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Canada’s a la carte experiment is about to get real

Shaw Direct TV screenshotLast week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that as of December 2016 it will require pay-TV providers to offer a la carte subscriptions. Viewers will pay for a base package that includes all over-the-air, regional and public access channels, then they’ll be able to select any other channels they want to pay for.

This is exactly what I’ve been advocating for years for all pay-TV viewers. Content providers force fifth-tier rerun channels into pay-TV bundles to squeeze a few more dollars and to preserve channel real estate for future rebranding. They make it harder for competitors to establish new channels, and they pad subscribers’ bills with little benefit.

Of course, the folks who profit from the status quo and those who support those folks have always said that the sky will fall once a la carte starts. Less than two years ago, an industry analyst claimed that, for example, ESPN would cost around $30 a month if sold separately. (Now that Sling TV sells ESPN plus a few other channels for just $20, that analyst might need to revise her figures.)

Whenever I heard those arguments, I always pointed to Canada, where some pay-TV companies have had a loose form of a la carte for years. Satellite TV provider Shaw Direct, with over 900,000 subscribers, already offers most of its channels in small bundles or even “Pick and Pay” a la carte to supplement its broader programming packages. (The other Canadian satellite TV provider, Bell Direct, which used to offer similar bundles, now sells tier-based packages similar to any cable company. But I digress.) Canada’s ESPN equivalent/sister channel, TSN, costs nowhere near $30/month, and the Canadian sky has not yet fallen.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, enthusiastically promotes a la carte as a way to get viewers what they want at a lower price. Through the years, Consumer Reports has campaigned against cigarettes, in favor of testing cars for rollover safety, and lots of other stuff. Have those folks ever pushed an idea that turned out to be really awful? I can’t think of any; if you can find an example, please post it in the comments.

In the US, content providers have too much clout to ever allow a la carte, but at least we’ll all get to see the results of Canada’s real-world experiment. How many pay-TV channels will die? Will new, independent channels spring up to take their place? Will the average bill go down? Will TSN cost $30? We’ll know the answers just a couple of years from now.

Review: Tablet TV still has some work to do

Tablet TV live TV windowAs I mentioned in my last post, the most intriguing find from last year’s NAB Show was the prototype of a Tablet TV receiver. As you can read from its press release at the time, Tablet TV was to be an over-the-air DVR streaming to nearby “portable devices with no subscription fee, cable, satellite or Internet required.” Not only would users be able to watch local OTA, they’d also have access to selected on-demand movies, delivered to the receiver by a local broadcaster.

Tablet TV was formed as a joint venture of London-based Motive Television and Granite Broadcasting Corporation, and the idea that a broadcaster would embrace an OTA DVR excited me most of all. The business model with on-demand movies wasn’t just a benefit for viewers, it was also a carrot for other stations to monetize the service. I also liked Tablet TV’s promise of free guide information, presumably using the electronic program guide (EPG) information embedded in local TV broadcasts. The press release promised a fall 2014 launch, and I just couldn’t wait.

In late August, Motive’s CEO staged a well-promoted demonstration at San Francisco International Airport, but Tablet TV didn’t formally launch in San Francisco until two days before Christmas. A month later, its receivers went on sale for folks outside the Bay Area, and I purchased one of the first to test here in Denver. A few days later, I opened the iPhone-like box to find the receiver and its accessories packed inside. But for its outward polish, this unit performed as if it were an early beta version, apparently hard-coded for San Francisco TV stations and barely able to pick up a few compatible Denver signals. In late February, Tablet TV released a firmware update which greatly improved my receiver’s functionality. The Tablet TV folks have promised more updates within a few weeks, but I thought I’d bring you to date on how it looks so far.

The receiver, called a T-Pod, looks just like the prototype – an extra-large bar of soap with a short, telescoping antenna. It comes with a mini USB power supply to charge its internal battery and a micro SD card for recording programs. The bad news is that the T-Pod has no input jack for that great antenna on my roof; the good news is that its tuner is surprisingly sensitive with just its little built-in antenna. Setup was an awkward two-step of getting my iPad to use the T-Pod’s internal WiFi for an initial conversation, then switching both to the home WiFi network. An initial channel scan later, it was ready for business.

