hand rising from grave, in TV screen

© DepositPhotos / Paulus Rusyanto & Lyudmyla Kharlamova

Just as I was typing my last post, pointing out that nimbleTV’s guide was the best of the streaming services I’ve seen so far, I got an email from nimbleTV support. It’s coming back.

There are a few new wrinkles in the system. The first was that Dish Network will no longer bill separately for its part of the fee. “(G)oing forward, there will be single charge (sic) for the total amount including the TV provider’s amount,” the note read. The email never mentioned Dish by name, suggesting that nimbleTV doesn’t want to be accused of reselling Dish without permission.

The second, more serious wrinkle in the email is that the New York City locals delivered by Dish are off limits by default. “If you wish to continue to get New York local channels, a New York Metropolitan Area address is required.” I find that wording interesting. It doesn’t say that I need to live in NY, or even provide a NY credit card billing address (as Aereo requires). It doesn’t say that it has to be my address. Did you know that the Empire State Building is at 350 5th Ave, 10118? Just sayin’.

I haven’t provided any new address yet, but I am able to log in to my account. All of my old channels are there, plus TV Guide Network, minus the NYC locals. I can’t watch any of them live; when I try, I see a pop-up that says “Sorry, we’re still activating this channel.” Until I verify my address, all I’ll get to watch are my pre-stoppage recordings, including those I made from NYC locals.

So what happened? Except for that email, nobody has told me anything, though notes on Twitter suggest that nimbleTV has been reactivating accounts for a few days now. Everything still matches my old guess that somebody (NFL? broadcast networks?) leaned on Dish to cut off nimbleTV to block out-of-market viewing, so Dish whipped out its “unauthorized retailer” card because it was shocked, shocked that nimbleTV was selling subscriptions that way. If anyone ever comments on the record about that, I’ll let you know.

An old acquaintance of mine had wondered whether nimbleTV was account stacking. That’s the practice of adding another receiver to your Dish account, running the cord to your next-door neighbor and splitting the bill. (Account stacking is unlawful and dumb considering the small savings and real risks from such a setup.) Theoretically, a company could get Dish subscriptions for a couple hundred receivers, copy and store all the programming, then serve thousands of customers while pocketing their full subcription fees. Before the stoppage, it was easy to answer that question, because Dish billed each nimbleTV subscriber separately. Now I still don’t suspect account stacking, but I’ve got no way to refute it. So congratulations to nimbleTV for clawing its way back to life. I sure hope it’s legal.

Aereo program gridLast week, I took the opportunity to visit New York City for a week of sightseeing with the family. Notice the comma in the title; I didn’t get to meet anyone from Aereo, the streaming TV and virtual DVR service. but I used the occasion to sign up and try it out.

As my recent misadventures with nimbleTV would suggest, I find the NYC over-the-air channels to be the best set of local OTA channels anywhere. Not only do they include all of the major networks, they also have one of the best live sports schedules plus a heap of interesting subchannels. Unlike nimbleTV’s old lineup, Aereo includes Cozi, this, Movies!, Antenna, Bounce, PBS Kids, Qubo, and Livewell.

There’s one major drawback to Aereo – you can only sign up for the NYC locals if you are in the NYC market and have a credit card with a NYC address. As I sat in my hotel, I satisfied the first requirement, but the second took a little work since Aereo politely declined my offer to present myself in person. I bought a Visa gift card from a nearby drugstore, then logged on to register it. (Turns out that Vanilla Visa doesn’t want to know your home address, but you can add a Zip Code if you want.) Armed with that card, I created a new Aereo account using the true, physical address of my hotel, complete with room number. Bingo!

After my return to FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver, I discovered a second major drawback to Aereo – it refuses to work when you travel outside your “home” market. Even though my account was still good, Aereo noticed that I was out of town and refused to stream even the programs I recorded while I was in NYC, never mind live TV. Considering that just days earlier I was watching Denver OTA TV from my NYC hotel room (via a Slingloaded Dish Network receiver), I was surprised. I wonder whether a proxy service would solve that issue. Hmmm.

Let’s talk about the Aereo experience. First, Aereo is a great deal at $8/month just for its cloud-based DVR and ability to stream to mobile devices. Live TV and playback of recordings were smooth and easy using my laptop with the hotel’s wifi and using my iPhone’s LTE.

