VIZIO SmartCast P-Series 55” Class Ultra HD HDR Home Theater DisplayVizio 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.

Girl in baseball cap watching old TV next to stuffed animal

© DesignPicsInc / Depositphotos.com

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.

KlowdTV logoKlowdTV is an OTT provider that’s trying to build a virtual cable system from scratch, one network at a time. They’ve got the skinniest bundles around, and subscribers get a lot of flexibility in picking channels. That’s why it’s so sad to write that last week KlowdTV lost one of its best programmers, beIN Sports.

Some background: beIN Sports began its life as Al Jazeera Sport before being spun off as its own company, still owned and operated by folks in Qatar. You know how, if you’re reading Moby Dick, then everything looks like a whale? The last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading The Ugly Game, a book which claims to describe exactly how soccer enthusiasts in high places in Qatar supposedly spread a lot of wealth to ensure it would host the World Cup in 2022, a plan that’s still controversial.

What I’ve heard is that those deep-pocketed Qataris were also happy to spend big for TV rights to good soccer leagues and then happy to require very little from any system that wanted to distribute beIN Sports, all to build its exposure as soon as possible. For example, beIN Sports is included with several other channels in Sling’s $5/month Sports Extra add-on. In Sling’s international packages, beIN is frequently thrown in for free or in the standalone $10 World Sports package. It’s in fuboTV‘s $7 package. It’s on Dish and DirecTV, and you get the picture.

Last Thursday, KlowdTV CEO Bill O’Hara sent an email with the sad announcement that the beIN Sports channels “will no longer be available” on his service. He wrote, “We are continuing to explore ways to continue our relationship, but at this time there does not appear to be a viable way to continue providing the beIN sports channels.” In a nice gesture, KlowdTV gave subscribers two free months of what’s left of its sports package, which still includes Gol TV and other channels.

I’m a big fan of KlowdTV, which is why I subscribed. One themed package plus one hour of virtual DVR time is just $5/month, extra packages are $3, and several a la carte channels are available separately. So what blocked beIN? Was it a simple rate increase, or that fuboTV wanted OTT exclusivity, or something else? KlowdTV is exhibiting at the NAB Show in a couple of weeks, so I hope to know more then.

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.

Long row of phone cases

Other news reports focus on self-driving cars and other cool stuff, but CES is always just as much about booths full of phone cases.

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.

Tablo screen shot on Apple TV4. 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.

Continue Watching and Recommended strips on Sling TV9. 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?