Hammer on televisionThe president of the National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter to FCC asking it to stay out of coming retransmission fee disputes. In other words, the NAB doesn’t want the government to interfere when one of its stations holds cable or satellite viewers hostage for a better contract.

Now it’s normal for the NAB to want as much leverage as it can manage so its members can get as much money as they can get. That’s the capitalist way. What galls me is that the letter said the member stations want their negotiations to “remain free and market-based.”

When it comes to any given cable system, there is no “market” for broadcast programming. If a local system wants to show NBC, it can’t shop around to see which broadcaster will sell it at the best price. Its choices are to pay whatever the local NBC affiliate demands or to cause mutually assured damage by dropping NBC. The trouble with the second choice is that it hurts a lot of local NBC viewers as well as the station and the cable system.

For the public good, the government ought to get the cable and satellite systems to sit down with the broadcasters and hash out one equitable retransmission fee formula to be applied to the entire country. Such a formula would probably include an over-the-air channel’s percentage of viewers and the system’s number of subscribers. When a channel’s ratings go up or down, the cable or satellite system would adjust its payments higher or lower. If a channel’s ratings stayed below a certain threshold, it would receive no cash but would stay in the channel lineup, as with must-carry stations now.

The parties could revisit the formula every few years, and that would be it. We’d never see another local station go off a cable system over a retransmission dispute. The broadcasters would receive a truly fair, negotiated fee. But it’ll never happen unless and until the government folks (you know, we the people) insist.

Sezmi logo

This week, a unique delivery platform pulled out of the US market. Sezmi launched in Spring 2010 in Los Angeles, and it provided pretty standard TV fare in an unusual way. Sezmi subscribers used a special DVR to record normal over-the-air programming, pay-per-view movies (if they were hooked to the internet), and some cable networks. The difference was that Sezmi delivered those cable networks through an encrypted OTA signal that the special DVR unscrambled.

Taking a piece of OTA TV spectrum and using it for a pay-TV service is like putting a fence around some park land and charging visitors to get in. The presumption is that it’s a really bad thing for consumers. Sezmi wasn’t providing content that Los Angeles viewers couldn’t get from their cable or satellite TV providers; Sezmi was just doing it cheaper. And it’s easy to do cheaper when you piggyback on a public resource. That’s why I never liked Sezmi.

To be fair, Sezmi dropped the cable channel package less than a year later. It shifted its business model to be more of a standard OTA DVR plus internet-delivered movies. Which is what a Windows computer with Media Center will do for you for free, or what TiVo will do for you (beautifully) for a higher price. Whatever niche was left wasn’t enough, so Sezmi pulled the plug, shifting its focus to reselling its technologies to other providers.

Sure, Sezmi had stopped using OTA spectrum for pay-TV channels, but if I had given it any thought, I would have worried that Sezmi might start using it again if its national rollout of OTA DVRs had ever reached critical mass. So please forgive me for the shadenfreude, but I’m glad to see Sezmi leave town.

ivi.tv coffee cup

One year ago, ivi.tv launched its disruptive, revolutionary service of providing distant over-the-air signals via the internet. For months, it satisfied my craving to time-shift programs, to watch OTA sub-channels that haven’t made it to my market, and to generally see what other people get to watch. Then the big-money networks managed to get a preliminary injunction to shut down that OTA redistribution pending the resolution of their lawsuit against ivi.

Now CEO Todd Weaver is raising money to keep ivi’s court fight going. You can go to ivi’s fund-raiser site and chip in a few dollars or more. In return, you’ll get recognition, some free service if ivi.tv starts operating again, or maybe even a cool coffee mug like this one. (I bought it separately from CafePress several months ago. Now I can’t find it there, but I did find another page with T-shirts, tote bags, and a different ivi mug for sale.)

In general, you might want to bookmark ivi’s blog, where Weaver writes about ivi developments and mentions in the press. For example, it has links to August articles in Multichannel News and Forbes. (I tweeted both of those links, but didn’t mention them before in this blog.)

As I type, the ivi.tv platform is still operating, but shows only two free channels and two pay channels with limited audiences. They never listen to me, but I keep saying that ivi would be better off if they carried as many channels as they could. If you look at other over-the-top services, you’ll see dozens of other networks that apparently don’t mind being carried this way. If ivi lumped together 20-30 of the best channels, such as NASA HD, and charged maybe $2/month, they’d get some cash flow and we’d have another way to watch. And if ivi added dark placeholders for the OTA channels it could carry again with a little court or government help, that would remind us viewers that we could help the good old days return.

Summer break is over. I’d been waiting for some positive news to share, and this is it. NBC has launched a huge, searchable video archive of Saturday Night Live clips, including many that are available online for the first time. And included in those debuts is a character I’d been trying to find for years: Al Franken’s self-contained mobile satellite uplink unit.

In most of his reports, Franken refers to his “1.3-meter” dish. In his earliest segments his dish really looked about that large, but later he switched to this prop, which can’t be more than 30 inches. You can search for more of his reports, but this one is my favorite so far.