Riga (Latvia) Radio and TV Tower, as seen from beneath it

Riga (Latvia) Radio and TV Tower
©Depositphotos.com / amoklv

I don’t usually talk about radio, but I’m inspired by Rocco Pendola’s column in The Street last Friday. In short, radio station KNDD in Seattle has issued the 2 Minute Promise, to never play more than two minutes of commercials at a time. Also, the promise includes cutting the number of commercials played per hour in half, and not firing disc jockeys to pay for the promise. Pendola wrote that a Fresno CA station followed by promising to play no more than five minutes of commercials per hour.

Pendola wrote that this makes the remaining ads more valuable because they aren’t buried 10-deep, and presumably they’ll play to more listeners. It’s a way to regain listeners who might have rejected radio for Pandora, Spotify or other streaming music.

That all reminded me of Americans For Responsible Advertising, or AFRA, a non-profit group dedicated “to make Americans aware of the extent to which they are exposed to commercial and noncommercial (e.g., political) advertising and to false, misleading, offensive, and abusive advertising in particular.” According to an AFRA report (PDF), the weeknight national news shows of NBC, CBS, and ABC average 8 minutes of commericals per half hour. If news shows run 16 minutes of ads per hour, it lines up with a Nielsen report, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, that the average commercial time on broadcast TV is over 14 minutes per hour, and on pay-TV networks, almost 16 minutes per hour.

The Times story mentioned one side-effect of so many ads. “The rise in commercials likely will concern some marketers who fear their spots are being lost in all the ad clutter,” it wrote. “Also, as more viewers embrace digital video recorders, many of those ads are being lost to the fast-forward button.”

Sounds like the same problem that radio faces, with consumers increasingly interested alternatives to an increasing load of advertisements. Imagine if broadcast TV tried a similar solution: Cut back on the number and length of ad breaks, and make sure the public hears about the change. Maybe if the change sweeps radio stations, it’ll leak through to TV.

Damn. Sometimes I hate being right.

I predicted that the US Supreme Court would find some excuse for a narrow decision to deny Aereo the right to stream over-the-air TV over the internet. But I couldn’t predict the reason because it’s just too goofy: Because Aereo is like a cable system, it should be bound by cable system rules even though Aereo was designed to avoid cable system rules. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has a much more thorough analysis that you should go read.

Aereo founder Chet Kanojia put it well in a post on his blog: “Today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court is a massive setback for the American consumer. We’ve said all along that we worked diligently to create a technology that complies with the law, but today’s decision clearly states that how the technology works does not matter. This sends a chilling message to the technology industry.”

In the Broadcasting & Cable article on the decision, FilmOn founder Alki David was his usual hyperbolic self. “This huge blow to net neutrality and consumer rights proves my mistrust of the courts is well founded and that the policies and agencies that are supposed to protect the public interest have failed,” David said. “They are indeed mere tools of a handful of corporations intent on keeping the people in a stranglehold of bad cable service at extortionist fees.”

David exaggerates, but I don’t know by how much. Our political system is broken. Money, mostly delivered by a tiny group of donors, determines who gets elected and therefore what happens. Congressional representatives have to spend half their time just raising more money from a well-connected few. As a result, corporate interests routinely trump the good of the people.  That’s why I’ve donated to Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, which hopes to build enough support to implement meaningful campaign finance reform ironically by raising money to support candidates who agree.

Lessig had been interested in copyright reform, trying to find the right balance to give content creators a finite period to profit from their works while growing the pool of resources that other creators can reuse and repurpose. After a few years of writing on the topic, Lessig had the epiphany that copyright reform would never happen until the underlying problem of money in politics was solved. (You can find most of Lessig’s books available for free download at his personal blog.)

Click on the YouTube video at the top of this post and see for yourself. MayDay has ambitious goals, but they’ll need to reach theirs before we’ll all be able to watch live TV through Aereo again.

Tablet TV prototype

Tablet TV prototype

Aereo lost its Supreme Court case, and if you want to read more about that, check the post above this one. Meanwhile, I wanted to mention a few choices you’ve got for streaming TV over the internet.

(Mind you, as I type this, Aereo still has its signup page active and FilmOn still lists a few dozen out-of-market over-the-air TV channels, so we might be waiting for some lower-court injunctions to take effect before they go away.) Update: On Saturday, two days after the ruling, Aereo signed off and FilmOn began requiring a subscription to view its US OTA channels. John Eggerton has the full story at Broadcasting & Cable.

For sheer versatility, nothing beats a Windows 7-based Media Center with a TV tuner. Getting it to stream is a little trickier; perhaps Remote Media Center is the answer? I’ll have to fiddle around with that one day.

I was very impressed with the Tablet TV prototype that I saw at the NAB Show a couple of months ago. I pointed out a couple of flaws: Its telescoping antenna was vulnerable to accidental bending (if my experience with telescoping antennas is any guide) and there was no way to plug in an exisiting TV antenna. But from what was working, Tablet TV had a nice interface for live OTA TV and maybe even a DVR. It’s something to look forward to.

Today, DVR+ maker Channel Master announced that it would offer Aereo subscribers a discounted package that includes an OTA antenna, a DVR+ receiver, and a USB WiFi adapter. That offer’s good through July 6; click the link for more information.

