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

Sling Help page with a service interruption announcementI tried to take a couple of weeks off before the NAB Show, but TV won’t let me. Sling TV suffered an outage Tuesday afternoon, and as of this writing 14 hours later, it’s still out for most devices, including its own AirTV Player.

Minor service hiccups aren’t worth discussing, but this one has gone on for a while. When I mentioned it to Jeff Baumgartner, he wrote a quick note about it, so I figure I ought to tell you about it here too.

On my Roku, my travel Roku in another state (long story), my Android phone, and the Android TV-based Stream+ and AirTV Player, I can see my listings for recordings, even fresh ones made during the outage. The channel lineup shows current program listings. But nothing actually loads when requested. (Update: Sling appears to have restored some but not all of its live channels, though recordings are still unavailable.)

If you’re a glass-half-full kind of viewer, you can take the Sling support site‘s suggestion that all channels are available using a Windows-based Chrome browser pointed to watch.sling.com, though that platform doesn’t support recordings. If you’re running Linux, Sling has never worked on a Chrome browser or anything else there.

Over the past few months, other folks have suggested that other over-the-top services have better channel lineups, but I’ve always defended Sling as the OTT provider with the best reliability. I’m going to have to stay quiet about that now.

Update 2: About 16 hours after the problems started, everything on Sling appears to be back to normal. I wonder if we’ll ever hear what caused them?

onlineTV application window showing Ellen on NBC New YorkGiveaway of the Day is a web site that offers a free software download every day, typically the previous version of something its developer is trying to sell. The gimmick is that it’s only available on one calendar day and must be downloaded and installed only then. Today’s suggestion, a streaming TV and radio app called onlineTV 13, fits the usual pattern; its German developer includes a special offer to upgrade to version 14. But is it legit to use, and how would I tell?

The source checks out. Giveaway of the Day has been operating for years, and the handful of times I’ve downloaded the software of the day, it was authorized by the developer and gave no hint of irregularity. The developer is apparently Engelmann Software, which has been creating and selling utilities since at least 2008, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The About page for onlineTV says that it has been “downloaded several million times” since it was launched in 2002.

There’s only one reason for me to question whether it’s okay to use this program. Among its “130 stations from 11 countries” are the New York City affiliates of NBC and CBS, plus several BBC channels from the UK. After installing the app, I could watch them all. In fact, the info page for the latest version specifically notes that it bypasses the “geotargeting” that many broadcasters use to restrict where their channels may be watched. Considering what I know about how conservative NBC, CBS, and the BBC are about redistributing their feeds, I’d guess that those folks probably aren’t happy with onlineTV.

(On their Legal page, the developers are less boastful, claiming that “Responsibility for the content of external links (to web pages of third parties) lies solely with the operators of the linked pages. No violations were evident to us at the time of linking. Should any legal infringement become known to us, we will remove the respective link immediately.”)

Now let me quickly point out a counterexample. Pluto TV is also available as an app with dozens of live channels including Bloomberg, Stadium, Fox Sports, CNBC, Mystery Science Theater 3000, movies and much more. I read way too much industry news, so I feel pretty confident that Pluto is legit. But how would the average user recognize whether one service’s offerings are more legitimate than another’s?

I’m not here to pick on onlineTV, whose full slate of channels might be perfectly legit for all I know. I point it out in hopes that you’ll remember it the next time someone talks about penalties for anyone caught watching TV the wrong way. There are times when the average viewer can’t easily tell whether the way they’re watching is right or wrong.

Two receivers, a goofy little antenna, and my lovely business card holder

The Stream+ receiver sitting atop its older brother, the DVR+.

During CES this January, I thought I heard a tinge of sadness when Channel Master executive vice president Joe Bingochea explained that his freshly launched, Android TV-based Stream+ relied on Google’s Live Channels app for its live TV and DVR functionality. At the time, I chalked it up to the bittersweet necessity of discarding the work that his company had done to create a pretty good DVR for its slightly older device, the DVR+. Looking back on it today, I’m not so sure.

I wanted the Stream+ to be great. Scratch that – I expected the Stream+ to be great, which is why I bought it on the day it was announced. Pairing Channel Master’s DVR expertise with Android TV’s wealth of apps was bound to be a huge upgrade over the limited over-the-top channels available on the DVR+. After weeks of delays, a Stream+ arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m sad to say that it is not yet great.

Google’s Live Channels has its benefits, such as episode descriptions within its program guide, but it has serious drawbacks compared to the DVR+. As Sebastian at Cord Cutting Helper pointed out in a review of that app, the program guide is limited to about 48 hours and cannot be searched. For a recording in progress, you can’t watch the beginning until the entire recording is finished.

Channel Master’s Stream+ support pages also blame Google often enough, with their frequent postscript, “Channel Master is not responsible for ‘Live Channels’ functions or issues. All Guide data, logos, and images are provided by Google. Any Guide data issues & questions, and bugs should be reported to Google.” Channel Master’s lengthy Known Issues page lists a bunch of problems and feature requests related to the Android TV OS and the Live Channels app while pointing out that its hardware appears to be fine. And don’t get me wrong, I believe everything Channel Master says about it.

