Could this OTA sports network go national?

Football game on American Sports NetworkI just got back from a few weeks in Columbus, Ohio on family business. While I was there, I had a chance to sample an over-the-air TV network I’d heard about, so I could correct an error I made earlier.

Two years ago, the Sinclair Broadcast Group announced the launch of the American Sports Network. At the time, I wrote that the ASN looked less like a 24/7 channel and “more like Raycom Sports, syndicating college games to mostly independent stations.” That might have been correct then, but in January 2016, ASN grew to become a 24/7 channel, now available OTA in over 40 markets. Including Columbus. Although ASN launched on Sinclair-controlled stations, now most ASN affiliates are non-Sinclair stations, most of which broadcast it on a digital subchannel.

ASN has assembled football, basketball, and hockey leagues from over a dozen college conferences. It’s had a couple of years to stockpile those games and now rebroadcasts some of them on weekday afternoons and other slow times. ASN also airs auto racing, amateur baseball, professional softball, and the usual half-hour roundup talk shows.

For me, ASN is the best OTA sports network I’ve ever seen. Although I sort of miss the old Universal Sports Network, which left OTA in 2012 and died last November, USN was always more likely to show skiing or cycling than a team sport. ASN feels more, well, American.

This post might be the nicest thing I ever say about Sinclair, which just last week was fined over $9 million by the FCC for not negotiating in good faith on retransmission consent fees. If ASN can make its way to my market, it’s so good that I’ll watch despite knowing who makes it possible.

 

Here’s another source for over-the-air baseball

Navy color guard before a Dayton Dragons baseball game

Sailors from the USS Constitution’s Color Guard parade the colors before a Dayton Dragons game. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Hammond)

Last Saturday evening, I was in Dayton, Ohio, sitting at a barbecue joint which I will honor by not mentioning its name. (If it had a motto, based on the waiter’s remarks, it would be, “Sorry, we’re changing the menu.”) For a reason unrelated to the alleged food, I was glad I came.

As I examined my appetizer plate of Tender Vittles, someone changed a TV screen from random hockey highlights to a baseball game. Featuring the local team, the Dayton Dragons. Broadcast on local over-the-air TV. Cool!

It turns out that Dayton is one of seven* minor-league baseball teams that broadcast some of their games on free OTA TV. As I have mentioned before, there are practically no local major-league baseball games on broadcast TV outside of New York City and Chicago, so this is a nice alternative.

With cord-cutting accelerating, Dayton and the other minor-league OTA broadcasters are smart in at least a couple of ways. They’re reaching the 25% of households that don’t subscribe to pay TV. Especially for those viewers, they provide an attractive, typically unique live-sports option. Everyone who watches is treated to what’s effectively an infomercial for watching games in person. And the teams are nurturing a new generation of baseball fans.

There are also at least another half dozen minor league teams that broadcast over local cable, but that can’t be as beneficial. Cable subscribers can switch over to major league baseball games or plenty of other sports options, so these minor league teams are less likely to pull in fresh fans. Ditto for MiLB.tv, an economical source for over 5000 (!) games a year, since its subscribers must already be minor-league baseball fans.

So here’s a note of thanks to Dayton, despite the cuisine. More major-league teams should be taking lessons from the Dragons.

* I checked every minor-league team’s web site and found 2016 OTA TV information for Dayton, Durham NC, Indianapolis, Lehigh Valley PA, South Bend IN, Winston-Salem NC, and (Appleton) Wisconsin. If I missed one you know about, please leave a comment.

 

A simple solution to OTA TV blackouts

One-sided arm wrestling

© olly18 / Depositphotos.com

I had hoped that the retransmission fee fight between Dish Network and Tribune Broadcasting would be over quickly, but if anything, it’s grown worse. Dish offered baseball-style binding arbitration. Tribune countered with ads blaming Dish. Then Dish sued over the ads. I recognize that these steps are all about adding bargaining chips toward a final settlement, but it’s all so unnecessary.

