FilmOn LogoLast week, ivi.tv stirred up a minor media storm by publicly launching an application for streaming a couple dozen Seattle and New York over-the-air (OTA) broadcast channels (and a few others), then asking a court to declare that it is playing correctly by the copyright rules. Now it’s time for Round 2.

This week, FilmOn.com took a different approach. It also announced that it’s available to the full public, rather than just a beta group. It requires a different application for users to watch streamed channels, including six Los Angeles OTA broadcasters. But FilmOn, which says it’s been in beta for about a year, makes no special claim of staying within the rules, although you’d hope that it’s legal.

FilmOn offers those six, plus a collection of minor cable channels, for $9.95/month, which is about twice ivi’s current price. FilmOn also offers an add-on pack of Playboy TV and several “FilthOn” channels for an additional $5/month.

Unlike ivi’s peer-to-peer application, FilmOn’s app did not make my Windows firewall bark, so it might not be p2p-based. (I allowed the firewall to block outgoing traffic, but ivi still runs okay.) You can use the FilmOn app for about a minute before it asks for a subscription login.

Maybe I hit it at a bad time, but this morning, the supposed NBC affiliate feed showed its weather channel, and CBS was a black screen. Both recovered this afternoon, but unless I was looking for a cheap Playboy TV subscription, I think two sets of broadcasters for half the cost makes ivi a better choice. Assuming that both survive for any serious length of time.

Update: Broadcasting & Cable’s John Eggerton tells me that the broadcasters have filed a counter-suit against ivi.tv in New York. But for now, both services are still streaming.

ivitv logoThere’s a new internet startup called ivi TV that is streaming 27 over-the-air (OTA) channels from New York City and Seattle. It has only three downsides: it uses peer-to-peer technology, it costs $4.99 a month after a free trial, and it’s unlikely to survive into 2011. I’d say the odds are better than 50-50 that it’s gone before Halloween.

ivi is trying to dance on the edge of two different US laws. On one hand, it wants to be treated as a cable operator by relying on a piece of copyright law that allows cable systems to retransmit OTA signals so long as they pay statutory licensing fees. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to be subject to the FCC, which requires cable and satellite companies to negotiate retransmission fees for OTA channels.

In less than a week, ivi has received cease and desist letters from NBC-Universal, CBS, Disney, ABC, The CW Television Stations, Inc., Fox Television, Major League Baseball, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, WGBH, WNET.org, and more. So yesterday, ivi filed a preemptive Complaint for Declaratory Judgment of Copyright Noninfringement in US District Court in Seattle.

Hardly anyone ever mentions this, but there is one way for viewers to pay for distant, out-of-market OTA stations, if only a few of them. The latest renewal of STELA, the legislation that enables Dish Network and DirecTV to retransmit local signals back to local markets, also renewed the old, odd grandfathered status of the five legally defined superstations: KTLA, Los Angeles; KWGN, Denver; WSBK, Boston; and WWOR and WPIX, New York. Dish viewers can pay a little to subscribe to any or all of these stations. In turn, Dish pays a set amount to a pool which is redistributed to copyright owners. Local stations who have exclusive rights within their markets to certain syndicated shows can ask Dish to block those shows on the superstations, but few stations bother, probably because so few Dish viewers subscribe to them.

Back to ivi. I’d dearly love to have out-of-market OTA channels available to me, and I think that ivi could pay a flat fee to the copyright office as described in the law. The superstations show that you can build a fair framework for this sort of thing. I could even point out the local broadcasters’ public service duty they owe for using scarce, valuable spectrum. But I don’t believe it’ll happen.

If you’ve been using the internet long enough, maybe you remember iCraveTV.com. That was a Canadian company that, in late 1999, wanted to take advantage of the law in Canada that allows anyone to retransmit any OTA signal in exchange for a small payment to a copyright pool. iCraveTV started streaming postage-stamp-sized Real Video feeds from its antennas in Vancouver and Toronto. Which could pick up all of the Canadian OTA stations, plus those from Seattle and Buffalo. The usual suspects in the US hit the ceiling and started suing. iCraveTV tried to restrict its viewers to Canadians, without much success. Eventually, despite having a good chance of eventually winning in Canadian courts, iCraveTV folded. (Cnet has a great postmortem interview with iCraveTV’s founder.)

