Yet another great thing about attending the NAB Show is watching demonstrations of the very latest TV broadcast technology. Sometimes those trial balloons are dead ends (to mix metaphors), but ATSC 3.0 looks like it could be a keeper. This next-generation digital platform packs more data in the same slice of bandwidth, and it natively supports more descriptive emergency alerts, better surround sound, the possibility of 4K ultra HD signals, and a lot of other nice features. Too bad it’s not compatible with current digital TV tuners.
Remember that the old analog TV standard was NTSC, and that was replaced in the US in 2009 by ATSC, a digital standard that allowed for high-definition TV. That was ATSC 1.0, and now the new 3.0 version is ready for testing.
The NAB Show hosted the first live North American broadcast using the ATSC 3.0 system, with a mini-studio and transmitter at the east end of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall and a receiver in a special “consumer experience” set of booths at the far west end of the hall.
If you want to dig into most of the details of the event, you should read Chris Tribbey’s account at Broadcasting & Cable. Also, before the show was over, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he would open the comment period on ATSC 3.0 this coming week. I just have a few more notes to add.
The Ultra HD display was underwhelming for me, despite the colorful scene. I think that the display monitor was a little small (maybe 50 inches?) to show off the UHD advantage. Then again, I think that’s a problem with UHD in general; it provides too little benefit at typical screen sizes.
Two women stayed at that little table from 8 am to 6 pm Monday, then from 9 to 6 Tuesday and Wednesday. They took short individual breaks (they told me, I never saw one) and chatted and smiled all that time. Amazing stamina in the bright lights.
The literal centerpiece of the tableau was a rotating bowl of very fake fruit. How fake? The bananas were blue. The oranges, red apples and green pears looked pretty normal, but the bananas were nowhere near yellow. It was an odd, unexplained choice for folks trying to show off their superior colors.
One of the projected uses for ATSC 3.0 is to send encrypted content overnight to a local storage device, allowing unlockable movies on demand. I’m always hesitant about using free airwaves to send pay-TV content, but that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, that’s always been a selling point with TabletTV, the one-piece over-the-air DVR that’s still hanging in there. (Its FAQ page mentions “In the future, TabletTV may offer ad-supported and video-on-demand services”.) Let’s see how that works out.
I’m back from the NAB Show, worth the trip as always. As I adjusted to the stingy oxygen supply of Denver air, I wondered whether I heard Google’s President of Global Partnerships Daniel Alegre correctly yesterday morning. Turns out that I did.
The setting was so tame – a closing keynote on the subject “Transforming TV – VR, Cloud and the Multi-Screen Revolution.” Through the first quarter of Alegre’s remarks, he concentrated mostly on reassuring the half-filled room of broadcasters that TV is not dead or dying. Then Alegre slipped in the first of his surprises. “Today, I’m excited to announce that, coming soon, Google Search will have live TV listings,” he said. (For the rest of those surprises, mostly about TV ads, see Alegre’s blog post, or you can watch the whole keynote here.)
Wait a minute! Did Google bury its announcement of a new product in the middle of a speech on the last full day of the convention? Dieter Bohn of The Verge heard that too, writing “IMDB and whatever you’re using as a TV guide are getting some competition.”
This could be really big news in this niche. There are only a handful of companies behind the TV listings that get shuffled, reformatted and fed to various online, print, and device displays. Of course Google’s data and advertising background would make it a natural to swoop in and take over.
I’ve got a lot more to share with you the next few days as I decompress from the show, including some virtual reality and a live test of the next broadcast standard. Stay tuned.
I wasn’t going to write this post for a couple of reasons. The first is something I learned in another life as a sports reporter: Never complain about the conditions in the press box, because most of your readers would be happy to switch places. The second is that writing about something that wasn’t a problem feels a little petty and boring. Then Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of Computerworld posted an op-ed about the security theater farce at CES. He got it mostly right, except that I saw some security dogs and a few extra guards around the Las Vegas Convention Center but he didn’t.
What happened was that a couple of weeks before the show, the CES folks warned that they were going to start searching bags and generally implementing stricter security at the show. As Vaughan-Nichols put it, “Many of us wondered how these new security measures would accommodate our usual trade show behavior. Was there any hope of making appointments on time?” You should read his report, but the short answer was that bag checks, particularly for press, were perfunctory at best. My photo of the back of Sands Hall, where (presumably) some exhibitor had placed a heavy wooden wedge to keep the emergency exits open, should suggest the true security level there.
