map of Major League Baseball territories

Major League Baseball territories, from Wikipedia

Baseball’s Opening Day always makes me feel like a 10-year-old. I grew up watching the local team on local TV. In those days before cable, I was lucky to see 60 games a year that way, usually on the independent station, plus the NBC Game of the Week on Saturdays. I got to know who the players were, and both the sport and the team grew on me. That team’s unwitting investment then paid off with years of game tickets, video subscriptions, and pilgrimages to baseball parks.

One of the lures of FTA satellite TV when I started with it was major league baseball. A lot of teams had regional over-the-air packages of games for stations within their territories. Thanks to MLB’s inscrutable territory rules, some cities were claimed by several overlapping teams. And some of the stations in those cities took advantage of that.

Buffalo NY is claimed by four teams – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and both New Yorks. One station there carried Mets, Yankees, and Indians games whenever they were available. (I guess they couldn’t get the Pirates.) Arkansas is claimed by Texas, Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and stations there carried some of those games as well. I looked at these as the second incarnation of superstations – those satellite-delivered TV stations that delivered lots of programming, including baseball, starting in the late 1970s. WGN and TBS survived and morphed into true pay-TV networks, and only two of the remaining five legally defined superstations still carry baseball games. That sure was fun while it lasted!

(Of course, now if you want to see out-of-market baseball games, all you need is high-speed internet, MLB.TV, and enough cash to subscribe. If you’re a baseball fanatic, it’s a great deal. But I digress.)

What about today’s viewers? The National Association of Broadcasters said last June that a growing number of Americans, 54 million back then, rely on over-the-air TV. Almost 18% of households use OTA signals to watch, up from 15% in 2011. That’s not the 99% of my youth, but it’s still a lot of people.

How is baseball reacting? By sharply curtailing OTA broadcasts. In an effort to squeeze every dime out of every game, most teams have sold all their games to regional sports networks. For 2013, only 10 of the 30 MLB teams plan to broadcast as many as five of their games via OTA. Aside from the two Chicago teams, which still use WGN, only Philadelphia and the Dodgers plan over 25 OTA games this year. (There’s also a weekly regional game on Fox (PDF schedule), but that won’t be much help to get folks to identify with their hometown team.)

Baseball probably won’t see any negative results from cutting off OTA until today’s 10-year-olds grow up and get some money in their pockets. The ones who never got to watch games on TV probably won’t be fans, and they won’t buy tickets. If the backlash against pay TV grows, baseball will miss even more young never-will-be fans. One day, they’ll realize what happened, but by then, it’ll be too late.

Dish CEO Joe Clayton announces Happy Hopper Day on February 12.

Dish CEO Joe Clayton announces Happy Hopper Day on February 12. (from the @DISHNews Twitter feed)

I’m getting tired of this.

Fox Broadcasting has asked for a preliminary injunction against Dish Network to block the new features of its Hopper with Sling receiver. “Paying Dish for a satellite television subscription does not buy anyone the right to receive Fox’s live broadcast signal over the Internet or to make copies of Fox programs to watch ‘on the go,’ because Dish does not have the right to offer these services to its subscribers in the first place,” Fox said. A hearing is set for March 22. (You can read more about it from Bloomberg or Multichannel News.)

Where to begin? None of these features are new, they’re just more convenient. I’ve been watching Fox over-the-air broadcasts (among others) remotely through my older Dish receiver for a couple of years now. I’ve been recording Fox shows on various DVRs for over a decade. (There are times I still miss my TiVo.) While watching those shows on my DVR, I’ve skipped past commercials. And for a few special occasions, I’ve recorded those shows to my computer and transferred them to a mobile device. All of these actions are legal, fair use for my private viewing.

And how did Fox get those programs to me? By broadcasting over the public airwaves that it is licensed to use, for which it paid next to nothing. In exchange for serving us, the viewers, who own those airwaves. If some new technology allows more in-market viewers the opportunity to watch more of an OTA station’s programming, I would expect that the broadcaster would be all for it. Instead, we have a system where anyone who doesn’t watch with an OTA antenna is expected to pay for the privilege, money that goes to enrich the broadcaster’s shareholders.

The good news, if there is any here, is that Dish Network may be the least court-averse company in the USA, and it has extremely deep pockets. I expect that Dish will fight this as far as it can go, and if we’re all very lucky, Dish might be able to establish a legal precedent to show that watching TV from your own OTA antenna is always okay, even when it’s on a smartphone in another city. Then broadcasters might be forced to remember that they need to serve viewers as well as shareholders.


Verizon booth at CESIn his Broadcast Engineering Blog, Phil Kurz writes about a part of CES that I missed, but which might be important. The event was one of the keynotes, which I avoid at CES because they rarely include anything new and substantial. Kurz caught something in Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam’s afternoon keynote on CES’s opening day. (You can watch that keynote here.)

In his keynote, McAdam unveiled LTE Broadcast, a new way to use wireless phone spectrum to deliver video to viewers. As McAdam explained, “We are also developing a service to broadcast live video over LTE. Now to do that today, we have to dedicate a separate channel to each individual user, which uses up capacity pretty fast as you can imagine. With LTE Broadcast, we’ll be able to stream to everybody over the same channel at the same time.”

