Television in graveyard.

© DepositPhotos / iofoto

If you haven’t noticed, Dish Network’s abrupt suspension of service to nimbleTV customers has reached the tech news mainstream. Peter Kafka at All Things Digital ran the story yesterday, including quoted statements from Dish and nimbleTV. He also included a reference and link back to FTABlog. (Thanks!) If this is your first time here, welcome, and feel free to read more about nimbleTV and other stuff.

Kafka posted his story about 2 pm Eastern Time. About a half hour before that, I got the latest customer update from nimbleTV, this one signed by CEO Anand Subramanian. He asked nimbleTV customers to “stand with us” to defend the right to purchase and watch TV from anywhere. “By being an early customer of nimbleTV, you are helping pave the way for the TV of tomorrow,” Subramanian wrote, adding “we promise you’ll have (service) back soon.”

What we still don’t know is the reason why Dish shut down nimbleTV’s programming. According to the statements in Kafka’s article, it might have something to do with being erroneously considered an official Dish reseller. “While we have been upfront with our customers that nimbleTV has no direct relationship with any TV provider, Dish did not want our Web site to mislead others into thinking that we have a direct affiliation with Dish,” Subramanian told Kafka. Dish’s terse statement was, “NimbleTV is not an authorized Dish retailer, and is not authorized by Dish to market or promote our services.”

Even if that’s what Dish told nimbleTV, I’ve got a hard time believing that’s the real reason for pulling the plug. Dish is not oblivious enough to miss nimbleTV as it went through its lengthy beta and public launch, only to notice it two weeks ago. I’m still guessing that something changed, either with different personnel within Dish or because of a suggestion by an outside party. I wonder if we’ll ever know.

Meanwhile, nimbleTV endures. I’ve always thought it’ll be easier for nimbleTV to import programming to the US than the other way around, mainly because I don’t know how hard it’ll be to line up pay-TV subscriptions in other countries. The statement that nimbleTV gave me today lines up with that idea. After noting that it doesn’t plan to partner, per se, with any pay-TV provider, the statement concludes, “In addition to doing everything possible to have nimbleTV service up as soon as possible for the customers who have grown to love their nimbleTV, the company is expanding the business and will soon be adding new provider options from the U.S. and abroad.”

And that’s where we’ll leave it until nimbleTV starts serving up programming again. Coming up next on FTABlog, the over-the-air DVR that you already have but don’t know about.

Test pattern on old TV before clouds

© DepositPhotos / Xavier Gallego Morell

You remember that when I last wrote about nimbleTV, I told you about this great new service that allows out-of-market viewers to subscribe to a pay TV service over the internet. At that time, the only service it offered was Dish Network. Now it appears nimbleTV doesn’t even have that.

Although I can’t get anyone to comment on the record about it, what I do know suggests that Dish abruptly cut off nimbleTV last Friday. If that’s true, it could have been because Dish’s programming partners pressured Dish to stop service to out-of-market viewers. Or it could have been that Dish didn’t like how nimbleTV can combine the output of several receivers to any given customer. Or it could have been a Dish billing hiccup when its system noticed all the subscribers with out-of-market service addresses. Or it could be something completely different.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly from nimbleTV is that it plans (hopes?) to restore service in about two weeks. Does that mean that nimbleTV is negotiating with Dish to restore service? That it’s scrambling to find another programming source? That it has another source already lined up, and that it’ll take about two weeks to swap out all those receivers and change nimbleTV’s programming database? That Dish promised to fix its billing hiccup in about two weeks? Or that suggesting a fixed length of time keeps customers happier when you’re working to solve an open-ended problem?

Here’s the timeline of what I know. On Friday, nimbleTV went off the air for some subscribers, perhaps all of them. Then Friday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out an email that said in part, “nimbleTV is currently undergoing system maintenance and upgrades owing to unforeseen circumstances. … Our team is working hard to restore the service and we hope to be out of maintenance soon.”

Saturday evening, nimbleTV sent out a longer note. It included the understatement, “The maintenance period is going to last longer than expected.” The email also included the first real hint of what happened: “We have found that a billing change in the TV provider’s portion of the charge has affected a number of our subscribers. Your account seems to have been affected by this as well. We are working with the TV provider to resolve such issues going forward. It may take up to two weeks for the billing issue to resolve completely and for service to be restored.”