The landing page highlights upcoming shows seemingly at random but with nice graphics. Its guide, embedded above (click it to see full size), is pretty crummy, with low-contrast program titles in a vague grid. The good news is that it’s easy to type in program names using a helpful autocomplete to search for and schedule what you want, but to see what’s on now, it’s much weaker than TitanTV or any other real listing service. FilmOn‘s lack of any similar grid is even worse, but nimbleTV’s horizontal scroll was noticeably better. The recordings window is clean and simple, and it includes episode titles. Playback is easy, and as I said, worked well using either the hotel’s wifi or my iPhone’s LTE signal.

Aereo plans to expland to more markets, and I’m looking forward to its arrival in Denver. Meanwhile, I’m glad I had a chance to try it out.

WinMedMoviesGoogle’s announcement of the $35 Chromecast streaming dongle is rightfully big news this week, but I want to talk about another bridge between the internet and your TV set. This technology should appeal to anyone who’s contemplating cutting the cable cord. Its main strength is a free-subscription DVR for over-the-air (OTA) TV, but it’s also a great tool for streaming Netflix and countless other internet-based entertainment sources. That DVR is any PC with Windows Media Center (WMC). If you’re running Windows, you’ve probably got it already.

Well, there is one gotcha when it comes to that PC – it needs to have an OTA TV antenna connected to a TV input card or USB dongle. If OTA signals don’t reach you, that’s also a problem. Otherwise, the PC just needs to have a modestly fast processor (roughly 1 GHz or faster), at least 1 GB of RAM, at least 16 MB of hard drive space, some kind of internet access, and a video output that your TV can use.

For example, as I type, MicroCenter is selling a number of refurbished desktops that meet these requirements for $99. All they require is a cheap TV input card (here’s one for $20 from an eBay seller) and sometimes a basic video card (here’s more than you need for $26 from another eBay seller). For more advice about how to build your WMC box, this Motherboards.org page is a good start. WMC would also love to organize and serve up your music and photos, but remember that your WMC box is also a computer, so you can use it to run other entertainment apps (such as Hulu Desktop), type emails and do anything else you can do on a computer.

Instead of needing to buy another older computer, it’s just as possible that you’ve already got a hand-me-down or underused Windows computer that you can set up as your WMC box. Microsoft included WMC in a special version of Windows XP, then more editions of Windows Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate) and most editions of Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate). Windows 8 users have to upgrade to the Pro Pack to get WMC, but the older versions of Windows will work better on the kind of leftover hardware we’re talking about now.

Once you’ve got it set up, WMC works as a DVR and adds a few extra features. As with most DVRs, it keeps a constant buffer so you can go back a few minutes to check something you missed. WMC lets you record programs to your hard drive, and you can set just how much of the hard drive you want it to use. WMC downloads two-week guide data, always for free, that includes all significant OTA subchannels. As shown in the screen capture above, WMC displays all the movies that will be available, making it simple to click and record them. (It does the same for sports, but most events work better live, and few markets have many OTA sports broadcasts these days.)

If you’ve got broadband internet access, then you may appreciate the Netflix plugin for WMC. For all other internet-based entertainment, you’ve already got that computer hooked up to your TV.

If you’re a free-to-air satellite TV fan, thanks for continuing to read this blog. It turns out that WMC supports some FTA satellite input cards as well. The setup process is a little more involved, and I don’t think WMC will drive an FTA motor, but it works okay for stationary dishes with known transponders. In North America, guide data for FTA channels is spotty at best, but we FTA viewers are used to that.

WMC is hardly the only PC-based DVR available. MythTV is one well-regarded open-source alternative. NextPVR is closed source but free for personal use. And there are any number of commercial DVR alternatives. But nobody beats WMC for price, ease of setup, and ease of use. For cord-cutters who want to embrace and explore their local OTA TV signals, WMC is often the best choice.

Television in graveyard.

© DepositPhotos / iofoto

If you haven’t noticed, Dish Network’s abrupt suspension of service to nimbleTV customers has reached the tech news mainstream. Peter Kafka at All Things Digital ran the story yesterday, including quoted statements from Dish and nimbleTV. He also included a reference and link back to FTABlog. (Thanks!) If this is your first time here, welcome, and feel free to read more about nimbleTV and other stuff.

Kafka posted his story about 2 pm Eastern Time. About a half hour before that, I got the latest customer update from nimbleTV, this one signed by CEO Anand Subramanian. He asked nimbleTV customers to “stand with us” to defend the right to purchase and watch TV from anywhere. “By being an early customer of nimbleTV, you are helping pave the way for the TV of tomorrow,” Subramanian wrote, adding “we promise you’ll have (service) back soon.”