Tablet TV schedule pageRemember that part about pulling in the broadcast EPG to use as guide data? It turns out that broadcast EPG information is spottier than the FCC had mandated in the digital TV conversion. The Tablet TV folks still hope to find a way to use whatever EPG data is available over the air, but for now, the unit gets a lot of it from an online provider. So now whenever I launch the Tablet TV app, it spends a minute or so pulling in guide data over the internet.  Then after I verify that I don’t want to rescan channels, it displays the schedule page (see right).

Notice the channel numbers in that grid; I don’t really have a Channel 1 in Denver. Instead of listing true or reported channel numbers, Tablet TV sorts the channels by dot-one (primary) or dot-two (digital subchannels) then numbers the channels by the resulting list. This brings the major networks to the top as you’d find on a cable TV box, but for those of us who know the “real” numbers, it’s like typing on a keyboard ordered A-to-Z instead of Qwerty – helpful for novices but frustrating for experienced users. Further, the network logos aren’t always accurate. For example, in the screen shot, the third channel’s logo is KRON, San Francisco’s MyNetwork station, but it lines up with Denver’s CBS affiliate. That makes finding the right channel like typing on that A-to-Z keyboard with some of the keys mislabeled.

The plan is that once the viewer spots a program to record from the grid, he taps it, then verifies the recording request and that’s it. For me, that’s all that happened; when I returned later, I saw it had not recorded my request. When I asked a Tablet TV guy who’d been giving me tech support about that, he wrote back, “The Scheduled recording feature works, however there have been some issues we are now aware of.” So I when I tell you that I can’t make it work, keep in mind that the feature works somewhere. Manual recording and playback are also squirrelly at best, but Tablet TV plans to fix all of these recording issues in future maintenance updates.

Movie description for The Long RidersFor some reason, the grid has significant holes in it, with missing information for occasional channel/times and some entire channels. The grid also includes an unintended trivia game; every movie is titled “Movie” with only its description as a hint. Example: “The legendary outlaw brothers of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gangs rob banks.” What’s the movie? Check the file name for the graphic on the right side if you’re stuck.

One way that the T-Pod is different than most DVRs is that it’s possible to unplug the T-Pod and bring it along to stream to tablets away from home. The battery will work for several hours on a single charge, but not overnight. As a practical matter, the T-Pod needs to be positioned near a window for good reception and within range of its power supply cord.

Once Tablet TV fixes its recording problems and its guide, that will still leave the question of what is its niche. The OTA DVR market is already getting a little crowded with the TiVo Roamio OTA, Simple TV, Tablo, DVR+, and even the venerable Windows Media Center. The Tablet TV T-Pod is portable, but so is a portable digital TV. Tablet TV won’t charge a subscription fee, but neither does Windows Media Center or the DVR+, and it’s pretty easy to get a lifetime subscription for Simple TV. Tablet TV’s competitive advantages might be its lower initial cost (just $90), local broadcaster promotion (if that happens), and a reduced dependence on the internet. But first it needs to just work right. We’ll return to the Tablet TV when there’s more to report.

Update: I noticed that The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed Tablet TV in January. Even with the home-market advantage, that slightly earlier version of the service didn’t impress those reviewers.

Come have a great time with me at the NAB Show

NAB Show Official Blogger badgeJust a month from now, on April 13-16, the National Association of Broadcasters will return to Las Vegas to host the NAB Show. The strongest concentration of TV and video enthusiasts under one roof will flock to the Las Vegas Convention Center for a lot of networking, idea sharing, and general good times. Best of all, dear reader, you can join in the fun for free if you use my special guest pass code GA02 when you register for an exhibits-only pass.

This January at the International CES, I was chatting with a public relations rep who volunteered that her most enjoyable trade show of the year is the NAB Show; I had to agree. There’s an underlying current of camaraderie and creativity at the NAB Show, that every newsroom editor is one step away from directing a feature film, and that every TV news director is just one cool on-screen gadget from having the highest ratings in his market.

