Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Aereo and Beyond

Now you see it, now you don't ...

Back in 2009, only five years ago, traditional broadcast TV fell off a cliff when the FCC mandated transition to digital took place. Mine was one of the homes "unprepared" for the change. (See here for the gory details.) Since I didn't subscribe to a cable service or have a digital TV I had to buy converter boxes that would feed an analog signal to my two dinosaur TVs that still used cathode ray tubes for a screen. 

This solution worked well for awhile and even provided additional channels that became available because the new format allows broadcasters to put out multiple feeds at slightly different frequencies. Then something else happened. The converter boxes killed my TVs. 

I can't prove it, but first one died, then the other, within months of each other. The circumstantial evidence was compelling. It's possible that the voltage of the output signal from those cheap and federally-subsidized boxes was too high and caused component failures in the TVs.

Well, it wasn't a bad thing, because it gave me an excuse to buy a new flat-screen TV with a picture as good as my computer monitor. With a digital compatible antenna I was pulling in beautiful HD video. What remained was the age-old question of what to watch.

The Wasteland

Broadcast TV was long ago dubbed "the vast wasteland," but we should face the fact that cable TV only differs in the extent of its vastness. A cartoon in the New Yorker once portrayed a man in a living room with a vast array of electronics, huge screen, and satellite dish visible out the window. With remote in hand he complains, "There's nothing on."

I had already tried DirecTV back in the '90s but eventually canceled it due to its inability to function during the frequent tropical overcasts that keep South Florida wet. Now I gave AT&T's Uverse a try, intrigued by the inclusion of a DVR.

Recording, of course, is supposed to be one answer to the what-to-watch problem. By browsing the listings and choosing what looks interesting in advance, you can build a collection of content to consume whenever it's convenient. No more missed episodes, no more “viewing by appointment” where you have to tune it at a certain time. You can even skip through commercials. What's not to like?

The price tag, for one. AT&T lures you in with reduced rates and cash rebates in hopes you'll get hooked on the service and not notice when you end up paying $160 a month or more once the regular prices kick in. $2,000+ a year to watch TV? Seriously?

First you realize that the base package of channels isn't so hot, so you have to go for one of the bigger packages. Then you realize that the default service is not even HD so you have to pay an extra $10 a month for that or else spend your time watching square pictures on your wide screen. Then you notice that the included local broadcast channels are fewer than the ones you can get over the air through your antenna for free – and the picture quality is not even as good.

Finally, to top it off, you pick up your cell phone or tablet to see what the new service offers you there, and discover that you can't access any live feeds or recordings without investing in some third-party hardware like a Sling box. There's a limited selection of movies you can stream, but you find you can only watch them on your phone -- not your tablet with the larger screen -- due to “copyright issues.”

With this litany of complaints is it any wonder that people en masse are cutting the cord that binds them to a form of distribution that may soon go the way of the video rental store? What else can a poor downtrodden consumer do?


For some time there has been Netflix, which was forward thinking enough to imagine Internet video distribution even before it was practical. Now that it's becoming commonplace they have really come of age. Their disc-delivery service is still the only way to get access to things that aren't available for streaming, but it seems only a matter of time before it will be possible to offer the entire catalog online, and those red envelopes will become a thing of the past. Like Blockbuster. (RIP)

The fact that Amazon has jumped into the game without bothering to start a mail-based rental program is a measure of the current reality. Of course if you want a disc they will he happy to sell you one, but they will also sell you a digital copy that will remain available in your “library” when you log into your account. I have not seen a guarantee that titles in your library will never expire, but if you consider that it will be the most popular titles that people will want to “own,” Amazon's storage problem is minimized, and putting a link to the video in your account incurs a cost with so many zeros after the decimal point that it can barely be measured.

The Set Top

Of course you need a way to access these services on your TV as well as on your computer. And for that one of the best solutions is also the least expensive. The humble little Roku, with a price tag well below a hundred bucks, has managed to sneak in under the feet of Apple and Google to claim a dominant market share of the set-top-box market. I've owned one since Netflix started to stream, but if you poke around in their channel store you'll find a wealth of other options – many of them free of charge. Things like the NASA channel, TED Talks, and PBS.

