Spring flowersJust a short note to remind you that Daylight Savings Time begins for most of us this Sunday. Our weekend will be shortened, and we won’t get that hour back until October. At least the snow is melting and the flowers are thinking about blooming.

In particular, changing from standard to daylight time always makes the TV listings a little wacky. Different channels have different ways of expressing how they’re handling the 23-hour day, and the listing services don’t always translate it correctly. So if you’re in the habit of checking the movies & sports page to see what’s coming up, you might want to take those listings with an extra grain of salt. Or maybe with an extra hour, one way or the other.

a list of what used to be available FTA

A list from FTA's glory days

I was cleaning up some old bookcases when I came across a laminated FTA channel chart that I had made years ago. Back then, I was checking to see whether a commercial printer could do a particular kind of job, and I needed a test page to be printed in color and laminated. I used a list of channels the way I had ordered them on my FTA receiver. The result is over there next to these words.

What I didn’t know then was that I just happened to capture the absolute peak of FTA. Although it was almost all from one satellite, Galaxy 10R at 123 W, this was the very best lineup of Ku-band channels that would ever be available.

First there were the Caribbean channels, with ABC, CBS, NBC, and a WB/UPN hybrid. That set only stayed on G10R Ku-band for a few months, but while they did, they were a rare source of CBS and NBC programming.

This lineup still included The Tube and ImaginAsian. The former was a real music television service for grown-ups, and was founded by one of MTV’s old creators. The latter had interesting martial arts movies and was adding a fun MST3K-like show. Both eventually left Ku-band, then died months later.

And there were all those great OTA stations. Two ABC affiliates from Wyoming, usually showing the same thing. Three Fox affiliates, often showing three different pro football games. Three WBs, six UPNs, and six more showing that new upstart network RTN.

With that many quasi-independent stations, there was a lot of syndicated and sports programming as well. KQUP would show an amazing number of Seattle Sonics games every season. St. Louis and Kansas City baseball games were common. WNGS sometimes had four baseball games from three home teams in one week. And some seasons even saw some Texas Rangers and Houston Astros games.

I often wondered if these channels were sustainable FTA. That is, if enough people learned about them and started watching, would the networks and sports leagues force them all to go scrambled? This question was never answered; those stations went away in the wake of Equity Media‘s financial implosion. (Except for KUIL, which coincidentally left FTA soon afterward.)

I even miss the Spanish-language channels, even though I couldn’t understand them. It annoyed me to see so many channels with exactly the same programming, but at least there were occasional sports on the Univision and TeleFutura channels.

Today, all that’s left from this list of 42 channels is the Research Channel, the University of Washington, the Pentagon Channel, and Daystar. It’s nice to have something, but it’s fun to remember when we FTA viewers had everything.

TV under attackThe perfect complement to FTA TV is over-the-air (OTA) TV, and OTA is under attack. The FCC is talking about selling some of the OTA TV spectrum to folks who will use it for broadband internet. An op-ed column in The New York Times last week suggested that we should sell off all OTA TV spectrum. For folks who get free TV now, the column says that most can get cable or satellite pay-TV, then suggests that the FCC could require “a low-cost service that carries only local channels.”

This is crazy on several levels. Folks who love high-quality video know that OTA HD is usually much better than what cable or satellite provides. Folks who honestly cannot afford to waste even $20 a month on TV entertainment will not benefit if their free TV is taken away from them. And the idea that weather emergencies are best communicated via cable? When I had cable, the way I knew there was a storm in progress was that my cable had cut out.

There are some people who really want to get all of that juicy, wall-penetrating TV spectrum to use for their own commercial projects. Those airwaves belong to all of us, and I don’t want to see free OTA TV go away just to enable the latest internet access flavor of the month.

And while I’m talking OTA, another hot topic is retransmission fees. If a cable or satellite TV company wants to carry an OTA station, it has to pay a fee that it negotiates with that station. (If the company doesn’t want to carry an unpopular station, then the station can insist to be carried for free.) Every time the retransmission contracts come up for renewal, there’s a good chance for public posturing and the occasional loss of a channel to the company’s subscribers.

I’ll skip over the idea that because OTA stations use our public airwaves at very little cost, maybe they should be free to everyone. Given that retransmission fees are appropriate, the current system is inefficient and hurts viewers. The chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee says maybe a station should have to show that the cable or satellite company is bargaining in bad faith before it yanks its signal away. That’s not the right answer, either.

