Mean, angry TV set with teeth

© Depositphotos / herminutomo

Last week, we got to see the full lifespan of a retransmission consent dispute condensed to just a day or two. When Sinclair Broadcasting tried to tie an unrelated pay-only network to permission to rebroadcast 129 over-the-air channels, Dish Network and the FCC blocked them, and Sinclair’s blackout ended in less than 24 hours.

At least that’s what happened if you believe Dish, and since I’m still a Dish shareholder, that would be my inclination. Sinclair has a completely different view, and I’ll get around to that.

First, the details. A couple of weeks ago, Dish filed a complaint to the FCC saying Sinclair was refusing to negotiate. The day after that formal complaint, Dish said Sinclair had resumed talks. Then last Tuesday, Sinclair pulled its 129 TV stations off Dish solely “to gain negotiating leverage for carriage of an unrelated cable channel that it hopes to acquire,” according a Dish press release. Dish also restarted the FCC complaint.

The next morning, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sprang to action, calling for an emergency meeting with Dish and Sinclair. “Just last year, Congress instructed the Commission to look closely at whether retransmission consent negotiations are being conducted in good faith,” he wrote. “That’s why I have proposed to my fellow Commissioners a new rulemaking to determine how best to protect the public interest.” By the end of the day, Sinclair had agreed in principle to a long-term deal with Dish and lifted the blackout.

BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote in a blog post that Sinclair’s short-lived blackout may be the last straw for unfettered retransmission demands. “The government is looking for reasons to get more involved to help consumers,” he wrote. “Sinclair may have finally given them a blatant enough excuse.”

On the other hand, Sinclair later claimed that the FCC’s actions had literally nothing to do with the speedy end to the blackout. Seriously. “In fact, the FCC process actually delayed the resolution, because it added more issues to negotiate, which lengthened DISH’s service interruption, not shortened it,” Sinclair wrote. So without that meddling FCC, the blackout would have been over in maybe eight hours? I guess we’ll never know.

If this incident signals a new willingness for the FCC to protect the public interest in retransmission fee negotiations, Greenfield might be spot on. If stations have to negotiate on price alone without leveraging unrelated networks, and if the FCC will nudge them to bargain in good faith, maybe we could start seeing contracts reached through arbitration instead of blackouts. If viewers are okay with monthly subscriptions to watch their local free-TV stations, they deserve to get what they pay for.

After too long of a break, FTABlog returns to its important coverage of 1980s music video. Let’s see how many we can fit in before real TV news returns.

I first got cable in 1981, and it’s hard to overstate the effect it had on my TV viewing. Cable back then included about 30 channels of live TV. (The first system carried 36 channels, but some of them were informational filler, like community calendars and the slow-scanned news photos of the Satellite Program Network, whose name prompted ESPN to add the E. But I digress.) For prime-time viewers, that meant 30 choices instead of six over-the-air channels. The difference for me was more dramatic. I worked at a morning newspaper, arriving home around 2 AM. For me, cable meant about 20 choices instead of exactly one OTA channel, the only one that broadcast through the night.

(One more digression: At the newspaper, a copy boy who worked the same shift mentioned watching Marcus Welby reruns when he got home. “I don’t like Marcus Welby,” he said, “but it’s the only thing on.”)

Back then, HBO would run little filler programs between movies, and one of them was the Video Jukebox, which showed a music video or two. Before MTV caught on, this was the widest method of exposure for music videos in the US. Anyway, I’ll always remember one night when the video was the ubiquitous hit Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes. I thought I was incredibly lucky to get this big hit from whatever random video list HBO used; I didn’t recognize that the network carefully chose every interstitial feature. It’s fun to remember when I was young and stupid in different ways than I am now.

Well, hey, Carnes got something wrong too. The original version as recorded in 1974 by Jackie DeShannon suggested that Davis could “make a crow blush” but Carnes’ version misspeaks that lyric as “make a pro blush”. DeShannon’s version made a lot more sense, although Carnes’ did spend nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. At least DeShannon, with Donna Weiss, got some composer royalties out of it.

