Stadium logo

There was a nice story yesterday in The Washington Post about Stadium, the over-the-air TV sports network. It has ambitious goals and pockets deep enough to survive long enough to reach them.

Although it’s in a few pay-TV places (I love it on Sling TV), Stadium concentrates on its OTA audience. “Our end goal is to be the most widely distributed and available sports network in America, far surpassing the 85 million in cable,” Stadium CEO Jason Coyle said.

Stadium is part-owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, perhaps the most enthusiastic driver of ATSC 3.0. When that version of broadcast TV displaces the current ATSC 1, it will multiply the possible digital sub-channels in each market. The bouquet of OTA programming could top 300 channels, making cable unnecessary. “Listen, obviously some of these channels are going to suck,” Ehrlich said. “But the point is that what’s available over the air could be extraordinary.”

I’ve written before about Stadium, which fills the most obvious gap in OTA TV programming. Here in Denver, it’s on a sub-channel with a tiny dribble of bandwidth that restricts it to 4:3 standard definition and poor quality game coverage. On the other hand, it looks great on Sling and on Stirr, the recent Sinclair over-the-top launch that I really need to write more about one of these days.

Some regional sports networks are for sale as part of Disney’s divestiture of some Fox assets, and Sinclair has been reported to be in the bidding war for them. If Sinclair lands some rights to major sports broadcasts, my hope is that they plug some of them into Stadium as part of a freemium business model – if you like a team’s occasional appearance over-the-air, you may be interested in seeing every game on that team’s full network. That also goes along with my belief that some of those 300 sub-channels won’t be free. Perhaps Yourtown Stadium Plus will be available OTA to anyone who wants to buy a subscription.

Whatever Stadium’s end game, it’s well worth enjoying now. I just hope that it gets enough bandwidth over the air wherever you see it.

A press release from MRI-Simmons came out a couple of days ago, and several well-respected industry news sites dutifully reported its findings. Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

Here’s the lead: “The latest Cord Evolution insights reveal that roughly 31 million US consumers – 12% of the adult population – are Cord Nevers (CNs); that represents an increase over the 2017 level of 9%.” MRI-Simmons defined Cord Nevers as those who “have never paid for a traditional TV connection.”

Let’s do the math. Those numbers indicate that the total US viewing population is currently about 258 million, of which 227 million have bought pay-TV. The total US population grew by a bit more than 3 million from 2016 to 2018, so let’s say that two years ago the total viewing population was 255 million. Back then, about 232 million (91%) said they had ever paid for it. So how could there be about 5 million fewer pay-TV veterans now? Only 2.8 million Americans died in 2017. Was virtually every death a pay-TV viewer who was replaced by a young new viewer?

My guess, using only the info in the press release, is that MRI-Simmons would have been better off mentioning the margin of error in its survey using “roughly 24,000 in-person, in-home interviews”. That could account for differences in the sampled groups from 2017 and more recently. Or maybe MRI-Simmons nailed an amazing truth.

What I find funniest about this release is noting the outlets that uncritically repeated the story. Broadband TV News, Media Play News, Rapid TV News, and even Broadcasting & Cable reported the survey results without mentioning how unusual those numbers are. If every US funeral equals another Cord Never, then I’d say that ought to be the lead.

As young adults become heads of households and older adults pass away, I’m confident that there’s a true reduction in the percentage of current and former pay-TV subscribers. But I’m less confident that there were 5 million fewer of them in the past two years.

Alan Alda accepting the NAB Distinguished Service Award
Alan Alda accepting the 2019 NAB Distinguished Service Award

I’m back from the 2019 edition of the National Association of Broadcasters Show, which I’ve been attending since 2008. Back then, America was just about to switch to HDTV, satellite companies still enjoyed talking about the free-TV stations in their mixes, and the term over-the-top TV hadn’t even been coined yet. Now broadcasters are getting increasingly nervous about their online competitors even as many pin their hopes on yet another TV transition.

NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith provided the keynote, starting off the show with a touch of cognitive dissonance. He said, “My own NAB Show story began a decade ago – almost to this day, in fact – when I spoke at my first show as the new president and CEO.” Except that Smith was off by a year – his first NAB Show keynote was April 12, 2010, about seven months after he got the job. I expect that someone on his team confused his 10th year with a 10-year anniversary.

I truly enjoy Smith’s ability to state seemingly contradictory things without irony or shame. This year he praised TV localism while urging Congress to reduce ownership caps (which tends to reduce the number of locally based stations). And here’s an adjacent-sentence example: “First, modernize outdated broadcast regulations to allow us to compete on a level playing field … And second, increase regulation on the tech industry”. So the government should take a more active role, just not with broadcasters.

Again, Smith does all this with a pleasant speaking voice while making every sentence sound reasonable. He’s obviously a great builder of coalitions, keeping a diverse group of large and small station owners on his side. He puts a likable face on a business that was built on a promise of public service but usually seems more focused on its bottom line.

Alan Alda, this year’s recipient of the NAB Distinguished Service Award, soon followed Smith to the stage. Alda spoke at length about his career and was surprised at the audience applause for PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” his second-longest running TV show. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to have anything to promote, except perhaps his Clear+Vivid podcast. Maybe he was just promoting better techniques for communication, especially listening. As Alda put it, “I don’t think I’m really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by you.”

And from a viewer’s perspective, that was the best part of the show. Attendance was down a bit, and the show floor seemed a little smaller. Broadcasters seemed especially apprehensive about wireless companies’ upcoming 5G and were eager to get ATSC 3.0 adopted. (Excuse me, the current term is Next-Gen TV.)

A coalition of station groups announced its plans to begin to deploy Next-Gen by the end of 2020. Among the many station owners quoted, I found the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s president/CEO’s remarks the most telling. Chris Ripley said that the new system would give broadcasters a better product “while creating entirely new services to diversify revenue and better serve the public.” That’s the best validation I’ve found so far for my theory of the real goal of Next-Gen TV. I think that some broadcasters want viewers to pay for what they watch. Maybe it’ll be for the 4K version, maybe it’ll be a license to record programs on a DVR, but my guess is that the next broadcast standard will include digital rights management and a subscription mechanism unless Congress or the FCC steps in.

There was a smattering of Next-Gen equipment on display, but little that will be usable by typical viewers even when experimental TV stations get started. In general, there just wasn’t much viewer-focused news on the show floor. That makes a lot of sense; the NAB Show is to viewers what a zookeeper convention would be to the animals. The attendees are there to serve viewers, but viewers don’t contribute directly to the bottom line.

Gordon Smith’s reminiscence led me to look back at my longer history of NAB Show visits. Every time, the show staff have treated me as a welcome friend, but lately I’ve been finding fewer relevant needles in this haystack. If you’re a broadcaster or a filmmaker, or if you have something to sell to anyone in those categories, the NAB Show is a great party and wonderful opportunity. If you’re a TV viewer, or you want to learn what’s going to benefit viewers, not so much.

You know, I never did get around to telling you about the new over-the-air TV antennas that Televes gave me at CES. Let’s fix that now.

Televes over-the-air TV antenna on a rooftop mount
Here is the antenna that beat my old HD Frequency Cable Cutter

You might remember that at CES this year, I met Javier Ruano, GM of OTA antenna maker Televes. Here’s one of the benefits of attending the last day of a convention: Ruano offered to let me try out some of his display models if I dropped by when he closed the Televes booth. When I came to collect, there was an impromptu demonstration that these antennas are much harder to take apart than they are to assemble, then I was on my way. I shipped the largest via FedEx and brought a couple more as carry-ons on my Southwest flight home.

