Comparing Sling vs. DirecTV Now with VPN

Logos for Sling TV and DirecTV NowI’ve had a Sling TV account for a few months, and I signed up on Day One for DirecTV Now. After a week of playing around with both, I can say that which service you prefer will depend on what you want out of it.

The channel lists and prices have been hashed out elsewhere. My favorite set is Sling Blue ($25/month) with NFL Network though not ESPN. For a boatload of channels with everything but NFL, the $35 intro price for DirecTV Now also looks good. But there’s one feature of both services that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere – how well do they work with a virtual private network (VPN)? Can subscribers access out-of-market TV channels if they appear to be connecting away from home? The answer is often yes.

Sling appears to rely on IP location to qualify viewers. When I VPN into any market then launch Sling, I can see any local Fox and NBC channels it carries there, but not any regional sports networks. (ABC requires Sling Orange and a special request. Full list of available locals here.) As a test, I VPN’d into Dallas, used just a Zip Code and a Visa gift card, and was able to sign up for a Sling Blue account that includes Fox Sports Southwest. Of course all of that is only available if my IP address is in Dallas, and it only works on my tablet if location services are turned off. (Full list of available regional sports channels here.)

DirecTV Now uses browser-based streaming, so some browser-based recorders such as PlayOn might work with it. Sling uses a proprietary app even on the desktop, so third-party recording isn’t as practical. DirecTV Now includes ABC, Fox and NBC in some markets, and it includes regional sports from more markets than Sling. Since I have a legitimate Chicago mailing address (long story), I signed up for DirecTV Now in Chicago, and it includes Comcast SportsNet Chicago. But only with a VPN into Chicago, and only on the desktop. (Full list of DirecTV Now locals and regional sports networks here.)

When I launched the DirecTV Now app on my tablet, it refused to do anything until I turned on location services. Of course, with my location visible, the app offered only its cornucopia of national channels but nothing from Chicago.

You should keep this location-based limitation in mind if you’re hoping to watch local channels from the road. I imagine I’d have little recourse trying to watch Cartoon Network from Berlin or my local NBC station from another state. And if you want to sign up expecting to use VPN to watch your favorite locals, remember that these services might close that loophole any day now. (Come to think of it, using a VPN might violate your subscriber Terms of Service, so read that carefully.) Both services offer short-term free trials, so check ’em out. No matter what, it’s fun while it lasts.


See FCC, FTC chairs in person at CES

Alexis Ohanian talking at CES

Gary’s Book Club is another way to meet industry leaders. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, dropped by during CES 2015. (photo by the blogmeister)

Two of the best parts of CES every year are the chance to see industry leaders in person and the chance to learn about new trends. Some of those discussions are presented as SuperSessions, free to all conference attendees, and CES just released its SuperSession schedule for the January 2017 show, now just five weeks away.

The most important session for the future of TV, both broadcast and over-the-top, is on January 5, the same day the exhibit hall opens. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez will present their views for an hour starting at 11:30. Other SuperSession topics will include artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, and self-driving cars. You can find the full list here.

If you needed another reason to join me at CES, there it is. Just drop me a line so we can meet while we’re there.


Back from Europe

German newspaper rack showing Das neue Antennen-TV

What’s the selling point for this Munich newspaper? “The new antenna TV” section, subtitled “What you need to watch now”

I’m back from a week in Germany, and I know both more and less than when I left home. I don’t have any big stories, but I’ve got lots to ramble about.

At the Berlin Wall Memorial, I saw one of the first efforts at geographic restriction on TV, when East Germany told its citizens to turn their antennas away from the west. In nearby apartments, I saw normal oval satellite antennas with two LNBs. My budget hotel in Munich served up dozens of the same channels I see on my FTA receiver in the states. I guess those channels are just free anywhere.

Meanwhile, all three personal streaming services based in FreeTVBlog World Headquarters in Denver performed flawlessly. For the fastest look-in at what my rooftop antenna was receiving, the clear winner again was my venerable first-generation SimpleTV unit. I’d click the SimpleTV app on my phone or tablet, and in about 30 seconds I’d be watching the weather report from eight time zones away. (This also reassured my paranoia by proving that the house was intact, the electricity and internet service were on, and my valuables were still in place. Assuming that a burglar would consider an old SimpleTV unit valuable.)

