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.
© 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.
© Depositphotos / AndreyPopov
This is big enough news to jar me out of my summer break: FilmOn, our longtime video-streaming friend, actually won a decision in court. Last Thursday, US District Court Judge George Wu ruled against the broadcast TV networks that had filed for a summary judgment that FilmOn was ineligible for a compulsory license to retransmit their signals over the internet. Wu denied that motion, writing that FilmOn was “potentially entitled” to such a license.
There’s a whole lot of history in various online companies’ court battles to carry over-the-air TV. Most of those skirmishes and slaughters through the years, from ivi.tv and FilmOn to Aereo, have been detailed on this blog. For the quickest, best summary in one place, you should read TechDirt’s post by Mike Masnick. (My favorite quote: “In the early days, it was little surprise that Aereo won and FilmOn lost (often badly).” Those were such crazy times! But I digress.)
Most stories about Thursday’s court ruling made it sound a lot more important than it was. For example, Deadline Hollywood screamed “Court Says FilmOn Has A Right To License Major Broadcasters’ TV Shows”. But within that story, a quote attributed to Fox had the right perspective: “The court only found that FilmOn could potentially qualify for a compulsory license, and we do not believe that is a possibility. The injunction barring Film On from retransmitting broadcast programming over the internet still remains in place and the full burden of proof still lies with FilmOn.”
For all of us who would like to see more OTA TV streaming, Wu’s ruling is a victory, but only a small one. By rejecting the request for a summary judgment, Wu merely indicated that there is a real question whether FilmOn should qualify for the compulsory copyright license that ivi.tv couldn’t get years ago, noting that the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision may have changed the rules. Further, Wu indicated that he expected an appeal, which was why he left the injunction against FilmOn in place. And it’s possible, as the Los Angeles Times’ Jon Healey suggested, that the decision won’t survive appeal.
The more likely path for FilmOn will be later this year when the FCC is expected to set down rules by which online companies can get the same benefits (and possibly drawbacks) of other video distributors such as cable. Presumably, that would include OTA retransmission consent, which FilmOn would need to negotiate with each OTA station it would carry. It’s too late for Aereo, but it sure would be nice to be able to stream US OTA channels through FilmOn.
What the Tablo program grid looks like on a TV with Roku.
At first I was going to brag about my new gigabit internet access, then I remembered that you’d want to know who was providing it (CenturyLink) and how the installation process went (pretty badly), so I skipped it. Anyway, there’s just too much over-the-air TV DVR news to ignore.
First I’ll tip my hat again to ZatzNotFunny, which reported that TiVo has a limited-time offer of lifetime service for its Roamio OTA DVR if you can purchase it for $300. As ZatzNotFunny’s commenters noticed, that special URL won’t always load, but repeatedly clicking the link (not just refreshing the unwanted landing page) has worked for some folks, including me. TiVo has long been the gold standard in DVRs, and this removes the Roamio OTA’s main competitive disadvantage – its really high monthly fees. At $300, it’s still a little expensive to recommend wholeheartedly, but now I would at least consider choosing the Roamio OTA.
That’s even truer given the second bit of news. As first reported by ZDNet over the weekend, the next major version of Microsoft Windows will not include Windows Media Center. In fact, WMC will be incompatible with Windows 10, so there would be no way to add it as an extra feature as with Windows 8. As the ZDNet article describes, this won’t mean much to existing Windows 7 computers running WMC, except that they now have a sunset date of 2020, when Microsoft will probably stop supporting that operating system. Computers running Windows 8.1 with the WMC add-on will be supported to 2023. Too bad WMC is fading just as cord-cutting is getting popular.
Over at Tablo, they’re celebrating a Best of Show Award from the recent NAB Show. Tablo was pitching to internet service providers and similar folks that could add an OTA antenna and some Tablo equipment during an installation to give their customers local channels. Tablo is also opening its Roku grid preview for all Tablo owners; it’s a decent implementation of a program grid considering that it has to be pushed through a restrictive Roku device.
And I’ll close with some good news: The HDHomeRun DVR Kickstarter that I wrote about last time has met its goal weeks in advance. Not only is the DVR funded, but they’re also closing in on the stretch goal of adding support for Kodi (until recently called XBMC). I look forward to getting a chance to try it out.
How HDHomeRun’s proposed DVR might look
Just when I think I’ve caught up on all of the news about DVRs for over-the-air TV, something new comes up. In this case, two somethings.
Over at Dave Zatz’s amazing blog, Zatz Not Funny!, Zatz broke the news that TiVo was pitching its service in a special email to former Aereo customers. (Or at least to some of them. I’m a former Aereo subscriber and I never saw it. But I digress.) TiVo, which purchased the Aereo’s customer list during the latter’s bankruptcy sale, offered its Roamio OTA DVR plus its Stream unit for sending a TV stream outside the home network plus its guide service, all for $19.95/month for two years. After those two years, guide service is $14.95/month, a cost that’s head and shoulders above any other OTA DVR.