In my case I soon felt it worthwhile to shell out subscription money for some extra feeds: Hulu for old TV episodes (long live Rocky and Bullwinkle!) and Acorn TV for lesser known British TV productions. With my antenna still available for local broadcasts, I like my choices. And there will be more to come now that the likes of HBO have announced their intention to sell their services direct online, bypassing the traditional cable providers.

Enter Aereo

The only thing missing from this nirvana is the ability to record. Reluctant to shell out several hundred more dollars for something like a Tivo that was designed with cable in mind, plus a monthly fee forever, I thought I found the answer a couple of years back when Aereo came up with a novel scheme. Using a server farm equipped with thousands of tiny antennas (yes, they were really antennas), they offered to stream local TV for you over the Internet with the ability to make recordings. The monthly fee was less than Tivo wants for providing you with a channel guide, and amazingly enough the service worked great.

I signed up the instant Aereo went live in Miami and used it until their untimely demise (see below). I set it to record the PBS Newshour every night so I wouldn't miss anything if I got home late from work.. I could watch on my TV, phone, computer, or tablet. If I wanted to I could even watch remotely, though I seldom used that feature. It was Tivo without the Tivo, no box required.

Unfortunately the so-called “content providers” who are broadcasting this stuff all over the place took a dim view of Aereo's practices. Aereo argued their users had the right to use an antenna regardless of its location, and that they were not doing anything that the users could not do on their own if they bought the right – and legal – equipment. But the broadcasters managed to convince the court that Aereo was recording and subsequently re-broadcasting. In the antiquated parlance of the draconian rules that regulate this stuff, this constituted a new “performance” of the material, which is illegal except by arrangement with the original broadcaster.

Everyone watching this play out rolled their eyes, but it was clear enough what was really going on. The networks and local stations understood that there was money to be made from online streaming of their material, and they weren't about to let someone else do it just because they didn't have their act together to offer the service themselves. So Aereo went away, a perfectly good technology whose time came and went as quickly as those recordings.

What's really funny about this is that I now do exactly the same thing on my own – legally – thereby demonstrating that Aereo was perfectly right in their claims. With the acquisition of a Tablo DVR (legal) connected between my own antenna (legal) and my Roku (legal) I can watch, record, and playback – even remotely – content from broadcast TV. And I can of course view it on the device of my choice. In place of the modest monthly subscription to Aereo I have a fee for the TV schedule service that Tablo provides, which is comparable to the one Tivo has always used except that it gives me an option to buy a “lifetime” subscription for $149, which makes it far less expensive in the long run.

If you can find any difference between that and what Aereo used to do for me with less gear to manage, then you should probably seek employment with the FCC or in the legal profession. Actually, there is one difference. With my own antenna hooked up to my own DVR I'm not using the Internet while I watch “live” TV. So if anyone should have been upset with Aereo it should have been the Internet service providers who really don't want any more bandwidth hogs like Netflix and Youtube.

What's Next

The ball is really starting to roll now on “unbundling” cable channels. I'm doing this already with the specific services I've opted into, and if I add it all up it only comes to about $60 per month, which is a lot better than $160. And that includes an Amazon Prime membership to qualify for their free video streaming.

The latest wrinkle is Sling TV, which offers a small collection of formerly cable-only channels in a $20 per month package. You can use it with a Sling box to enable remote viewing, or just use the Sling TV channel on your Roku or the app on your phone.

But you can already see that Sling would love to grow up to be a full provider for all channels, in which case they would be hard to distinguish from the old cable companies, especially if they persist with the bundling model. The real way of the future is a service that would allow you to pick only the channels you want from the available array, with a small fee for each one.

As it is, even among the limited selection currently offered on Sling, there are a few I will never watch and would opt out of if given a chance. Which brings us back to the old problem:

There's nothing on.

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