Update: As of now, the page that this post describes is gone. Tip of the hat to a commenter for letting us know. If you’re still curious, here’s how that post read:

Preface 1: I’ve been holding out against writing more about FilmOn because I don’t want this to become the FilmOn blog. (Although somebody probably ought to start one, given how often FilmOn changes its channels and gets in the news and stuff.)

Preface 2: Once upon a time, I published a note about how to find some channels that were temporarily in the clear via free-to-air satellite. As always happens, those channels later ceased to be available. Some readers thought there was a cause and effect relationship between those events. I know that isn’t what happened, but it’s no fun when lots of folks despise you for a while.

Preface 3: Is it still legal to view (as opposed to send) streaming out-of-market over-the-air TV broadcasts? I think it is, but I am not a lawyer. If it turns out that I’m wrong, please consider this whole post as “never mind”. As always, consult your attorney to ensure that you are viewing content legally and lawfully.

Preface 4: I’m going to talk about a publicly visible web page URL with no sign of restrictions or other warnings. However, given the recent stories about internet visitors being threatened with decades of prison time for violating a site’s terms of use, I don’t want to take the risk that there might be some commandment that everyone must enter only through the front page or something like that.

So now that I’ve established that I can’t tell you anything, let me tell you what I found. The story starts with PlayOn, a product which “is both browser and media server for your Windows PC which lets you magically stream your favorite shows, movies, even your personal media files from your PC to your TV, smartphone or tablet.” (Always glad to see someone else who agrees with me that any technology you don’t understand is best explained as magic.) Anyway, I’ve been considering purchasing PlayOn to try out on my TV’s dedicated computer. I looked around for more information and found a forum for PlayOn users. I’ll leave the address of that site as an exercise for you, since I’m not sure about the legality of all the streams it discusses.

Anyway, one of the forum’s features is that users can post scripts that PlayOn uses to make virtual channel numbers or buttons or something like that. And some of those scripts pointed back to FilmOn, which has dozens of perfectly legal streams. And when I examined one of those scripts, it mentioned a particular page which had apparently every local channel it carries anywhere on its system. I’m not going to tell you that URL, but all of its pieces are in the previous sentence, or you can retrace my steps and find it.

On this page, FilmOn provides the streaming video for over 45 over-the-air broadcast channels from New York, Washington, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and Los Angeles. Most of them are the big four network affiliates, except in LA, where FilmOn lost a court fight. There’s also WPIX, WGN, KTLA, a couple of Bounce channels, a couple of Cozi TVs, and some PBSs. But no WWOR, no This, no MeTV or any of the other retro channels. On that same page, you’ll also find over 20 UK over-the-air channels, seven French channels, five Russian channels, over a dozen Arabic channels, and much more. I’ve been checking on it for a few weeks, so even though it might be gone tomorrow, I thought it was time to let you know about it.

It’s not perfect. These channels are only available in their “SD” feeds, which look blocky on a widescreen TV but okay in a computer window. There are streaming preroll ads when you first arrive and every time you change channels. But what do you want for nothing? I see them all without logging in, making me believe that they’re all available without a subscription.

That’s what’s available as I type, but change is inevitable! (Edit: See, I told you.) That page could last for months, or it might be gone by the time you read this. (Let me know in a comment and I’ll update this post.) Channels come and go all the time on FilmOn. Other FilmOn URLs that were visible in the past now just redirect to other, living pages. But until they leave, embrace the FTA viewers’ motto: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

EscortDyleIt was very nice for the folks at Escort to send me their Dyle-based MobileTV dongle for iOS devices. They sent it as a result of my visiting their booth at Showstoppers, of which I’ve written too little, during this year’s NAB Show, of which I’ve probably written too much.

For a quick overview of what Dyle dongles are like, you should read the recent Wall Street Journal article about Belkin’s version. This Escort version is a little smaller, but it also does its job.

The first dongle that Escort sent me was DOA, but they graciously and promptly replaced it with one that works great. The manual claims that it requires iPhone 4 or later, but I tried it on my old iPhone 3GS and it works fine there. Ditto for my iPad. Once I downloaded the iDTV USA app from the Apple App Store, it recognized the dongle right away.

Before I could scan channels and watch TV on my iPhone, I had to validate myself. Unless I entered my birth year, gender, and Zip code, I wasn’t going to watch anything. (There was also a box for entering my paid TV subscription service, but that was optional. For now.) Then I extended its 6-inch antenna and scanned. Here at FTABlog world headquarters in Denver, the number of channels it can receive is one, the NBC affiliate.