I have so many happy menus of TiVo, which was my first DVR. The peanut-shaped remote felt great in my hand. The DVR filled any empty space by quietly recording shows I might like. The TiVo’s great design gave it unmatched, pioneering usability. Its monthly guide fee was a little high, but a lifetime subscription took away some of the sting.
Now the TiVo still offers a great user experience, but I can’t recommend that deal. Subtract the guide price and you’re paying only $120 over two years for hardware that’s worth twice that, but spending almost $180/year for guide data will get old fast.
Let’s turn from the original DVR to the newest – so new that it isn’t here yet. Silicondust, the makers of HDHomeRun, the amazing little OTA tuner for home networks, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its own DVR. Based on that Kickstarter page, the HDHomeRun DVR will allow recording to an always-on PC or a network attached storage (NAS) drive. Adding the NAS capability should reduce electricity consumption compared to, for example, my HDHomeRun-connected Windows Media Center PC.
Guide data will cost a reasonable $30/year, and Kickstarter backers at $30 or more will get a year free. HDHomeRun’s viewing apps already work great, so I have high expectations for its DVR software. The Kickstarter notes suggest that Silicondust already has most of it running but hopes use pledge proceeds to add programmers to add support for protected content. If the project gets enough support, Silicondust may also create an iOS app, filling the most obvious gap in its current ecosystem.
From all I’ve seen and heard, Silicondust is made of good people who make products that work well. All Kickstarter projects involve risk, but I think I’ll make a $30 or $60 bet on the HDHomeRun DVR.
Luc Tomasino, TabletTV CMO, describes his product at the NAB Show.
I’ve about recovered from the annual National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, held this week. Its organizers announced that over 100,000 people attended this year, a slight increase over last year, but the general mood was just a little quieter.
Before the show opened, Multichannel News hit the stands with a cover story on over-the-air TV: Threat From the Skies. You should read the whole thing, but the main idea was that pay TV should be concerned about OTA, especially OTA DVRs such as TiVo’s Roamio OTA and Channel Master’s DVR+, which is pictured in the article.
Despite this heightened awareness, not much actually happened with those OTA DVRs. The DVR+ displayed some recent integrated online video sources in its program grid, but Channel Master representatives expected to have bigger news in a few weeks. Simple.TV didn’t make a public appearance, although news came during the show that it had raised another $5.1 million. Tablo issued a press release that said it was trying to lure regional broadband operators to add its service. TabletTV hosted a conference session for low-power TV broadcasters to point out that in an OTA program grid, the LPTV listings are just as prominent as the full-power guys’.
There just wasn’t much news from this group in Las Vegas, but I expect to hear a lot more soon.
- NAB President Gordon Smith’s keynote was genial and relaxed. For example, he said that in contrast to cable TV news, local TV news is important because it’s “where Americans turn when they want just the facts with no yelling, screaming and finger-pointing.” Smith is a sharp guy celebrating five years of satisfying the disparate audiences within the association, but this particular speech sounded a lot like a fireside chat from SCTV’s Mayor Tommy Shanks.
- Features of the next-generation broadcasting standard, ATSC 3.0, found their way into several exhibitors’ displays, which demonstrated text-based emergency alerts, seamless mobile reception, 4K resolution, and many other wish-list items. What’s still uncertain is exactly which of those features will be included in the finalized version of ATSC 3.0, which will then require a whole new generation of TV sets to view it. Expect at least another decade with the status quo.
- Camera drones were a big topic of conversion and demonstration. Brian Holl, VP of Strategy and Outreach for the Small UAV Coalition, showed off a small multi-rotor flier and discussed the FAA’s rules against commercial use of such devices. Holl said that his organization is focusing on Congress to change the law to allow responsible piloting of camera drones. While it might not happen soon, Holl believed that it was inevitable; as he put it, “Technology always wins.”
Founder Hyung Lim with a TV displaying four shows at once
I love it when anyone tried to do something new with over-the-air TV signals. I also like hearing about entrepreneurs who took a great idea and did whatever was needed to make it a reality. So I really enjoyed meeting Hyung Lim, founder of 4SeTV, which was exhibiting at the ShowStoppers event just before the 2015 edition of the NAB Show in Las Vegas.
The basic idea is pretty simple – take four OTA tuners, build a four-panel display with four TV signals, then send them over a local network to a smart TV or other internet-enabled viewing device. According to the 4SeTV web site, the idea came to Lim as a great way to watch sports on several channels at once.