On the other hand, you don’t need to work in the broadcast industry to attend, and there’s plenty for us TV/video enthusiasts to enjoy. In addition to the entertaining opening keynote address and a later address by FCC chairman (and surprising Net Neutrality champion) Tom Wheeler, all attendees will be able to see a special session on “The World of The Walking Dead” featuring Steven Yeun and executive producer Robert Kirkman.

Of course, the primary benefit of an exhibits-only pass is the exhibit area, spread out over every hall of the LVCC. All of the exhibitors are pitching to broadcasters, but we enthusiasts can see possible new technologies and delivery methods, such as last year’s Tablet TV. (I’ll tell you more about that in my next post.) There are always surprises and plenty of personal networking opportunities, especially at the ubiquitous happy hours every afternoon. So come spend a day or three with at the NAB Show, where I’m sure you’ll have a good time.

Dot-twos leave mobile TV in the dust

Passengers on a bus

My vision of Dyle’s target audience.
© Depositphotos.com / mindof

When I recently wrote about the welcome proliferation of over-the-air TV digital subchannels, or “dot-twos,” I overlooked an important part of that story: It proves that one of my predictions was right. In this case, it was my prediction and contention that dot-twos are a much better use of broadcasters’ finite bandwidth than mobile TV, especially Dyle TV.

With the current version of ATSC, North America’s digital TV standard, you can’t watch if your antenna is in motion. That’s a real limitation, and engineering groups went right to work on a version that could handle movement. Long story short, many of the broadcasters formed the Mobile 500 Alliance, while others backed an offshoot, Dyle, which required user authentication.

From a techie perspective, mobile TV sounded like a good idea, but as I pointed out, there’s no real market for it. Mobile TV’s target audience would be passengers within a metropolitan area who want live TV, but who aren’t in a subway tunnel. Did broadcasters really believe there were enough gadget-packing bus riders to make that work? Worse, each mobile TV channel took bandwidth away from another possible dot-two for stationary viewers.

Yet another hurdle was getting enough stations to broadcast mobile TV channels so viewers might want to buy mobile TV devices. As I wrote about Dyle in particular, “Any new service is going to have a chicken-egg problem, but Dyle has few chickens or eggs.” The best TV markets had only five or six mobile channels available; Denver has exactly one. It’s hard to convince a bus commuter to spend $50 or more for a phone dongle if that’s all it’s going to provide.

How bad is it now? When I scrolled to the bottom of Dyle’s FAQ page, I saw that the Belkin Mobile TV receiver, which had been on the market for less than two years, stopped working on January 1, 2015 because Dyle no longer supports its iOS app. Ditto for mobile TV reception on the RCA Mobile TV Tablet, which Dyle had announced and promoted at the International CES 2013. Sure hope you didn’t buy one of those.

On the other hand, I’ve still got the mobile TV dongle that Escort was kind enough to send me in June 2013. As I said in my review, it really worked. And it still works, bringing in that lone Denver channel whenever I test it. (I wonder how much of the iPhone dongle problem came from mistiming Apple’s transition from 30-pin connectors, which the Escort relies on, to that little Lightning thing. But I digress.)

I know for sure that the Denver station is still broadcasting, and Dyle’s site still shows lots of other active markets. On the other hand, Dyle’s news page shows no press releases since June 2014, and there’s that unceremonious New Year’s dumping of its Belkin and RCA receivers. The Mobile 500 Alliance was still alive as of April 2014, but you’d never know by its web site.

Broadcasters are currently negotiating and working out details for what will become ATSC 3.0, which should support 4K screens and mobile devices. I predict that by 2025, a bus rider will be more likely to be watching a dot-two on his cell phone than anything based on Mobile 500 Alliance technology. By then, Dyle will be known as the broadcast version of Microsoft Bob.

