Les Moonves in 2001

Les Moonves, photo © DepositPhotos / Ryan Born

There are a lot of times when I like the Consumer Electronics Association. In the battle for unfettered access to entertainment, the CEA is usually on the side of consumers, who often lack a strong voice of their own. But this week the CEA came out with a doozy of a report, saying its research shows that only 7% of US households rely on over-the-air (OTA) for their television viewing. The CEA said this lined up with a 2012 Nielsen study that said 9% of US households rely on OTA, down from 16% in 2003.

For all that to be true, there must have been thousands of families who unplugged their rooftop antennas so they could start paying for cable. Oddly, I couldn’t find any articles that mention those families.

The National Association of Broadcasters reacted by pointing to a different study that said 19.3% of homes rely exclusively on OTA television, up from 14% in 2010. That sounded like a much closer match to what I’ve read and seen over the past couple of years.

Just as I was feeling vindicated, CBS CEO Les Moonves spoiled my buzz. Only a few days after his trade organization re-emphasized its viewer numbers, Moonves told analysts in a conference call that those viewers really didn’t matter anyway. According to Deadline, Moonves said, “Right now over 85% of our viewing is done through satellite, cable, or the phone companies. The remaining 15% are not the most advertiser friendly, appealing to advertising.”

You put all that together, and the finished message from CBS is “There are a lot more OTA viewers than you think, but they’re not very important.” There’s a corollary to that: Anyone smart enough to dump cable and save money is not the kind of sucker an advertiser wants.

Television in graveyard.

© DepositPhotos / iofoto

If you haven’t noticed, Dish Network’s abrupt suspension of service to nimbleTV customers has reached the tech news mainstream. Peter Kafka at All Things Digital ran the story yesterday, including quoted statements from Dish and nimbleTV. He also included a reference and link back to FTABlog. (Thanks!) If this is your first time here, welcome, and feel free to read more about nimbleTV and other stuff.

Kafka posted his story about 2 pm Eastern Time. About a half hour before that, I got the latest customer update from nimbleTV, this one signed by CEO Anand Subramanian. He asked nimbleTV customers to “stand with us” to defend the right to purchase and watch TV from anywhere. “By being an early customer of nimbleTV, you are helping pave the way for the TV of tomorrow,” Subramanian wrote, adding “we promise you’ll have (service) back soon.”

What we still don’t know is the reason why Dish shut down nimbleTV’s programming. According to the statements in Kafka’s article, it might have something to do with being erroneously considered an official Dish reseller. “While we have been upfront with our customers that nimbleTV has no direct relationship with any TV provider, Dish did not want our Web site to mislead others into thinking that we have a direct affiliation with Dish,” Subramanian told Kafka. Dish’s terse statement was, “NimbleTV is not an authorized Dish retailer, and is not authorized by Dish to market or promote our services.”

Even if that’s what Dish told nimbleTV, I’ve got a hard time believing that’s the real reason for pulling the plug. Dish is not oblivious enough to miss nimbleTV as it went through its lengthy beta and public launch, only to notice it two weeks ago. I’m still guessing that something changed, either with different personnel within Dish or because of a suggestion by an outside party. I wonder if we’ll ever know.

Meanwhile, nimbleTV endures. I’ve always thought it’ll be easier for nimbleTV to import programming to the US than the other way around, mainly because I don’t know how hard it’ll be to line up pay-TV subscriptions in other countries. The statement that nimbleTV gave me today lines up with that idea. After noting that it doesn’t plan to partner, per se, with any pay-TV provider, the statement concludes, “In addition to doing everything possible to have nimbleTV service up as soon as possible for the customers who have grown to love their nimbleTV, the company is expanding the business and will soon be adding new provider options from the U.S. and abroad.”

And that’s where we’ll leave it until nimbleTV starts serving up programming again. Coming up next on FTABlog, the over-the-air DVR that you already have but don’t know about.

Test pattern on old TV before clouds

© DepositPhotos / Xavier Gallego Morell

You remember that when I last wrote about nimbleTV, I told you about this great new service that allows out-of-market viewers to subscribe to a pay TV service over the internet. At that time, the only service it offered was Dish Network. Now it appears nimbleTV doesn’t even have that.

Although I can’t get anyone to comment on the record about it, what I do know suggests that Dish abruptly cut off nimbleTV last Friday. If that’s true, it could have been because Dish’s programming partners pressured Dish to stop service to out-of-market viewers. Or it could have been that Dish didn’t like how nimbleTV can combine the output of several receivers to any given customer. Or it could have been a Dish billing hiccup when its system noticed all the subscribers with out-of-market service addresses. Or it could be something completely different.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly from nimbleTV is that it plans (hopes?) to restore service in about two weeks. Does that mean that nimbleTV is negotiating with Dish to restore service? That it’s scrambling to find another programming source? That it has another source already lined up, and that it’ll take about two weeks to swap out all those receivers and change nimbleTV’s programming database? That Dish promised to fix its billing hiccup in about two weeks? Or that suggesting a fixed length of time keeps customers happier when you’re working to solve an open-ended problem?

Here’s the timeline of what I know. On Friday, nimbleTV went off the air for some subscribers, perhaps all of them. Then Friday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out an email that said in part, “nimbleTV is currently undergoing system maintenance and upgrades owing to unforeseen circumstances. … Our team is working hard to restore the service and we hope to be out of maintenance soon.”

Saturday evening, nimbleTV sent out a longer note. It included the understatement, “The maintenance period is going to last longer than expected.” The email also included the first real hint of what happened: “We have found that a billing change in the TV provider’s portion of the charge has affected a number of our subscribers. Your account seems to have been affected by this as well. We are working with the TV provider to resolve such issues going forward. It may take up to two weeks for the billing issue to resolve completely and for service to be restored.”