The primary cause of the problem is that over-the-air TV broadcasters get to demand negotiate retransmission fees from pay-TV providers. (That’s if they’re popular. If a station isn’t popular, it can instead demand that pay-TV providers must carry that station no matter how few viewers want it.) These stations, granted the license to use the public airwaves to serve their communities, can withhold their programming from cable and satellite unless those viewers pay up.

TV stations have all the leverage. If one pay-TV company balks, the station can urge viewers to switch to another, and that’s exactly what Tribune has done. A media conglomerate that controls both cable networks and OTA stations can use retransmission fee negotiations to force the providers to carry the networks or raise those prices too. That’s also what Tribune is doing.

It’s no wonder that stations reject calls for arbitration or any other changes to the current system. If you’ve got the only oasis for 100 miles, you won’t be interested in negotiating the price of water. No wonder that, according to SNL Kagan, total retransmission fees have risen from $200 million 10 years ago to over $7.7 billion this year and are projected to reach $11.6 billion by 2022.

In my ideal world, part of TV broadcasters’ social contract would include allowing anyone to retransmit any OTA station for free. That’s not going to happen. Heck, even the United Kingdom is considering allowing such fees. But I’ve got a solution that’s almost as good.

Consider music. When someone wants to play Yesterday, they don’t need to negotiate with Paul McCartney. There are rights organizations that have negotiated fair-market royalty rates with representatives of the parties that use music.

Now apply that to OTA TV. Suppose that the major networks and other TV ownership groups sat down with the cable and satellite TV companies. They could negotiate a formula that provides fair-market retransmission fees for each station. I imagine that the formula would be based on the average number of viewers, with a certain no-fee threshold for must-carry stations. If average ratings go up over a year (or quarterly), that station earns a higher fee from the pay-TV service. Every few years, the parties sit down and hash out any changes. Everyone benefits by saving all the time and money currently spent negotiating each station group’s demands with each pay-TV service. No OTA station ever gets blacked out on any provider, yet everyone gets a fair return.

This too will never happen without government intervention. Even with assurances of a fair return on OTA fees, conglomerates would lose the leverage to force better terms for their cable channels. But this plan might just be balanced enough to work if viewer groups and pay-TV lobbyists ever get together to lean on Washington. At the very least, it’s a pleasant dream.

 

KlowdTV suspends services, closes down

KlowdTV error message

Update: The other shoe dropped. I just received KlowdTV’s promised email to subscribers, now former subscribers. The email began “It is with much regret that we inform you that we are permanently closing our doors.”

There weren’t any specifics about why KlowdTV had to shut down so suddenly in the middle of the month.  Maybe they couldn’t make payroll? It had something to do with money; the note included “we have been unable to raise the required capital to continue operating and expanding the platform. … We apologize for the short notice, and for failing to keep the platform going.”

So long, KlowdTV. You will be missed.

Previously: KlowdTV, a plucky company that was pioneering super-skinny streaming TV bundles, has suspended all services indefinitely. That announcement was buried in KlowdTV’s program grid page, visible only to subscribers. For non-subscribers, the only indication pops up on a sign-up attempt. The note reads “Our apologies. We are not accepting new subscribers at this time.”

Of course, for subscribers who watch KlowdTV through its streaming app on Roku, Android or Apple, the streams simply stopped working. Only on the WatchMyKlowd web page was the message “Our apologies. All services have been suspended indefinitely. Your account has been set to deactivate at the end of your current billing period. Please check your email address (the email used when signing up) for an email containing additional information.”

I’m disappointed by the loss of KlowdTV, and I’m also disappointed at how it happened. Just two months ago, I was praising KlowdTV CEO Bill O’Hara for staying proactive in handling the loss of the beIN Sports channel. Oh well. When I hear anything more about what went down, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, many of KlowdTV’s streaming channels area available on FilmOn‘s $15/month premium package. Too bad there’s no one left to offer us KlowdTV’s skinny choices.

