Home screen - SuomiTV iPadThis year, one full meme’s worth of internet buzz has been TV Everywhere (which may or may not be a trademark of Dish Network). It’s a simple idea, that a viewer should be able to watch any video content on any device, assuming that he makes the right payments to the people who bring it to him. TV wants to be free, y’know?

Unfortunately, a couple of news stories from Friday indicate that the TV delivery infrastructure is running away from the online video streaming of TV Everywhere.

John Eggerton, the hardest working man in Washington, wrote in a story for Multichannel News that the FCC may allow its ban on system-specific programming to expire. That’s the rule that requires every network to offer itself to all multi-channel video providers. For example, Comcast must offer its regional SportsNet programming to other providers, such as Dish.

According to that story, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski circulated an order that would decline to renew that restriction when it expires at the end of 2012.

Separately, the Chicago Tribune ran a Bloomberg News story about a possible internet-based TV provider with an unlikely background. Dish CEO Joseph Clayton said that Dish would start such a service if only it could get the network programmers on board.

“There’s no question there’s a group of consumers, mostly around age 18 to 28, that aren’t going to watch 250 channels of TV, pay $100 a month and watch it on a 60-inch flat-panel display,” Clayton said. “Maybe they’ll spend $20 – maybe less, maybe a little more – for a lot less channels and watch them on their iPhone, their tablet and their PC.”

The trouble is that the six corporations who control almost all major TV content don’t want to unbundle their channels to let streamers pick and choose what they want to watch. And they probably aren’t willing to accept the smaller return they’d get through those cheaper IP-based subscriptions.

Those two articles paint a bleak picture for the immediate future of IP-based TV viewing. If the Big Six won’t cut streaming deals with Dish, a huge customer that already has working relationships with them, what chance would the next internet start-up have? And if the Big Six is free to withhold their programming from absolutely anyone, how will viewers find everything they want in one application?

“(T)he public wants fresh meat and the public is never wrong.” That’s what John Goodman’s character said about talkies in The Artist, and it’s true for IP-based TV now. Movie studios in the 1920s recognized and embraced the new direction. Eventually, the Big Six will also come around. The public is never wrong.

Dyle screenshotThere’s an old fable about a dog lying in a manger. The dog can’t eat the hay in the manger, but it blocks the horse from eating. The moral: People frequently begrudge something to others that they themselves cannot enjoy.

So we turn our attention to Dyle, the latest flavor of mobile digital TV. As a service, it’s a dog. It uses TV station bandwidth to send a signal that only Dyle-approved devices can receive, and requires each device to be registered online to work. It’s using free bandwidth, but it only promises to remain free to viewers (which it ominously calls “subscribers”) through the end of 2012.

The problem Dyle purportedly solves is viewing live digital TV while moving, as in a car or train. Based on the FAQs, it might not work inside buildings, so I’m guessing that subways are out. It won’t work in airplane mode, so that leaves flyers out. You wouldn’t watch it while driving. So that leaves passengers on buses, cars, and trains, if they can pick up a signal inside one of those things.

Other reports such as this old Washington Post story suggest another reason for Dyle’s existence: To justify retaining bandwidth instead of letting the FCC hand it to cell phone companies to improve internet access. Or if broadcasters ever have to sell it, to improve that real estate so it isn’t a vacant lot. By creating a competitor to IP-based mobile video, broadcasters have built an plausible alternative to handing over that bandwidth.

Any new service is going to have a chicken-egg problem, but Dyle has few chickens or eggs. Despite some proof-of-concept standalone devices, mobile TV needs to be on the smartphone that’s already in the viewer’s pocket. But it was only last month that Dyle was finally able to announce the first Dyle-compatible phone, which uses MetroPCS service. (I don’t think the major cell companies are going to rush to embrace the technology that will help the FCC deny them bandwidth.) And stations? Dyle has exactly one in Colorado. And that’s one more than in at least 10 other states. In Washington DC, where you’d think they’d be showing it off to FCC staffers, Dyle has five stations. A cornucopia of entertainment it ain’t.

I have zero knowledge of Dyle’s internal decision-making, and I’ve been wrong before, but I see Dyle as a service that takes away free publicly licensed TV bandwidth that could have been used for more digital sub-channels such as MeTV and Antenna, and then spoons it out to the few “subscribers” who might actually use it. I don’t mind setting aside a little room for broadcast mobile TV, but Dyle is a dog.

 

BBC America LogoLong-time readers might remember my First Rule of TV Programming: No matter what niche a pay-TV channel initially occupies, as time goes on, it will become more and more like all the other channels. It might start as the Chess Network, but by Year Five, it’ll be running old sitcoms and reality shows.

It’s easy to find examples of this rule in action. The Game Show Network became GSN and de-emphasized old game shows. TV Land, which started with classic TV shows, added shows about old TV shows, then added original sitcoms that had nothing to do with old TV shows. The Sci-Fi Channel became SyFy and added pro wrestling. The Nashville Network started with country music, then became TNN and added pro wrestling, then became Spike and added reruns of Star Trek and CSI. The History Channel runs reality shows. You get the idea.

(I pause here to give a shout out to the lone exception to this rule: Turner Classic Movies. It started later than American Movie Classics, but as AMC strayed away from that shared vision of commercial-free classic movies, TCM has expanded on it. TCM is one of my favorite channels.)

Anyway, from the logo at the top of this post, you can guess the latest channel to embrace this rule. BBC America has hired a vice president for its new original programming division.

This is particularly annoying because BBC America holds exclusive US rights to all BBC content. It’s the main reason why you can’t get the BBC channels anywhere in America. The BBC already produces more content than BBC America can show, yet the channel already pads its schedule with movies, The X-Files, and Star Trek. (At least it hasn’t picked up pro wrestling. Yet.)

