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.

RandomSouthHall“Broadcasters haven’t reached a fork in the road; they’ve reached a tangled multi-spoke hub. In one direction is the well-traveled old-school way, over-the-air broadcasting. … But that idea seems to be withering under the intense heat of the Internet.”

That’s just one small part of a long report by Ned Soseman, writing in Broadcast Engineering. Soseman uses the occasion of the NAB Show to summarize the current state of the broadcast industry. “The one point nearly everyone seems to agree on is that NAB isn’t just for broadcasters,” he wrote. Video technology advances apply to everyone because anyone can be a broadcaster, if you count the internet.

From the customers’ perspective, there’s the stuff that’s available for free over the air, and there are the channels we actually watch, and there’s the huge cable/satellite bill that supports them. There’s Senator John McCain’s a la carte bill (going nowhere, by the way) and a cable spokesman’s claim that a la carte wouldn’t lower cable bills. Soseman summarizes the way it all looks today and then sums it up by saying, well, broadcasters need to try something different. It all reads like something I would have written, except that I would have tried for some crazy guess about the future. Anyway, I’m happy that Soseman did the work, and that it gives me an excuse to run one more NAB Show photo. Now go read it!

Coins dropping into a TV set

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DirecTV announced this week that it was exploring the possibility of adding an over-the-air receiver to its set-top box. That part isn’t new; some DirecTV boxes had OTA capabilities over a decade ago, and my Dish Network receiver has an OTA adapter. What’s new is the reason DirecTV is re-exploring this addition: It wants to avoid retransmission fees.

As TVBlog writer David Goetzi wrote, this tactic would be unquestionably legal, although that doesn’t mean the broadcast networks wouldn’t question it. And as Goetzi put it, this should be a scarier prospect than the Aereo streaming service that’s got the networks filing lawsuits. If every cable and satellite company started using OTA to circumvent retransmission fees for a large percentage of its viewers, those networks might find themselves cut off from revenue they’re now depending on.

If this scenario ever looked imminent, what would the networks do? My guess is that they would pull back on their retransmission fee increases in exchange for promises to keep OTA out of the cable set-top box. Surely cable companies would prefer a known, lower retransmission payment rather than the upfront cost, uneven OTA experiences and service calls that would result from thousands of OTA antennas. Still, a new upper limit on retransmission money would wreck some of the business plans networks have been showing investors.

The deeper question is whether retransmission fees are appropriate. Broadcasters have a monopoly on the public airwaves they occupy. The ability to send ads, with a few intervening programs, over the air to every TV set used to be quite valuable all by itself. When cable companies made it easier to pick up OTA channels, broadcasters wanted a piece of that cable bill, and they persuaded Congress to see it their way. Now at each renewal, each station gets to wrestle with each cable system, often as part of the inevitable parent company’s desire to add more of their cable channels to the lineup at higher prices. That doesn’t sound like it’s in the public’s interest.

Just imagine if anyone was free to retransmit any OTA signal using the Canadian model of royalty payments. With today’s connected world, soon anyone would be able to watch any station. Royalties would flow to the content producers according to the popularity of their programming whether they’re in New York or Billings MT. The viewing public would benefit from an incredible cornucopia of choices. The only folks who would get less money would be those folks who negotiate ever-escalating retransmission agreements. Everybody else would be happy. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Chase Carey, speaking at the NAB keynote

Chase Carey, speaking at the NAB keynote

While I continue to put together way too many NAB photos to tell you what the show is like, I’ll mention what Chase Carey, president of News Corp., said at the keynote. Carey wasn’t on board with the “embrace the future” theme; he said that if Aereo survives and folks continue to watch for free (without retransmission consent money), he’ll convert Fox to a cable network.

This pronouncement caught the attention of a lot of TV people, but I think it’s only saber-rattling. If Fox and its other network friends fail in the courts against Aereo, they’ll go straight to Congress to change the rules. The threat of pulling the Super Bowl off the air will give representatives cover for doing what the networks’ money asks them to do, and there you’ll have it.

Consider that Fox could decide to go cable tomorrow. It could have made the switch years ago, when retransmission money was a tiny fraction of what it is now. But it didn’t and it won’t because it just doesn’t make sense. The end, at least to me.

On the other hand, Broadcasting and Cable’s Jon Lafayette presents a more nuanced examination of what Fox would gain and lose by taking themselves off the public airwaves. In particular, doing so would negate the argument broadcasters have been making about needing all that spectrum they’ve been fighting to keep. So go read that.

Once upon a time, this already sort of happened. WGN and WTBS converted from distant over-the-air superstations (from the perspective of most cable TV systems) to cable channels. In both cases, they continued to locally broadcast most of the programming they sent to the cable systems, with just enough difference to make it count. The easiest way for Fox to convert would be to pick a few of its most popular shows and substitute reruns or infomercials over-the-air for an hour or two a night. To watch next year’s “House” or “24”, you’d need to watch it on cable, but local news would still be over-the-air. I still don’t think it’ll happen, but if it does, see if that’s the way it plays out.