Classic CBS logoAs I was watching the Broncos lose at home again yesterday afternoon, there was an occasional crawl at the top of the screen telling the world that Dish customers should call Dish and complain that they might lose CBS. Or something like that – the game was hard to watch. I rolled my eyes inwardly and thought, here we go again.

The first CBS-Dish fight from over 10 years ago was the impetus for me to install a good Yagi-style over-the-air antenna on the roof. Not only did that let me bypass that dispute, it opened up the world of digital subchannels. I’ve since upgraded to a less pointy version with even better reception, but that’s only part of the reason I just don’t care this time.

When Dish sent out its nigh-annual rate increase around the beginning of this year, for the first time it broke out Broadcast TV as its own $10 charge. “Cool!” I thought, and called in to get the satellite-delivered locals turned off. That wasn’t how it worked; with my typical package of channels, that separate broadcast component was still mandatory.

Which was why I was surprised to get a postcard from Dish a couple of months ago offering to save me that $10/month if I picked up locals via an OTA antenna. They even offered to send out an installer. I called again, and this time the satellite-delivered locals went away and $10 stayed in my pocket. I no longer have PrimeTime Anytime, and my Hopper doesn’t record OTA all that well, but I’ve got a Tablo in place for my OTA DVR. I’m saving money and getting the pleasure of thumbing my nose at CBS’s tactics.

That’s the part that bugs me most. CBS already has enormous leverage in retransmission consent talks, and for the network to bug all viewers just to reach some Dish customers to increase that leverage, I think that’s a jerk move. As long as its stations continue to have an obligation to freely serve the public airwaves, then that’s how I’ll watch my CBS.

 

Dish Network $9 per month offer

The “I Like 9” promotion that got me to give Dish Network a try.

Sling TV has been around since January 2015, and I’ve been a subscriber almost from the day I saw it launched at CES. As good as it was then, it continues to add new channels and options. I was reminded of that yesterday when Sling added NBC’s Olympic Channel to its Sports Extra package. And that’s when it hit me – my experience with Sling now matches my first years as a Dish Network subscriber starting in 2001.

Back then, I was lured by the low price of just $9 a month for America’s Top 100, although I paid an extra $10 to reach the next tier. The package didn’t include local channels, but I could kludge together an over-the-air antenna that straddled the dish with a special splitter to pipe the signals from my roof.

A special monthly treat was the Charlie Chat featuring the folksy persona of CEO Charlie Ergen. In those first years, Ergen would frequently announce the addition of what the business called a “digital cable” channel, something of such narrow interest that it couldn’t break into the standard 36-channel analog cable lineup. There were VH1 Classic, Nick Games and Sports, Tech TV, and so many more.

Now I feel the same about Sling. Just like those early days of Dish, it doesn’t have most of my locals, but I’m used to getting them elsewhere. The price is just as cheap, relatively speaking. It carries some funky channels such as Cheddar, Stadium, and Tribeca Shortlist that aren’t available on Dish. And the What’s On Sling blog is the modern version of the Charlie Chat, dispensing highlights, free previews, and channel announcements.

Dish has done pretty well for itself for quite a while. I hope that Sling shows similar staying power.

 

Sling International showing Dish Network notice that "We apologize for the interruption of service."Long-time readers might remember that I maintain a subscription to Sling International’s World Sports pack. It’s a pretty decent set of live sports channels and a few other interesting English-language bits thrown in, if you don’t mind watching stuff you’ve probably never heard of. But my main reason is not to watch live baseball from Japan or cricket highlights; it’s to keep track of the delivery system and channel lineup. Unlike what happens to Sling TV’s normal US channels, if anything changes, I can’t find anywhere else on the web that talks about it.

Case in point. One of the benefits of keeping that World Sports subscription is being able to check in on an old favorite that I’ve known since its FTA satellite days, Fashion TV. I’ve written about this channel for over eight years. It was one of the first free satellite channels to upgrade to HD, then it moved to Dish Network for a while, then it was gone, and then it surfaced among Dish International’s free English channels, thrown in with almost any other package.

In recent years, it looks to me as though Fashion TV is shifting its emphasis away from mostly showing models walking funny and wearing clothes that make them look like they lost a bet. There are more swimsuits on runways, and photo shoots of swimsuits, and lingerie. Or maybe those were just the snippets I checked in on as I was keeping track of available channels. Honestly, if you added up the time I’ve spent watching Fashion TV, it’s got to be less than an hour total over the past five years, but I know which shows I prefer there.

About three weeks ago, when I checked on Fashion TV, what I saw looked like the image embedded in this post. It’s the standard Dish Network card for a temporary technical difficulty, most often a weather-related outage. I shrugged and moved on – Ebru still has Doctor Who reruns.

A week later, that card was still there for Fashion TV. A second week later, still no change. I chatted with Sling customer service, and the rep’s only information was that they were having problems with the signal. Now it’s a third week (or more) and the card has stayed the same.