It was a smart move for ivi to try to get that judgement of noninfringement. If it fails, the founders can cut their losses right away. If it succeeds, ivi may have a few months to build up some cash flow (at thousands of users x $5) to pay to defend the lawsuits that the deep-pocketed entertainment companies will surely rain down on them. If ivi continues to survive in court, those entertainment companies will turn to Congress to fix the copyright act, and that will be the end of that.

(Since I have an unusual interest in TV listings, I wonder whether someone might go after ivi just for its excellent program guide. Where does ivi get that information? There’s no way that all of those stations are cooperating. So either ivi has licensed the listings information from one of the large listing services or, well, they haven’t.)

Sadly, I can’t imagine that ivi will thrive in the long run. But as Keynes put it so well, in the long run, we’re all dead. We can enjoy ivi for as long as it’s legal and alive. No matter how short a time that is.

Update: Responding to this post, an ivi tv spokesman said that the iCraveTV legal battle doesn’t apply to ivi. I’d say there are obvious differences, but I expect the same kind of legal firestorm nonetheless. The spokesman also noted that just as satellite companies had to go through a legal process to eventually retransmit locals, this is the beginning of the same kind of process for internet-based OTA delivery. But I’d point out that with few exceptions, OTA channel rebroadcasts are still restricted to their local markets.

I sincerely hope that ivi is as legal as they say it is, and the TV revolution it could bring makes a fun thought experiment, at least. Is it possible for ivi to get so popular that Congress would refrain from killing it? Let’s see if we get that far.

Ocean wave“Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know what it is
Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know where it’s gonna take me” –Barry Manilow

My apologies for starting a post with a Barry Manilow lyric. There’s a similar snippet in West Side Story, but that one is more optimistic. “Something’s Comin’ Up” matches what I see – the video viewing world will be much different 10 years from now, but no one knows exactly how it will look. Whether it will be good or bad for us viewers will depend on a lot of factors, especially how fast your internet connection will be.

First comes an amazing story published by Advertising Age. According to report from Horizon Media, the median age for prime-time broadcast TV viewers has gone up by four years during the last four years. That means that there were only as many new, young viewers added as there were older viewers who died. The same median almost-47 year old in 2006 kept watching and became the median almost-51 year old today. (Props to Tod Sacerdoti for mentioning the report on his blog.)

Think about it. This means that very few young people care about broadcast TV. But they do care about the internet. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems to be recognizing and anticipating this shift, finding wireless internet spectrum from mobile satellite services and setting his sights on taking a chunk away from broadcast TV. The broadcasters are fighting hard against this idea even though they’d get paid for relinquishing the space and that, well, they don’t actually own those pieces of spectrum in the first place.

Second, there’s Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth: A high-end user’s connection speed grows by 50% per year. It used to be crazy to think that every home user could get any channel he wanted, live or on demand, via IP. Now with ever-faster speeds and load-balancing, widely distributed content servers, that’s not so crazy. It used to be easy to say that satellite broadcasting offered the least expensive way to simultaneously reach hundreds of millions of live viewers. At some point, an IP-based delivery system will be cheaper. Already, PBS has announced it will shift some of its non-real-time program delivery from satellite to IP.

Third, more households are cutting back or dropping traditional pay-TV services. A report from Yankee Group said that one in eight would at least cut back in 2010. Add in anecdotal evidence of viewers who are switching to broadcast HDTV with dozens of channels in most markets. With an increasing minority of broadcast TV viewers, maybe it’s not so simple to predict the end of over-the-air TV.

(Or maybe we can anyway. At least one federal spectrum reallocation plan suggested free lifeline cable TV for soon-to-be-former OTA viewers. One TV repeater district servicing far-flung households in rural Nevada suggested switching everyone there to satellite pay-TV.)

So what does it all mean for FTA satellite? Leave a comment and tell me. Meanwhile, I’ve got one crazy prediction that I’ll save for my next post.

Hollywood Classics 100 Movie Pack

Hollywood Classics 100 Movie Pack

The most common topic in the FTAList inbox for the past three months has been White Springs TV. Where did it go? When will it come back? As was written here, this fine 24-hour movie service says it suffered some sort of catastrophic failure on October 1, and we haven’t seen it on any satellite since then.

About a month ago, I sent them an email to say that I wouldn’t be adding any new programming grids for White Springs after the first of this year until WSTV became a FTA channel again. At that time, they said that they were hopeful of arranging financing to return to a different satellite. And that’s the last I’ve heard from them.