Review: Streaming Sling TV isn’t that great

Universal Sports on Sling TV

Universal Sports, part of Sling TV’s optional Sports Extra

I’ve had a few weeks to play with Sling TV, the new streaming service from Dish Network, not to be confused with the Slingbox hardware device of the same name. Sling TV, the Best in Show winner at the International CES 2015, has been touted as the answer for cord-cutters who still want ESPN and a few other pay-TV channels. It might be exactly that, but for me, I don’t know whether it’s worth the $20 or more monthly subscription fee.

First, the good news. Sling TV performed flawlessly every time I used it. That’s not very surprising since it’s based on the mature streaming technology of DishWorld, which has been running since 2012. (DishWorld will soon change its name to Sling International, but I digress.) Through announcements with AMC and Epix, Dish has indicated that it will add programming to Sling TV’s already decent lineup. As with DishWorld, Sling TV is already available on Roku, iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, and Sling TV is also promoting its new Amazon Fire TV app. The same pay-per-view movies are listed on Sling TV as DishWorld, including (surprisingly) free Bollywood movies.

One improvement that Sling TV offers over DishWorld is an intermediate viewing Window in its Windows app. The DishWorld app’s only options are a small monitor area in its menu window (see below) or full screen. The really big advantage is ESPN; for most households, Sling TV is the least expensive option for watching ESPN.

In fact, Sling TV only really suffers in comparison with other viewing options. Its worst problem is its lack of DVR; most Sling TV channels don’t even include the “last week on-demand” option present with every DishWorld channel. So I can watch ESPN or TBS live, but I can’t pause the stream, record it, or watch shows from earlier today. That’s standard behavior for watching TV in a hotel room, but most of us viewers have recorders, and we’re pretty used to them. (My family refers to live, unpauseable TV as “hotel mode” TV. But I digress again.)

Universal Sports on DishWorld

Universal Sports on DishWorld

DishWorld recently began offering a Sports TV package with 21 channels for a measly $10 a month. That includes Universal Sports and beIN Sports, both part of Sling TV’s Sports Extra package, plus One World Sports, Willow Cricket, Trace Sport Stars, beIN Sports en Español, Nautical Channel, and 14 non-sports channels, including personal favorites FashionTV, Baby TV and more. If you want Sling TV for Monday Night Football, then DishWorld can’t help you. But if you just want to watch something and you’ve got an open mind, it’s a pretty good deal. I sometimes watch 21st-century Doctor Who episodes on demand from Ebru TV, and I’ll tune in to DishWorld’s news channels for a different perspective on events.

Here’s a chunk of perspective that you won’t find anywhere else: Sling TV isn’t as good as NimbleTV was before it had to shut down. By working as a streaming adjunct to a separate Dish subscription, NimbleTV provided more channels and a full DVR. NimbleTV’s iOS app was as good as Sling TV’s, and NimbleTV was working on adding other platforms. Its tier with ESPN cost a whole lot more than Sling TV, so I’d like to have seen those two products compete in the marketplace – the inexpensive, well-promoted Sling TV and the little-known, pricey NimbleTV.

Another option is to effectively host your own NimbleTV – spring for a full Dish Network subscription at home, then use Dish Anywhere apps for streaming on the go. If you can mount a dish and don’t mind spending over $70 per month, that provides a lot of advantages over Sling TV. But I think I’m still sidestepping the point: If you’re a cord-cutter who really wants to watch ESPN and can handle it live-only, Sling TV is your solution. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure Sling TV is worth buying.

TV stations need to promote their dot-twos

c DepositPhotos / scyther5

© Depositphotos.com / scyther5

The last couple of weeks, a few TV trade magazines have been abuzz about something that’s old news to us free-TV enthusiasts: There are a growing number of digital subchannels available in markets all over the country. For over-the-air TV viewers, it’s like having a virtual pay-TV system except without the paying. The most remarkable thing about this burgeoning free entertainment menu is that few people seem to know about it.

A side note: What’s the best name for these digital TV subchannels? Michael Malone tackled that question in Broadcasting & Cable. “The channels are alternately referred to as diginets or multicast nets or dot-two channels or subchannels, creating confusion among viewers, and even industry types,” he wrote. Katz Broadcasting promotes the term “emerging broadcast networks,” but I think that’s an unwieldy mess. Headline writers seem to prefer “diginets,” but I like “dot-twos” because it describes how to find these networks, even those that are really at dot-three or dot-seven.

