Before you look at the video at the end of this post, answer me this: What do the following have in common?

  • A wooden block of kitchen knives
  • A troll doll on a tricycle
  • A box cutter
  • Four crayons
  • Salt and pepper shakers
  • A can opener
  • A stapler
  • A squeaky green frog toy
  • A soda straw holder/dispenser, with straws
  • A hand drill

Those are many of the items on the table of surgical utensils shown on the video of Like a Surgeon by Weird Al Yankovic. It’s a testament to its comic density that they all flash by in one second (at 1:15 below), much too fast for any viewer to find in one sitting.

When Mad Magazine was still a comic book, Will Elder pioneered the practice of adding little gags in every background of every panel. Like a Surgeon is the closest I’ve seen to bringing that “Chicken Fat” effect to live action. Weird Al’s other 80s videos were funny (mostly), but never like the first three minutes of this.

MBC logoAs I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent a few days in Chicago last month. Every baseball fan should make a pilgrimage to Wrigley Field at least once. Nuff said.

Between my Wrigley tour and a game the next day, I had some time to spare. I happened to see a brochure for The Museum of Broadcast Communications just down the street from my hotel, so I went to check it out.

As a physical museum, MBC is a work in progress. The radio floor is laid out with a row of Radio Hall of Fame portraits and little else, but there are great old specimens of receiving equipment around the corner.

Upstairs on the TV floor, there are almost a dozen exhibits of old programming, but there’s arranged erratically. One is sports through the decades, another is children’s shows, another is sitcoms. But there’s no flow to the narrative, just different pull-outs of TV history, often Chicago-centric programming. There’s also a TV news setup in one room so you can try your luck at delivering a story from the anchor desk or a weather forecast in front of a green screen.

My guide at the museum kept showing me its different sections, and when we got to the TV area, he made it a point to mention that I really should check the archive of video that’s available online at Museum.TV, which happens to be the MBC’s web site. That archive was unavailable then, but a recent check showed that it’s a treasure trove now. MBC has hundreds of video clips available on demand. You have to register to view them, they’re pretty low-quality, and they use Windows Media Player, but this wealth of free TV history is just amazing. This feast for the TV historian gives me hope that the physical museum might get its act together too. Check it out!

Dyle screenshotThere’s an old fable about a dog lying in a manger. The dog can’t eat the hay in the manger, but it blocks the horse from eating. The moral: People frequently begrudge something to others that they themselves cannot enjoy.

So we turn our attention to Dyle, the latest flavor of mobile digital TV. As a service, it’s a dog. It uses TV station bandwidth to send a signal that only Dyle-approved devices can receive, and requires each device to be registered online to work. It’s using free bandwidth, but it only promises to remain free to viewers (which it ominously calls “subscribers”) through the end of 2012.

The problem Dyle purportedly solves is viewing live digital TV while moving, as in a car or train. Based on the FAQs, it might not work inside buildings, so I’m guessing that subways are out. It won’t work in airplane mode, so that leaves flyers out. You wouldn’t watch it while driving. So that leaves passengers on buses, cars, and trains, if they can pick up a signal inside one of those things.

Other reports such as this old Washington Post story suggest another reason for Dyle’s existence: To justify retaining bandwidth instead of letting the FCC hand it to cell phone companies to improve internet access. Or if broadcasters ever have to sell it, to improve that real estate so it isn’t a vacant lot. By creating a competitor to IP-based mobile video, broadcasters have built an plausible alternative to handing over that bandwidth.

Any new service is going to have a chicken-egg problem, but Dyle has few chickens or eggs. Despite some proof-of-concept standalone devices, mobile TV needs to be on the smartphone that’s already in the viewer’s pocket. But it was only last month that Dyle was finally able to announce the first Dyle-compatible phone, which uses MetroPCS service. (I don’t think the major cell companies are going to rush to embrace the technology that will help the FCC deny them bandwidth.) And stations? Dyle has exactly one in Colorado. And that’s one more than in at least 10 other states. In Washington DC, where you’d think they’d be showing it off to FCC staffers, Dyle has five stations. A cornucopia of entertainment it ain’t.

