Category: OTA

PhoenixBTV walks Aereo’s hazardous path

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PhoenixBTV screen shots from the Android app storeIf you stay in one place long enough, you’ll probably find a restaurant black hole. That is, one restaurant will build the storefront and furnish the dining area and kitchen and everything, then go out of business. A couple of months later, a second restaurant will move in, usually change the cuisine and shuffle some decor, and soon it also goes out of business. Maybe half a year after that, a third restaurant will start making arrangements towards its own grand opening in the same spot. And you wonder, what does this third place know that the first two restaurants didn’t?

There must be something attractive in a restaurant black hole’s location, yet there’s also a fatal flaw. I remember one spot at the corner of an extremely busy intersection, so it always had lots of cars passing by, but its driveways were too close to the corner to get in and out easily and it didn’t have enough parking. My current example is in a strip mall anchored by a very busy grocery store, but in a neglected corner of the center, not visible from the grocery store’s front door.

Didja Inc. is testing a service in the Phoenix AZ market that provides some over-the-air TV signals to users of its PhoenixBTV Android and iPhone apps. You can see where I’m going here. Taking freely available OTA signals and passing them along to subscribers was in the business plan of ivi.tv, FilmOn, and most famously, Aereo. All three were blocked by court actions brought by broadcasters and their friends, even though the latter two services had well-financed legal teams. Aereo lost in a weird US Supreme Court decision that was based not on what Aereo did but what it was like. FilmOn continues to fight in federal court.

According to a story by Jeff Baumgartner in Multichannel News, PhoenixBTV is steering clear of the big four networks while carrying Phoenix’s digital subchannels and independents. I remember when FilmOn did that for a couple of months in its markets, until the court made it stop. The PhoenixBTV site suggests it plans to add major networks eventually in “a paid premium version with more than 50 channels of local broadcast TV including the most-watched channels!”

Didja CEO Jim Long says it has its current broadcasters’ permission during the apps’ free beta period; I hope he’s also got contracts for when PhoenixBTV tries to go commercial. As for the legality of PhoenixBTV and its differences from Aereo, Baumgartner wrote, “Though Didja’s technical approach does involve the capturing of local over-the-air TV signals, Long declined to discuss the architecture of PhoenixBTV in much detail. Long also would not get into the business relationship his company has with local broadcasters.” Uh oh.

(By the way, the PhoenixBTV is only available on its apps, which require a device-level location check just like the DirecTV Now apps. Unlike DirecTV Now, there appears to be no way to reach PhoenixBTV from a deskop computer.)

So I wonder what Didja knows about the restaurant location it’s moving into. I’m sure it sees the lucrative possibility of streaming OTA on subscribers’ phones. Does it also have a good workaround for the fatal flaw, or will it suffer its predecessors’ fate?

Comparing Sling vs. DirecTV Now with VPN

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Logos for Sling TV and DirecTV NowI’ve had a Sling TV account for a few months, and I signed up on Day One for DirecTV Now. After a week of playing around with both, I can say that which service you prefer will depend on what you want out of it.

The channel lists and prices have been hashed out elsewhere. My favorite set is Sling Blue ($25/month) with NFL Network though not ESPN. For a boatload of channels with everything but NFL, the $35 intro price for DirecTV Now also looks good. But there’s one feature of both services that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere – how well do they work with a virtual private network (VPN)? Can subscribers access out-of-market TV channels if they appear to be connecting away from home? The answer is often yes.

Sling appears to rely on IP location to qualify viewers. When I VPN into any market then launch Sling, I can see any local Fox and NBC channels it carries there, but not any regional sports networks. (ABC requires Sling Orange and a special request. Full list of available locals here.) As a test, I VPN’d into Dallas, used just a Zip Code and a Visa gift card, and was able to sign up for a Sling Blue account that includes Fox Sports Southwest. Of course all of that is only available if my IP address is in Dallas, and it only works on my tablet if location services are turned off. (Full list of available regional sports channels here.)

