Old joke: I can finally afford something I’ve wanted for 15 years – a 2001 Saturn hatchback.
Seriously: What do you do when circumstances change to allow you to attain what you have dreamed about for years, but those same circumstances make that prize unattractive?
When I got started with this TV stuff 10 years ago, the main topic was free-to-air satellite. There were some high-quality channels, but there was also some trash. This led to a frequently asked question, “How much does it cost to run a TV channel? Because I could do better than half of what’s up there.”
For example, White Springs TV ran a steady diet of public domain movies on the transponder that also distributed its parent company’s radio network. It looked like the work of one or two people, and it ran 24/7 for years. White Springs wasn’t trash, but it suggested that shoestring operations were possible.
I remember meeting with a satellite technician at the 2008 NAB Show to try to come up with something similar. He knew where to find some cheap satellite bandwidth and I knew where to find cheap content (more public domain rubbish, at least to start), but then we began to realize that running a linear channel is more complicated then that. We barely knew the words “playout automation,” so we never got to first base with our plans.
There were other bits of information here and there. I bought a copy of Brock Fisher’s 2008 book Start a TV Station. (He also published a 2012 version, but I never read that one.) I found a web page describing how to build a TV channel with mostly open source software components. I even experimented with a rudimentary streaming feed using TVU Broadcaster, a platform that TVU soon abandoned.
Fast forward to now. There is so much over-the-top streaming software and inexpensive hardware that I’m sure I could launch that 24/7 linear stream with just a little more research and work. But when I look around, I see that’s probably not the best idea. When it comes to streaming anything but sports, on-demand is what’s in demand, especially with younger viewers. Instead of trying to program 24 hours of mostly filler or reruns, I’d be better off creating individual shows and putting them where they can be streamed or downloaded when someone actually wants to watch them. Now that I can finally achieve my 2008 dreams, I don’t think they’re worth it.
A recurring meme at the 2016 NAB Show was the democratization of video. Equipment and streaming hosts are so inexpensive that anyone can make a movie or a short and show it to the world. The great news is that I have an equal opportunity to dazzle an audience with some amazingly fun content. All I need to do is create it.
Yet another great thing about attending the NAB Show is watching demonstrations of the very latest TV broadcast technology. Sometimes those trial balloons are dead ends (to mix metaphors), but ATSC 3.0 looks like it could be a keeper. This next-generation digital platform packs more data in the same slice of bandwidth, and it natively supports more descriptive emergency alerts, better surround sound, the possibility of 4K ultra HD signals, and a lot of other nice features. Too bad it’s not compatible with current digital TV tuners.
Remember that the old analog TV standard was NTSC, and that was replaced in the US in 2009 by ATSC, a digital standard that allowed for high-definition TV. That was ATSC 1.0, and now the new 3.0 version is ready for testing.
The NAB Show hosted the first live North American broadcast using the ATSC 3.0 system, with a mini-studio and transmitter at the east end of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall and a receiver in a special “consumer experience” set of booths at the far west end of the hall.
If you want to dig into most of the details of the event, you should read Chris Tribbey’s account at Broadcasting & Cable. Also, before the show was over, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he would open the comment period on ATSC 3.0 this coming week. I just have a few more notes to add.
The Ultra HD display was underwhelming for me, despite the colorful scene. I think that the display monitor was a little small (maybe 50 inches?) to show off the UHD advantage. Then again, I think that’s a problem with UHD in general; it provides too little benefit at typical screen sizes.
Two women stayed at that little table from 8 am to 6 pm Monday, then from 9 to 6 Tuesday and Wednesday. They took short individual breaks (they told me, I never saw one) and chatted and smiled all that time. Amazing stamina in the bright lights.
The literal centerpiece of the tableau was a rotating bowl of very fake fruit. How fake? The bananas were blue. The oranges, red apples and green pears looked pretty normal, but the bananas were nowhere near yellow. It was an odd, unexplained choice for folks trying to show off their superior colors.
One of the projected uses for ATSC 3.0 is to send encrypted content overnight to a local storage device, allowing unlockable movies on demand. I’m always hesitant about using free airwaves to send pay-TV content, but that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, that’s always been a selling point with TabletTV, the one-piece over-the-air DVR that’s still hanging in there. (Its FAQ page mentions “In the future, TabletTV may offer ad-supported and video-on-demand services”.) Let’s see how that works out.
I’m back from the NAB Show, worth the trip as always. As I adjusted to the stingy oxygen supply of Denver air, I wondered whether I heard Google’s President of Global Partnerships Daniel Alegre correctly yesterday morning. Turns out that I did.
