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.

Screenshot of a nimbleTV presentation at The Paley CenterYesterday, I wrote about how cool nimbleTV is for the viewer. Today, I’ll take a closer look at what’s going on under the hood and what’s in nimbleTV’s future.

Let’s start with the presentation that nimbleTV founder Anand Subramanian gave at The Paley Center for Media last year. (You can watch it by clicking here or on the screenshot I’ve embedded to the right of this sentence.) His idea was pretty basic: Let anyone subscribe to any pay-TV service anywhere, then pay nimbleTV to stream it anywhere in the world. As he described it at about the 9-minute mark, “Everybody is whole. The consumer is paying for the subscription. And the TV provider is getting paid its full retail TV subscription. And the TV provider is paying the content person, so it keeps the industry fully whole.”

That strategy has worked to a certain extent. We haven’t heard the TV networks complaining about this service “stealing” free over-the-air TV to stream to subscribers. Then again, nimbleTV has been staying fairly quiet compared to its sometimes flamboyant competitors. But I can’t help worrying about when that “content person” is going to find something else to complain about. More about him later.

But let’s get back to what’s going on under the hood. Let me start by saying that I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. At least not directly. I had a great conversation with Sanjay Patel, nimbleTV’s vice president of marketing, and all he would tell me about the technical details was that they were proprietary. But in a couple of weeks of playing with nimbleTV, I picked up a few clues about its black box:

  • It’s definitely getting its content from Dish Network. There were Dish house ads in some of the usual programming breaks, and the channel numbers match.
  • It’s probably getting the Dish feed through satellite dishes in New York City. When severe thunderstorms hit NYC, they knocked out nimbleTV’s content for a little while.
  • As a test, I was able to successfully record nine programs simultaneously. That would require nine tuners, and would be impossible with any normal Dish receiver.
  • All recordings are automatically padded by a couple of minutes before and after. Great idea, by the way; I wish FilmOn would do that.
  • Not all channels of a given Dish package are carried in its equivalent nimbleTV plan. Most of the missing channels are religious and shopping channels, so they aren’t really missed.

Add to these clues Subramanian’s assertion a year ago that recording would be infinite and based in the cloud. (As I mentioned yesterday, the virtual DVR is now limited, perhaps as an opportunity to upsell more space.)

I’ve got a theory, maybe just a wild guess, based on all of this very limited data. Suppose that nimbleTV set up a bank of Dish receivers or their equivalents, with each of their tuners viewing a different channel. Then suppose that nimbleTV took the output from all of those tuners and magically digested them into a form that’s easier to stream yet multiplied to all subscribers. Further, suppose that nimbleTV’s magic grid also recorded and stored each program to serve up on demand to each subscriber who virtually recorded it. That system would make it easy to promise an infinite virtual DVR. That system would explain why nimbleTV would be reluctant to furnish extra, unpopular channels. And that hypothetical system could get nimbleTV some legal attention if the details came out.

In the truly wacky world of TV copyrights, making copies of anything for any reason is just asking for trouble. Fox’s Hopper lawsuit against Dish includes a complaint that Dish allegedly makes an internal copy of Fox’s programming for quality control. Copyright law is the reason why Aereo had to go to the ridiculous length of giving each subscriber his own tiny antenna rather than using a single central antenna. So if, hypothetically, nimbleTV stores just one copy of last night’s South Park episode to serve to every viewer who requests it, well, that just sounds like trouble. Then again, it’s possible that nimbleTV’s internal workings bear no resemblance to any of my wild guesses; one would presume that they’re perfectly legal. Patel told me that nimbleTV folks “make sure we comply, not only with our partners, but legally as well.” So I just don’t know.

No matter how it serves programming, nimbleTV might still run afoul of that “content person”. A lot of those people have fixed ideas about their markets and how they want them divided. The folks who syndicate Wheel of Fortune usually sell exclusive rights within a market and get a premium for that exclusivity. A station in Boise, for example, might not pay as much if enough Boise viewers watch the New York feed of the Wheel. And consider that every New York pro football game will be available. Do you suppose the NFL will mind losing some New York expatriate Sunday Ticket subscribers?

And that’s just a US focus. Patel said that nimbleTV has a good percentage of international users. Before nimbleTV came around, “being able to watch live US TV has never been easy,” he said. As nimbleTV adds more broadcasting cities, US viewers will be able to pay for foreign TV just as well. And again, international rights can be another source of friction from content people.

NimbleTV’s line has stayed the same since the Paley Center presentation. Pay-TV providers are adding subscribers that they might not get any other way, and everybody’s getting paid just like normal. I’m not as sanguine about content people being satisfied with that picture, but I hope that nimbleTV stays around for a long time.