And you know what happened? Nothing! Same as the year before and the years before that, when CES (or the International CES, or the Consumer Electronic Show, or whatever they were calling it at the time) was just as interesting a target for bad guys. In all the years I’ve attended CES, I’ve always felt perfectly safe at its venues. It’s a sad fact that if some moron wants to go on a spree, there’s not too much we can do about it before the fact. But it’s also true that statistically, I’m more likely to be hurt during the drive to the airport or slipping in the shower when I get home.
I’m a cynical guy, so I wonder about possible hidden motives. My theory is that the primary goal was to restrict bag size, especially those annoying rolling bags, to keep the exhibit floor area less crowded for the same number of attendees. That would also match the kind of response that Vaughan-Nichols experienced. If so, the plan worked very well, and I’m all in favor of it. I expect more of the same, including its labeling as “Security” to better convince Joe Rolling Steamer Trunk that they’re doing this for his protection.
Although I saw a whole lot of surprising stuff at CES this year, there was a lot more I didn’t see. A big part of that was because, due to other commitments, I had only one day to pack in all my meetings and booth tours and such. Since FreeTVBlog World Headquarters in Denver is so close to Las Vegas, I flew in on the horribly early first flight of the day and flew back on the last. In between, I had 12 hours in the Sin City, netting about 9 hours at CES. I had tried this tactic once several years ago, so I already knew that it was both possible and not recommended. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s worth it, but you really need two or three days to properly experience CES.
So that’s one reason why I didn’t see the new over-the-air DVR announced by Magnavox, not a name synonymous with cutting-edge digital technology. Another was that the DVR didn’t show up in the Magnavox parent Funai Electric’s exhibitor notes, and Funai didn’t have a booth per se. Anyway, CNet posted a review with some photos, which was helpful because the Magnavox press release page has posted only one article since 2012. CNet says that the DVRs “are all due out in the fourth quarter of 2016.” That’s a very long time from now. Sometimes products are announced at CES as trial balloons; remind me in November whether the Magnavox OTA DVR is any closer to a Best Buy shelf.
Another reclusive announcement came from Vidgo, but at least it had a proper press release to go with it. Vidgo is an over-the-top streaming service, currently in beta, with “the most channels of live linear TV and video-on-demand”. When I think of the most channels of OTT linear TV, I think of FilmOn, but I digress. Vidgo will be available in three tiers, offering “live linear premium, sports, movies, music, local and international content.” It says it will launch in US 15 markets by July, with nationwide coverage by the end of the year. Will Vidgo be a significant player or just a larger version of KlowdTV? Maybe we’ll know by fall.
Yet another streamer with a lot of channels is FreeCast, the more sophisticated name for the former RabbitTV. FreeCast announced its Select TV box, some sort of hardware version of its online aggregation service. The reason I don’t know more about it is that the FreeCast folks cancelled my appointment with them the day before CES opened, so all I know is what its press release said. These folks are masterful marketers, and the first RabbitTV product was really just its aggregation software on an important-looking USB stick, so is the Select TV something cool or a weak version of ChromeCast? I’ll let you know if I ever find out.
I’m back from CES (don’t call it the Consumer Electronics Show) for another year. There are so many things to talk about that I figured I’d write a notes column, but then a thought occurred to me: What’s the difference between a notes column and attractive click bait? Laying out those notes as a numbered list. So let me take another step towards modernization with these surprises from CES.
1. CES was as busy as ever. That doesn’t sound as if it should be worthy of a surprise, but its parent Consumer Technology Association had said it was tightening attendee eligibility and cutting out free exhibits passes. Those struck me as Cartmanland-style deliberate scarcity, or maybe just a grab for all that attendee cash on the table. In any event, my pre-show hotel price tracking indicated that demand was at least as high as last year’s record attendance, and my experiences at the show matched that estimate. We’ll get the official numbers any day now.Update: CES reports that the attendee number was about the same as last year, and the number of exhibitors rose by about 5000. That accounts for the increased hotel demand.