On the other hand, no one’s offered a clear reason why Netflix isn’t available on the Stream+. On the Air TV Player, a very similar box also made by Technicolor but for Sling TV, Netflix is so integrated that it has a button on the remote. On the Stream+, Netflix doesn’t show up in the app store. Even after I sideloaded the latest version, the Netflix app refused to run, reporting that it was “not compatible with your device” even as the Who’s watching Netflix? screen loaded in the background.

(Bingochea also said he wished that the Amazon Prime app was available, but that appears to be a problem with most Android TVs including the Air TV Player. Unlike Netflix, the Amazon Prime app ran just fine after I sideloaded it.)

I have a few more minor quibbles with the Stream+. It’s recommendation bar is dominated by a link to a short YouTube video advertisement for the Stream+, which seems pointless in a post-purchase setting. Adjacent to the Live Channels is a Channel Master app; when clicked, it’s only message is Coming Soon. And on a personal level, the DVR+ knew the codes to control my five-year-old, admittedly off-brand TV/monitor, and so did the Air TV Player, but the Stream+ remote didn’t.

Now that I’ve got the griping out of my system, I need to also point out the good things about the Stream+. It has a Micro SD slot for recordings because one of the Known Issues about Live Channels is that the “External USB hard drive intermittently disconnects”. An external USB drive is cheaper per gigabyte than a Micro SD card, but the added slot shows that Channel Master wanted to find a hardware workaround for what it thinks is a Google bug. (I’ve also heard it whispered that an external USB drive usually works okay, which speaks to CM’s commitment to reliability.)

That wealth of Android TV apps remains Stream+’s biggest advantage over the small, fixed collection of internet TV channels in the DVR+. Its technical specs match up well against those of the Air TV Player’s, particularly its two internal tuners compared to the single USB tuner made for the Air TV Player, which uses a USB drive for recordings.

Two of those Android TV apps that I loaded are for Tablo and HDHomeRun’s DVR. Both of these OTA DVRs require separate hardware plus subscription fees, and both are a clear step above Live Channels. Like every other non-Netflix app I tried, they worked fine on the Stream+.

As I type, the Air TV Player is $130 (and includes a $50 Sling credit) and shipping today; the Stream+ is $150 and only available as a pre-order. For now, if you can get by with a single tuner (a big if!), and if you believe that Air TV’s DVR will remain free after its beta period is over, the Air TV Player is a better deal.

I definitely sympathize with Channel Master’s choices. Without subscription income, the DVR+’s homegrown Linux-based system was probably going to be a dead end. The natural way to provide a full spectrum of TV options was to embrace the equally free Android TV OS and Live Channels. The currently empty Channel Master app and the (hopefully?) placeholder YouTube video suggest that improvements are in the pipeline. The Stream+ has the potential for greatness, and I hope it gets there soon.

Smart network logo

SMART, Channel 276, is available in both America’s Top 120 and the Welcome Pack.

Today, I finally did it! After months of family discussion and weeks of Dish-less viewing, I finally cut the cord on my Dish Network account, though not so deeply as to break it completely. I did it by switching to a package I’d used once before, but only indirectly, all to preserve a few channels that I absolutely cannot get anywhere else.

As of last week, my Dish service was the America’s Top 120+ package, a standard set of channels plus the local regional sports networks. That’s $68/month, plus $12/month for local OTA channels if desired. (As I wrote earlier, I dropped the locals months ago when I was saving just $10/month.) I also pay $7/month for the five true superstations, which Dish stopped offering over four years ago; if I ever drop them, I won’t be able to get them back. To keep the door open for this unique set of perfectly legal out-of-market stations while cutting costs, I needed a really inexpensive package.

Dish’s quiet, unpromoted answer is the Welcome Pack. I had encountered its oddball collection of channels years ago when I subscribed to Nimble TV, which was a “concierge” service that resold the Welcome Pack with New York City locals. Nimble is long gone, but Dish continues to offer the Welcome Pack, which still includes a subscriber’s actual local stations. Unlike a switch to any other core programming, self-service isn’t an option; a Dish customer service representative has to make the change. In my case, a quick online chat with a CSR fixed everything in less time than it takes for me to type this post.

The cost of my new package is $23/month, up recently from $20, but that includes the locals. To spare you the math, I’m saving $45 or $57/month, depending on whether you count the locals’ cost. The return of locals also means the return of Prime Time Anytime, where my Hopper DVR automatically records the prime-time satellite feeds of the four major OTA stations in town. And the Welcome Pack includes a surprising number of channels that aren’t included in AT120+: Bloomberg, Boomerang, Discovery Family, Hallmark, Hallmark Movies, and Oxygen.

Most of the sports and other channels I would miss are waiting for me with my Sling Blue subscription, which also includes even more channels that I wasn’t getting with AT120+. I also have access to the Watch ESPN app because of a complicated story that I keep forgetting to tell you. There’s no hope for my regional sports networks, but considering the other channels and the money savings, well I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. If something compelling comes up, I can always switch back. For now, everything looks good.