The setting was so tame – a closing keynote on the subject “Transforming TV – VR, Cloud and the Multi-Screen Revolution.” Through the first quarter of Alegre’s remarks, he concentrated mostly on reassuring the half-filled room of broadcasters that TV is not dead or dying. Then Alegre slipped in the first of his surprises. “Today, I’m excited to announce that, coming soon, Google Search will have live TV listings,” he said. (For the rest of those surprises, mostly about TV ads, see Alegre’s blog post, or you can watch the whole keynote here.)
Wait a minute! Did Google bury its announcement of a new product in the middle of a speech on the last full day of the convention? Dieter Bohn of The Verge heard that too, writing “IMDB and whatever you’re using as a TV guide are getting some competition.”
This could be really big news in this niche. There are only a handful of companies behind the TV listings that get shuffled, reformatted and fed to various online, print, and device displays. Of course Google’s data and advertising background would make it a natural to swoop in and take over.
I’ve got a lot more to share with you the next few days as I decompress from the show, including some virtual reality and a live test of the next broadcast standard. Stay tuned.
Vizio announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s selling some great looking Ultra HD sets with Google Cast (previously ChromeCast) built in and a nifty Android-based remote, but without ATSC over-the-air TV tuners. As a result, Vizio can’t call them TVs, so they’re “home theater displays” instead.
(It reminds me that when I shop for a monitor for my desktop computer, I typically keep looking until I find one that includes a TV tuner. The price is about the same, and being able to watch TV comes in handy now and then. But I digress.)
If you love free OTA TV the way I do, this is a little scary. As Jared Newman pointed out at TechHive, these sets are being actively marketed as “tuner-free,” as if tuners were an inconvenient nuisance. When Newman asked Vizio about that, “Vizio cited its own surveys, which found that less than 10 percent of customers were watching over-the-air broadcasts.” The company also said something about simplified menus. Based on computer monitor/TV prices, I’d also bet the tuner might cost Vizio as much as $5.
Considering the growth in cord-cutting, Vizio’s move away from tuners might seem strange. Then again, folks who forgo pay TV because they’re barely staying above water aren’t likely to buy the latest Ultra HD set. As long as this trend doesn’t spread to less expensive sets, it’ll probably amount to nothing, but for now, I’m keeping an eye on it.
The opening week of the major league baseball season is here at last. Not so coincidentally, Adweek ran an interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressing the sport’s fading appeal to young viewers. “MLB has the oldest median TV audience at 56 years, compared to 49 for NFL viewers and 41 for NBA fans,” Adweek’s Tim Baysinger wrote.
Let’s blend in another report. Mike Farrell wrote in Multichannel News that “Canadian research company Convergence Consulting Group estimated that 1.13 million U.S. TV households cut the cord in 2015, about four times the pace of 2014.” That annual report also said that the pay TV universe is contracting, but the group of cord-cutters and cord-nevers (who have never paid for TV) will grow by over 2 million households in 2016.
Now MLB has one great advantage – its comprehensive streaming package, MLB.TV, available to almost anyone at a reasonable price. Its trouble, which I don’t see it addressing, is that it markets itself only to serious fans. That is, if you’re not already a baseball fan, you won’t get much opportunity to get hooked on the sport.
Update: Yet another way MLB is reaching out is with a free daily game streaming on Yahoo Sports. That’s a nice gesture to cord-cutters, but again it requires a preexisting desire to watch baseball games.
I thought of all this as I surveyed the upcoming sports broadcasts as shown by my Tablo. Looking out over the next couple of weeks of over-the-air TV, there will be NBA games, NHL games, golf, auto racing, four soccer leagues, and even a Legends Football League game. But no baseball whatsoever for its opening weeks. Is it any wonder that cord-nevers embrace other sports?
My solution to this problem is to go back to what made those 56-year-olds MLB fans in the first place. Require each team to simulcast six games a month over the air. That roughly matches what a lot of teams did 40 or 50 years ago, showing a few road trips a month on local independent stations.
All of those games are already being covered by local pay-TV networks, so the only new cost is the loss of exclusivity for those 36 out of 155 or so non-national games. But those free broadcasts become a great selling tool for the teams where they can promote upcoming home games, sell more MLB.TV subscriptions, and generally get viewers to fall in love with the local players. Kids in broadcast-only homes will find these games and might start watching baseball when the NBA season is over.