Shaw Direct TV screenshotLast week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that as of December 2016 it will require pay-TV providers to offer a la carte subscriptions. Viewers will pay for a base package that includes all over-the-air, regional and public access channels, then they’ll be able to select any other channels they want to pay for.

This is exactly what I’ve been advocating for years for all pay-TV viewers. Content providers force fifth-tier rerun channels into pay-TV bundles to squeeze a few more dollars and to preserve channel real estate for future rebranding. They make it harder for competitors to establish new channels, and they pad subscribers’ bills with little benefit.

Of course, the folks who profit from the status quo and those who support those folks have always said that the sky will fall once a la carte starts. Less than two years ago, an industry analyst claimed that, for example, ESPN would cost around $30 a month if sold separately. (Now that Sling TV sells ESPN plus a few other channels for just $20, that analyst might need to revise her figures.)

Whenever I heard those arguments, I always pointed to Canada, where some pay-TV companies have had a loose form of a la carte for years. Satellite TV provider Shaw Direct, with over 900,000 subscribers, already offers most of its channels in small bundles or even “Pick and Pay” a la carte to supplement its broader programming packages. (The other Canadian satellite TV provider, Bell Direct, which used to offer similar bundles, now sells tier-based packages similar to any cable company. But I digress.) Canada’s ESPN equivalent/sister channel, TSN, costs nowhere near $30/month, and the Canadian sky has not yet fallen.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, enthusiastically promotes a la carte as a way to get viewers what they want at a lower price. Through the years, Consumer Reports has campaigned against cigarettes, in favor of testing cars for rollover safety, and lots of other stuff. Have those folks ever pushed an idea that turned out to be really awful? I can’t think of any; if you can find an example, please post it in the comments.

In the US, content providers have too much clout to ever allow a la carte, but at least we’ll all get to see the results of Canada’s real-world experiment. How many pay-TV channels will die? Will new, independent channels spring up to take their place? Will the average bill go down? Will TSN cost $30? We’ll know the answers just a couple of years from now.

Universal Sports on Sling TV

Universal Sports, part of Sling TV’s optional Sports Extra

I’ve had a few weeks to play with Sling TV, the new streaming service from Dish Network, not to be confused with the Slingbox hardware device of the same name. Sling TV, the Best in Show winner at the International CES 2015, has been touted as the answer for cord-cutters who still want ESPN and a few other pay-TV channels. It might be exactly that, but for me, I don’t know whether it’s worth the $20 or more monthly subscription fee.

First, the good news. Sling TV performed flawlessly every time I used it. That’s not very surprising since it’s based on the mature streaming technology of DishWorld, which has been running since 2012. (DishWorld will soon change its name to Sling International, but I digress.) Through announcements with AMC and Epix, Dish has indicated that it will add programming to Sling TV’s already decent lineup. As with DishWorld, Sling TV is already available on Roku, iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows, and Sling TV is also promoting its new Amazon Fire TV app. The same pay-per-view movies are listed on Sling TV as DishWorld, including (surprisingly) free Bollywood movies.

One improvement that Sling TV offers over DishWorld is an intermediate viewing Window in its Windows app. The DishWorld app’s only options are a small monitor area in its menu window (see below) or full screen. The really big advantage is ESPN; for most households, Sling TV is the least expensive option for watching ESPN.

In fact, Sling TV only really suffers in comparison with other viewing options. Its worst problem is its lack of DVR; most Sling TV channels don’t even include the “last week on-demand” option present with every DishWorld channel. So I can watch ESPN or TBS live, but I can’t pause the stream, record it, or watch shows from earlier today. That’s standard behavior for watching TV in a hotel room, but most of us viewers have recorders, and we’re pretty used to them. (My family refers to live, unpauseable TV as “hotel mode” TV. But I digress again.)