 

Blackouts remind us that local TV is free

A wide Dish Network satellite dishIrony. DirecTV had been the latest TV provider to see local over-the-air channels blacked out because of contract disputes. I was going to write about my common sense alternative to these retransmission consent arguments between broadcasters and providers, but yesterday the issue hit home. My home. (That alternative will have to wait until my next post.)

Dish Network lost its Tribune-owned stations yesterday. That includes two of my local channels and three of the Superstations I subscribe to. (Not only am I a shareholder, I’m also a customer.) The good news is that according to Dish’s press release, it’s offering free OTA antennas to affected subscribers. That’s a great reminder that viewers don’t need to pay for local TV.

To me, the worst thing about losing any local channels from my Dish receiver is the inability to record their shows on the same DVR I use for pay TV. Fortunately, I’m already used to recording OTA with a couple of other devices, my Tablo and my DVR+. Around 2009, Dish stopped adding subchannels to its program guide. Most Dish receivers won’t schedule recordings for any dot-2 that premiered after that cutoff. If I want to watch movies from ThisTV or GetTV or Movies!, I can watch them live through my OTA-enabled Dish receiver, or I can record them to watch when I want with my Tablo or DVR+.

Sure, it’s convenient to get it in the same pipe as ESPN and HBO, and it’s cable is a necessity for folks who can’t get their channels with an OTA antenna. But the point is, broadcast TV is free. When giant entertainment corporations do battle, that’s a comforting thought.

 

Dish knows something AT&T doesn’t

The new HopperGO

The new HopperGO

I remember when I first explained what’s important to little kids when they watch TV. I was in my room at the Mirage, on the phone with Guest Services. Way back then, I was trying to figure out how to attach my DVD player to the room’s television set so my kid could watch something we’d brought along. Anything was possible at the Mirage, the voice told me, but why incur a charge for a technician visit when we could just tune to one of several channels featuring the finest in children’s entertainment? “My kid doesn’t want to watch the finest,” I told the voice. “He wants to see the same darned thing he watches 12 times a week. And he expects to watch it now.”

That story came to mind this week because of two news stories. A senior VP at AT&T said in an interview that the company plans to pump DirecTV content into connected vehicles through AT&T cellular service. Earlier, Dish announced a portable device for copying and replaying recordings from a Dish DVR. You can guess which idea I think is a good one.

AT&T is ignoring history. Companies have tried to program live back-seat TVs for years, and most leaned on children’s shows. None of them reached broad acceptance. For every family willing to pay for absolutely every accessory for their land boat there were a dozen others with simple DVD players.

AT&T is ignoring the present. Millennials don’t watch live TV, except a little bit of sports. No one wants to wait until the top of the hour for a show to start. No one wants commercials they can’t skip past. No one wants dozens of extra channels they don’t watch.

I own a laughably small sliver of Dish stock, but that’s not why I like the HopperGO. This little box can grab that favorite Spongebob episode and stream it to a backseat TV or any other connected device, over and over. It works for recorded movies in a hotel room. The release says HopperGO works “at the airport,” so probably not on the plane. You can’t have everything.

About the only place the AT&T plan would work better is for live sports while tailgating. Where there’s no WiFi, the equivalent Dish Anywhere stream would eat up a lot of cell data. Then again, it’s possible to set up an actual portable dish in a parking lot, and more stadiums are adding WiFi. If AT&T goes through with this, it’ll be just another solution in search of a problem.

 

BitTorrent Live carries the legacy of ivi.tv

BitTorrent logoThis week at INTX (formerly The Cable Show), BitTorrent announced a new package of live streaming video. Once it launches, BitTorrent Live will include over a dozen linear channels, including Newsmax, ONE World Sports, and the Pursuit Channel. It will all be based on BitTorrent’s proprietary peer-to-peer (P2P) streaming protocol.