If you want folks to buy your product, you’ve got to give them a taste of it. If MLB wants to get serious about attracting new fans, it’s going to have to get back to its old model of giving a taste away for free.
In the aftermath of CES, I mentioned that I picked up three new indoor TV antennas. Now that I’ve put them to the test, I have some surprises to share with you.
First, a few notes about the testing. Since digital TV reception is pretty much a pass/fail proposition, I used the signal-to-noise ratio readings from my indispensable HDHomeRun networked tuner, expressed through the Hdhomerun (sic) Signal Meter app. Those SNR numbers tell me how well the antenna is working, and symbol quality readings tell me whether I’d be able to view the channel. Most of the over-the-air channels that broadcast to FreeTVBlog World Headquarters come from the west-northwest, although a few OTA channels of interest come from the north. Primary testing took place just inside a west-facing window.
As one baseline, a ran a quick set of readings from my rooftop Cable Cutter antenna. I installed it carefully to pick up the weak northern signals while keeping the primary WNW signals; those WNW SNR numbers are a little less than optimum as a result. Then I turned to the west window and my indoor champion: the HomeWorX HW110AN. Flat against the window, the HomeWorX posted SNR numbers as good as the rooftop for the WNW channels except for the three Denver channels that still use VHF.
Next up was the Cable Cutter Mini, also from HD Frequency. Because of its lineage, I expected great things from the Mini, but the results were underwhelming. Flat against the window, the Mini handled VHF 9 better than the HomeWorX but was weaker on 7 and 13. Then I had an inspiration. Turns out that the Mini’s SNR improved greatly when I held it perpendicular to the window. I went back to the HomeWorX and saw the same thing: positioned like an old-style pointy yagi antenna, these smaller antennas could pick up VHF signals okay even though they were designed more for UHF reception.
Another CES antenna that shouldn’t really count was included in the box for the Aura, an Android- and Kodi-based OTA receiver that I’m looking forward to reviewing soon. The little telescoping stick is a lot like the compact antenna I bring along with my laptop tuner on road trips. The Aura’s antenna picked up the strongest stations, and would make a decent starter for someone disconnecting cable, but it wasn’t in the same league as the others.
(Speaking of telescoping antennas, an even smaller one is attached to my TabletTV T-Pod unit. An apples-to-apples comparison isn’t possible, but it also failed to tune in Channel 9 from the window. TabletTV would be better with an external antenna jack, and it would also be better with movie listings with titles instead of “Movie,” but I digress.)
My final CES antenna was the Magic Stick TV, and my expectations were low. As you might guess from its company’s name, PVC Antenna Inc., this is an indoor-outdoor antenna sealed in about 10 inches of narrow PVC pipe. The Magic Stick TV’s slick packaging and its glib CES presenter had me thinking infomercial bait. When I held the antenna lengthwise against the window, its VHF numbers were similarly unimpressive, but pointing it like a boom microphone, I got even better VHF numbers than the other two indoor antennas had delivered at their perpendicular best. Shifting back to lengthwise, its UHF numbers matched the other two, and in one corner of my office I could just barely pick up those northern channels. If I had to pick among the three, the Magic Stick TV would be the winner.
Although the Magic Stick TV’s performance was unexpected, my biggest surprise was that the position of the antenna, both relative to windows and to its presenting angle, changes reception much more than the antenna itself. The top three that I tested posted identical numbers on most channels when positioned perfectly. Depending on which channels you care about and how much you’re willing to fiddle with the antenna, any of these three should work fine. Based on its low price, I’d still recommend the HomeWorX.
Although I saw a whole lot of surprising stuff at CES this year, there was a lot more I didn’t see. A big part of that was because, due to other commitments, I had only one day to pack in all my meetings and booth tours and such. Since FreeTVBlog World Headquarters in Denver is so close to Las Vegas, I flew in on the horribly early first flight of the day and flew back on the last. In between, I had 12 hours in the Sin City, netting about 9 hours at CES. I had tried this tactic once several years ago, so I already knew that it was both possible and not recommended. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s worth it, but you really need two or three days to properly experience CES.
So that’s one reason why I didn’t see the new over-the-air DVR announced by Magnavox, not a name synonymous with cutting-edge digital technology. Another was that the DVR didn’t show up in the Magnavox parent Funai Electric’s exhibitor notes, and Funai didn’t have a booth per se. Anyway, CNet posted a review with some photos, which was helpful because the Magnavox press release page has posted only one article since 2012. CNet says that the DVRs “are all due out in the fourth quarter of 2016.” That’s a very long time from now. Sometimes products are announced at CES as trial balloons; remind me in November whether the Magnavox OTA DVR is any closer to a Best Buy shelf.