I don’t like to be negative, but despite several listings at the 4SeTV booth of some Saturday and Sunday afternoons that happened to include four OTA sporting events, live sports are running away from OTA, not towards it. Fortunately, Lim also sold 4SeTV’s mother company, DMT, on the idea of selling this as a feature to cable companies, possibly reserving one of the screen quarters for advertisements.
Still, it seemed to me that Lim would like to see that little 4SeTV device work in cable-cutter households. It’s on its second Kickstarter, where it’s available for $99 instead of the projected eventual, who’s-gonna-pay-it price of $179. It sure looks like a fun feature, and I salute anyone who cares that much about OTA TV.
In January, when we last looked in on Simple.TV, it had just suffered a devastating data loss. Because of a server crash and failed backups, Simple.TV users couldn’t access their recordings, even though those users’ local hard drives still contained all of those shows. Without the central server’s cloud-based indexing and metadata, all of those files were unviewable dead weight.
“I got the call at 2 am from our developers in the UK,” recalled Mark Ely, Simple.TV’s CEO. “It was the worst-case scenario you could think of.”
Things got better. In about a week, Simple.TV developed and released a stopgap method for users to recover those files. Its service kept plugging along with no further catastrophes; according to Ely, it now has “tons of redundancy.” In fact, the next generation of Simple.TV devices will use the cloud for file storage as well as metadata.
Coming in the second half of
2016 2015 (sorry, typo) “in time for the holidays,” the new devices from an unannounced partner are expected to include four tuners (see update below), an internet connection, an HDMI output and little else. The unit will feature a new guide and new program discovery tools, possibly including internet-based TV options. Legacy one- and two-tuners may be included in this “whole new front end,” although Ely said Simple.TV developers were still working on how to transition those existing customers to the fully cloud-based system once it’s ready. Update: I noticed that another blog quotes an email from Ely backing away from four tuners on the new devices. That’s what was in my notes from our conversation, but if he doesn’t want to commit to four, I understand.
They’re coming from slightly different directions, but Tablo, DVR+, TiVo’s Roamio OTA, and Simple.TV are all converging on a unified discovery system for over-the-air and internet TV in one box. We’ll see who wins this battle for cord-cutters.
Two more Simple.TV notes:
- Simple.TV fixed an annoyance that I pointed out last October; now when scanning for channels, there is only one version of the Local Over the Air Broadcast option available rather than several. For me, anyway. Now I don’t have to wonder whether I’ve selected the most recent local channel lineup.
- A tip from the CEO: If a local channel has the wrong guide listings or none at all, just remap that channel to a close match from a different market. When the Movies! network popped up on one of my local station, I found a Movies! affiliate in a different Zip Code and remapped to that one.
Remember when I wrote that the Cable Cutter is the best antenna I’ve ever seen? Well, it still is. But while I was testing it, I also discovered that the simple indoor antenna I was using as a baseline was also really good. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the HomeWorX HW110AN Super Thin Indoor HDTV Antenna is the best antenna I’ve ever seen for less than $10.
First, a housekeeping note. You may have noticed that some of the links in this post are affiliate links to Amazon.com, as are several other links throughout FTABlog. Thanks to the Colorado legislature, I don’t get paid for those links any more. Thanks to an ill-advised sales tax collection law passed in my state, Amazon cut off all of its Colorado-based affiliates. Maybe when something sensible happens, like Congress passing a national online sales tax bill that treats every company fairly, then those links will start earning a trickle of money. Until then, they’re a handy way to grab product photos and provide a convenient link for you to find out more.
Back to antennas. If that HomeWorX name sounds familiar, it’s because HomeWorX also makes the digital converter box that I reviewed as a weak DVR a few months back. Like that sub-$50 converter/receiver, the HomeWorX antenna is inexpensive – under $7 on Amazon as I type. It comes with the pictured stand, which is really a mechanical suction cup, making it easy to mount on a window or wall.
I’ve gone through a lot of cheap TV antennas, but the HomeWorX is the first to hold its own against serious, expensive antennas. I noticed that as I set it up for my Cable Cutter comparison tests; mounted in the right place, the HomeWorX picked up almost all of the channels that the Cable Cutter found, just with reduced signal quality. It was about equal on VHF channels, but noticeably weaker in the higher UHF channels, particularly 41-45.
After noticing that strong performance, I took my HomeWorX to my basement, where an old TV picks up a few channels from a powered antenna by a window. I plugged in the HomeWorX to the same spot, and even though it’s not amplified, it easily beat that old antenna. That was so startling that I left it there and ordered another HomeWorX, which has performed just like my first.
One reason it’ll never replace the Cable Cutter is the HomeWorX is definitely an indoor-only antenna. It rectangle of soft, flexible plastic wouldn’t stand up for long against the elements. But if you can find just the right mounting position next to a window, and if your local channels’ signals are strong enough, this HomeWorX antenna may be all you need.
Last 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.