ShowDrive logoVariety reported yesterday that our old friends at Simple.TV are launching a cloud DVR service called ShowDrive. That’s the payoff to the company’s new direction that I wrote about in April.

According to Variety, ShowDrive will debut in the UK, where an unnamed third party will sell special devices to record Freeview over-the-air TV and store those recordings in the cloud, “where they are instantly transcoded and made available for streaming.” The devices will also allow users to use some online video apps.

That article also said that Simple.TV will announce who it will partner with in the US in January at CES. (Which was the International CES last year, but now is simply CES. But I digress.) For more details, you really ought to go read Variety.

Close-up of antenna splitter box with many cables connected to it.

My antenna signal splitter

The UPS driver delivered my new DVR+ from Channel Master yesterday, and I got to work setting it up. I needed a new HDMI cable and another quad-shield coax cable, so I bought those from the hardware store down the street. I connected the HDMI cable from the DVR+ to my Slingbox, then connected the Monster coax cable to my powered antenna splitter (shown at right) and the DVR+. Next came the internet and power connections, and soon I was running through setup.

I was a bit surprised and unhappy with the DVR+ after it scanned my channels; there weren’t as many of them as I could see on my other devices. For example, KCDO, my local Channel 3, was invisible to the DVR+ even though it was loud and clear everywhere else. In particular, it was easy to switch my desktop TV from HDMI to TV and watch KCDO.

Channel Master has a support page devoted to that very symptom: Why Does My TV’s Tuner Receive More Channels Than My DVR+? To summarize, the page says that just happens sometimes, and the best solution is to improve the signal by moving the antenna to a better location or getting a better antenna. What that page doesn’t mention is what was the real cause and solution in this case. If you read the title of this post, I’ll bet you’ve figured it out.

I’ve run into enough weak cables in my years of satellite TV that I knew to try a simple test. I disconnected the cable that ran directly to my desktop TV and swapped it with the new cable connected to the DVR+. Sure enough, the DVR+ could now see all of my local channels, but when I tuned my TV to Channel 3, it showed a silent, black screen. Then as I began to unscrew the new cable from the splitter, the TV came to life. It could see Channel 3 now, although other channels were still missing.

I’ll need to find a better cable for the TV, but the good news is the DVR+ is working fine. The Slingbox runs it very easily, and I’ll write more about that combination after I’ve had time to try it out. I just wanted to stop so I could remind you that sometimes, reception problems are simply the cable‘s fault.

Update: I bought some new cables, tightened them the same way with the same bad result. Then I tried the suspect Monster cable on the last empty connector on my splitter and it worked fine. Sometimes it really is the cable’s fault, but this time, the problem was that particular splitter node. The deeper lesson here: Test everything.


Last night, in the wee hours of the morning, my bedside phone blorped a warning before going dark. When I looked around, everything was dark. Really dark. No reassuring electronic charging LEDs. No streetlights. Just the full darkness of a cloudy night in a neighborhood without electricity.

What was wrong? Had civilization collapsed? How widespread was the outage? All I knew was that a half-dozen UPSs throughout FTABlog World Headquarters were beep-beeping that I should gracefully shut down their attached computers. I grabbed a flashlight, brought the systems down gently, then silenced the alarms.

That took a few minutes, and then I returned to my original deep question: How bad was it? Fortunately, I had purchased a Portable LCD TV a couple of years ago and left it plugged in to keep it charged for just such an occasion. After sleepily forgetting for a moment that my rooftop TV antenna now relied on a powered splitter/amplifier, I attached the Homeworx Indoor HDTV Antenna that I had reviewed just a few months ago. With those in place, I tuned in the local CBS affiliate, which was rerunning the CBS Sunday Morning interview with Steven Colbert rather than the type of disaster coverage that makes me think of the SportsCenter ad embedded above. Now I knew it was safe to go back to bed. Forty-five minutes later, the phone awakened me with a fresh blorp to tell me that power had been restored. Thanks, phone.

This morning, with the internet restored, I surfed around to discover that somebody had driven into a utility pole, which I guess is what some folks do at 3:30 AM. The moral of the story is that a battery-powered TV and a decent little antenna can be really handy any time the power goes out.

And there’s one more side note. As I restored power to my OTA DVR test bed, my Simple.TV unit flashed a rapid blue light. I unplugged it for a minute, same problem. I hit the reset switch, same problem. On Google, the first hit for this problem was Simple.TV’s support page, What do the LEDs on the Simple.TV box mean? That page, last updated in October 2012, mentions a few possibilities but not rapid blue, noting “There are a few others, but these are the main ones you’re likely to see.” Which sounds to me like “We know of more, but we don’t want to worry you with them.”

Fortunately, the second hit on Google was to a thread on Simple.TV’s user forum where one member posted that the rapid blue light could be caused by a power supply failure. In another rare burst of forethought, I had purchased a Universal Power Adapter and put it on a shelf for just such an occasion. I set it to match the Simple.TV power supply, plugged it in, and voila, it worked like a champ!

