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 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.

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 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 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.

OTA DVR race heats up

Tablo TV with program grid.

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.

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.

NAB Notes: OTA DVR roundup edition

Luc Tomasino, TabletTV CMO, describes his product at the NAB Show.

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.

Other notes:

  • 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.”

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.