Navy color guard before a Dayton Dragons baseball game

Sailors from the USS Constitution’s Color Guard parade the colors before a Dayton Dragons game. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Hammond)

Last Saturday evening, I was in Dayton, Ohio, sitting at a barbecue joint which I will honor by not mentioning its name. (If it had a motto, based on the waiter’s remarks, it would be, “Sorry, we’re changing the menu.”) For a reason unrelated to the alleged food, I was glad I came.

As I examined my appetizer plate of Tender Vittles, someone changed a TV screen from random hockey highlights to a baseball game. Featuring the local team, the Dayton Dragons. Broadcast on local over-the-air TV. Cool!

It turns out that Dayton is one of seven* minor-league baseball teams that broadcast some of their games on free OTA TV. As I have mentioned before, there are practically no local major-league baseball games on broadcast TV outside of New York City and Chicago, so this is a nice alternative.

With cord-cutting accelerating, Dayton and the other minor-league OTA broadcasters are smart in at least a couple of ways. They’re reaching the 25% of households that don’t subscribe to pay TV. Especially for those viewers, they provide an attractive, typically unique live-sports option. Everyone who watches is treated to what’s effectively an infomercial for watching games in person. And the teams are nurturing a new generation of baseball fans.

There are also at least another half dozen minor league teams that broadcast over local cable, but that can’t be as beneficial. Cable subscribers can switch over to major league baseball games or plenty of other sports options, so these minor league teams are less likely to pull in fresh fans. Ditto for MiLB.tv, an economical source for over 5000 (!) games a year, since its subscribers must already be minor-league baseball fans.

So here’s a note of thanks to Dayton, despite the cuisine. More major-league teams should be taking lessons from the Dragons.

* I checked every minor-league team’s web site and found 2016 OTA TV information for Dayton, Durham NC, Indianapolis, Lehigh Valley PA, South Bend IN, Winston-Salem NC, and (Appleton) Wisconsin. If I missed one you know about, please leave a comment.

One-sided arm wrestling

© olly18 / Depositphotos.com

I had hoped that the retransmission fee fight between Dish Network and Tribune Broadcasting would be over quickly, but if anything, it’s grown worse. Dish offered baseball-style binding arbitration. Tribune countered with ads blaming Dish. Then Dish sued over the ads. I recognize that these steps are all about adding bargaining chips toward a final settlement, but it’s all so unnecessary.

The primary cause of the problem is that over-the-air TV broadcasters get to demand negotiate retransmission fees from pay-TV providers. (That’s if they’re popular. If a station isn’t popular, it can instead demand that pay-TV providers must carry that station no matter how few viewers want it.) These stations, granted the license to use the public airwaves to serve their communities, can withhold their programming from cable and satellite unless those viewers pay up.

TV stations have all the leverage. If one pay-TV company balks, the station can urge viewers to switch to another, and that’s exactly what Tribune has done. A media conglomerate that controls both cable networks and OTA stations can use retransmission fee negotiations to force the providers to carry the networks or raise those prices too. That’s also what Tribune is doing.

It’s no wonder that stations reject calls for arbitration or any other changes to the current system. If you’ve got the only oasis for 100 miles, you won’t be interested in negotiating the price of water. No wonder that, according to SNL Kagan, total retransmission fees have risen from $200 million 10 years ago to over $7.7 billion this year and are projected to reach $11.6 billion by 2022.

In my ideal world, part of TV broadcasters’ social contract would include allowing anyone to retransmit any OTA station for free. That’s not going to happen. Heck, even the United Kingdom is considering allowing such fees. But I’ve got a solution that’s almost as good.

Consider music. When someone wants to play Yesterday, they don’t need to negotiate with Paul McCartney. There are rights organizations that have negotiated fair-market royalty rates with representatives of the parties that use music.

Now apply that to OTA TV. Suppose that the major networks and other TV ownership groups sat down with the cable and satellite TV companies. They could negotiate a formula that provides fair-market retransmission fees for each station. I imagine that the formula would be based on the average number of viewers, with a certain no-fee threshold for must-carry stations. If average ratings go up over a year (or quarterly), that station earns a higher fee from the pay-TV service. Every few years, the parties sit down and hash out any changes. Everyone benefits by saving all the time and money currently spent negotiating each station group’s demands with each pay-TV service. No OTA station ever gets blacked out on any provider, yet everyone gets a fair return.

This too will never happen without government intervention. Even with assurances of a fair return on OTA fees, conglomerates would lose the leverage to force better terms for their cable channels. But this plan might just be balanced enough to work if viewer groups and pay-TV lobbyists ever get together to lean on Washington. At the very least, it’s a pleasant dream.

