To talk about my visit to CES* this year, I need to get into some history. This blog started as FTABlog, supporting FTAList.com, which still provides the best list of Ku-band satellite free-to-air (unscrambled, legal) TV channels available in North America. Because of that perspective, my relationship with CES has changed over the years.

*The official name has changed more often than you might expect. It launched as the Consumer Electronics Show, then officially switched to the International CES, and is now just CES. Every year, its press releases provide guidance on exactly how its name should be used in articles. But I digress.

When I first started attending the show, it was just before the Great Recession and satellite free-to-air equipment was still on the exhibit floor. For a couple of years after the economic downturn, some past and future attendees stayed home, and hotel rooms were easier to find. CES has been growing ever since, and the days of inexpensive rooms look like ancient history. FTA satellite equipment vendors vanished, but for a while there were plenty of TV pioneers to interview. In past years, I saw over-the-air streamer Tablo TV in the startup Eureka Park and the launch of Sling TV, the first over-the-top provider, on the main floor. Now OTT streaming video is mainstream, and there’s just not that much left to interest free-TV fans.

Don’t get me wrong. CES remains an amazing experience, and I heartily recommend that everyone should attend at least one. Even in a haystack of incremental advances and knockoffs, there are always at least a few amazing innovations. If you want to network with other technology professionals, CES is a great opportunity. But this year had less dazzle and less TV than in past years.

Because of my other projects, there have been years when I’ve spent only a single long day at CES, and that’s just not enough time to see everything. This year my schedule restricted me to the last two days of CES, which was also suboptimal. The final day is deliberately shorter, and many exhibitors begin wrapping up even before that early close.

(Three days at CES may be too overwhelming for some attendees, including me. In my experience, the best possible CES visit is the middle two days. If your goal is to be the very first to see new cutting-edge products, then join the crowd that comes for just the first two days.)

The highlights of my visit, as always, were the people I met. Theodore Head, who runs SiliconDust, makers of the excellent HDHomeRun over-the-air TV receivers, talked about plans for the Scribe Duo, a more integrated DVR to make life easier for new users. (I’ve often said that the most successful consumer electronics should be as easy to use as a toaster, which leaves out all FTA satellite equipment I’ve ever seen.) Javier Ruano, GM of OTA antenna maker Televes, showed off some prototypes, of which I’ll write much more next time.

I’ll leave you with some photos of the 2019 CES. I haven’t decided whether I’ll be back next January, but when I look at the pictures, they make me smile enough to want to return.


RCA Antenna on a fake window at CES

At the RCA booth, a guy explained that a huge percentage of antennas sold at retail and soon returned had nothing wrong with them but had just been incorrectly placed. That was the genesis for this RCA antenna with a built-in signal meter. It also works with an RCA phone app that suggests which direction to point for the best chance at receiving particular TV stations.


Rows of phone chargers at CES

Previous CES shows (is that like “ATM machine”?) featured an amazing array of cell phone cases in a variety of styles from a variety of vendors. This CES was different – there were more cell phone chargers than cases. Plus plenty of battery-enhanced cases.


A huge, wide video wall showing an ocean wave at CES

The usual half-dozen stunning displays at CES was down to maybe one this year: this amazing, wide, curved video wall that was so much more impressive in person.


TV Jockstrap® booth at CES

Tired of sports spoilers in the TV bottom crawl? Maybe you need a TV Jockstrap®, my CES Goofy Award winner.


Woman with headset at CES giving presentation to empty aisle

Finally, my favorite CES 2019 photo. As I walked the exhibit floor in its final hour, I encountered a woman giving a full presentation to literally no one. She rolled through the whole spiel to the empty aisle before her. It was time to leave.

On a day when most of the electronic industry’s press is focused on the opening of CES, and when Dish Network announced plans to add Google Assistant to its Hopper receivers, Dish also quietly flipped a switch. Locast, the free over-the-air TV streaming service, now has an active app on at least some Hopper receivers. Since FreeTVBlog World Headquarters happens to be in one of Locast’s markets, I can verify that it’s up and running; reports from other viewers suggest that it’s only working within those markets.

This is pretty much what I predicted almost a year ago when Locast first came on the scene. I wrote, “What do you think it would be worth for Dish, in its next OTA retransmission impasse, to be able to tell its customers to flip over to the local Locast feed? Could Dish add Locast as a digital service alongside YouTube and Netflix?”