If you have a New York City address (cough), there’s always NimbleTV for the NYC affiliates of the major OTA networks, plus whatever package of Dish Network channels you want to buy. NimbleTV says it passes through subscribers’ payments to the content providers, or something like that, so it probably won’t be affected by the Aereo decision.

(Speaking of Dish, its Dish Anywhere service with the right receiver can stream OTA TV too. But that’s a fairly expensive alternative to Aereo, which was designed to attract viewers who didn’t want to subscribe to pay TV.)

My current favorite OTA delivery mechanism is my rooftop antenna and Simple.TV, which performed as flawlessly for me from across the Atlantic as it does on my home system. It requires an extra link such as a Roku box to make it to your TV set, but it streams fine to my phone or tablet anywhere. Simple.TV’s system for helping viewers schedule shows is still the best I’ve seen so far. Find an antenna and check it out!

NFL Network booth in Times Square

© 2014 Depositphotos / zhukovsky

I spent some time in Europe the past few weeks. It’s great to hang around in London and watch Sky try to lure subscribers with the very notion of relatively inexpensive pay-TV, because the set of free channels is so broad and culturally expected. (Yes, I know that Britons pay the equivalent of about $10/month as a license fee already.) It was also a great way to stop pondering Aereo for a while.

I don’t like to write depressing stories, and my take on Aereo is just that. As I wrote in a Broadcasting & Cable comment, I expect that corporate interests will compel the US Supreme Court to block Aereo, although I expect the justices will need to find a way to do so without breaking various cloud computing precedents. Therefore, my guess is that the court will rule narrowly that Aereo’s multiple-antenna setup is the same functionally as a single antenna, so it loses. Waiting for the Aereo decision, expected any day now, is for me just waiting for the shoe to drop.

Today, The Washington Post reported that an Aereo victory would “change how we watch football”. The timing of that story is interesting, considering that the New England Patriots’ web site carried an independent story with similar talking points hours later. Then the Consumerist came along to debunk the Post story, saying that the NFL would not be significantly damaged. I don’t think either side of this argument got it right.

At present, Aereo only serves subscribers in a particular home TV market. Even if a valid subscriber is on the road, Aereo won’t let him watch TV from home. (On the other hand, my home-based SimpleTV receiver performed like a champ, letting me watch my local shows from a Paris hotel room. But I digress.) The Consumerist seemed to take this as a permanent restriction, so local viewers would only be watching the local stations they could get over-the-air anyway. But FilmOn, which piggybacks Aereo’s justification, streams out-of-market broadcast TV now and would probably carry more Fox and CBS affiliates as soon as it could. And Aereo might do something like that after its legal clouds are gone.

Then the Consumerist suggested that because it’s not easy to switch between distant OTA channels, then NFL Sunday Ticket should remain untouched. No, you just don’t get it. A very large percentage of Sunday Ticket customers are folks who love one out-of-market team and watch to watch that team’s every game. Once in a while, the idea of a slightly less expensive Sunday Ticket, limited to one team, is brought up then quickly discarded. Letting that chunk of subscribers walk away to Aereo or FilmOn would cost real money. But the online model is so tech-driven (for now) and so dependent on reliable high-speed internet that such mass migrations wouldn’t occur for years.

If Aereo wins, I’m sure the networks and sports leagues will run straight to Congress to get new protection laws. Should the NFL move further to pay-TV (remember, it already moved Mondays and some Thursdays), it woud just join every other major US sports league in abandoning OTA TV. At least we’ll still have the FIFA World Cup, in Spanish.

Southwest Airlines plane on several different-sized screensA few weeks ago, I posted a list of Frontier Airlines’ inflight TV channels, but I never got around to posting a list of the TV channels that I had available on my Southwest Airlines return flight.

As with the Frontier list, I couldn’t find anything online that actually provided the names of each channel. On a page on the Southwest site, it mentions “17 live channels,” which is a very specific number. As far as I can tell, it’s also accurate. Here are the live channels I saw:

Fox News
MLB.com *
Food Network
Animal Planet
Fox Business
Travel Channel
NFL Network (for real this time)

* That MLB.com is not the MLB Network; it showed live major league baseball games as served up by MLB.com.

As with Frontier, only ABC is missing from the Big Four broadcast networks. There aren’t as many live channels, but I appreciate getting the Travel Channel and the real NFL Network. Southwest also offers a bunch of on-demand TV episodes while Frontier adds a couple of passive channels of TV shows and movies. Based on the lineups alone, Frontier and Southwest are pretty similar.

There are two big advantages for watching TV on Southwest. Thanks to a promotion with Dish Network, which provides the programming, all those channels are free to watch. And instead of being stuck with a phone-sized standard-definition screen mounted in the seat back, these channels are streamed over inflight WiFi to the carry-on device of your choice. I saw a lot of passengers watching on laptops and tablets, all of which had better picture quality than the pioneering Frontier screens.

So there you have it. If you really want to know what to expect to watch for free on your next Southwest flight, that list will probably stay good for the rest of 2014 and maybe longer. Bring your tablet and enjoy the ride.