Kurz offers the proper perspective to this announcement: “What a revolutionary concept! Transmit, excuse me, that’s stream, ‘to everybody over the same channel at the same time.’ Where have I heard of that before? Oh, that’s right. There’s already nearly 1800 full-power commercial and public television stations that are streaming, excuse me, that’s transmitting, digital video and audio content on their own ‘same channel at the same time’ to everybody.”

There’s a lot more to Kurz’s blog post about the silliness of taking broadcast TV spectrum away and handing it to broadcast video. You really should go read it!

Mobile TV logoThe Mobile TV TechZone was a part of CES this year. Its name sounds a lot more important than it looked, occupying a small island of modest booths near the back of the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. I went there to chuckle at the exhibitors’ plans, but I came away with a deeper respect for mobile TV, even if that’s not saying much.

Let’s start by cataloging the organizations involved in promoting mobile TV:

  • Dyle. That’s the trademark of Mobile Content Venture, which is pushing a subset of channels with “no subscription fee through the end of 2013.”
  • The Open Mobile Video Coalition. That’s “an alliance of broadcasters dedicated to accelerating the development and rollout of mobile television”. The National Association of Broadcasters recently assumed control over the OMVC.
  • The Mobile500 Alliance. That’s a group of TV station owners, “all with the common goal of bringing broadcast television to consumers on their mobile devices.”

I didn’t get too close to the Dyle booth. The folks there were busy demonstrating their latest iPad dongle to some other attendees. It looked like the same old Dyle stuff, and frankly, I don’t care for Dyle. I’m a big fan of the implicit contract between over-the-air broadcasters and their viewers. We own the airwaves, but we allow the OTA broadcasters to use them to entertain and inform us. Subscriptions shouldn’t be part of that relationship.

On the other side of the island was the Mobile500 Alliance, and there I got into a long conversation with John Lawson. At the time, I figured that he was just another suit working the booth, but after our talk, when he gave me his card, I saw that he’s the executive director. Maybe that’s why he was so persuasive.

Lawson agreed with me on a lot of things. He thought that broadcasters didn’t do enough to promote their exisiting digital subchannels. He recognized that in most of the circumstances that mobile TV is available, regular digital TV is also available. And he agreed with the free model for broadcast TV, mostly.

The Mobile500 Alliance system will require a one-time user registration for the tuner to work. Lawson said that will be used for accurate audience measurement, and possibly to choose the best advertisement from a small set of ads pushed to the mobile device. He also allowed that some channels could be subscription-based, but only if they were “premium, cable TV channels,” and that the majority of mobile channels would stay free.

I’m a little uncomfortable with having a lot of the airwaves used for something I’d have to pay to watch, and I don’t like the fact that mobile broadcasting takes away bandwidth that could otherwise be used for regular digital subchannels, but Lawson thought that mobile TV and subchannels could exist together in each market.

“I believe that mobile can save broadcast TV,” Lawson told me. Now there’s a goal we can both agree on. I’m not 100 percent behind the Mobile500 Alliance, but now at least I have a bit of cautious optimism about its work. We’ll see.

Update, sort of: Hiawatha Bray of the Boston Globe experimented a bit with some mobile TV devices from CES. He had four channels available in Boston versus one here in Denver, but I don’t think he thought it was worth it. YouTube-quality video, loss of signal in tunnels, and some occasional above-ground signal dropouts were among his findings. My optimism is getting more cautious all the time. Here, go watch Bray’s video report.

During Dish Network’s press conference at the International CES Monday, I saw a more likely future for TV on the go than the one promoted by Dyle and the Open Mobile Video Coalition. Those are the groups that think viewers will want to watch live TV when they are moving but not driving, not in an airplane, and not in a subway. As I’ve written before, that type of mobile video is a weak solution for a limited audience. On the other hand, Dish showed its answer for everybody on the go.

As part of its new Hopper with Sling receiver technology, Dish announced Hopper Transfers, a system where the receiver prepares and copies a DVR recording to a viewer’s iPad. Then that viewer can watch the show anywhere using that iPad, even on an airplane or in a subway.

Dish already provides TV Anywhere, so viewers with Sling-enabled receivers can watch live programming from smartphones and tablets through the internet, but there are some places the internet won’t reach. The answer there isn’t live TV in a few settings, it’s viewer-selected TV that’s available anywhere he has his iPad.

Todd Spangler wrote more about the press conference in his article at Multichannel News, so you should go read that for the most information about what happened. About the only thing he didn’t mention was that Dish said it will offer an over-the-air dongle for its Hopper with Sling receiver. Sorry I don’t have a picture of that dongle, but it looked like a USB stick, pretty close to the one I’m using to pick up a couple dozen OTA channels on my laptop here in Vegas. (2nd Update: The Dish booth confirmed the dongle is this one, released in late 2012.) My ViP 922 receiver back home uses an optional, modular piece that slides all the way in to a panel in the back of the unit. I wonder why Dish couldn’t make room for an internal OTA antenna in the receiver it hopes to use to differentiate its service from cable and DirecTV, and to keep viewers from cutting the cord. Even if it’s just the cord to the satellite dish.