When an internet broadcaster streams music, it doesn’t have to negotiate with each song’s publisher. When a jukebox operator changes records, it doesn’t have to figure how much to pay each songwriter. The stakeholders in these cases negotiated mechanical royalties, ensuring that all sides get fair terms without having to bargain about every transaction.

That’s exactly what retransmission consent needs: a negotiated national contract. Fees could be based on size of market, audience share, the end-user’s bill, or any other appropriate factors. It could be tied to the cost-of-living index, it could have negotiated yearly increases, or it could just be reopened for fresh national negotiations every five years or so. The stations would get what’s fair, cable and satellite companies would get some cost assurance, and viewers could be sure that they’d get all the local channels that they’d paid for. Too easy?

Man pointing dish

We kept the same front-page logo

After much too much time finding problems and overcoming them, I’ve got FTAList.com version 2.0 available for public viewing. Just click this link to go directly there. Anyone using old .htm links will still see the old site, but you know better now, so you can see the new stuff.

The new site has a glossary (thanks for the suggestion), a troubleshooting section, and a fresher, cleaner look. The channel lists are now served dynamically, which means no more waiting for daily page updates.

The time spent getting everything updated has come at the expense of the channel updates (if that makes any sense), so the next few days will be spent getting that back under control. For example, ION (ion? Ion?) is apparently scrambled now.

Please go take a look and report any problems. The only one I’ve noticed so far is a problem with the borders of Deal of the Day in the front page using Internet Explorer 7. (Gotta fix that!) There are bound to be more, so either leave comments about them or use the Contact page (just fixed that one) to drop me a line.

Two fairly recent satellite books

Two fairly recent satellite books

There’s a real need for an updated, reader-friendly book about the state of satellite TV, especially for us FTA viewers. In the continuing quest to find this book, I read a couple of small editions that attack the topic from different directions.

The most interesting was Start a TV Station by Brock Fisher. This is a very small book. It’s just 77 pages, and those pages are just 5.25 x 7.75 inches. To put that in perspective, the user manual that came with my most recent FTA receiver was half an inch wider, half an inch taller, and 108 pages. It appears to be a print-on-demand book; mine included the date I ordered it on the back page.

But it’s selling pretty well, a few dozen a year on Amazon alone. It addresses a wish that pops up again and again in my emailbox: How can I start my own satellite TV channel? As he promotes his web site (www.tvstartup.com) as a one-stop shop, Fisher lays out the pieces you’d need to get your satellite channel going. He also discusses alternatives via OTA broadcast and internet streaming. And the best part is that he includes ballpark price estimates with all of these pieces, so the reader can start to get a handle on what it’ll take to get started.

There are problems with the book. The text and illustrations are frequently amateurish. The first word in the book is misspelled. The first picture is a poor screenshot of a LyngSat channel page. Typos and awkward grammar litter the whole book. The book ends without a summary; it flows straight from the last chapter to the glossary. And it’s not cheap; you’ll pay around 50 cents for each tiny page of content.

Yet there are signs of an author who might know what he’s doing. For example, Fisher points out that if you choose a satellite that’s already popular with FTA viewers, you’ll have a larger initial potential audience. If you’re hungry for this kind of information, then maybe you’re willing to forgive the medium and buy this book for the message.

The other book was The Satellite Technology Guide for the 21st Century by Virgil S. Labrador and friends. Compared to the first book, it seems as huge as an encyclopedia, but it’s really just 200 pages and only a bit taller.

The Guide has lots of problems, too. First is its odd, distracting font with hyphens, colons and semicolons that float much higher than normal. Labrador’s chapters, the meat of the book, are very short. For example, he summarizes the history of satellite communications in nine illustrated pages. While not at Fisher’s level, the text is often awkward, and occasional typos pop up. The longest chapter, on VSATs (Very Small Aperature Terminals, the two-way satellite communication you see at some gas stations, for example), was written by a guy who has a company that sells VSATs.

This book is better written and less expensive, but who is its audience? Executives who need a really quick overview of the industry? Curious hobbyists who want a short description of the technology? I mean, I’d like to read Labrador’s earlier Heavens Fill with Commerce, which apparently spends a whole book on satellite history. Maybe this example applies to the rest of the Guide – for each section, you can probably find a better, more thorough treatment elsewhere.

No two ways about it, I need to write an FTA book later this year. What chapters and topics do you think it should cover? Post a comment and let me know.