What's going on under the hood at nimbleTV?

Screenshot of a nimbleTV presentation at The Paley CenterYesterday, I wrote about how cool nimbleTV is for the viewer. Today, I’ll take a closer look at what’s going on under the hood and what’s in nimbleTV’s future.

Let’s start with the presentation that nimbleTV founder Anand Subramanian gave at The Paley Center for Media last year. (You can watch it by clicking here or on the screenshot I’ve embedded to the right of this sentence.) His idea was pretty basic: Let anyone subscribe to any pay-TV service anywhere, then pay nimbleTV to stream it anywhere in the world. As he described it at about the 9-minute mark, “Everybody is whole. The consumer is paying for the subscription. And the TV provider is getting paid its full retail TV subscription. And the TV provider is paying the content person, so it keeps the industry fully whole.”

That strategy has worked to a certain extent. We haven’t heard the TV networks complaining about this service “stealing” free over-the-air TV to stream to subscribers. Then again, nimbleTV has been staying fairly quiet compared to its sometimes flamboyant competitors. But I can’t help worrying about when that “content person” is going to find something else to complain about. More about him later.

But let’s get back to what’s going on under the hood. Let me start by saying that I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. At least not directly. I had a great conversation with Sanjay Patel, nimbleTV’s vice president of marketing, and all he would tell me about the technical details was that they were proprietary. But in a couple of weeks of playing with nimbleTV, I picked up a few clues about its black box:

  • It’s definitely getting its content from Dish Network. There were Dish house ads in some of the usual programming breaks, and the channel numbers match.
  • It’s probably getting the Dish feed through satellite dishes in New York City. When severe thunderstorms hit NYC, they knocked out nimbleTV’s content for a little while.
  • As a test, I was able to successfully record nine programs simultaneously. That would require nine tuners, and would be impossible with any normal Dish receiver.
  • All recordings are automatically padded by a couple of minutes before and after. Great idea, by the way; I wish FilmOn would do that.
  • Not all channels of a given Dish package are carried in its equivalent nimbleTV plan. Most of the missing channels are religious and shopping channels, so they aren’t really missed.

Add to these clues Subramanian’s assertion a year ago that recording would be infinite and based in the cloud. (As I mentioned yesterday, the virtual DVR is now limited, perhaps as an opportunity to upsell more space.)

I’ve got a theory, maybe just a wild guess, based on all of this very limited data. Suppose that nimbleTV set up a bank of Dish receivers or their equivalents, with each of their tuners viewing a different channel. Then suppose that nimbleTV took the output from all of those tuners and magically digested them into a form that’s easier to stream yet multiplied to all subscribers. Further, suppose that nimbleTV’s magic grid also recorded and stored each program to serve up on demand to each subscriber who virtually recorded it. That system would make it easy to promise an infinite virtual DVR. That system would explain why nimbleTV would be reluctant to furnish extra, unpopular channels. And that hypothetical system could get nimbleTV some legal attention if the details came out.

In the truly wacky world of TV copyrights, making copies of anything for any reason is just asking for trouble. Fox’s Hopper lawsuit against Dish includes a complaint that Dish allegedly makes an internal copy of Fox’s programming for quality control. Copyright law is the reason why Aereo had to go to the ridiculous length of giving each subscriber his own tiny antenna rather than using a single central antenna. So if, hypothetically, nimbleTV stores just one copy of last night’s South Park episode to serve to every viewer who requests it, well, that just sounds like trouble. Then again, it’s possible that nimbleTV’s internal workings bear no resemblance to any of my wild guesses; one would presume that they’re perfectly legal. Patel told me that nimbleTV folks “make sure we comply, not only with our partners, but legally as well.” So I just don’t know.

No matter how it serves programming, nimbleTV might still run afoul of that “content person”. A lot of those people have fixed ideas about their markets and how they want them divided. The folks who syndicate Wheel of Fortune usually sell exclusive rights within a market and get a premium for that exclusivity. A station in Boise, for example, might not pay as much if enough Boise viewers watch the New York feed of the Wheel. And consider that every New York pro football game will be available. Do you suppose the NFL will mind losing some New York expatriate Sunday Ticket subscribers?

And that’s just a US focus. Patel said that nimbleTV has a good percentage of international users. Before nimbleTV came around, “being able to watch live US TV has never been easy,” he said. As nimbleTV adds more broadcasting cities, US viewers will be able to pay for foreign TV just as well. And again, international rights can be another source of friction from content people.

NimbleTV’s line has stayed the same since the Paley Center presentation. Pay-TV providers are adding subscribers that they might not get any other way, and everybody’s getting paid just like normal. I’m not as sanguine about content people being satisfied with that picture, but I hope that nimbleTV stays around for a long time.