I’ve been watching dot-twos since The Tube and Universal Sports were on. (The Tube faded to black in 2007 and Universal Sports shifted to pay-TV distribution in 2012.) This happy by-product of the digital TV conversion has exploded since then. Of the 70 channels I can pick up here in Denver, 42 are dot-twos, and they include channels devoted to movies, classic TV, news and weather. Sure they also include a solid chunk of stuff I can do without – religion, shopping, and Spanish-language programming – but it’s nice to have something for everybody.

What hasn’t changed since the dot-twos’ early days is that few viewers are aware of them. (I couldn’t find any dot-two surveys, but almost no one I talk to knows about them.) You might say that you can’t pay for this stuff; only a handful of dot-twos are on cable systems, and none are on Dish Network or DirecTV. The only way to watch is over the air, which is great for cord-cutters and a little inconvenient for everyone else.

So why not put together some advertising to let viewers know what they might be missing? This could be a great way for broadcasters as a group to boast about another facet of their public service. At a time when it’s hard to find a movie on the major broadcast TV channels, wouldn’t it be a good idea to mention that there are over 100 movies available every week on these dot-twos? As wireless companies clamor for TV’s bandwidth, wouldn’t it be smart to show America that it’s already being put to good use?

My new champion OTA antenna: the Cable Cutter

Rooftop TV antennas

The Cable Cutter antenna on my roof, with the Radio Shack yagi that it vanquished.

There’s been a major change at FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver. My decade-old yagi-style antenna (I always call it the old-school, pointy kind of antenna), featured in my brief burst of international almost-celebrity, finally met its match. It was defeated by HD Frequency’s Cable Cutter antenna, which now provides a wider selection of over-the-air TV channels to my OTA device test bed.

That yagi had a lot of history behind it. I bought it from Radio Shack way back in 2004 when Dish Network had its first major retransmission tussle with CBS. Since then, it survived a new roof and a growing list of new OTA antennas. Some of the contenders came close to the yagi’s performance, but none ever beat it.

One major factor in the yagi’s longevity was its emphasis on VHF signals. With the switch to HD, most stations moved to UHF, but two Denver channels stayed on the VHF band. The most magnificent, impressive UHF antenna isn’t any good to me if it can’t somehow deliver my ABC and NBC affiliates.

Then at the International CES last month, Theodore Head, CEO of SiliconDust, maker of the amazingly useful HDHomeRun tuners, told me about HD Frequency’s antennas. Head said that they were simply the best, and he referred me to HD Frequency founder Josh McDonnell, who sent along his top-of-the-line Cable Cutter for me to test.

One of the really nice things about the HDHomeRun is the number of tools available for it, both in-house and third-party. To measure the signal quality for various channels, I started out with Signal GH for iOS, but later switched to HDhomerun (sic) Signal Meter for Android. The Android app was a little easier for me to read, and it’s free. I’d recommend the Signal Meter app to help point or position an OTA antenna, but your mobile device OS will probably determine which one is better for you.

The great thing about either signal measurement app is that it provides a good, solid number for signal quality, which makes it a lot easier to compare one antenna to another. When I got my Cable Cutter last week, the first thing I tried was sticking it in my ground-floor window. I was amazed to see that from there it matched or beat my yagi’s numbers for every channel except that VHF pair, which were weak but usable. I could recommend the Cable Cuter right there as an excellent indoor antenna, but when I later moved it to the roof, it kept its strong UHF signal and matched my yagi’s VHF reception.

(I’ve got a whole page full of numbers for all of the channels and all of the antenna position experiments I tried, but I’ll spare you the details. I’ll only mention one fact, verified during this process: Signal quality can change from minute to minute even when everything else stays the same. It takes more than one pair of readings to verify that Antenna A picks up a channel better than Antenna B.)