Another reclusive announcement came from Vidgo, but at least it had a proper press release to go with it. Vidgo is an over-the-top streaming service, currently in beta, with “the most channels of live linear TV and video-on-demand”. When I think of the most channels of OTT linear TV, I think of FilmOn, but I digress. Vidgo will be available in three tiers, offering “live linear premium, sports, movies, music, local and international content.” It says it will launch in US 15 markets by July, with nationwide coverage by the end of the year. Will Vidgo be a significant player or just a larger version of KlowdTV? Maybe we’ll know by fall.
Yet another streamer with a lot of channels is FreeCast, the more sophisticated name for the former RabbitTV. FreeCast announced its Select TV box, some sort of hardware version of its online aggregation service. The reason I don’t know more about it is that the FreeCast folks cancelled my appointment with them the day before CES opened, so all I know is what its press release said. These folks are masterful marketers, and the first RabbitTV product was really just its aggregation software on an important-looking USB stick, so is the Select TV something cool or a weak version of ChromeCast? I’ll let you know if I ever find out.
I’m back from CES (don’t call it the Consumer Electronics Show) for another year. There are so many things to talk about that I figured I’d write a notes column, but then a thought occurred to me: What’s the difference between a notes column and attractive click bait? Laying out those notes as a numbered list. So let me take another step towards modernization with these surprises from CES.
1. CES was as busy as ever. That doesn’t sound as if it should be worthy of a surprise, but its parent Consumer Technology Association had said it was tightening attendee eligibility and cutting out free exhibits passes. Those struck me as Cartmanland-style deliberate scarcity, or maybe just a grab for all that attendee cash on the table. In any event, my pre-show hotel price tracking indicated that demand was at least as high as last year’s record attendance, and my experiences at the show matched that estimate. We’ll get the official numbers any day now.Update: CES reports that the attendee number was about the same as last year, and the number of exhibitors rose by about 5000. That accounts for the increased hotel demand.
2. My one weird trick for Las Vegas transportation still works. Although CES promoted both Uber and Lyft with coupon codes, the best solution to get from McCarran Airport to the Las Vegas Convention Center remains the humble RTC bus. For just $2, less than the airport surcharge for taxis or those rider services, the 108 bus delivered me to the LVCC door. More and more visitors have figured this out, but as usual, there was still plenty of room on the bus.
3. There’s a company called FiveByFive that’s trying to do what Apple TV couldn’t – license enough live TV content to support a streaming platform. Its xFaire device and Beyond DVR service are supposed to bring 4K video to home subscribers, and its mockup demo screens show ESPN, HBO, Cartoon Network, and some local channels, although it doesn’t directly support over-the-air TV. FiveByFive CEO George Tang told me how networks want to support his offering, and that the service would launch later this year. I’d love to see that happen, but I won’t hold my breath.
4. Speaking of Apple TV, Tablo showed off the beta version of its interface for Apple TV. I thought its responsiveness on my Roku 3 was adequate, but the Apple TV version is so much faster that it makes me want to switch streaming devices. The Tablo beta app even includes voice-controlled navigation. I’m eagerly awaiting this release.
5. A company called Aura Media has built a product that I had often stitched together in my head. Aura has taken the open-source Kodi Media Center (formerly XBMC) software, added a nicer interface, and plopped it onto a new Android-based receiver with a built-in over-the-air TV tuner. The Aura receiver has all the ingredients to be exactly what the free TV enthusiast wants. I’ll post a full review here once I get a chance to run my sample unit through its paces.
6. Just before the show, chip company ViXS issued a press release announcing that it had introduced the CordCutter TV Stick, “a precedent setting, low cost, low power, small form factor solution to stream free Over-the-Air (OTA) content easily, seamlessly, and reliably to your smart mobile device.” But when I talked with a ViXS VP, he told me they were probably going to be partnering with another company that could bring such a device to market faster under its own brand. Wherever it comes from, that could be interesting.
7. Multichannel News’ CES notes included something I missed: a mention of Tubi TV making a deal with Starz to carry some of its original content. Tubi is a fine, free, ad-supported streaming service like Crackle, and it’s great to see it grow. Tubi wasn’t listed as an official exhibitor, another suggestion of how many meetings and contacts take place in town but outside the show.