To watch prerecorded shows, my Tablo also worked well. The wife and I caught up on some of our prime-time storylines the following evening, which was midday Denver time. The Tablo just takes a little longer to sync up before it’ll allow me to watch anything from home. But my true guilty pleasure was watching a couple hours of NFL RedZone live during a Munich Sunday evening thanks to my Dish Hopper 3 and Anywhere app. My previous Sling-loaded Dish receiver had streamed the way a dog walks on its hind legs – enough to surprise friends but not reliably. But this Hopper streamed flawlessly.

On the other hand, the Dish Anywhere app now allows subscribers to transfer recordings to phone or tablet for offline viewing. I pulled down a movie, but when I tried to watch it on a plane two weeks later, it said it wouldn’t play without refreshing my permission to watch it. Dish needs to communicate better about those limits.

I’m still decompressing, but I’ll always remember watching live Denver weather from a high-speed train zooming from Berlin to Munich. It’s just another minor miracle of the internet age.


Celebrate World Television Day

The United Nations declared November 21 as World Television Day, and 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of that celebration. We free-to-air enthusiasts should feel a special pride in that recognition, since we can see TV from over a dozen countries using just a medium-sized satellite dish here in North America.

As the UN puts it, “World Television Day is not so much a celebration of the tool, but rather the philosophy which it represents. Television represents a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world.” Personally, I see it as a corollary to Mark Twain’s quote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” When you can see that the game shows in Portugal look about the same as ours or that the news readers from Saudia Arabia use pretty much the same format, it’s a subtle reminder that all of us humans are, y’know, just people.

Advanced Television has a nice rundown of the impact of television in various countries around the world. And the European Broadcasting Union created a special commemorative video that I embedded at the top of this post. I feel a special affinity to European broadcasting right now. I’ll explain more in a few days.


SMPTE provides a glimpse of future TV tech

SMPTE logoThe SMPTE (Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineering) Annual Tech Conference was held last week in Hollywood. It’s one of those tools meetings, where most of the focus is on which technologies will carry the industry forward. Everyone wants the next big technological hit while avoiding perceived failures such as the 3D fad of a few years ago.

My buddy Andy Marken was on hand to cover the show in his own bite-sized style. For example, “Mary-Luc Champel, standard director for the MPEG ATSC (Motion Picture Experts Group, Advanced Television Systems Committee) noted that in studies as many as half of the folks got physically ill and that the industry would have to move slowly so VR didn’t suffer the same end as 3DTV.” Virtual reality is amazing, but maybe it’ll have trouble going mainstream? It’s much too long for me to run the whole thing here, but you should check out Andy’s full report and see for yourself.


Most folks still watch video on TV

Cartoon figure reclining and watching televisionThe Video Advertising Bureau released its latest State of Digital Video report (PDF), and none of its results are very surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention. Going by the number of minutes watched, 89% of video viewing was on a television set, 10% on a desktop computer, and only 1% on a smartphone. If you go by monthly reach, 93% watched TV but 83% used a smartphone. That just makes sense; no one uses their phone to settle in for a binge.

The VAB report also says that the smart TV is the fastest growing platform. If you drop by a Walmart or Target, it’s easy to see why; at least half of the TVs on the shelf are smart, and at competitive prices.

On the other hand, fewer people use desktop computers on the internet, and it looks like most of them switched to smartphones. Which is why I had to revamp this blog and to be mobile-friendly.

I could go on about all the info-nuggets from the infographics of the 33-page report, but if you’re curious, you really should go read the PDF!


Study shows growth in OTT subscribers

Parks Associates logoAlmost two-thirds of US broadband households subscribe to at least one over-the-top TV service. That’s one of the findings of a Parks Associates report released this week. The report that also lists the top 10 OTT TV service for US viewers and notes that all of them gained subscribers since last year.