So what else can I tell you? It works fine in a moving car, which isn’t surprising since that’s pretty much what mobile TV was designed to do from Day One. The first demos I saw years ago in Las Vegas were pointing out how well the technology handled moving cars and passing by tall, reflective buildings. Other notes:

  • The mobile screen ran about six seconds behind its full-sized ATSC version when I watched them together. Maybe some of that was the local pause buffer? That was a little longer than I expected, but no big deal.
  • Speaking of that buffer, it’s supposed to last for up to 10 minutes, long enough to pause and ignore commercials. The visible fast-forward makes it easy to queue up post-ad programming.
  • The dongle must be charged separately through a standard micro USB cable. It plugs in to the base of the iOS device, so that device must also be running on battery power during viewing. No 12-hour marathons here.

I still think that mobile TV is a solution in search of a problem, but it really does work. Will there ever be enough dongles sold to encourage enough stations to add enough mobile channels to actually sell enough dongles? My guess remains that there won’t.

Cut cord

© / Jiri Hera

I often write about one form of  inherent tension in over-the-air TV broadcasters’ messages. On one hand, they accurately portray themselves as community servants and disaster lifelines. On the other hand, if they don’t get their ever-higher retransmission fees from their cable viewers (via the cable company), then they’re very willing to turn off their signals and walk away.

Over at TVNewsCheck, Harry A. Jessell pointed out another, related question that OTA broadcasters have to address: How much cord-cutting is a good thing? On one hand, a certain percentage of OTA-only households make stations look more attractive to ad buyers trying to reach the widest audience. On the other hand, every cord that gets cut is one fewer subscriber paying retrans fees. What would be the most profitable percentage of OTA viewers? As Jessell puts it, broadcasters “need to find the sweet spot.”

Another complicating issue is that if retrans fees get too high and OTA antennas get too simple, maybe cable systems will add them to set-top receivers and not pay anything. Jessell goes into a lot more detail about these and other topics, so just go read it!

Media Signpost Shows Internet Television Newspapers Magazines And Radio

© / Stuart Miles

Yesterday, I highlighted a long story by Ned Soseman of Broadcast Engineering in which he discussed the reasons why broadcast TV was bound to change. But into what? Soseman didn’t really say. So let me fill in the rest of that story – some wild speculation about what broadcast TV might look like 20 years from now.

What will happen to broadcast TV when a new generation of viewers becomes too used to always getting content on demand? For an answer, let’s look at the last time a major media source was forced to overhaul itself. Let’s look back at the late 1950s, when TV ended episodic programming on radio.

I wasn’t there, but every indication is that radio was really hot stuff when it was first commercially available. Newspapers, which were also still around, ran radio program listings the way the internet lists TV network listings now. Dramas, comedies, musical variety shows, even kids’ programming followed half- and quarter-hour schedules that look like most network TV schedules today.

Then came TV, and families discovered that it was more fun to watch Jack Benny and company than it was to listen to them. Episodic, block-formatted radio withered. Todd Storz, Gordon McLendon and others invented the Top 40 radio format, sometimes called contemporary hit radio. Listeners could tune in at any time and stay as long or as briefly as they wanted without feeling as though they missed something. Other stations picked up other genres, and by the end of the 1960s, radio had turned itself into the music and talk service it is today.

Maybe that’s the eventual destination for broadcast TV – as an as-needed, available-anytime service. A few digital sub-channels already indicate some possibilities such as music videos, weather forecasts, and 24-hour news. Viewers can check in for a few minutes without worrying about the program schedule. As a side-benefit, these formats are DVR resistant; few would want to watch a recorded block of something when the same stuff is on now, only fresher. The public stations might continue to serve up educational fare much as National Public Radio stations broadcast today. And there would be other formats that aren’t used yet, like a 24-hour sports talk channel with highlights and the occasional live event.

There you have it, my conclusion to Soseman’s fine article. Will broadcast TV really turn into something like 1970s radio? We’ll know more in about 20 years.

RandomSouthHall“Broadcasters haven’t reached a fork in the road; they’ve reached a tangled multi-spoke hub. In one direction is the well-traveled old-school way, over-the-air broadcasting. … But that idea seems to be withering under the intense heat of the Internet.”

That’s just one small part of a long report by Ned Soseman, writing in Broadcast Engineering. Soseman uses the occasion of the NAB Show to summarize the current state of the broadcast industry. “The one point nearly everyone seems to agree on is that NAB isn’t just for broadcasters,” he wrote. Video technology advances apply to everyone because anyone can be a broadcaster, if you count the internet.

From the customers’ perspective, there’s the stuff that’s available for free over the air, and there are the channels we actually watch, and there’s the huge cable/satellite bill that supports them. There’s Senator John McCain’s a la carte bill (going nowhere, by the way) and a cable spokesman’s claim that a la carte wouldn’t lower cable bills. Soseman summarizes the way it all looks today and then sums it up by saying, well, broadcasters need to try something different. It all reads like something I would have written, except that I would have tried for some crazy guess about the future. Anyway, I’m happy that Soseman did the work, and that it gives me an excuse to run one more NAB Show photo. Now go read it!