One more disadvantage of the yagi is that it’s very directional. Most of the channels in Denver come from Lookout Mountain, about 12 miles east of downtown, so that’s where the yagi pointed. There are a couple of other channel clusters that are broadcast from a point over 20 miles north of downtown. From my roof, those two towers are about 80 degrees apart, and my carefully aimed Cable Cutter can just see them both.

Thanks to the Cable Cutter, for the first time I can actually receive all the channels that TVFool.com says I ought to be able to get. For anyone who needs an OTA antenna, I can’t imagine a better choice.

One last lesson from CES 2015

Left to right: Kris Alexander, Akamai; Jeff Binder, Layer3 TV; and Michael Goodman, Strategy Analytics, three of the panelists at an Internet TV conference session at CES.

Left to right: Kris Alexander, Akamai; Jeff Binder, Layer3 TV; and Michael Goodman, Strategy Analytics, three of the panelists at an Internet TV conference session at CES.

I promised myself that this year, at the International CES, I wouldn’t take photos of the zillion iPhone cases on display. If you wanted to see that, you’ll just have to content yourself with last year’s set. Instead, I’ll close the book on CES 2015 with truly useful insight.

Not my insight, of course. In this case, it came from a conference session called “InternetTV – The Disruption – Skinny TV – Mega Premium”. CES has plenty of conference tracks, but in general I find that the speakers at conference sessions either tell me what I already know or merely promote their companies’ initiatives, usually just new products or services. But this session ran before the show floor opened and at the same time as the opening keynote address. Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a newsworthy CES keynote.

This conference session was better than most. The panelists discussed changing consumer behavior both caused by and driving internet-based TV viewing, especially as it related to the pay-TV bundle. Downplaying reports of widespread cord-cutting, Michael Goodman, Director of Digital Media for Strategy Analytics, said that millennials have always watched less TV and were less likely to subscribe to pay TV.  In support of pay-TV bundles, Jeff Binder, CEO of Layer3 TV, said, “I think that consumers have not changed a whole lot. Each household has different constituents that watch different channels.” That echoed an earlier statement by TiVo’s Evan Young, who said, “Consumers are not monolithic. It’s different if you’re single.”

Later, the panelists discussed the economics of multi-channel TV, largely agreeing the the content owners ultimately, albeit indirectly, set the price to consumers. Goodman saw that, for example, Netflix’s low-cost contracts with content owners would all eventually require renewal and renegotiation. “Netflix is not going to cost $9-10 (per month) a year from now,” he said. “It’ll be $20 or $30.”

It was all surprisingly meaty, interesting discussion about the always unknowable future, with equal doses of inevitable change and unyielding status quo. But it was Kris Alexander, Chief Strategist at Akamai, who distilled the future of TV into one sentence. When it comes to competing TV systems, Alexander said, discovery and curation are critical.

That was a great thought to keep in my head for the rest of the show. When Tablo, Channel Master, TiVo and even SiliconDust were showing off their latest, they all were looking to offer new channels and suggestions to the viewer. When I would mention those two keys to the TV future, exhibitors would pause, then nod in appreciation for that clear vision.

As we move toward free TV (as in free speech, not free beer) where every viewer can choose what to watch and when to watch it, the winning viewing platform will be the one with the easiest interface and the best suggestions. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out on top.

Sling complement candidate #4: HDHomeRun

HDHomeRun Connect tunerMy flu is over, so it’s back to this list. From the first days of hi-fi through roughly the 1980s, a home audio system was something to be assembled. An audiophile would carefully pick out a turntable, a tape deck (reel to reel for fidelity or cassette for convenience), a receiver, and often, a separate tuner. All that tuner component would do is bring in AM and FM signals; it needed an amplifier, often that receiver, for anyone to listen to it.

The fourth possible complement to Sling TV that I saw at the International CES is the TV equivalent to that old tuner component – SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun over-the-air TV tuner. All it does is tune in OTA TV channels and provide them to a local IP-based network. To provide a typical DVR experience, the HDHomeRun requires some help, but the good news is that it’s designed to perform well with others.