DirecTV Now uses browser-based streaming, so some browser-based recorders such as PlayOn might work with it. Sling uses a proprietary app even on the desktop, so third-party recording isn’t as practical. DirecTV Now includes ABC, Fox and NBC in some markets, and it includes regional sports from more markets than Sling. Since I have a legitimate Chicago mailing address (long story), I signed up for DirecTV Now in Chicago, and it includes Comcast SportsNet Chicago. But only with a VPN into Chicago, and only on the desktop. (Full list of DirecTV Now locals and regional sports networks here.)

When I launched the DirecTV Now app on my tablet, it refused to do anything until I turned on location services. Of course, with my location visible, the app offered only its cornucopia of national channels but nothing from Chicago.

You should keep this location-based limitation in mind if you’re hoping to watch local channels from the road. I imagine I’d have little recourse trying to watch Cartoon Network from Berlin or my local NBC station from another state. And if you want to sign up expecting to use VPN to watch your favorite locals, remember that these services might close that loophole any day now. (Come to think of it, using a VPN might violate your subscriber Terms of Service, so read that carefully.) Both services offer short-term free trials, so check ’em out. No matter what, it’s fun while it lasts.

See FCC, FTC chairs in person at CES

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Alexis Ohanian talking at CES
Gary’s Book Club is another way to meet industry leaders. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, dropped by during CES 2015. (photo by the blogmeister)

Two of the best parts of CES every year are the chance to see industry leaders in person and the chance to learn about new trends. Some of those discussions are presented as SuperSessions, free to all conference attendees, and CES just released its SuperSession schedule for the January 2017 show, now just five weeks away.

The most important session for the future of TV, both broadcast and over-the-top, is on January 5, the same day the exhibit hall opens. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez will present their views for an hour starting at 11:30. Other SuperSession topics will include artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and self-driving cars. You can find the full list here.

If you needed another reason to join me at CES, there it is. Just drop me a line so we can meet while we’re there.

Back from Europe

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German newspaper rack showing Das neue Antennen-TV
What’s the selling point for this Munich newspaper? “The new antenna TV” section, subtitled “What you need to watch now”

I’m back from a week in Germany, and I know both more and less than when I left home. I don’t have any big stories, but I’ve got lots to ramble about.

At the Berlin Wall Memorial, I saw one of the first efforts at geographic restriction on TV, when East Germany told its citizens to turn their antennas away from the west. In nearby apartments, I saw normal oval satellite antennas with two LNBs. My budget hotel in Munich served up dozens of the same channels I see on my FTA receiver in the states. I guess those channels are just free anywhere.

Meanwhile, all three personal streaming services based in FreeTVBlog World Headquarters in Denver performed flawlessly. For the fastest look-in at what my rooftop antenna was receiving, the clear winner again was my venerable first-generation SimpleTV unit. I’d click the SimpleTV app on my phone or tablet, and in about 30 seconds I’d be watching the weather report from eight time zones away. (This also reassured my paranoia by proving that the house was intact, the electricity and internet service were on, and my valuables were still in place. Assuming that a burglar would consider an old SimpleTV unit valuable.)

To watch prerecorded shows, my Tablo also worked well. The wife and I caught up on some of our prime-time storylines the following evening, which was midday Denver time. The Tablo just takes a little longer to sync up before it’ll allow me to watch anything from home. But my true guilty pleasure was watching a couple hours of NFL RedZone live during a Munich Sunday evening thanks to my Dish Hopper 3 and Anywhere app. My previous Sling-loaded Dish receiver had streamed the way a dog walks on its hind legs – enough to surprise friends but not reliably. But this Hopper streamed flawlessly.

On the other hand, the Dish Anywhere app now allows subscribers to transfer recordings to phone or tablet for offline viewing. I pulled down a movie, but when I tried to watch it on a plane two weeks later, it said it wouldn’t play without refreshing my permission to watch it. Dish needs to communicate better about those limits.