Here’s that Top 10 list:

  1. Netflix
  2. Amazon Video (Amazon Prime)
  3. Hulu
  4. MLB.TV
  5. WWE Network
  6. Sling TV
  7. HBO Now
  8. Crunchyroll
  9. Showtime
  10. CBS All Access

Not only are these OTT services adding more viewers, those viewers are watching more often on their TV sets instead of their computers. “We are clearly seeing OTT video moving to the television,” said Brett Sappington, Parks’ Senior Director of Research. “OTT users watch OTT services on their TV screens between 17-20 days per month, much more than platforms such as a PC, smartphone, or tablet.”

There are a lot more details in the announcement about the report, so you really should go read it!


CES 2017 open for registration

Robot at CES playing beer pong

Where can you watch robotic beer pong other than at CES?

The January 2017 edition of CES (don’t you dare call it the Consumer Electronics Show) is now accepting registrations here. Every year, the show is a wonderful tumult of innovations in various stages of development (prototype, half-baked, blueprint, or vaporware). Some of those products will definitely make a difference in your life in just a few years, or even sooner. CES is also a great place to meet the people behind the TV innovations that we enjoy.

In past years, I’ve enjoyed some of you who read the blog, and it would be really nice to meet more. So sign up and drop me a line so we can get together and explore CES again.


Vudu freebies improve DVR+ experience

Logos for DVR+ and VuduVudu released some great news for Channel Master DVR+ owners. Now Vudu will offer thousands of ad-supported feature films to view for free. That’s true on all of Vudu’s platforms, but it’s an especially good match on the DVR+,  which doesn’t require a monthly subscription fee for its guide data.

According to an article in Variety, the plan is to squeeze a little revenue out of some of the older films on Vudu’s virtual shelf. I’m also guessing it’s a way to bring in a lot more viewers who might be persuaded to pay a few dollars to rent the latest Hollywood blockbuster. “There’s no better value than free,” said Jeremy Verba, VP and GM of Vudu. “We see a gap in the marketplace for watching free HD movies on-demand.”

Vudu has been on the DVR+ for a long time now, but every title had to be purchased or rented. (Vudu also regularly offers TV pilots that can be “purchased” for free.) With YouTube and over a dozen other digital channels, it’s a strong incentive for DVR+ owners to plug into the internet. With a good set of broadcast channels, there’s no need to pay for entertainment.


Hotel guests want a TV experience like home

2009 Hyatt TV interactive menu

A Hyatt TV menu from just seven years ago. Photo by Karl Baron

Remember when I mentioned that I spent a couple of weeks in Columbus OH over the summer? I thought ahead and brought the family Roku 3 receiver with me. Thank goodness Roku now has a procedure to supply the password for the hotel room to hook into the Wifi. (Although I was disappointed that Tablo never considered this scenario and wouldn’t play my home recordings on the Roku as it did on my tablet. But I digress.)

The memory of that stay popped right back to the front of my head when I read a press release from ADB of Broomfield CO, just up the street from FreeTVBlog World Headquarters. Announcing its 2016 In-Room Entertainment Preference Study, the press release promised “reveals eye-opening conclusions” that lined up with what I’ve experienced.

Hotel guests want interactive program guides. When a guest arrives, he wants to know what channels are available and what shows are on tonight. That’s so obvious to me that I once prototyped a web site to match each individual unit; subscribing hotels would maintain their channel lists on a service such as TitanTV, then provide an easy URL to guests when they arrive. That idea still might work, but it doesn’t top the immediacy of an on-screen interactive guide.

Hotel guests want to be able to stream OTT content like at home. See my Roku.

Hotel guests want to read their hotel-related messages on the screen. Like on-screen checkout? That’s been available in the big hotels for what seems like forever.

Then at the end of the press release comes the punchline. “ADB used the findings from this study to reinvent its iTV platform called vuTyme. … vuTyme also offers Searchable IPG, OTT services access like Screencasting from BYOD, direct-to-guest messaging through the TV and more.”

I have no idea whether this vuTyme is better or worse than its alternatives. But ADB is right when it reminds hoteliers what their guests really want.