Unlike so many products that try to be every viewer’s full solution, the HDHomeRun works simply as the perfect TV tuner for whatever you watch to stitch together. I’ve been using it with my Windows Media Center computers (both Windows 7 and an upgraded Windows 8.1), and it works as easily as a USB-based tuner, with equally snappy channel changes. The HDHomeRun web site features great free support and downloads for using the tuner with Windows Media Center, NextPVRMediaPortal, and the legacy DVRs of SageTV and BeyondTV. Or if you just want to use HDHomeRun to stream live TV to all of the devices on your local network, it handles that too.

Unlike a USB TV tuner or a PC card, the HDHomeRun can be shared by multiple computers. The HDHomeRun won’t help resolve program conflicts (as when three simultaneous recordings are requested from two tuners), but if you can avoid such foolishness, it becomes a great resource for the whole home network.

I still think that if we ever see a truly popular OTA DVR, it’ll be inexpensive to run and easy as a toaster. The TiVo Roamio OTA is about that easy, but not inexpensive. The HDHomeRun has no monthly fees, but it takes a bit of work to fully use its features. Maybe some entrepreneur will pair a bunch of old Windows 7 computers with HDHomeRuns to sell $0/month Windows Media Center solutions to cord-cutters. Or maybe some programmer is working even as I type to create the next generation of free DVRs. If he is, he’s probably got a way to plug in the HDHomeRun.

Will Simple.TV recover after Tuesday’s crash?

Man with gun pointed at his foot

© Depositphotos.com / hyrons

Sorry, but I’ve got two reasons to add another interruption to my rundown of great over-the-air TV solutions that I saw at the International CES. First, despite getting the flu shot in October, I came down with the flu Friday. The worst is over, though I’m miffed that I won’t get a refund on the flu shot. I’ve been using my downtime to enjoy the hours of OTA shows and movies that I had recorded on my Simple.TV receiver. Monday, that was great. Tuesday, Simple.TV caught its own version of the flu. That’s my second reason.

Based on posts at Simple.TV’s community forum, on Monday the company sent out an email to some subscribers (not me) noting that it would perform “essential maintenance to Simple.TV’s online systems” in the wee hours Tuesday morning from 4-8 am Eastern. “During this period your Simple.TV will not be available.” Not so bad. Then came another email early Tuesday morning that said in part: “While carrying out a scheduled upgrade of our online systems we have encountered an issue and the Simple.TV service will be offline while we fix the fault.” I first noticed this later in the morning after Simple.TV had updated its home page to say that the service was temporarily down.

That outage lasted all day and into the early evening, but when service was restored, we users learned that wasn’t the worst of it. Apparently, Simple.TV has resorted to a backup that was about a half-year old, so everything that had been recorded since then remained unavailable for viewing even though the recordings remained on each user’s local hard drive. There were lots of other fun changes with reactivating receivers (carefully, so as not to wipe the hard drive), rescanning some channel lists, making fresh account passwords, and about anything else caused by having the Simple.TV cloud six months out of sync with its receivers.

When I wrote my comparative review between Tablo and Simple.TV, I failed to highlight one difference between the two because it didn’t seem very important at the time. Tablo keeps a lot (all?) of its data on the local receiver while Simple.TV is cloud-based. That’s not an issue unless, somehow, the cloud comes crashing down.

This afternoon, Simple.TV sent out another email, again not to me, noting that all those unviewable recordings “still physically exist on your connected hard drive (make sure not to format it) and we are actively doing our best to restore as many of them as we can, as quickly as possible.” I’ve verified that post-crash shows are easy to record and play back. If Simple.TV can restore everyone’s access to their recordings in a couple of days, maybe they can find a way to bounce back. But if they’re getting out of the hardware business and users can’t trust their cloud, what does Simple.TV have left?

Update: After a week, Simple.TV updated its cloud to show that there were “recovered recordings” on those local hard drives. The only information available was the time and date for each recording (making them a lot like the recordings on a HomeWorX DVR), but at least they were viewable again. Thanks to an Android program that can download those recordings, I pulled my 100+ shows to my PC, where I could identify and label them. Thanks to Simple.TV for doing what it could to set things right.