Bugs Bunny in Falling HareI can remember when TV was limited to just four or five broadcast channels, and that was it. I remember when the first 36-channel cable box arrived, with much rejoicing. I remember the days when VCRs first emerged, and how long it took for me to spend the big bucks (then) to buy one. In other words, my formative years were steeped in non-directed viewing, and it’s taking me some time to unlearn those habits.

Directed viewing is the future, and a lot of the present. When you dig around online to find a particular old Looney Tunes cartoon, or when you order an episode of Downton Abbey on demand, or when you pop in a DVD or Blu-ray disc, that’s directed viewing. The old days of flopping on the couch and channel surfing to see what’s on, that’s non-directed.

Watching a lot of free-to-air TV networks, it’s easy to think, “Hey, I could run a channel as well as that.” FTA viewing is pretty much non-directed, unless you use a DVR with it. But satellite time is expensive, and internet streaming is pretty cheap. And that’s why I started experimenting with TVU Networks, as I explained a few posts ago.

You remember the old cartoon Falling Hare, where Bugs Bunny fights a gremlin? (You can watch it here.) The gremlin convinces Bugs to whack a bomb just right to make it go off. After a wild windup, just as he’s about to hit the bomb, Bugs stops short and yells, “What am I doing?” That was my flash of insight as I dug deeper into launching a 24-hour internet channel. It’s all in the difference between directed viewing and non-directed viewing.

If you’re on the internet already, you have a zillion on-demand options for viewing content, and you’ll probably use them. Directed viewing. If you just want to hit the couch and flip around, you’ll probably be watching broadcast TV or cable/satellite channels. Non-directed viewing. Put it all together, and a 24-hour online-only entertainment channel is probably a bad idea. Good thing I stopped!


Home screen - SuomiTV iPadThis year, one full meme’s worth of internet buzz has been TV Everywhere (which may or may not be a trademark of Dish Network). It’s a simple idea, that a viewer should be able to watch any video content on any device, assuming that he makes the right payments to the people who bring it to him. TV wants to be free, y’know?

Unfortunately, a couple of news stories from Friday indicate that the TV delivery infrastructure is running away from the online video streaming of TV Everywhere.

John Eggerton, the hardest working man in Washington, wrote in a story for Multichannel News that the FCC may allow its ban on system-specific programming to expire. That’s the rule that requires every network to offer itself to all multi-channel video providers. For example, Comcast must offer its regional SportsNet programming to other providers, such as Dish.

According to that story, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski circulated an order that would decline to renew that restriction when it expires at the end of 2012.

Separately, the Chicago Tribune ran a Bloomberg News story about a possible internet-based TV provider with an unlikely background. Dish CEO Joseph Clayton said that Dish would start such a service if only it could get the network programmers on board.

“There’s no question there’s a group of consumers, mostly around age 18 to 28, that aren’t going to watch 250 channels of TV, pay $100 a month and watch it on a 60-inch flat-panel display,” Clayton said. “Maybe they’ll spend $20 – maybe less, maybe a little more – for a lot less channels and watch them on their iPhone, their tablet and their PC.”

The trouble is that the six corporations who control almost all major TV content don’t want to unbundle their channels to let streamers pick and choose what they want to watch. And they probably aren’t willing to accept the smaller return they’d get through those cheaper IP-based subscriptions.

Those two articles paint a bleak picture for the immediate future of IP-based TV viewing. If the Big Six won’t cut streaming deals with Dish, a huge customer that already has working relationships with them, what chance would the next internet start-up have? And if the Big Six is free to withhold their programming from absolutely anyone, how will viewers find everything they want in one application?

“(T)he public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.” That’s what John Goodman’s character said about talkies in The Artist, and it’s true for IP-based TV now. Movie studios in the 1920s recognized and embraced the new direction. Eventually, the Big Six will also come around. The public is never wrong.

ivi mug and FilmOn USB deviceIn my last post, I mentioned that my current ATSC USB device is a rebranded Hauppage. FilmOn threw it in when I purchased a one-year subscription around the first of the year.

FilmOn is the service that streams over 100 channels of video for less than $15/month. As first a visitor, then a subscriber, I’ve watched FilmOn throw everything they could find into its product, and most of it works.