Sunday afternoon, nimbleTV sent out a shorter recap, primarily emphasizing that it will issue refunds to affected subscribers. “The reason for these issues is due to the TV provider putting a hold on your service, we are investigating the reason behind the un-notified hold.”

Since then, I’ve been asking everyone I know at Dish and nimbleTV for further comment, and all I can get are reiterations of the same information. Heck, I can’t even get anyone from nimbleTV to say the word “Dish”. For example, nimbleTV’s PR guy told me that their official statement is “nimbleTV is aware of service issues which some users are experiencing and is in the process of addressing them.” He wouldn’t say anything else.

Thank goodness for Twitter; searching it shows that I’m not alone. Several other users are reporting the same stuff I’m seeing. One tweeted, “hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for the service.” As long as nimbleTV refuses to tell the world what’s wrong, all we’re left to do is imagine the worst.

Update: A commenter helpfully pointed to a tweet by Dish Retailer News (@RetailerNews) from July 10: “Retailers- Important RetailerNews regarding NimbleTV. Please read” a password-protected link. Hmm.

Screenshot of a nimbleTV presentation at The Paley CenterYesterday, I wrote about how cool nimbleTV is for the viewer. Today, I’ll take a closer look at what’s going on under the hood and what’s in nimbleTV’s future.

Let’s start with the presentation that nimbleTV founder Anand Subramanian gave at The Paley Center for Media last year. (You can watch it by clicking here or on the screenshot I’ve embedded to the right of this sentence.) His idea was pretty basic: Let anyone subscribe to any pay-TV service anywhere, then pay nimbleTV to stream it anywhere in the world. As he described it at about the 9-minute mark, “Everybody is whole. The consumer is paying for the subscription. And the TV provider is getting paid its full retail TV subscription. And the TV provider is paying the content person, so it keeps the industry fully whole.”

That strategy has worked to a certain extent. We haven’t heard the TV networks complaining about this service “stealing” free over-the-air TV to stream to subscribers. Then again, nimbleTV has been staying fairly quiet compared to its sometimes flamboyant competitors. But I can’t help worrying about when that “content person” is going to find something else to complain about. More about him later.

But let’s get back to what’s going on under the hood. Let me start by saying that I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. At least not directly. I had a great conversation with Sanjay Patel, nimbleTV’s vice president of marketing, and all he would tell me about the technical details was that they were proprietary. But in a couple of weeks of playing with nimbleTV, I picked up a few clues about its black box:

  • It’s definitely getting its content from Dish Network. There were Dish house ads in some of the usual programming breaks, and the channel numbers match.
  • It’s probably getting the Dish feed through satellite dishes in New York City. When severe thunderstorms hit NYC, they knocked out nimbleTV’s content for a little while.
  • As a test, I was able to successfully record nine programs simultaneously. That would require nine tuners, and would be impossible with any normal Dish receiver.
  • All recordings are automatically padded by a couple of minutes before and after. Great idea, by the way; I wish FilmOn would do that.
  • Not all channels of a given Dish package are carried in its equivalent nimbleTV plan. Most of the missing channels are religious and shopping channels, so they aren’t really missed.

Add to these clues Subramanian’s assertion a year ago that recording would be infinite and based in the cloud. (As I mentioned yesterday, the virtual DVR is now limited, perhaps as an opportunity to upsell more space.)

I’ve got a theory, maybe just a wild guess, based on all of this very limited data. Suppose that nimbleTV set up a bank of Dish receivers or their equivalents, with each of their tuners viewing a different channel. Then suppose that nimbleTV took the output from all of those tuners and magically digested them into a form that’s easier to stream yet multiplied to all subscribers. Further, suppose that nimbleTV’s magic grid also recorded and stored each program to serve up on demand to each subscriber who virtually recorded it. That system would make it easy to promise an infinite virtual DVR. That system would explain why nimbleTV would be reluctant to furnish extra, unpopular channels. And that hypothetical system could get nimbleTV some legal attention if the details came out.

In the truly wacky world of TV copyrights, making copies of anything for any reason is just asking for trouble. Fox’s Hopper lawsuit against Dish includes a complaint that Dish allegedly makes an internal copy of Fox’s programming for quality control. Copyright law is the reason why Aereo had to go to the ridiculous length of giving each subscriber his own tiny antenna rather than using a single central antenna. So if, hypothetically, nimbleTV stores just one copy of last night’s South Park episode to serve to every viewer who requests it, well, that just sounds like trouble. Then again, it’s possible that nimbleTV’s internal workings bear no resemblance to any of my wild guesses; one would presume that they’re perfectly legal. Patel told me that nimbleTV folks “make sure we comply, not only with our partners, but legally as well.” So I just don’t know.