Universal Sports on DishWorld

Universal Sports on DishWorld

DishWorld recently began offering a Sports TV package with 21 channels for a measly $10 a month. That includes Universal Sports and beIN Sports, both part of Sling TV’s Sports Extra package, plus One World Sports, Willow Cricket, Trace Sport Stars, beIN Sports en Español, Nautical Channel, and 14 non-sports channels, including personal favorites FashionTV, Baby TV and more. If you want Sling TV for Monday Night Football, then DishWorld can’t help you. But if you just want to watch something and you’ve got an open mind, it’s a pretty good deal. I sometimes watch 21st-century Doctor Who episodes on demand from Ebru TV, and I’ll tune in to DishWorld’s news channels for a different perspective on events.

Here’s a chunk of perspective that you won’t find anywhere else: Sling TV isn’t as good as NimbleTV was before it had to shut down. By working as a streaming adjunct to a separate Dish subscription, NimbleTV provided more channels and a full DVR. NimbleTV’s iOS app was as good as Sling TV’s, and NimbleTV was working on adding other platforms. Its tier with ESPN cost a whole lot more than Sling TV, so I’d like to have seen those two products compete in the marketplace – the inexpensive, well-promoted Sling TV and the little-known, pricey NimbleTV.

Another option is to effectively host your own NimbleTV – spring for a full Dish Network subscription at home, then use Dish Anywhere apps for streaming on the go. If you can mount a dish and don’t mind spending over $70 per month, that provides a lot of advantages over Sling TV. But I think I’m still sidestepping the point: If you’re a cord-cutter who really wants to watch ESPN and can handle it live-only, Sling TV is your solution. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure Sling TV is worth buying.

Left to right: Kris Alexander, Akamai; Jeff Binder, Layer3 TV; and Michael Goodman, Strategy Analytics, three of the panelists at an Internet TV conference session at CES.

Left to right: Kris Alexander, Akamai; Jeff Binder, Layer3 TV; and Michael Goodman, Strategy Analytics, three of the panelists at an Internet TV conference session at CES.

I promised myself that this year, at the International CES, I wouldn’t take photos of the zillion iPhone cases on display. If you wanted to see that, you’ll just have to content yourself with last year’s set. Instead, I’ll close the book on CES 2015 with truly useful insight.

Not my insight, of course. In this case, it came from a conference session called “InternetTV – The Disruption – Skinny TV – Mega Premium”. CES has plenty of conference tracks, but in general I find that the speakers at conference sessions either tell me what I already know or merely promote their companies’ initiatives, usually just new products or services. But this session ran before the show floor opened and at the same time as the opening keynote address. Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a newsworthy CES keynote.

This conference session was better than most. The panelists discussed changing consumer behavior both caused by and driving internet-based TV viewing, especially as it related to the pay-TV bundle. Downplaying reports of widespread cord-cutting, Michael Goodman, Director of Digital Media for Strategy Analytics, said that millennials have always watched less TV and were less likely to subscribe to pay TV.  In support of pay-TV bundles, Jeff Binder, CEO of Layer3 TV, said, “I think that consumers have not changed a whole lot. Each household has different constituents that watch different channels.” That echoed an earlier statement by TiVo’s Evan Young, who said, “Consumers are not monolithic. It’s different if you’re single.”

Later, the panelists discussed the economics of multi-channel TV, largely agreeing the the content owners ultimately, albeit indirectly, set the price to consumers. Goodman saw that, for example, Netflix’s low-cost contracts with content owners would all eventually require renewal and renegotiation. “Netflix is not going to cost $9-10 (per month) a year from now,” he said. “It’ll be $20 or $30.”

It was all surprisingly meaty, interesting discussion about the always unknowable future, with equal doses of inevitable change and unyielding status quo. But it was Kris Alexander, Chief Strategist at Akamai, who distilled the future of TV into one sentence. When it comes to competing TV systems, Alexander said, discovery and curation are critical.

That was a great thought to keep in my head for the rest of the show. When Tablo, Channel Master, TiVo and even SiliconDust were showing off their latest, they all were looking to offer new channels and suggestions to the viewer. When I would mention those two keys to the TV future, exhibitors would pause, then nod in appreciation for that clear vision.

As we move toward free TV (as in free speech, not free beer) where every viewer can choose what to watch and when to watch it, the winning viewing platform will be the one with the easiest interface and the best suggestions. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out on top.