A wide Dish Network satellite dishIrony. DirecTV had been the latest TV provider to see local over-the-air channels blacked out because of contract disputes. I was going to write about my common sense alternative to these retransmission consent arguments between broadcasters and providers, but yesterday the issue hit home. My home. (That alternative will have to wait until my next post.)

Dish Network lost its Tribune-owned stations yesterday. That includes two of my local channels and three of the Superstations I subscribe to. (Not only am I a shareholder, I’m also a customer.) The good news is that according to Dish’s press release, it’s offering free OTA antennas to affected subscribers. That’s a great reminder that viewers don’t need to pay for local TV.

To me, the worst thing about losing any local channels from my Dish receiver is the inability to record their shows on the same DVR I use for pay TV. Fortunately, I’m already used to recording OTA with a couple of other devices, my Tablo and my DVR+. Around 2009, Dish stopped adding subchannels to its program guide. Most Dish receivers won’t schedule recordings for any dot-2 that premiered after that cutoff. If I want to watch movies from ThisTV or GetTV or Movies!, I can watch them live through my OTA-enabled Dish receiver, or I can record them to watch when I want with my Tablo or DVR+.

Sure, it’s convenient to get it in the same pipe as ESPN and HBO, and it’s cable is a necessity for folks who can’t get their channels with an OTA antenna. But the point is, broadcast TV is free. When giant entertainment corporations do battle, that’s a comforting thought.

The new HopperGO

The new HopperGO

I remember when I first explained what’s important to little kids when they watch TV. I was in my room at the Mirage, on the phone with Guest Services. Way back then, I was trying to figure out how to attach my DVD player to the room’s television set so my kid could watch something we’d brought along. Anything was possible at the Mirage, the voice told me, but why incur a charge for a technician visit when we could just tune to one of several channels featuring the finest in children’s entertainment? “My kid doesn’t want to watch the finest,” I told the voice. “He wants to see the same darned thing he watches 12 times a week. And he expects to watch it now.”

That story came to mind this week because of two news stories. A senior VP at AT&T said in an interview that the company plans to pump DirecTV content into connected vehicles through AT&T cellular service. Earlier, Dish announced a portable device for copying and replaying recordings from a Dish DVR. You can guess which idea I think is a good one.

AT&T is ignoring history. Companies have tried to program live back-seat TVs for years, and most leaned on children’s shows. None of them reached broad acceptance. For every family willing to pay for absolutely every accessory for their land boat there were a dozen others with simple DVD players.

AT&T is ignoring the present. Millennials don’t watch live TV, except a little bit of sports. No one wants to wait until the top of the hour for a show to start. No one wants commercials they can’t skip past. No one wants dozens of extra channels they don’t watch.

I own a laughably small sliver of Dish stock, but that’s not why I like the HopperGO. This little box can grab that favorite Spongebob episode and stream it to a backseat TV or any other connected device, over and over. It works for recorded movies in a hotel room. The release says HopperGO works “at the airport,” so probably not on the plane. You can’t have everything.

About the only place the AT&T plan would work better is for live sports while tailgating. Where there’s no WiFi, the equivalent Dish Anywhere stream would eat up a lot of cell data. Then again, it’s possible to set up an actual portable dish in a parking lot, and more stadiums are adding WiFi. If AT&T goes through with this, it’ll be just another solution in search of a problem.

BitTorrent logoThis week at INTX (formerly The Cable Show), BitTorrent announced a new package of live streaming video. Once it launches, BitTorrent Live will include over a dozen linear channels, including Newsmax, ONE World Sports, and the Pursuit Channel. It will all be based on BitTorrent’s proprietary peer-to-peer (P2P) streaming protocol.

BitTorrent’s blog post said that this is just the beginning. Future channels will include subscription based, ad supported, and Pay Per View premium tiers. In the words of Erik Schwartz, vice president of media at BitTorrent, “What we’re launching … is functionally a virtual MVPD.”

This announcement has attracted considerable industry news coverage, but I haven’t seen anyone else make the connection between BitTorrent Live and the true pioneer of P2P online TV, ivi. It’s been over five years since ivi.tv was fatally wounded by a federal court decision against it. Before then, ivi carried dozens of broadcast channels, distributed mostly P2P. They had a few “seeding” servers with the broadcast signal, then most subscribers served to both send and receive pieces of each show. The result was a lag time of a few minutes, noticeable only if there was a live source for comparison or if the viewer expected shows to change at exactly the top of the hour. BitTorrent Live claims that its latency will be less than 10 seconds, which would be roughly equivalent to satellite TV’s delay. I’m very curious to see what its lag time will be in practice compared with a non-P2P service such as Sling International.

All of this assumes that BitTorrent Live will launch, and that it will perform as advertised. If so, this P2P special sauce could allow networks to reach the huge simultaneous audiences that can be problematic for one-way streaming services. I’ve been saying this a lot, but maybe this could be the next big thing?