No matter how it serves programming, nimbleTV might still run afoul of that “content person”. A lot of those people have fixed ideas about their markets and how they want them divided. The folks who syndicate Wheel of Fortune usually sell exclusive rights within a market and get a premium for that exclusivity. A station in Boise, for example, might not pay as much if enough Boise viewers watch the New York feed of the Wheel. And consider that every New York pro football game will be available. Do you suppose the NFL will mind losing some New York expatriate Sunday Ticket subscribers?

And that’s just a US focus. Patel said that nimbleTV has a good percentage of international users. Before nimbleTV came around, “being able to watch live US TV has never been easy,” he said. As nimbleTV adds more broadcasting cities, US viewers will be able to pay for foreign TV just as well. And again, international rights can be another source of friction from content people.

NimbleTV’s line has stayed the same since the Paley Center presentation. Pay-TV providers are adding subscribers that they might not get any other way, and everybody’s getting paid just like normal. I’m not as sanguine about content people being satisfied with that picture, but I hope that nimbleTV stays around for a long time.

nimbleTV logoIn my last post, I told you about a way to watch lots of distant local over-the-air TV stations through FilmOn. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that local station page is still available; I doubt that it will be sustainable over the long run. During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been transfixed by another service with a better chance for success, just because it hasn’t been sued by any TV networks yet. That service is nimbleTV, which currently offers most of the New York City OTA channels along with a smattering of other content.

NimbleTV, which I need to capitalize at the beginning of a sentence, was founded on the idea “that people should have the freedom to watch their pay cable/satellite TV subscription from anywhere they are, anytime they want and on any device.” That’s pretty close to the motto of this blog: TV wants to be free. In broad strokes, nimbleTV establishes a paid subscription for you in one of its points of presence, then adds a bit more cost to cover streaming and some virtual DVR space. To the cable system or satellite company, you’re just another local subscriber, but you get all the benefits of that subscription even if you’ve never visited that town.

Barely out of beta, nimbleTV has only one TV source at the moment – Dish Network in New York. It so happens that Dish has an incredibly inexpensive Welcome Pack that it offers to lure new subscribers and sometimes to retain possible deserters. NimbleTV built its Casual Watcher plan on that Welcome Pack, so it can provide the most Dish-delivered New York locals plus TBS, Comedy Central, and a few other channels for less than $30 a month. (Edit: Dish provides one local, Azteca, that isn’t carried by nimbleTV.) That plan also includes 20 hours of virtual DVR, with more space available at $1/month for every extra 10 hours. The Casual Watcher plan presents all of its pay channels in standard definition (they still look great on my iPhone) unlike nimbleTV’s other two plans, which also include 90 hours of DVR space. Those upgraded plans are TV Fan (based on America’s Top 120, about $55/month) and Enthusiast (America’s Top 200, about $80/month). Subscribers can also choose from four premium movie packages including HBO ($18/month), Cinemax, Showtime, and Starz ($13/month each).

For folks who are used to watching TV without paying (OTA and free-to-air satellite), that sounds like a lot of money. But for folks who are used to paying for TV, those are pretty good rates. If I wanted to subscribe to America’s Top 120 and keep a Dish DVR, the base cost would be about $60/month once any promotions wore off. A TV Fan subscription is cheaper than that.

The trick is that I’m comparing grapefruit and oranges. On a big screen, the satellite-delivered picture is always going to be prettier and more reliable than an internet-delivered picture. Also, when I say that nimbleTV’s packages are based on Dish’s, it means just that; they’re not a perfect match. For example, my Casual Watcher plan doesn’t include TV Guide Network, which is in the Welcome Pack. NimbleTV listings for the other two plans don’t include the music channels that are available with the equivalent Dish package. Direct subscribers to Dish also get more preview channels and on-demand perks, and a Sling-enabled Dish receiver can stream to more platforms than nimbleTV, which for now is mostly confined to iOS devices and computer browsers. On the other hand, streaming to my iPhone is a lot cleaner and easier with nimbleTV than with my Dish receiver.

