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.

An antique clock in a glass jarAs I prepare for the short Daylight Saving weekend (pictured), I notice that over at TechHive, Jared Newman addressed a topic I mention too rarely – some TV viewers are not good candidates for cord-cutting. Newman is mostly on the mark but I think I can do better.

Let’s start with the reasons Newman gave. Your must-have channel list is too long. That deserves the top spot, because if you can’t live without channels X, Y, and Z, then you need a service or combination of services that will deliver them all. I would add that this is an opportunity for reflection whether that set of channels is really worth that much money to you.

Your DVR needs are too particular. Some over-the-top services are fussy about which channels can be recorded and for how long. Over-the-air channels require a device or service to record them. In general, I doubt this is the deal-breaker very often.

You have lots of TVs used simultaneously. This situation is made for live OTA TV. But if you rely on OTT services, they allow a finite number of streams. Then again, supplying a house with a half-dozen different shows at once is going to be pricey no matter how you go about it unless it’s with OTA antennas.

Your ISP still gives you a great TV deal. Except for short-term promotional offers, I don’t see such great bundle deals any more. Though internet service providers are important, as I’ll explain in a minute.

You fear change. That sounds harsh, but if you widen this just a little to say that you don’t want the hassle of changing how you get TV, then that’s more understandable.

I’ve got three more reasons why some households aren’t good candidates for cord-cutting. You can’t get good OTA reception. This might be the case if you live in an apartment in the basement or on the side of the building opposite the broadcast towers. It’s also true for customers living on the edge … of a TV market. Some of the OTT services will sell some of those stations in some markets, but for the full breadth of local OTA channels, you may need cable or pay-TV satellite.

Your ISP has usage caps. Although the need for them is questionable at best, usage caps are spreading to more cable-TV territories. They’re an excellent way for cable companies to generate more income while herding viewers to their own zero-rated content. If you’ll watch enough OTT TV to start bumping into those caps, it might not be worth switching.

You can’t get decent broadband. As of last summer, 34 million Americans lacked access to broadband internet service. Some of them get their TV via satellite, either pay-TV or free-to-air or both. Until that broadband gap gets filled, they’ve got no good cord-cutting alternative.

Most of the time, cord-cutting becomes a lifestyle choice. When someone gives up $5 lattes, it’s usually not because they can get them for $2.50 somewhere else. It’s usually because they pondered the question of whether the money they were spending could be used better elsewhere. A lot of cord-cutters aren’t looking for cheaper alternatives; they’re deciding what they no longer need to buy.

America One Television logo

The America One logo as it looked in 1996

Eleven Sports announced today that it has launched an over-the-top subscription channel on Twitch. I’m fascinated by Eleven’s third-tier sporting events, but a unique draw for me is its connections to the long-defunct America One broadcast TV network, which acted like a dot-two diginet even in its analog days.

America One launched in 1995, carried mostly part-time by a motley collection of LPTV, Class A, cable and satellite channels, plus the occasional full-power station. Its programming mirrored its affiliate list with a hodgepodge of old movies and inexpensive TV shows, backed with a few pioneering minor-league and oddball sports events, often shown live. America One was so pioneering that it was one of the first networks to offer online live video streaming back in the 1990s when that meant a postage-stamp window embedded in a browser. Always, it seemed to be flailing for viewers.

The network’s ownership went through a lot of changes. Wikipedia says it was launched by USFR Media Group. The Internet Archive shows that in 2001 it was purchased by US Farm & Ranch Supply Company. That isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article, which goes on to detail shareholder moves and holding company acquisitions in the 2000s. Meanwhile, the roster of sports grew to include the Canadian Football League, the ECHL, and the National Lacrosse League among many others.

In 2011, America One spun off One World Sports. At that point, both networks were owned by One Media Corporation, headed by the chairman of the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. In addition to Cosmos games, One World picked up some of America One’s live sports programming. In its heyday, One World Sports had an impressive array of foreign and minor-league games. As I type, fuboTV still has a landing page devoted to One World Sports, which continues to illustrate how important it was to fuboTV.