FilmOn was launched in the US just a few days after ivi.tv began. ivi streamed over-the-air broadcast signals, many of them out-of-market, by citing an obscure clause in US copyright law. The broadcasters sued, saying that clause didn’t apply here. A preliminary injunction effectively shut down ivi in February 2011, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that injunction last week. Todd Weaver, ivi’s founder, told me that he’s still not sure what his next step will be.

FilmOn also started with streaming OTA channels, and its preliminary injunction came before ivi’s. FilmOn settled the lawsuit with the networks for $1.6 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Then Alki David, FimOn’s founder, launched BarryDriller.com, another streaming site using the micro-antenna technology of Barry Diller’s Aereo service. (Since Aereo survived the networks’ first attempt at a preliminary injunction, that technology looked like a winner to FilmOn/BarryDriller.) That prompted a fresh lawsuit from the networks, BarryDriller is off the air, and that’s where we are now.

(While I was in Chicago, which happened to be just before the latest lawsuit, I was able to use my Denver-registered netbook to see the Chicago stations that BarryDriller was streaming. So BarryDriller must have been using an IP-based check to see where its subscriber was during the stream.)

Anyway, FilmOn has an interesting collection of channels, including such lesser networks as American Primetime TV, AMG TV, Free Speech TV, Fashion TV, and many, many more. It shows the major broadcast networks as “Coming Soon”. We’ll see. But meanwhile, the OTA device can be integrated into the FilmOn software, giving viewers with good reception another way to see all of their local channels.

To me, FilmOn and ivi represent two kinds of optimism. Weaver was so sure that his reading of the law was accurate that ivi’s excellent matching technology would create a whole new TV ecosystem. When he encountered dissent or barriers, he continued on, strong in his convictions. On the other hand, David kept weaving, adding and subtracting and tweaking FilmOn. When the networks shut him off, he launched a counterattack on CBS and whipped up the USB antenna for subscribers. David was just as confident in his cause, but looked for ways around obstacles instead of trying to march through them.

And that’s the state of streaming TV today. Ah, if only FilmOn were free to carry the UK OTA channels. I hear that it does if you are in Great Britain. Did you read any stories about how some US viewers used UK proxies to watch TV on the BBC’s streaming site? I’ve read those stories too. Do you suppose that’s legal?

TVU networks logoAfter spending years watching oddball little networks and local stations over free-to-air satellite, I got to thinking: Why don’t *I* create a TV station? (And judging by the number of emails I get on this topic, I’d say it’s not just me.)

Putting a 24-hour TV station on satellite is pretty darned expensive. The last extremely rough estimate I’d heard for a dedicated Ku-band slot was about $10,000 a month. (If you’ve got a better figure, please leave a comment.) And that doesn’t account for all of the equipment you’d need to prepare your content and deliver it on a scheduled basis.

But now we all live in the age of fast internet connections, and an internet-based TV station is a lot cheaper to broadcast. For a good example try the Livestream Broadcaster device, a darling of the 2012 NAB Show. Or you can do what I did, start a channel using TVU Networks’ Broadcaster software.

There are a lot of really good things about TVU Broadcaster:

  • It’s free for noncommercial use. You’re welcome to set up the software and broadcast a channel, and all it takes is your time and bandwidth.
  • It includes a scheduler. It doesn’t have a lot of features, but it really works, and it’s included. The scheduler would be an extra paid (and full-featured) component of any other system.
  • There’s no limit on viewers. With most streaming systems, you have to multiply the number of viewers times your stream rate to figure the amount of bandwidth you need to pay for. TVU is based on a peer-to-peer system, so you don’t have to worry about any of that.
  • TVU provides a dedicated player for iOS and Android. So your channel will be available on a lot of smartphones.
  • There’s enough documentation to get you started. Good stuff such as format type, recommended parameters, and even a test file to broadcast.
  • It has a built-in audience. Anyone with the TVU Player will see your channel in a list with hundreds of others as they look for fun content for viewing.