Sunday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out a shorter recap, primarily emphasizing that it will issue refunds to affected subscribers. “The reason for these issues is due to the TV provider putting a hold on your service, we are investigating the reason behind the un-notified hold.”

Since then, I’ve been asking everyone I know at Dish and nimbleTV for further comment, and all I can get are reiterations of the same information. Heck, I can’t even get anyone from nimbleTV to say the word “Dish”. For example, nimbleTV’s PR guy told me that their official statement is “nimbleTV is aware of service issues which some users are experiencing and is in the process of addressing them.” He wouldn’t say anything else.

Thank goodness for Twitter; searching it shows that I’m not alone. Several other users are reporting the same stuff I’m seeing. One tweeted, “hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for the service.” As long as nimbleTV refuses to tell the world what’s wrong, all we’re left to do is imagine the worst.

Update: A commenter helpfully pointed to a tweet by Dish Retailer News (@RetailerNews) from July 10: “Retailers- Important RetailerNews regarding NimbleTV. Please read” a password-protected link. Hmm.

Screenshot of a nimbleTV presentation at The Paley CenterYesterday, I wrote about how cool nimbleTV is for the viewer. Today, I’ll take a closer look at what’s going on under the hood and what’s in nimbleTV’s future.

Let’s start with the presentation that nimbleTV founder Anand Subramanian gave at The Paley Center for Media last year. (You can watch it by clicking here or on the screenshot I’ve embedded to the right of this sentence.) His idea was pretty basic: Let anyone subscribe to any pay-TV service anywhere, then pay nimbleTV to stream it anywhere in the world. As he described it at about the 9-minute mark, “Everybody is whole. The consumer is paying for the subscription. And the TV provider is getting paid its full retail TV subscription. And the TV provider is paying the content person, so it keeps the industry fully whole.”

That strategy has worked to a certain extent. We haven’t heard the TV networks complaining about this service “stealing” free over-the-air TV to stream to subscribers. Then again, nimbleTV has been staying fairly quiet compared to its sometimes flamboyant competitors. But I can’t help worrying about when that “content person” is going to find something else to complain about. More about him later.

But let’s get back to what’s going on under the hood. Let me start by saying that I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. At least not directly. I had a great conversation with Sanjay Patel, nimbleTV’s vice president of marketing, and all he would tell me about the technical details was that they were proprietary. But in a couple of weeks of playing with nimbleTV, I picked up a few clues about its black box:

  • It’s definitely getting its content from Dish Network. There were Dish house ads in some of the usual programming breaks, and the channel numbers match.
  • It’s probably getting the Dish feed through satellite dishes in New York City. When severe thunderstorms hit NYC, they knocked out nimbleTV’s content for a little while.
  • As a test, I was able to successfully record nine programs simultaneously. That would require nine tuners, and would be impossible with any normal Dish receiver.
  • All recordings are automatically padded by a couple of minutes before and after. Great idea, by the way; I wish FilmOn would do that.
  • Not all channels of a given Dish package are carried in its equivalent nimbleTV plan. Most of the missing channels are religious and shopping channels, so they aren’t really missed.

Add to these clues Subramanian’s assertion a year ago that recording would be infinite and based in the cloud. (As I mentioned yesterday, the virtual DVR is now limited, perhaps as an opportunity to upsell more space.)

I’ve got a theory, maybe just a wild guess, based on all of this very limited data. Suppose that nimbleTV set up a bank of Dish receivers or their equivalents, with each of their tuners viewing a different channel. Then suppose that nimbleTV took the output from all of those tuners and magically digested them into a form that’s easier to stream yet multiplied to all subscribers. Further, suppose that nimbleTV’s magic grid also recorded and stored each program to serve up on demand to each subscriber who virtually recorded it. That system would make it easy to promise an infinite virtual DVR. That system would explain why nimbleTV would be reluctant to furnish extra, unpopular channels. And that hypothetical system could get nimbleTV some legal attention if the details came out.

In the truly wacky world of TV copyrights, making copies of anything for any reason is just asking for trouble. Fox’s Hopper lawsuit against Dish includes a complaint that Dish allegedly makes an internal copy of Fox’s programming for quality control. Copyright law is the reason why Aereo had to go to the ridiculous length of giving each subscriber his own tiny antenna rather than using a single central antenna. So if, hypothetically, nimbleTV stores just one copy of last night’s South Park episode to serve to every viewer who requests it, well, that just sounds like trouble. Then again, it’s possible that nimbleTV’s internal workings bear no resemblance to any of my wild guesses; one would presume that they’re perfectly legal. Patel told me that nimbleTV folks “make sure we comply, not only with our partners, but legally as well.” So I just don’t know.

No matter how it serves programming, nimbleTV might still run afoul of that “content person”. A lot of those people have fixed ideas about their markets and how they want them divided. The folks who syndicate Wheel of Fortune usually sell exclusive rights within a market and get a premium for that exclusivity. A station in Boise, for example, might not pay as much if enough Boise viewers watch the New York feed of the Wheel. And consider that every New York pro football game will be available. Do you suppose the NFL will mind losing some New York expatriate Sunday Ticket subscribers?

And that’s just a US focus. Patel said that nimbleTV has a good percentage of international users. Before nimbleTV came around, “being able to watch live US TV has never been easy,” he said. As nimbleTV adds more broadcasting cities, US viewers will be able to pay for foreign TV just as well. And again, international rights can be another source of friction from content people.

NimbleTV’s line has stayed the same since the Paley Center presentation. Pay-TV providers are adding subscribers that they might not get any other way, and everybody’s getting paid just like normal. I’m not as sanguine about content people being satisfied with that picture, but I hope that nimbleTV stays around for a long time.

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.