I’m still decompressing, but I’ll always remember watching live Denver weather from a high-speed train zooming from Berlin to Munich. It’s just another minor miracle of the internet age.

Celebrate World Television Day

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The United Nations declared November 21 as World Television Day, and 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of that celebration. We free-to-air enthusiasts should feel a special pride in that recognition, since we can see TV from over a dozen countries using just a medium-sized satellite dish here in North America.

As the UN puts it, “World Television Day is not so much a celebration of the tool, but rather the philosophy which it represents. Television represents a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world.” Personally, I see it as a corollary to Mark Twain’s quote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” When you can see that the game shows in Portugal look about the same as ours or that the news readers from Saudia Arabia use pretty much the same format, it’s a subtle reminder that all of us humans are, y’know, just people.

Advanced Television has a nice rundown of the impact of television in various countries around the world. And the European Broadcasting Union created a special commemorative video that I embedded at the top of this post. I feel a special affinity to European broadcasting right now. I’ll explain more in a few days.

Most folks still watch video on TV

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Cartoon figure reclining and watching televisionThe Video Advertising Bureau released its latest State of Digital Video report (PDF), and none of its results are very surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. Going by the number of minutes watched, 89% of video viewing was on a television set, 10% on a desktop computer, and only 1% on a smartphone. If you go by monthly reach, 93% watched TV but 83% used a smartphone. That just makes sense; no one uses their phone to settle in for a binge.

The VAB report also says that the smart TV is the fastest growing platform. If you drop by a Walmart or Target, it’s easy to see why; at least half of the TVs on the shelf are smart, and at competitive prices.

On the other hand, fewer people use desktop computers on the internet, and it looks like most of them switched to smartphones. Which is why I had to revamp this blog and FTAList.com to be mobile-friendly.

I could go on about all the info-nuggets from the infographics of the 33-page report, but if you’re curious, you really should go read the PDF!

Vudu freebies improve DVR+ experience

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Logos for DVR+ and VuduVudu released some great news for Channel Master DVR+ owners. Now Vudu will offer thousands of ad-supported feature films to view for free. That’s true on all of Vudu’s platforms, but it’s an especially good match on the DVR+,  which doesn’t require a monthly subscription fee for its guide data.

According to an article in Variety, the plan is to squeeze a little revenue out of some of the older films on Vudu’s virtual shelf. I’m also guessing it’s a way to bring in a lot more viewers who might be persuaded to pay a few dollars to rent the latest Hollywood blockbuster. “There’s no better value than free,” said Jeremy Verba, VP and GM of Vudu. “We see a gap in the marketplace for watching free HD movies on-demand.”

Vudu has been on the DVR+ for a long time now, but every title had to be purchased or rented. (Vudu also regularly offers TV pilots that can be “purchased” for free.) With YouTube and over a dozen other digital channels, it’s a strong incentive for DVR+ owners to plug into the internet. With a good set of broadcast channels, there’s no need to pay for entertainment.

NCTA changes name, cancels trade show

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NCTA logoThe former National Cable and Telecommunications Association (recently renamed “NCTA – The Internet & Television Association”, complete with dash)  has canceled its venerable The Cable Show trade show (renamed “INTX: the Internet and Television Expo” a couple of years ago) a few months after scheduling it in April 2017 directly opposite the NAB Show. I held my tongue when they thought INTX was supposed to wrest NAB attendees away, and I barely restrained myself when NCTA renamed itself to something without those initials but included them anyway. Now this. Just wow.

NCTA has a long history of renaming itself. A small group of community antenna companies organized in 1951 to form the National Community Television Council, then renamed it to National Community Television Association just a few months later. In 1968, the group changed to the National Cable Television Association. Trying to work “internet” into its title somehow, NCTA renamed in 2001 as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Then earlier this month came that hyphened mess that makes the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim sound reasonable.