Notice that there’s no suggestion that Fashion TV is gone for good. I can still scroll back to see program images from the past week; they just don’t work.

If this were ESPN, or heck, even if this were the DYI network, a “temporary” outage that lasted two days would light up some corner of Internet discussion, but I can’t find anyone else who’s noticed this one. I’ve reached out to Sling / Dish, and I’ll update this post when I hear anything. Till then, weird, huh?

Update: Sure enough, Fashion TV never returned. If I ever find out what happened, I’ll post it here, but my guess was that it was simply money – Fashion TV wanted more than Sling wanted to give.

Voom and Hulu logos

Hulu’s announcement last week that it would offer almost* commercial-free programming for an extra $4/month reminded me of its connection to the former Voom Networks. That connection is only in my mind, unless you want to buy into the following conspiracy theory.

First, let’s talk Hulu. It’s owned by three of the six large content companies in the US: Comcast (NBC), News Corporation (Fox), and Disney (ABC). Hulu’s primary distinguishing feature as an over-the-top pay-TV service was its long-time insistence on including commercials, even though it knew that was an issue for potential and current paid subscribers. Then why did it take so long for Hulu to offer a higher-priced, ad-free* version? I assume it’s because its owners, three major TV networks, did not want audiences to get used to the idea of watching regular TV shows anywhere without commercial interruption.

Back in the days when TV stations used only the public airwaves as a free service, advertising was the only way to pay the bills, yet broadcasting was mostly a lucrative business. When cable permeated America, many stations also picked up retransmission consent fees, which have risen astronomically since. In time, the major networks got a piece of both of those revenue streams, but it must have been baked into the content providers’ minds that commercial interruption was a lifeline that they would not easily relinquish.

Now to the conspiracy theory. In 2003, back when HD programming was unusual, Cablevision launched Voom, a standalone satellite TV service with 21 channels of commercial-free HDTV. In 2005, Dish Network pretty much bought out Voom’s satellite lease and resold the Voom channels to Dish subscribers. That’s where I came in; I loved Voom’s colorful, uninterrupted programming, and they soon became some of my favorite Dish channels.

(It’s important for me to point out here that, although I was both a Dish beta tester and shareholder at the time, I had and have absolutely no inside information about anything that happened between Dish and Voom. The theory I concocted is based only on public news accounts, of which the Wikipedia entry is a decent summary, and there’s an excellent chance that it’s completely wrong. But my theory is entertaining to consider, and it mostly fits what we know.)

Voom was rolling along. It had a 15-year contract with to Dish to distribute its programming, which it was selling to over a million subscribers. The only hint of a problem was that Voom content was becoming a bit … repetitive. A lot of the series on its schedules, mostly foreign imports, remained the same.

In January 2008, Dish tried to end its contract with Voom, saying that Voom hadn’t invested its required $100 million in content in 2006; Cablevision offered what it said was proof that it had followed the letter of the contract. In May 2008, without warning, Dish dumped all of the Voom channels, replacing them with roughly equivalent channels, such as Palladia substituting for Voom’s Rave HD music channel. Without a major distributor, Voom closed up shop a few months later. Meanwhile, Voom’s owners sued Dish, and then things got really weird.

In November 2010, New York state judge Richard Lowe ruled that Dish’s then-parent Echostar had “systematically destroyed evidence in direct violation of the law” by erasing emails. Lowe said he would instruct the jury to assume that those emails would have helped Voom prove its case. Despite that hefty sanction, the case continued to trial in September 2012. Just before Dish CEO Charlie Ergen was due to take the stand, Dish settled the case, paying over $700 million to Cablevision.

To recap, it appears that Dish was making a profit on every Voom subscriber, yet it decided to fatally wound the service and then wiped evidence that would explain why, even though that would end up costing Dish almost three-quarters of a billion dollars. Until Ergen writes his memoirs, we’ll never know why Dish did that, so let me make up something that fits.

Dish needs decent relationships with the folks who create its channels. Those are some of the same people who fought so hard and long against letting Hulu subscribers watch TV without ads. Voom’s channels had no ads. What if the big media companies put pressure on Dish to dump the Cablevision-created upstart and substitute similar, ad-supported programming? There’s no way Dish would have chosen Voom over the six huge companies who control Dish’s bread-and-butter channels. Could they have wielded the stick of threatened channel blackouts or the carrot of improved contract terms to offset the cost of deleting all the emails associated with those conversations? There’s no way of knowing, but that sure matches the mindset of those Hulu owners.

*Even when it tried to create an ad-free service, Hulu couldn’t make it 100%. As the signup page states, a few shows are not included “due to streaming rights”. Subscribers still have to watch commercials before and after Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon A Time, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scandal, New Girl, Grimm and How To Get Away With Murder. Those all have ties to the owners’ production companies, and I guess they can’t let go.

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.