Was this always Locast’s goal? I have no way of knowing for sure, but it’s easy to build that scenario. David Goodfriend, chairman of the non-profit behind Locast, worked as a Dish vice president for seven years. Despite its stated goal of benefiting online viewers, Locast only carries the primary channels and ignores the sub-channels, which Dish doesn’t rebroadcast. In recent months, Locast has beefed up its geofencing technology – VPNs and location spoofs don’t work as they did at launch. And check out Locast’s first seven markets by size: six of the top nine (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, and Boston), plus #19 Denver, home of Dish.

Locast’s Hopper app itself isn’t anything special, just a standard program grid with the major networks shuffled to the top, but it works just fine for delivering live local TV. For now, the app offers no DVR capabilities or any other coordination with any other Dish programming. I’ll keep checking in and let you know when that changes.

Man at Xbox One mall display playing a game

© canadapanda / Depositphotos.com

Ars Technica ran a story this morning with more bad news for free-TV viewers. Microsoft quietly sent an email to Xbox users who stream over-the-air TV on that platform through a Hauppauge USB tuner to a mobile device. It read in part, “You may have streamed TV content using a USB TV tuner from your Xbox console to the Xbox app. In 30 days, the Xbox app on iOS and Android will no longer support this functionality.” The Windows 10 app will continue to work.

This is reminiscent of Microsoft’s former commitment to the Windows Media Center, which was a pretty good way to watch and record OTA TV until Microsoft turned its back on it. WMC had been on some versions of Windows XP and Vista, then was included in almost all versions of Windows 7. For whatever reason, Microsoft stopped caring at about that point. For Windows 8, WMC was available only as a pricey add-on, then Windows 10 dropped it altogether.

In other words, it’s another example of Kilgore’s second law: It’s hard to monetize what folks get for free. A feature that helps buyers watch OTA TV can be a helpful selling point for that first hardware purchase, but there needs to be an economic reason to continue supporting that feature. Folks such as Tablo and TiVo sell subscriptions. Google probably uses Live Channels viewer data to sell more ads pointed at those viewers. Maybe Microsoft will tie OTA TV support to one of its Xbox subscription services. Until that happens, it might not have enough incentive to keep supporting free TV. If you rely on Xbox-served OTA TV, you have been warned.

Last week I was so deluged with information at the NAB Show that I missed an interesting bit of news for everyone who enjoys local over-the-air TV. Didja, the folks behind Phoenix BTV and Bay Area BTV, launched its Los Angeles area version of the service, called SoCal BTV.

The new service is pretty similar to its siblings. There are a few dozen channels, (37 as I type), including plenty of foreign-language, shopping, and religious networks. But there are a few nice offerings for English-speaking secularists, including an independent station, a community channel, and the diginet stalwarts Antenna, This, Buzzr, Comet, and Charge. Too bad it’s the first BTV market without Retro TV.

All of these stations are available for free to any device that can prove that it’s in the local market. (Ahem.) As with Bay Area BTV, Didja offers an inexpensive cloud-based DVR for its SoCal channels for $4.95/month. The SoCal site says, “Eventually, we’ll release a premium version of SoCalBTV with more than 50 channels of local broadcast TV including the most-watched channels!” That’s always been the promise, but I really wonder if they’ll ever get the major local stations to play along.

According to Jeff Baumgartner, who somehow noticed this during the NAB Show’s opening day, Didja expects to launch later this year in Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. That’s four more things to look forward to in 2018.

SoCal TV’s channel lineup:

5.2 Antenna
5.3 ThisTV
6.3 KHTV Khmer
13.2 Buzzr
18.1 LA18
18.2 SBS
18.3 MBC
18.4 CGN
18.5 MBC+
18.6 YTV America
18.9 LSTV
18.10 VFTV
18.11 Set TV
18.12 IBC
18.13 S Channel
20.1 HSN
20.2 MBN+
25.2 CitiCABLE
25.3 evine
27.3 HSN2
30.5 QVC
31.1 LATV
40.1 Trinity Broadcasting
40.2 Hillsong
40.3 Smile / JUCE
40.4 TBN Enlace
40.5 TBN Salsa
44.3 Skylink
44.4 SkyCan
44.10 QVC2
56.1 KDOC (independent)
56.4 Comet
56.5 KVLA
56.8 Charge
57.1 Azteca
62.1 Estrella TV
64.2 Sino