8. Although TiVo still sells the Roamio OTA receiver that I wrote about in my previous post, it’s hard to find on the TiVo site. That’s a sign. TiVo now promotes its Bolt ad-skipping receiver as a superset of the Roamio OTA’s features, complete with a new $599 All-In (don’t call it Lifetime) service plan. The Bolt does a ton of amazing things with a great interface, but that’s seriously expensive.
9. Sling TV, of which I am a tiny shareholder through Dish Network, announced an updated user interface to better blend available shows and movies with what’s live. It’ll integrate ESPN3, add strips of Recommended content, and allow the viewer to Continue Watching interrupted shows. (I’m already very happy to see the addition of Turner Classic Movies on demand as part of the Hollywood Extra add-on package.) I’m looking forward to seeing this show up on my devices in the next month or two.
10. And speaking of Sling TV, Channel Master was deservedly excited about Sling TV’s integration with its DVR+. Its version of Sling matches what I see on my Windows Sling app, and the Channel Master folks told me that the DVR+ will continue to pass through whatever improvements Sling will make to its user interface. This free over-the-air DVR and low-cost streaming Sling make a very attractive combination.
11. Folks kept giving me TV antennas to test. There was PVC Antenna, whose Magic Stick looks just like a short, narrow piece of PVC pipe with a cord coming out of it. (Its fast-talking president, Omar Naweed, took some time to suggest that this free TV stuff is pretty good before I could convince him that I already know a little about the concept.) The much mellower Josh McDonnell of HD Frequency gave me a Cable Cutter Mini as a competitor to my current pick for best inexpensive antenna. And even Aura Media co-founder Cody Tuma was proud of the little telescoping, magnetic-based antenna he includes with the Aura receiver. I plan to test all of these and post the competition results here soon.
12. A recurring theme I heard from exhibitors is that cord-cutting is real and accelerating. Several reported increased interest in free over-the-air TV over the past year or less. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to change this blog’s name away from FTABlog. What do you think?
FreeTVBlog World Headquarters is packed with way too many over-the-air TV devices. Heading into CES, I wanted to provide a quick roundup of the best choices so far for watching OTA TV, recording it with a DVR, and hopefully streaming it to remote devices.
I’ll start off with the one major OTA receiver that I haven’t tried – TiVo’s Roamio OTA. Over a decade ago, I used a TiVo to watch OTA and pay TV, and I’ve never held a better remote nor seen a better on-screen interface. The only problem with TiVo right now is its subscription fee of $150/year or (gulp!) $400 for a lifetime. That just feels much too high for a DVR for just free TV, but as you’ll see, it’s really a matter of degree.
Next up is Tablo, which is the OTA DVR that my family uses. The Tablo has a nice Roku interface, it does a good job when I skip forward while playing back recordings, and its customer service is the best of any company I deal with in any industry. On the other hand, when I connect from my phone for the first time in a week, I have to wait for 10 minutes of “Syncing” before I can do anything. Tablo’s subscription fee is $50/year or $150 for life, which is much more reasonable but not quite free.
Simple.TV was one of the first OTA DVRs, and I scored a great deal on a single-tuner unit with a lifetime subscription; otherwise it’s $60/year. That awkward-looking unit actually performs very reliably, though it’s slow to skip around within a recording. Since then, Simple.TV seems to be shifting its attention to the UK, where it was to introduce a cloud-based OTA DVR called ShowDrive.
On the other hand, TabletTV continues to make an aggressive push to capture attention for its inexpensive, subscription-free product, as seen in this recent hands-on review. The latest “Plus” version of the app integrates some streaming services, but the app is still limited to iOS tablets, which can already access those same services. When the TabletTV device can stream to my big-screen TV, to my Android phone, or anywhere outside my home network, I’ll be more interested.
My old favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVR had been Windows Media Center, which was included in Windows 7 and available for Windows 8. Now Windows 10 has shut the door on WMC, and last July Microsoft switched listing providers, making it a little tricky for users to keep WMC running.
My new favorite benchmark for subscription-free OTA DVRing is the DVR+ from ChannelMaster, which just announced that it supports Dish’s Sling TV among its streaming channels. (Separately, Sling TV announced that it’s holding the line at $20/month for its basic package, including ESPN.) Another great thing about the DVR+ is that it works very well with the Slingbox video streamer, through which I can access my DVR+ from just about anywhere. The DVR+ guide and customer service are miles ahead of Windows Media Center and just one notch below Tablo’s.
I know that HDHomeRun has been working on its own DVR (a good thing, since I kicked in to help crowdfund it), and other companies may have OTA sticks to show off at CES. I hope to learn more in a few days, and then I’ll let you know.