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?

Update: Sure enough, Fashion TV never returned. If I ever find out what happened, I’ll post it here, but my guess was that it was simply money – Fashion TV wanted more than Sling wanted to give.

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.

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

https://youtu.be/uASRgF2fwwY
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.

For once, FilmOn wins in court

Closeup of judge mallet on block by digital tablet in courtroom

© 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.

HDHomeRun throws its hat in OTA DVR ring

A computer screen showing how HDHomeRun's proposed DVR might look

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.

4SeTV shows off 4-in-1 OTA TV

Founder Hyung Lim with a TV displaying four shows at once

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.

Simple.TV may shift more to the cloud

Simple.TV box in front of a cloudIn 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.

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.