What we still don’t know is the reason why Dish shut down nimbleTV’s programming. According to the statements in Kafka’s article, it might have something to do with being erroneously considered an official Dish reseller. “While we have been upfront with our customers that nimbleTV has no direct relationship with any TV provider, Dish did not want our Web site to mislead others into thinking that we have a direct affiliation with Dish,” Subramanian told Kafka. Dish’s terse statement was, “NimbleTV is not an authorized Dish retailer, and is not authorized by Dish to market or promote our services.”

Even if that’s what Dish told nimbleTV, I’ve got a hard time believing that’s the real reason for pulling the plug. Dish is not oblivious enough to miss nimbleTV as it went through its lengthy beta and public launch, only to notice it two weeks ago. I’m still guessing that something changed, either with different personnel within Dish or because of a suggestion by an outside party. I wonder if we’ll ever know.

Meanwhile, nimbleTV endures. I’ve always thought it’ll be easier for nimbleTV to import programming to the US than the other way around, mainly because I don’t know how hard it’ll be to line up pay-TV subscriptions in other countries. The statement that nimbleTV gave me today lines up with that idea. After noting that it doesn’t plan to partner, per se, with any pay-TV provider, the statement concludes, “In addition to doing everything possible to have nimbleTV service up as soon as possible for the customers who have grown to love their nimbleTV, the company is expanding the business and will soon be adding new provider options from the U.S. and abroad.”

And that’s where we’ll leave it until nimbleTV starts serving up programming again. Coming up next on FTABlog, the over-the-air DVR that you already have but don’t know about.

Test pattern on old TV before clouds

© DepositPhotos / Xavier Gallego Morell

You remember that when I last wrote about nimbleTV, I told you about this great new service that allows out-of-market viewers to subscribe to a pay TV service over the internet. At that time, the only service it offered was Dish Network. Now it appears nimbleTV doesn’t even have that.

Although I can’t get anyone to comment on the record about it, what I do know suggests that Dish abruptly cut off nimbleTV last Friday. If that’s true, it could have been because Dish’s programming partners pressured Dish to stop service to out-of-market viewers. Or it could have been that Dish didn’t like how nimbleTV can combine the output of several receivers to any given customer. Or it could have been a Dish billing hiccup when its system noticed all the subscribers with out-of-market service addresses. Or it could be something completely different.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly from nimbleTV is that it plans (hopes?) to restore service in about two weeks. Does that mean that nimbleTV is negotiating with Dish to restore service? That it’s scrambling to find another programming source? That it has another source already lined up, and that it’ll take about two weeks to swap out all those receivers and change nimbleTV’s programming database? That Dish promised to fix its billing hiccup in about two weeks? Or that suggesting a fixed length of time keeps customers happier when you’re working to solve an open-ended problem?

Here’s the timeline of what I know. On Friday, nimbleTV went off the air for some subscribers, perhaps all of them. Then Friday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out an email that said in part, “nimbleTV is currently undergoing system maintenance and upgrades owing to unforeseen circumstances. … Our team is working hard to restore the service and we hope to be out of maintenance soon.”

Saturday evening, nimbleTV sent out a longer note. It included the understatement, “The maintenance period is going to last longer than expected.” The email also included the first real hint of what happened: “We have found that a billing change in the TV provider’s portion of the charge has affected a number of our subscribers. Your account seems to have been affected by this as well. We are working with the TV provider to resolve such issues going forward. It may take up to two weeks for the billing issue to resolve completely and for service to be restored.”

Sunday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out a shorter recap, primarily emphasizing that it will issue refunds to affected subscribers. “The reason for these issues is due to the TV provider putting a hold on your service, we are investigating the reason behind the un-notified hold.”

Since then, I’ve been asking everyone I know at Dish and nimbleTV for further comment, and all I can get are reiterations of the same information. Heck, I can’t even get anyone from nimbleTV to say the word “Dish”. For example, nimbleTV’s PR guy told me that their official statement is “nimbleTV is aware of service issues which some users are experiencing and is in the process of addressing them.” He wouldn’t say anything else.

Thank goodness for Twitter; searching it shows that I’m not alone. Several other users are reporting the same stuff I’m seeing. One tweeted, “hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for the service.” As long as nimbleTV refuses to tell the world what’s wrong, all we’re left to do is imagine the worst.

Update: A commenter helpfully pointed to a tweet by Dish Retailer News (@RetailerNews) from July 10: “Retailers- Important RetailerNews regarding NimbleTV. Please read” a password-protected link. Hmm.