I would really love to see White Springs return to satellite, but we should face the reality that it’s gone and may never return. So here are some alternative ways for you to satisfy your public-domain movie cravings.

  • Public-domain movie box sets. The DVD set pictured here, Hollywood Classics 100 Movie Pack, is just one example of the many sets that Mill Creek Entertainment has produced. If you search Amazon for 50, 100, or 250 movie packs, you’ll find plenty more. (And if you buy something through these Amazon links, I get a small commission.) There are about a dozen 50-movie packs on my shelf at home. Their movie lists are strikingly similar to the list of movies shown by White Springs. Search online for the best price, or get more than $25 of them from Amazon to get free shipping. (They’re bulky, of course.) When you have a few of these, it’s almost as good as WSTV, and without commercials.
  • The Internet Archive. Archive.org is a great free resource in any number of areas, but what’s relevant to this discussion is its movie archive. It lists over 1,800 feature films for downloading or streaming. While there’s some overlap, this is a different set of movies than what Mill Creek provides.
  • TVU Networks. As was said here earlier, TVU is a delivery system for a remarkable array of programming choices. Among those choices are several public domain movie channels, most named Nostalgia or PDTV. If you prefer being surprised rather than choosing your movie, this would be a good source for you. You’ll need to install a special browser plug-in or run the TVU application separately. And if you don’t mind streaming movies on your computer, that brings us back to …
  • White Springs TV online. Yes, there’s nothing more like White Springs than White Springs itself. Its online stream (direct link) uses Windows Media Player, so there’s no need for special plug-ins. And who knows, maybe one of these days they’ll update the WSTV web site with more information about their comeback. If you keep checking, you might be the first to know.

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

There are some people out there who don’t appreciate FTA for what it is. They don’t want a wild cornucopia of sports feeds, news from other countries, and oddball channels. They just want their regular TV networks, and they want to pay as little as possible to get them.

Maybe you’re one of these people who want what you might call “normal TV.” For that purpose, FTA just isn’t the best choice. So what should you do? You may be surprised at the free and low-cost alternatives that are available.

The best way to get your local broadcast channels is with a standard, pointy or bow-tied over-the-air (OTA) antenna. Connect that to your digital-ready TV set or cheap converter box, and you’ve got loads of free entertainment with very little effort. But that works only if you can pull in strong enough OTA signals where you live.

What if you can’t get local OTA channels, or if you want a few pay-TV channels? Then we start looking at alternatives that are cheap but not free.

Dish Network offers an unadvertised starter set of 20 channels (the list is here) for $9.99/month. You’d have to buy and install your own equipment, but old standard definition Dish receivers are pretty cheap, and Dish dishes are at least as cheap as FTA dishes. If Dish offers them, you can add your local channels for an extra $5/month. You can add a set of Public Interest channels for free. You can add the true Superstations (KWGN, KTLA, WWOR, WPIX, WSBK) for $1.50/month each. If you call and sign up for autopay, Dish will give you the Cinemax channels for a year for a penny. You could cobble together a cheap, decent set of channels this way.

Dish also has the Family Pack, using a different mixture of channels, for $24.99/month, and so begins the slippery slope. If you’ve simply got to have ESPN, Dish’s Classic Bronze 100 at $39.99/month is probably the cheapest way to get it. These advertised packages also have the advantage of including equipment and installation if you commit to a year or two.

Another way to avoid equipment purchases is to sign up for cable. Most local cable systems offer an unadvertised “lifeline” package at a price lower than their most basic package. It typically includes all of your local channels plus local government and public access channels and sometimes a few extras. (For example, where I live, Comcast includes TBS and Bravo.) The exact lineup will vary, of course, but it’s something you can ask your cable company about.

If you’ve got broadband internet access, you can look around for streaming media options. Most of those “normal TV” channels aren’t available live, but you can find some old clips or even full-length programs to watch online. And some of what is available live might surprise you if you Google around or stop by TVU Networks.

Or you can turn to DVDs for your TV entertainment. Some public libraries offer DVDs for checkout. Redbox rents new-release DVDs for $1/night. Netflix, hated source of pop-under ads, lets you swap DVDs by mail for $8.99/month or more. Swap a DVD lets you indirectly trade your DVDs for the cost of postage.

So there are most of your choices for free or cheap “normal TV.” But if you want over 200 channels of free TV, and you’re not picky about what they’re about or what language they’re in, then FTA is definitely your best choice.