There’s also a lot of good in NCTA’s history. It created the Cable Ace awards at a time when only broadcast shows were eligible for Emmys. The Cable Show ran for over 60 years, and I now wish I’d had the time to drop in on one of them. Instead, they’re just walking away. As reported in Variety, NCTA president and CEO Michael Powell said in a statement, ““We believe large trade show floors, dotted with exhibit booths and stilted schedules have become an anachronism. … Ending INTX gives us a clean slate and we are excited to explore presenting our industry in new and different ways.”

I remember when COMDEX ended its run when it announced it wouldn’t hold a show in 2004. I’ve still got the program from a few years earlier when it seemed that the computer trade show would run forever. This feels about the same. RIP, The Cable Show.

How to build a free “On Demand” library with a DVR

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Thumbnails of dozens of TV shows
The typical Tablo TV show display screen

It’s a fun perk of most pay-TV subscriptions to have access to a bunch of on-demand programming. It’s nice to flip through the listings and find something worth watching, even if it usually comes with unskippable advertising. (Ditto for Crackle and other free, ad-supported services.)

But I’ve found a way to use an over-the-air TV DVR (such as Tablo or DVR+) to build a better version of the on-demand vault. All it takes is sufficient hard drive space and about a half hour of planning every week. My secret is to record every movie, show, and sporting event that I think I might want to watch any time in the future.

With the Tablo, it’s pretty easy. After the app spends some time syncing up with the receiver, I start by checking OTA sports, typically a sad little list. Then channel by channel, I sift through available TV shows and movies. (Bonus points if a movie is on the local PBS station. On Spanish-language channels, anything but sports is out.) Along the way, I tell the DVR to record this and that, which usually adds up to more TV than I have time to watch in a month.

The DVR+ isn’t quite as friendly, though its guide data doesn’t require a subscription like Tablo’s. In this case, I fire up TitanTV and go to the custom broadcast channel grid that I created earlier. Then I click on each channel and thumb through its three-day program grid. When I see something I want to record, I search DVR+ for the title and set the recording.

Both DVRs use external USB hard drives, and it’s great that they’re coming down in price. There’s no good excuse any more for getting a portable drive that’s less than 1 terabyte, and you should probably spend a little more to get a 2 TB drive. That’ll hold a huge library of shows that your DVR recorded while you didn’t even notice. (For example, my 2 TB drive currently holds over a dozen sporting events, over 200 movies, and close to 1000 TV episodes.)

The best part is when you get a chance to sit down and watch something from the weeks’ accumulation of shows. It’s just like an on-demand library except it won’t contain anything you hate. And once you start watching, you’ll be free to jump past any commercials. Maintenance is easy; when you discover that a particular show wasn’t worth the dozen episodes you requested, just delete them to free up space for the next potential binge.

When I pull up my long list of recordings and the wife asks, “What’s all that trash?,” I don’t mind. It’s better to record a show that I’ll never watch than to wish for entertainment and not have enough. Besides, she’s used to me by now.

TiVo preps a compact OTA DVR

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TiVo's Mantis receiver prototype
A blurry photo of the Mantis from the FCC report

This latest news comes from the invaluable site Zatz Not Funny: the FCC has approved TiVo’s application for a new over-the-air TV DVR called the Mantis. Zatz has a great diagram showing just four inputs: power, antenna, USB and Ethernet, and he says it’s just 5 inches square and an inch and a half deep. That matches the blurry corner of a photo from the report to the FCC about how interference testing was performed.

A box that size sounds a lot different than the TiVo Roamio OTA or its Bolt which includes OTA. It sounds just like a SimpleTV without a TV output jack, or a Tablo without a second USB port, or a slightly larger HDHomeRun. And it can sit on its side.

Zatz quotes a TiVo Community thread where the company says it’s planning to “break the trajectory of traditional DVR” around the time of the January 2017 CES. Just one more reason to drop by the show and see what’s new.