I have zero knowledge of Dyle’s internal decision-making, and I’ve been wrong before, but I see Dyle as a service that takes away free publicly licensed TV bandwidth that could have been used for more digital sub-channels such as MeTV and Antenna, and then spoons it out to the few “subscribers” who might actually use it. I don’t mind setting aside a little room for broadcast mobile TV, but Dyle is a dog.

 

After running through a few of the best 80s videos, it’s time to remind ourselves that there’s a wide base of mediocrity supporting the top. Here’s a very remarkable, if not especially good, video that uses a song with some history.

In 1972, Elliot Lurie wrote and sang Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), which became a huge #1 hit for his band Looking Glass. Trouble was, the ballad wasn’t a typical song for the group, which used a different lead singer for most of its work. Looking Glass is often called a one-hit wonder, but that isn’t quite accurate. A year later, Lurie wrote and sang Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne, another ballad with a similar tone, and it peaked at #33.

A decade later, the singer Josie Cotton picked up Jimmy Loves Maryann (with improved spelling) to follow her few minor hits. This cover was even more minor, peaking at #82 and completely escaping my notice in 1984. I only noticed it a few months ago after a note that the song had been covered. But what a video! It contained so many 80s video cliches:

  • Motorcycle, with helmet-off reveal
  • Jugglers
  • Tumblers
  • Snake-handlers
  • Mimes
  • Guy with a whip
  • Gratuitous flame-breathers
  • And a circle of candles

Most of which were whizzing by in the background, as if to distract us from the singer. And oh yes, absolutely none of which had anything to do with the song. That’s a pet peeve: If you have a good story already in your song, why not make a video of that story?

Anyway, for a concentration of pure 80s-excess fever dreaming, check this out:

ivi mug and FilmOn USB deviceIn my last post, I mentioned that my current ATSC USB device is a rebranded Hauppage. FilmOn threw it in when I purchased a one-year subscription around the first of the year.

FilmOn is the service that streams over 100 channels of video for less than $15/month. As first a visitor, then a subscriber, I’ve watched FilmOn throw everything they could find into its product, and most of it works.

FilmOn was launched in the US just a few days after ivi.tv began. ivi streamed over-the-air broadcast signals, many of them out-of-market, by citing an obscure clause in US copyright law. The broadcasters sued, saying that clause didn’t apply here. A preliminary injunction effectively shut down ivi in February 2011, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that injunction last week. Todd Weaver, ivi’s founder, told me that he’s still not sure what his next step will be.

FilmOn also started with streaming OTA channels, and its preliminary injunction came before ivi’s. FilmOn settled the lawsuit with the networks for $1.6 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Then Alki David, FimOn’s founder, launched BarryDriller.com, another streaming site using the micro-antenna technology of Barry Diller’s Aereo service. (Since Aereo survived the networks’ first attempt at a preliminary injunction, that technology looked like a winner to FilmOn/BarryDriller.) That prompted a fresh lawsuit from the networks, BarryDriller is off the air, and that’s where we are now.

(While I was in Chicago, which happened to be just before the latest lawsuit, I was able to use my Denver-registered netbook to see the Chicago stations that BarryDriller was streaming. So BarryDriller must have been using an IP-based check to see where its subscriber was during the stream.)

Anyway, FilmOn has an interesting collection of channels, including such lesser networks as American Primetime TV, AMG TV, Free Speech TV, Fashion TV, and many, many more. It shows the major broadcast networks as “Coming Soon”. We’ll see. But meanwhile, the OTA device can be integrated into the FilmOn software, giving viewers with good reception another way to see all of their local channels.

To me, FilmOn and ivi represent two kinds of optimism. Weaver was so sure that his reading of the law was accurate that ivi’s excellent matching technology would create a whole new TV ecosystem. When he encountered dissent or barriers, he continued on, strong in his convictions. On the other hand, David kept weaving, adding and subtracting and tweaking FilmOn. When the networks shut him off, he launched a counterattack on CBS and whipped up the USB antenna for subscribers. David was just as confident in his cause, but looked for ways around obstacles instead of trying to march through them.

And that’s the state of streaming TV today. Ah, if only FilmOn were free to carry the UK OTA channels. I hear that it does if you are in Great Britain. Did you read any stories about how some US viewers used UK proxies to watch TV on the BBC’s streaming site? I’ve read those stories too. Do you suppose that’s legal?