CES is in January, and FreeTVBlog’s World Headquarters of Denver is known for snow. We got an extra helping of the white stuff this winter, which was great news for skiers and the water supply but made it difficult to time a safe trip to the roof to test the new Televes Ellipse against my incumbent, an excellent Cable Cutter antenna from HD Frequency. While I waited for a rooftop opportunity, I descended to the basement’s indoor antenna torture chamber.

There in the world of foundation walls and casement windows, over-the-air TV reception is really tough. So that’s where I like to try out various indoor “solutions” to see which ones might be sensitive enough to pick up the local transmitters 17 miles away.

Let me mention here again that TV signal quality measurements vary quite a bit from hour to hour, sometimes minute to minute. And that’s on top of the variation that can be introduced by different coax cables, even those that seem identical. My testing technique was strictly A/B, swapping one antenna for another while keeping everything else the same. My measuring tool was the amazing HDHomeRun receiver, which reports signal strength, signal-to-noise ratio, and the most important, signal quality.

Televes Bexia indoor antenna
The Bexia by Televes

I could get into the weeds here with all the measurements of Televes’ Bexia vs. the square RCA antenna that Dish sent over during one of its retransmission spats. (It’s something like this one.) I’ll spare you the channel by channel quality numbers. Although a few of its frequencies showed lower numbers than the amplified RCA square, the Bexia pulled in a wider range of usable channels from its awful position by the ground-level casement window. I wish I could link to a product page, but the Bexia appears to be a prototype, so all I could find was a YouTube video.

Weeks passed, and a week of warm weather invited me to the roof. After the difficulty of taking it apart at CES, I was surprised that the Ellipse really did snap together in less than a minute. Up on the roof, the only installation drawback was that the centered coax connector lined up with the mounting pole; an connector on one side or the other would have worked better. It made the connection more awkward, but with a 7/16-inch wrench, anything is possible.

Measured against the old champ, the Ellipse’s VHF was a bit weaker though definitely good enough. (I later learned that was because the CES demo unit was also a prototype, without the VHF element of the finished product.) The Ellipse’s advantage was on some UHF channels that had been plagued with dropoffs because of signal reflections. Those signals were now continuous. A few of the strong UHF channels showed lower SNR percentages than the Cable Cutter produced, but the weaker UHF signals came in stronger.

That prototype is still mounted on the roof, and the family is pleased. The flat HD Frequency Cable Cutter is well suited for both indoor and outdoor use, but in a way it’s kind of nice to once again have a rooftop antenna that looks like a TV antenna.

Writing in his regular column in TV News Check yesterday, Harry Jessell said something pretty close to what I said a couple of months ago. He wrote, “I don’t know it for a fact, but I know that it’s true that Charlie Ergen is the money behind Locast,” the non-profit over-the-air TV streaming service.

Jessell pointed to most of the evidence that I mentioned earlier, that Locast founder David Goodfriend used to represent Dish in Washington, and that it’s a heck of a coincidence that the Locast app is now on the Dish Hopper receiver. And Jessell also provided the principals’ public denials, noting that Dish co-founder Charlie Ergen declined to comment about the Locast connection during Dish’s Feb. 13 earnings call. About the only thing of mine that Jessell didn’t use was Locast’s otherwise odd choice of Ergen’s home, Denver, as the smallest of its first markets.

As I understand it, the key to Locast’s survival is its non-profit status. That way it can use the chunk of copyright law originally meant to encourage repeater towers to send local free TV over the internet. And that’s why Ergen and Dish have to stay at arm’s length; I’m surprised the Locast app is already on the Hopper. Then again, maybe it’s all just a coinincidence.

By the way, I’ve been meaning to note that my previous difficulties with Locast have evaporated. If I use a GPS emulator on my Android tablet to appear to be within one of Locast’s TV markets, I can see that market’s channels. Since the enabling copyright law was designed for spreading free-TV signals beyond their original reach, I feel like I’m just taking advantage of the world’s best repeater.