2. My one weird trick for Las Vegas transportation still works. Although CES promoted both Uber and Lyft with coupon codes, the best solution to get from McCarran Airport to the Las Vegas Convention Center remains the humble RTC bus. For just $2, less than the airport surcharge for taxis or those rider services, the 108 bus delivered me to the LVCC door. More and more visitors have figured this out, but as usual, there was still plenty of room on the bus.
3. There’s a company called FiveByFive that’s trying to do what Apple TV couldn’t – license enough live TV content to support a streaming platform. Its xFaire device and Beyond DVR service are supposed to bring 4K video to home subscribers, and its mockup demo screens show ESPN, HBO, Cartoon Network, and some local channels, although it doesn’t directly support over-the-air TV. FiveByFive CEO George Tang told me how networks want to support his offering, and that the service would launch later this year. I’d love to see that happen, but I won’t hold my breath.
4. Speaking of Apple TV, Tablo showed off the beta version of its interface for Apple TV. I thought its responsiveness on my Roku 3 was adequate, but the Apple TV version is so much faster that it makes me want to switch streaming devices. The Tablo beta app even includes voice-controlled navigation. I’m eagerly awaiting this release.
5. A company called Aura Media has built a product that I had often stitched together in my head. Aura has taken the open-source Kodi Media Center (formerly XBMC) software, added a nicer interface, and plopped it onto a new Android-based receiver with a built-in over-the-air TV tuner. The Aura receiver has all the ingredients to be exactly what the free TV enthusiast wants. I’ll post a full review here once I get a chance to run my sample unit through its paces.
6. Just before the show, chip company ViXS issued a press release announcing that it had introduced the CordCutter TV Stick, “a precedent setting, low cost, low power, small form factor solution to stream free Over-the-Air (OTA) content easily, seamlessly, and reliably to your smart mobile device.” But when I talked with a ViXS VP, he told me they were probably going to be partnering with another company that could bring such a device to market faster under its own brand. Wherever it comes from, that could be interesting.
7. Multichannel News’ CES notes included something I missed: a mention of Tubi TV making a deal with Starz to carry some of its original content. Tubi is a fine, free, ad-supported streaming service like Crackle, and it’s great to see it grow. Tubi wasn’t listed as an official exhibitor, another suggestion of how many meetings and contacts take place in town but outside the show.
8. Although TiVo still sells the Roamio OTA receiver that I wrote about in my previous post, it’s hard to find on the TiVo site. That’s a sign. TiVo now promotes its Bolt ad-skipping receiver as a superset of the Roamio OTA’s features, complete with a new $599 All-In (don’t call it Lifetime) service plan. The Bolt does a ton of amazing things with a great interface, but that’s seriously expensive.
9. Sling TV, of which I am a tiny shareholder through Dish Network, announced an updated user interface to better blend available shows and movies with what’s live. It’ll integrate ESPN3, add strips of Recommended content, and allow the viewer to Continue Watching interrupted shows. (I’m already very happy to see the addition of Turner Classic Movies on demand as part of the Hollywood Extra add-on package.) I’m looking forward to seeing this show up on my devices in the next month or two.
10. And speaking of Sling TV, Channel Master was deservedly excited about Sling TV’s integration with its DVR+. Its version of Sling matches what I see on my Windows Sling app, and the Channel Master folks told me that the DVR+ will continue to pass through whatever improvements Sling will make to its user interface. This free over-the-air DVR and low-cost streaming Sling make a very attractive combination.
11. Folks kept giving me TV antennas to test. There was PVC Antenna, whose Magic Stick looks just like a short, narrow piece of PVC pipe with a cord coming out of it. (Its fast-talking president, Omar Naweed, took some time to suggest that this free TV stuff is pretty good before I could convince him that I already know a little about the concept.) The much mellower Josh McDonnell of HD Frequency gave me a Cable Cutter Mini as a competitor to my current pick for best inexpensive antenna. And even Aura Media co-founder Cody Tuma was proud of the little telescoping, magnetic-based antenna he includes with the Aura receiver. I plan to test all of these and post the competition results here soon.
12. A recurring theme I heard from exhibitors is that cord-cutting is real and accelerating. Several reported increased interest in free over-the-air TV over the past year or less. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to change this blog’s name away from FTABlog. What do you think?