But there are also a lot of not-great things about TVU:

  • There’s no support. Well, there’s supposed to be support, but I’ve never seen it. The most recent version of Broadcaster was released in 2008, and TVU’s forums tell a sad story of years’ worth of unanswered questions.
  • The scheduler is very rudimentary. It lets you stack your program files, then plays them in that order, and that’s it. There’s no good way to swap a new file in the middle, except to add it to the stack, then move it one position at a time until it’s in the right place, then delete the old file.
  • Relying on peer-to-peer is a turnoff for some viewers. They worry about adding a special plug-in that might use their upstream bandwidth without their noticing. I understand the hesitation there.
  • The player doesn’t work on all platforms. It doesn’t work on Google Chrome in Windows except on TVU’s official Watch TV page. I still don’t know how to embed a player on my site so it’ll work in Chrome, or in Macintosh Safari for that matter. (See: support.)
  • There’s no way for a broadcaster to edit a channel name or description after launching it. Which is why my channel still has “test” in its name and a completely inaccurate description.
  • The TVU channel list is a zoo. There are ways to filter by language and category, but it can be really hard to pick through hundreds of choices to find something you want to watch.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I visited the TVU booth at the NAB Show in April. A nice woman there listened to my questions and assured me that TVU was continuing to support Broadcaster, and that I should consider a Pro account. I said that I’d be happy to invest in a Pro account if TVU would demonstrate that it truly offered active support. We emailed each other a few times in the following weeks, but that correspondence did not dissuade me that TVU had not turned its back on Broadcaster.

If you try to go straight to the TVU Networks home page, you’re greeted with a popup-style window that asks, “Looking for TVUPack?” with the options “Yes, take me to tvupack.com” and “No, take me to tvunetworks.com”. That says it all. TVU Broadcaster is a surprisingly good tool, but all of its signs point to a dead end.

Update: I guess I was right. TVU’s site now shows that “TVU Networks shut down service to the TVU Player on February 25,2013.” Sure glad I didn’t buy the Pro account.

When last we left this blog, it was almost time for the NAB Show, the annual event produced by the National Association of Broadcasters.

NAB president Gordon Smith presented the keynote speech at the convention. As I’ve written before, I think Smith is perfect for the job, keeping various broadcaster constituents on the same page while using his Washington connections to lobby for the best possible deal for his members. Anyway, a few minutes in, a part of his speech gave my brain whiplash.

(W)e will continue to protect the rights of all viewers who depend on their local TV stations as a lifeline for news, emergency information and, of course, entertainment.

We’re also fighting to ensure that viewers continue to have dynamic content choices, by retaining a free market retransmission consent process.

Notice that there aren’t any ellipses in that quote. Smith really said in consecutive sentences that TV broadcasters are an indispensable lifeline for their viewers, but if the local cable system won’t pay broadcasters enough, they’ll feel free to cut off those viewers.

I don’t blame Smith for stating both of those positions; they highlight the conflict that broadcasters face when they alternately defend their free bandwidth and resist calls to fix the retransmission consent system. I just thought it was a little weird to juxtapose them. He wasn’t going for irony there.

Smith seemed a little distracted. He gamely read the speech from the teleprompters, and the next morning, he was caught looking by a change-up thrown by Betty White. (See next paragraph.) It’s as though he had been working on an important negotiation and had to fly in at the last minute.

Betty White at an NAB breakfastThe second day featured a morning breakfast with TV legend Betty White, who accepted praise graciously, then went to sit down and chat with Smith. They talked about how the industry had changed, about perseverance, that sort of thing. Then Smith, no doubt reaching for a note someone had given him said, “I hear that you’re quite a football fan.” White looked at him as if he had suggested that she kept a cage of squirrels in her house. “No,” was her simple answer. Smith recovered, but we all learned that Betty White does not suffer foolish questions.

There was a lot of other stuff, of course, mostly in the exhibit halls.

  • I met Crook and Chase at a booth for The Nashville Network (launching soon), and I told them about my First Rule of Programming, of which the original TNN was a prime example. (“We are going to have some cooking shows,” Lorianne Crook said in agreement.)
  • There was a big push for mobile DTV, mainly in the form of Dyle TV, but it remains a technology in search of an audience.
  • All the satellite delivery companies were there, and lots of streaming providers. I talked with TVU Networks, since I’m broadcasting a test channel through TVU, but they’re much more interested in selling IP-based newsgathering gear. Much more about that in a future post.
  • I ran into Alexander Wiese, the publisher of Tele-satellite magazine, at his booth. He dropped by FTAList world headquarters the next week and took some photos, but I haven’t seen them in virtual print yet.

Every year, I visit the NAB Show and the International CES. (Don’t you dare call it the Consumer Electronics Show, see the editors note here.) If you want to see the latest Dish or DirecTV receivers, or if you just want to see the latest amazing gadgetry, go to CES. If you want to learn the most about the cutting edge of TV and video delivery, nothing beats the NAB Show. I’m looking forward to it already.