudge them to bargain in good faith, maybe we could start seeing contracts reached through arbitration instead of blackouts. If viewers are okay with monthly subscriptions to watch their local free-TV stations, they deserve to get what they pay for.

Videos about videos: David Lee Roth

David Lee Roth’s remake of the Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody medley, melded by Louis Prima and earlier covered by The Village People, peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in September 1985.

But it was this tour de force video that lampooned MTV and so many 80s video staples that got everyone’s attention. There are two nominees for 1985 MTV Video of the Year in this clip: California Girls (seen in the opening framing sequence) and the medley itself. Both lost to Don Henley’s The Boys Of Summer.

When it comes to goofy videos, this is one of my favorites. I’ll sometimes tell someone who’s in on the joke, “You’ve got char-asthma.” And when it comes to videos about videos, this might be the best.

Videos about videos: Phil Collins

We continue the discussion of 80s music videos about making music videos with Phil Collins’ Don’t Lose My Number. The song peaked at #4 in September 1985, but was never released as a single in the UK.

If the song’s Wikipedia entry is to believed, this is truly a meta video. Supposedly, “Collins did not know what he would use as a video theme for ‘Don’t Lose My Number’, so he decided to create a video showing his decision process in selecting a theme for it.” In the video, Collins interviews several “directors” who offer parodies of other music videos, including You Might Think, which I covered last month. In lieu of a tidy ending, the video ends with the spoken line, “So how does it end?” So very, very meta!

Earlier, in Easy Lover, Collins shared MTV’s award for Best Overall Performance in a Video with Philip Bailey. That beat out another video about making videos, and that’s the one I’ll use to wrap up this theme next week.

Videos about videos: Steve Perry

To wind up this Summer of 80s Music Videos, I want to turn to another theme that developed after a couple of years. You saw it in Money For Nothing, profiled here last week, but it was more obvious in several other videos – they were music videos specifically about making music videos.

One of the first examples of this form of navel-gazing was Oh Sherrie by Journey lead singer Steve Perry. It’s the most unintentionally ironic of the form; after complaining that a Renaissance-style wedding in the video was too over-the-top and serious, Perry performs a very serious, over-the-top ballad.

The song written for Perry’s then-girlfriend Sherrie Swafford, who was also his love interest in the music video. Other co-writers included supporting musicians Bill Cuomo and Craig Krampf, who had also performed on Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes, and Randy Goodrum. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard chart in June 1984.