By 2015, One Media Corp had sold America One to Center Post Networks, LLC, owner of Youtoo TV. In November 2016, the channel’s staff was furloughed as a cost-cutting measure, and a small set of recorded events started repeating every week. As Wikipedia put it, “In March 2017, the channel was quietly replaced on television providers by a new channel branded as Eleven Sports Network.” On March 16, Eleven announced “the acquisition of certain One World Sports’ distribution assets”. And almost a year later, it’s ready for OTT.

Through the years, I kept track of America One and its sports offspring because it was one of the few channels I could never get. It so happened that I was never in range of one of its broadcast affiliates, never had DirecTV, and could pick it up only fleetingly through my free-to-air satellite dish. By the time I subscribed to fuboTV in late 2016, One World Sports had already begun circling the drain. You can’t have everything, and America One will always be the one that got away.

A wall of multi-colored sticky notesFuboTV, which really needs to be capitalized at the start of a sentence, added a few more local affiliates to its lineup, according to a note in Cord Cutters News. It’s got CBS, ABC, and Fox coverage for over two-thirds of US households, which is impressive. Which reminded me of a thought about fuboTV that I hadn’t shared yet.

Despite my minor squabble over billing, I don’t bear fuboTV any ill will. The more choices we viewers have among over-the-top streaming services, the better. However, and I’ve been wrong before, I just don’t see how fuboTV can reach the critical mass of subscribers it needs to survive long-term.

It’s one of the most expensive services, running $45/month for its standard plan. But more telling is its focus – fuboTV wants to appeal to OTT sports fans, but it doesn’t carry the ESPN channels. That’s like a cooking-focused service without Food Network. The Diffusion Group estimated that fuboTV had only about 150,000 subscribers at the end of 2017, and last week it turned out to be about right on its Sling estimate of 2.3 million subs.

I sympathize with fuboTV, which started as an inexpensive, niche soccer-focused OTT service. Some time in 2016, it determined, probably correctly, that it needed to go big or quit. To its credit, fuboTV expanded its lineup well except for those Disney-owned channels. If you really are a sports fan who doesn’t care about ESPN, it’s for you. But are there enough people like you out there?

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OTA recordings show an antenna symbol, while Sling’s show a cloud

Finally finding a use for the second USB port in back, and answering my occasional complaint here, Sling announced yesterday that it has added a DVR for over-the-air TV to its AirTV Player. It’s just a beta for now, but it’s open to all AirTV Player users, at least the ones who hear about it. I first noticed it in a story by Jeff Baumgartner at Multichannel News, although I later found the press release at PR Newswire (registration required). But I never saw an email from Sling or AirTV about it.

As its information page explains, there are still plenty of caveats to this early OTA beta. The USB hard drive has to be fast enough to handle HD recording, which means that most portable hard drives are good but many thumb drives are too slow. Viewers can’t watch a recording until it’s finished. Rescanning for local channels removes any pending recording requests. Buffered viewing, with pausing and rewinding, still isn’t available for live OTA TV. And the the AirTV uses a single OTA tuner, so viewers can’t watch one OTA show while recording another.

One plug in a USB port, showing the other USB port emptySpeaking of that tuner, I was amused by AirTV’s illustration (shown right) of where to plug in the USB hard drive. Looking at the unit from behind, they suggest the leftmost USB port, although mine is working fine in the right port. What’s missing from that picture is AirTV’s OTA tuner, which is a Hauppauge dongle that plugs into the other USB port. If you don’t have them both attached, you don’t have an OTA DVR.

In about 12 hours of testing, I couldn’t find any big problems yet. OTA recordings line up with cloud DVR recordings of Sling programming. They also populate the Continue Watching ribbon as appropriate. The guide appears to be Rovi-based, and shows everything scheduled for about six days forward. I couldn’t find anything through Search, but I can scroll over to any show I already know about, and the AirTV Player will allow series recording like a TiVo Season Pass.

This Local Channels DVR Service is free during the beta period, matching Channel Master’s DVR+ (which still supports Sling at the moment) and Stream+ (which “will be shipping here any day”). Despite the limitations of a single tuner, it’s a big step up for the AirTV Player. We’ll see whether the finished product will be enough to make it the cord-cutters’ favorite.