Maybe if we’re lucky, BBC America will follow the path of several other channels and spin off a second channel that is pretty close to how it used to look. (Think Cartoon Network and Boomerang, or MTV and VH1 Classic.) That would buy us a couple of years until the new channel falls victim to my Rule all over again.

A menu. You know, for a la carte

A menu. You know, for a la carte

Here’s a small item that happens to illustrate a big point, one that’s a source of frustration to some satellite viewers. According to Multichannel News, The owners of the Fine Living Network are going to change it into the Cooking Channel next year.

It doesn’t sound like much of anything, but think about it for a moment. If you or I wanted to start the Cook This channel, we’d have to go to all sorts of cable and satellite operators to try to work out deals for them to carry Cook This and maybe even pay us a little for it. FLN’s owner, Scripps, won’t have to do that for the Cooking Channel. Instead, if the original contract was flexible enough, the new channel will be automatically carried to the millions of people who have FLN on their channel guides. Probably some of the people who would never think to sample Fine Living will be interested in Cooking.

Channel refocusing goes on all the time. My First Rule of TV Networks is that no matter its niche at its launch, every channel tends to become like every other channel. The Game Show Network adds poker. TV Land adds original series. American Movie Classics runs a scripted weekly drama. You get the idea. (Turner Classic Movies is the lone exception. Thank you, TCM!)

There’s also been a fair amount of rebranding. The Nashville Network became TNN, which became Spike. The Cable Health Network became Lifetime. And soon, FLN will become Cooking.

My point is that any channel’s presence on cable and satellite is a huge opportunity. If you own one, and you think another format will work better, you’re free to try your experiment. Of course, this is intensely valuable, and this is the reason why the handful of companies that own the majority of pay-TV channels will fight to prevent them from being offered one at a time, or a la carte. If viewers could choose not to subscribe to FLN, they probably wouldn’t notice Cooking’s launch.

Remember why we have bundled channels. The first multi-channel distribution system was cable TV. Most cable systems began with simple analog technology that simply delivered every available channel, maybe as many as 36. Premium networks such as HBO required a physical filter on the line to allow or disallow reception. No one could choose to subscribe to only MTV or to block out The Weather Channel.

Flash forward to now. Satellite providers routinely add or subtract individual channels from individual receivers. There’s no technological reason for not selling each channel a la carte. But content providers understandably resist the idea. It’s not just that they won’t get the extra 2 cents per month per subscriber for their Rerun of Everything Else Channel. It’s that they might want to rebrand the Rerun channel to take advantage of the next fad. And if they do, they’ll want the built-in potential viewers that bundled programming provides.

Finally, this is another reason to enjoy FTA programming. FTA viewers are used to having everything change. We search out new and fun shows instead of stumbling onto them as we scroll past Channel 285 in our guide. We work hard to find the shows we like, and that makes them all the better to us. And of course, it’s nice that they’re all free.

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

There are some people out there who don’t appreciate FTA for what it is. They don’t want a wild cornucopia of sports feeds, news from other countries, and oddball channels. They just want their regular TV networks, and they want to pay as little as possible to get them.

Maybe you’re one of these people who want what you might call “normal TV.” For that purpose, FTA just isn’t the best choice. So what should you do? You may be surprised at the free and low-cost alternatives that are available.

The best way to get your local broadcast channels is with a standard, pointy or bow-tied over-the-air (OTA) antenna. Connect that to your digital-ready TV set or cheap converter box, and you’ve got loads of free entertainment with very little effort. But that works only if you can pull in strong enough OTA signals where you live.

What if you can’t get local OTA channels, or if you want a few pay-TV channels? Then we start looking at alternatives that are cheap but not free.

Dish Network offers an unadvertised starter set of 20 channels (the list is here) for $9.99/month. You’d have to buy and install your own equipment, but old standard definition Dish receivers are pretty cheap, and Dish dishes are at least as cheap as FTA dishes. If Dish offers them, you can add your local channels for an extra $5/month. You can add a set of Public Interest channels for free. You can add the true Superstations (KWGN, KTLA, WWOR, WPIX, WSBK) for $1.50/month each. If you call and sign up for autopay, Dish will give you the Cinemax channels for a year for a penny. You could cobble together a cheap, decent set of channels this way.

Dish also has the Family Pack, using a different mixture of channels, for $24.99/month, and so begins the slippery slope. If you’ve simply got to have ESPN, Dish’s Classic Bronze 100 at $39.99/month is probably the cheapest way to get it. These advertised packages also have the advantage of including equipment and installation if you commit to a year or two.

Another way to avoid equipment purchases is to sign up for cable. Most local cable systems offer an unadvertised “lifeline” package at a price lower than their most basic package. It typically includes all of your local channels plus local government and public access channels and sometimes a few extras. (For example, where I live, Comcast includes TBS and Bravo.) The exact lineup will vary, of course, but it’s something you can ask your cable company about.

If you’ve got broadband internet access, you can look around for streaming media options. Most of those “normal TV” channels aren’t available live, but you can find some old clips or even full-length programs to watch online. And some of what is available live might surprise you if you Google around or stop by TVU Networks.

Or you can turn to DVDs for your TV entertainment. Some public libraries offer DVDs for checkout. Redbox rents new-release DVDs for $1/night. Netflix, hated source of pop-under ads, lets you swap DVDs by mail for $8.99/month or more. Swap a DVD lets you indirectly trade your DVDs for the cost of postage.

So there are most of your choices for free or cheap “normal TV.” But if you want over 200 channels of free TV, and you’re not picky about what they’re about or what language they’re in, then FTA is definitely your best choice.