One more drawback is that nimbleTV provides only those New York OTA channels that are delivered via satellite. Dish doesn’t carry the digital sub-channels, which means nimbleTV doesn’t carry Antenna, this, Cozi, Bounce, Live Well, PBS Kids, Qubo, or any other non-primary OTA channel. That’s where the less-expensive Aereo holds an advantage over nimbleTV, but Aereo only adds one pay-TV channel (Bloomberg), and most importantly, Aereo won’t sell to viewers outside the New York City market.

That’s nimbleTV in a nutshell. As I said, I’ve been having great fun recording and streaming NYC-centric programming along with a few other networks that I usually neglect in my regular America’s Top 250 subscription at home. (It’s easier to stand out in a group of 20 interesting channels than in 200.) You ought to go try it out for free to see whether that’s worth the moderate price. And come back tomorrow when I discuss who subscribes to nimbleTV, how it serves up all those streams, and its plans for the future.


Update: As of now, the page that this post describes is gone. Tip of the hat to a commenter for letting us know. If you’re still curious, here’s how that post read:

Preface 1: I’ve been holding out against writing more about FilmOn because I don’t want this to become the FilmOn blog. (Although somebody probably ought to start one, given how often FilmOn changes its channels and gets in the news and stuff.)

Preface 2: Once upon a time, I published a note about how to find some channels that were temporarily in the clear via free-to-air satellite. As always happens, those channels later ceased to be available. Some readers thought there was a cause and effect relationship between those events. I know that isn’t what happened, but it’s no fun when lots of folks despise you for a while.

Preface 3: Is it still legal to view (as opposed to send) streaming out-of-market over-the-air TV broadcasts? I think it is, but I am not a lawyer. If it turns out that I’m wrong, please consider this whole post as “never mind”. As always, consult your attorney to ensure that you are viewing content legally and lawfully.

Preface 4: I’m going to talk about a publicly visible web page URL with no sign of restrictions or other warnings. However, given the recent stories about internet visitors being threatened with decades of prison time for violating a site’s terms of use, I don’t want to take the risk that there might be some commandment that everyone must enter only through the front page or something like that.

So now that I’ve established that I can’t tell you anything, let me tell you what I found. The story starts with PlayOn, a product which “is both browser and media server for your Windows PC which lets you magically stream your favorite shows, movies, even your personal media files from your PC to your TV, smartphone or tablet.” (Always glad to see someone else who agrees with me that any technology you don’t understand is best explained as magic.) Anyway, I’ve been considering purchasing PlayOn to try out on my TV’s dedicated computer. I looked around for more information and found a forum for PlayOn users. I’ll leave the address of that site as an exercise for you, since I’m not sure about the legality of all the streams it discusses.

Anyway, one of the forum’s features is that users can post scripts that PlayOn uses to make virtual channel numbers or buttons or something like that. And some of those scripts pointed back to FilmOn, which has dozens of perfectly legal streams. And when I examined one of those scripts, it mentioned a particular page which had apparently every local channel it carries anywhere on its system. I’m not going to tell you that URL, but all of its pieces are in the previous sentence, or you can retrace my steps and find it.

On this page, FilmOn provides the streaming video for over 45 over-the-air broadcast channels from New York, Washington, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and Los Angeles. Most of them are the big four network affiliates, except in LA, where FilmOn lost a court fight. There’s also WPIX, WGN, KTLA, a couple of Bounce channels, a couple of Cozi TVs, and some PBSs. But no WWOR, no This, no MeTV or any of the other retro channels. On that same page, you’ll also find over 20 UK over-the-air channels, seven French channels, five Russian channels, over a dozen Arabic channels, and much more. I’ve been checking on it for a few weeks, so even though it might be gone tomorrow, I thought it was time to let you know about it.

It’s not perfect. These channels are only available in their “SD” feeds, which look blocky on a widescreen TV but okay in a computer window. There are streaming preroll ads when you first arrive and every time you change channels. But what do you want for nothing? I see them all without logging in, making me believe that they’re all available without a subscription.

That’s what’s available as I type, but change is inevitable! (Edit: See, I told you.) That page could last for months, or it might be gone by the time you read this. (Let me know in a comment and I’ll update this post.) Channels come and go all the time on FilmOn. Other FilmOn URLs that were visible in the past now just redirect to other, living pages. But until they leave, embrace the FTA viewers’ motto: “Enjoy it while it lasts.”