Although I prefer my Tablo‘s superior ability to fast forward within recordings, I like my Simple.TV in some settings. (And I have to fix my routers after such outages to let the Tablo see the outside world again, while the Simple.TV handles it automatically.) But it’ll be difficult to recommend Simple.TV until it shows it can curate its support topics.

Pluto TV

Pluto TV

Summer break is over, so let me catch up with what’s available in free TV viewing. For sheer quantity, there’s more than anyone could ever want.

First and foremost, over-the-air TV remains strong. With digital sub-channels, the typical viewer has dozens of choices. Here at FTABlog World Headquarters in Denver, I receive 68 channels. Your mileage will vary, of course; according to TitanTV, there are over 90 channels available in New York City and over 140 in Los Angeles but only 32 in Springfield MO. There’s a storm cloud on the horizon with the FCC’s upcoming TV spectrum auction, which could cause some of those stations disappear to make room for more mobile internet access. We’ll have to wait and see how that shakes out.

Next is FTABlog’s raison d’etre: free-to-air satellite TV. There are almost 300 free TV channels available with a pretty small Ku-band dish. Over 90 of those are in English, and that doesn’t include the many news feeds, sports feeds, and other such transient satellite signals. If you have a big C-band dish, there are another couple hundred interesting free channels to watch.

With broadband internet access, there are plenty of interesting options, although they haven’t changed much lately. With Aereo and Nimble TV gone, there aren’t any good ways to watch streaming US OTA channels, unless it comes from your own antenna, but there’s still a lot to watch. FilmOn continues to provide a wide range of channels, and internet video aggregator Rabbit TV (not quite free) got a mention at USA Today this week. Pluto TV includes dozens of channels including live news feeds. For ad-supported free TV that isn’t live, there’s Crackle and some parts of Hulu, and for more old TV and movies than you’ll ever have time to watch, there’s the Internet Archive.

There’s a chance we could see an avalanche of streaming channels, OTA and otherwise, if the FCC gives online services full rights and responsibilities as multichannel video programming distributors like cable and satellite providers. Imagine if broadcasters had to negotiate in good faith with the likes of FilmOn. This could open up a whole new category of video service.

Hey, I even had to update the About page here to reflect a change in free (as in free speech) TV. For years, it was nigh impossible to watch reruns of Spenser: For Hire. Period. No reruns on any network, no streaming services, no DVDs. Now that last option, at least, is available as print-on-demand sets on Amazon. Robert Urich, rest his soul, is no Spenser, but Avery Brooks was born to play Hawk. Now I’ll have to start wishing for something else, maybe the complete Fernwood 2 Night?

All in all, it’s a great time to be watching free TV. Discover something you like, kick back, and enjoy.

Mean, angry TV set with teeth

© Depositphotos / herminutomo

Last week, we got to see the full lifespan of a retransmission consent dispute condensed to just a day or two. When Sinclair Broadcasting tried to tie an unrelated pay-only network to permission to rebroadcast 129 over-the-air channels, Dish Network and the FCC blocked them, and Sinclair’s blackout ended in less than 24 hours.

At least that’s what happened if you believe Dish, and since I’m still a Dish shareholder, that would be my inclination. Sinclair has a completely different view, and I’ll get around to that.

First, the details. A couple of weeks ago, Dish filed a complaint to the FCC saying Sinclair was refusing to negotiate. The day after that formal complaint, Dish said Sinclair had resumed talks. Then last Tuesday, Sinclair pulled its 129 TV stations off Dish solely “to gain negotiating leverage for carriage of an unrelated cable channel that it hopes to acquire,” according a Dish press release. Dish also restarted the FCC complaint.

The next morning, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sprang to action, calling for an emergency meeting with Dish and Sinclair. “Just last year, Congress instructed the Commission to look closely at whether retransmission consent negotiations are being conducted in good faith,” he wrote. “That’s why I have proposed to my fellow Commissioners a new rulemaking to determine how best to protect the public interest.” By the end of the day, Sinclair had agreed in principle to a long-term deal with Dish and lifted the blackout.

BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote in a blog post that Sinclair’s short-lived blackout may be the last straw for unfettered retransmission demands. “The government is looking for reasons to get more involved to help consumers,” he wrote. “Sinclair may have finally given them a blatant enough excuse.”

On the other hand, Sinclair later claimed that the FCC’s actions had literally nothing to do with the speedy end to the blackout. Seriously. “In fact, the FCC process actually delayed the resolution, because it added more issues to negotiate, which lengthened DISH’s service interruption, not shortened it,” Sinclair wrote. So without that meddling FCC, the blackout would have been over in maybe eight hours? I guess we’ll never know.

If this incident signals a new willingness for the FCC to protect the public interest in retransmission fee negotiations, Greenfield might be spot on. If stations have to negotiate on price alone without leveraging unrelated networks, and if the FCC will nudge them to bargain in good faith, maybe we could start seeing contracts reached through arbitration instead of blackouts. If viewers are okay with monthly subscriptions to watch their local free-TV stations, they deserve to get what they pay for.