BitTorrent’s blog post said that this is just the beginning. Future channels will include subscription based, ad supported, and Pay Per View premium tiers. In the words of Erik Schwartz, vice president of media at BitTorrent, “What we’re launching … is functionally a virtual MVPD.”

This announcement has attracted considerable industry news coverage, but I haven’t seen anyone else make the connection between BitTorrent Live and the true pioneer of P2P online TV, ivi. It’s been over five years since ivi.tv was fatally wounded by a federal court decision against it. Before then, ivi carried dozens of broadcast channels, distributed mostly P2P. They had a few “seeding” servers with the broadcast signal, then most subscribers served to both send and receive pieces of each show. The result was a lag time of a few minutes, noticeable only if there was a live source for comparison or if the viewer expected shows to change at exactly the top of the hour. BitTorrent Live claims that its latency will be less than 10 seconds, which would be roughly equivalent to satellite TV’s delay. I’m very curious to see what its lag time will be in practice compared with a non-P2P service such as Sling International.

All of this assumes that BitTorrent Live will launch, and that it will perform as advertised. If so, this P2P special sauce could allow networks to reach the huge simultaneous audiences that can be problematic for one-way streaming services. I’ve been saying this a lot, but maybe this could be the next big thing?

 

Broadcasters need help to lure millennials

Clark Gregg playfully hugs Ming-Na Wen

Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen at the Disney Media Networks International Upfronts in 2013.
© Jean_Nelson / Depositphotos.com

This is upfront season. That’s when TV networks gather advertising buyers into large meeting rooms and present the highlights for the next TV season, hoping that they’ll pay top dollar for ad slots on such superb entertainment. YouTube held its own ad buyers meeting, and announced that it reaches more consumers aged 18-49 than the top 10 prime time TV shows. That led Broadcasting & Cable’s John Consoli to crunch some Nielsen ratings, and he came to an alarming conclusion. Over 1 in 10 millennial viewers, 18- to 34-year-olds, have stopped watching broadcast TV since just last year.

That was just the latest sign that broadcast TV is in trouble. Last week, Fox CEO James Murdoch said, “Over the long term, but approaching quickly, all video entertainment will be consumed over IP streaming networks.” For the coming year, online video ad spending is projected to rise by 18-28%, depending on who you ask. TV just isn’t as attractive any more.

Here at FreeTVBlog, we happen to prefer free broadcast TV. (Over-the-top video, whether free or reasonably priced, is also acceptable, but I digress.) To convince these millennials to recognize the benefits of this great resource, broadcasters just need to shift how they think about it.

You see, these millennials want instant access on demand, preferably without paying for it. The free part is pretty easy for cord-cutters who have switched to an OTA antenna, but broadcast TV seems to be the opposite of on-demand. That’s where the paradigm shift needs to come.

My Tablo gets it. When I want to choose shows to record, Tablo displays a picture list of every program coming up on my broadcast channels over the next couple of weeks. The list doesn’t care when the show airs, or which channel it’s on. I just pick this one and that one, and a few days later, it’s ready for on-demand viewing.

That’s not the only way Tablo presents potential recordings. It also includes a standard live TV grid, or I can narrow the list by channel, or prime-time only, or genre. But the paradigm shift is to think of broadcast not as appointment TV, but as a constant source of programs that can be scooped up and saved to watch whenever.

That’s what the broadcasters need to do – embrace and promote OTA DVRs as pre-planned on-demand devices. Any system of suggesting programs, or of listing every available program, will help cord-cutters appreciate the wealth and variety of choices they have for free with local TV.

 

Virtual reality came to life at NAB

Four men in virtual reality chairs

The Dell booth showed off virtual reality with a little motion and breeze thrown in.

Virtual reality. VR. That was the hottest technology on display at the NAB Show a couple of weeks ago.

VR doesn’t have anything to do with broadcasting, not yet. But it could happen sooner that you might think. For example, Streambox exhibited real-time VR streaming at the show.

