This week, a unique delivery platform pulled out of the US market. Sezmi launched in Spring 2010 in Los Angeles, and it provided pretty standard TV fare in an unusual way. Sezmi subscribers used a special DVR to record normal over-the-air programming, pay-per-view movies (if they were hooked to the internet), and some cable networks. The difference was that Sezmi delivered those cable networks through an encrypted OTA signal that the special DVR unscrambled.
Taking a piece of OTA TV spectrum and using it for a pay-TV service is like putting a fence around some park land and charging visitors to get in. The presumption is that it’s a really bad thing for consumers. Sezmi wasn’t providing content that Los Angeles viewers couldn’t get from their cable or satellite TV providers; Sezmi was just doing it cheaper. And it’s easy to do cheaper when you piggyback on a public resource. That’s why I never liked Sezmi.
To be fair, Sezmi dropped the cable channel package less than a year later. It shifted its business model to be more of a standard OTA DVR plus internet-delivered movies. Which is what a Windows computer with Media Center will do for you for free, or what TiVo will do for you (beautifully) for a higher price. Whatever niche was left wasn’t enough, so Sezmi pulled the plug, shifting its focus to reselling its technologies to other providers.
Sure, Sezmi had stopped using OTA spectrum for pay-TV channels, but if I had given it any thought, I would have worried that Sezmi might start using it again if its national rollout of OTA DVRs had ever reached critical mass. So please forgive me for the shadenfreude, but I’m glad to see Sezmi leave town.
In my continuing quest to gather first-hand information to answer the continuing question, I journeyed to southwest Colorado to see Mesa Verde National Park and its surrounding areas. The same digital tuner that picked up 62 channels outside Houston indicated that, in a second-floor room in Cortez CO, you can get exactly 0 over-the-air TV channels.
When I returned, I checked AntennaWeb, and it agreed completely. There’s a tiny set of repeater stations dozens of miles away, and that’s it.
On the way, I spent a night at the Movie Manor outside Monte Vista CO. Not only is it the only drive-in theater that I know of that still has a playground in front of the screen, all the motel rooms face the main screen and include a speaker for the movie. Highly recommended. But don’t bother with your OTA antenna, either; the same tuner also showed 0 channels here, too. Ditto about the distant repeaters.
So there you have it. In the middle of nowhere, where the land is gorgeous and desolate and sometimes as bleak as a forest of burned trees, maybe you can’t get any over-the-air TV channels very easily. Sounds like a great place for a satellite dish.
Erwin G. Krasnow
There was a scary report issued this week by Erwin Krasnow, who is a former NAB General Counsel (according to Broadcasting & Cable’s John Eggerton) and/or former FCC General Counsel (according to AllAccess.com). In an opinion piece (PDF) released by the DC-based The Media Institute, Krasnow calls on the FCC to “(r)enounce the discredited concept of public ownership of the airwaves”.
(Important Aside: By an odd coincidence, I’ve been reading one of Krasnow’s books off and on for a few months. Profitably Buying and Selling Broadcast Stations seems to be an excellent guide for dealing with contracts and other necessary details as you’re working out a deal on a station. It’s also as dry as burnt toast. I’d love to have Krasnow in my corner should I ever negotiate a purchase. And I believe that my use of his promotional photo from his page on his firm’s site constitutes Fair Use. Please don’t hurt me, oh mighty lawyers!)
In particular, the paper seems to want to disprove FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who said that “using the public airwaves is a privilege — a lucrative one and I fear that the FCC has not done enough to stand up for the public interest.” Quoting Ayn Rand and Dean Rusk, Krasnow builds an excellent prima facie case that claiming public ownership, and thereby inviting public regulation, is as absurd as requiring a license to use sunlight to grow crops.
But the paper gives little attention to the real problem: You can’t just stick an antenna on your roof and start broadcasting. It’s true that new technologies (such as blogs) give us alternatives, but that’s not the point. No other communication medium is as ubiquitous as over-the-air TV and radio. The number of simultaneous channels in any given location really is finite. Each broadcast station effectively prevents any number of possible competing stations from being heard by the thousands or millions of receivers within range. That’s why the public deserves a seat at the table as we discuss what responsibilities are included in each broadcast license.
Here at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, the hottest topic is the FCC’s desire to take away some TV channel space and convert it to wireless internet spectrum. That would be good for a future of ubiquitous internet access, but not so good for the bumped stations and their viewers.
In defending their position, various NAB spokesmen bring up the same arguments. Broadcasters serve their local audiences in times of emergency. They provide local weather, news, and community support in a way no national network or web service can.
There’s nothing wrong with those points, but I’m surprised that I never hear the most compelling reason to keep OTA stations on the air: They serve people who can’t afford to pay for TV.
Imagine a working mom just barely scraping by. You want her kids to have educational programming to help them succeed in school. You want her to be able to relax when she has an hour off to watch something entertaining and diverting. You don’t want to make her pay $50/month for basic cable or satellite TV.
I wonder why no one at the NAB talks about this great public service to the needy. Could it be that some people believe that anyone without enough cash doesn’t deserve TV? There must be some reason, but I just don’t know what it is.
In my next post tomorrow evening, I’ll talk about the Big Question of the future of satellite TV. See you then.
The Texas bluebonnets were blooming near Rocket Park on the NASA campus.
I’m back from a visit to Houston, where I used to live a stone’s throw from the NASA campus. Except now, with heightened security, they’ll probably track you down if you try to throw stones at NASA.
So there I was, in a third-floor hotel room about 30 miles from downtown Houston, and just for fun, I hauled out my little USB stick ATSC tuner. I plugged in my 3-inch rabbit ears, stuck that next to a window, fired up my netbook, and scanned. I came up with 62 digital channels. That’s twice as many channels as I could watch in my first cable TV subscription! (I’m pretty sure it’s also more channels than I paid for when I lived there.)
And what a variety! In addition to the major networks and Spanish-language stations, there were several independents with RTV-style reruns., ABC News Now, and even CCTV News.
Free TV via satellite is really cool, but remember that free TV with an over-the-air antenna is really easy. If you haven’t already, scan the digital airwaves where you live and see how many extra channels you can find. Leave a comment to let us know how many you’ve got.
* At Time-Warner Cable, the director of digital communications coined a great phrase: “Television is melting.” You can read his entire blog post here, but the basic idea is that folks who watch video on screens other than their TVs still want to watch the content that they’ve paid for. Video delivery is morphing, and TWC’s streaming (in-home) app wants to be a part of that.
* But I read a much better summation of the state of things on Diane Mermigas’s blog at Business Insider. She points out that the big media companies know as well as anyone that the delivery systems are shifting, yet they want to maintain their profits from the status quo. “The growing rift between content providers and mainstream distributors … is beginning to resemble an existential play.” Go read it!