On the second day of the show, I was reminded that even though we’re taller and dressed like grown-ups, we’re all kids inside. We filed in to a large meeting room for a VR seminar. Smiling workers handed each of us an official Google Cardboard viewer. Projectors showed a few VR apps to download to our phones. We took our seats, and many of us reconfigured our Cardboards from storage to Velcro-secured viewing mode. We were ready for whatever demonstration they could throw at us. The seminar began.

About 40 minutes into the scheduled hour, there had been plenty of discussion and shared expertise, but no demonstrations. That’s when I started hearing the unmistakable sound of ripping, unfastened Velcro. One by one, we realized we would not be playing with our new toys.

(Side note: Cardboard is available for anyone to manufacture, and I had bought a cheap knock-off a couple of months earlier. The type of Cardboard they handed out, which looked like this, was very much easier to assemble and use. Highly recommended.)

If you haven’t experienced VR, get a Cardboard and try it with your smartphone. That’ll give you a good taste of what the (currently) expensive VR headsets deliver. I’m not sure exactly where VR will fit in the future of video story-telling, but I’m sure we’ll see more of it somewhere.

 

KlowdTV might be the Next Big Thing

It’s been just two weeks since the NAB Show opened. It feels more like two months. I’ve still got a couple of topics left from the show that I need to get to, and this is one of them. Next, I’ll give you a wrap-up with what I saw about virtual reality.

StartUpLoft banner at the NAB Show

KlowdTV wasn’t in the Start Up Loft at the NAB Show. It was in the Sprockit area for startups. Which is different. I don’t know why.

The best part of these big conferences is the opportunity to meet people. I had a nice talk with Bill O’Hara, CEO of KlowdTV, an OTT company which streams a lot of interesting Spanish channels and an oddball assortment of English channels. KlowdTV had to drop beIN Sports last month, and O’Hara talked me down from the conspiracy theory I had concocted in response. It was a simple financial issue, O’Hara said, not exclusivity. Glad to hear that they’re playing fair.

As we talked, it occurred to me that I hadn’t sufficiently explain why I love KlowdTV. It’s based on very skinny bundles. The first $2/month covers just the platform and a one-hour cloud DVR. Small, themed packages of channels, such as Sports, News, and Entertainment, are available for $3/month. The net result is that it takes $5/month to subscribe to one package, $8/month for two, and so forth. Some individual channels are a la carte for $1 or more. Want more cloud DVR space? Twelve hours for $4 looks like the sweet spot, but you can pay for more or less.

For that price, subscribers get to watch their channels pretty much anywhere. KlowdTV is available on Roku, Amazon FireTV, AppleTV, Chromecast, PC and Mac browsers, and the KlowdTV app for iOS and Android. I like using my Roku to put the eScapes smooth jazz and landscapes channel on my big screen.

The catch? There’s no ESPN in KlowdTV’s Sports and no CNN in its News. Sports includes Gol TV, Fight Network, FightBox, and three other channels. News has Bloomberg, Newsmax, One America, and four international channels. The other packages have similar mixes of competent, not-so-mainstream offerings.

O’Hara was especially proud of his Spanish-language packages. For example, KlowdTV’s 11 Mexican channels compare to SlingTV‘s 12-channel Best of Spanish TV, but the KlowdTV customer would pay $5/month vs. $25 to SlingTV. There are more channels included in that $25, but that’s the point. In an ideal world, an OTT subscriber would stack small packages and a la carte channels to pay for exactly what he wanted and nothing more.

The FCC has been talking about regulating OTT distributors as similar to cable and satellite pay-TV companies, although the FCC is still moving very slowly on that front. If KlowdTV gets the chance to negotiate like Comcast, maybe we could see dozens of little bundles.

When I subscribed to DishWorld (now Sling International) a couple of years ago, I knew I was using a beta of the Next Big Thing. Will KlowdTV become the Next Next Big Thing? Time will tell.