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Watch ESPN devices

There was a big story out last week that a lot of people missed. According to The Wall Street Journal (as reported by electronista), ESPN is weighing the idea of subsidizing users’ wireless data for mobile streaming of ESPN video. That would mean that the sports network would pay for bandwidth used by consumers to watch ESPN content on mobile devices in order to keep them below monthly usage caps.

Let’s reflect back for a moment.

In 2011, I wrote the following:

In the future, I could see Slacker (the Internet radio service) bundling mobile data access with my monthly subscription to give me unlimited music streaming. I get that now, but only through a grandfathered unlimited data plan with Verizon, which I don’t expect to last forever. I wouldn’t want to pay an unlimited “tax” on every application, but if there are only one or two that threaten to put me over my monthly limit, I would seriously consider an application-specific broadband fee.

There are a few applications that present a compelling proposition for bundling delivery fees with the price of the actual service. Whether a content provider subsidizes those costs, or consumers pay them out of pocket, certain applications are so tied to their delivery mechanisms, that the economics grow harder and harder to separate.

Amazon has used the bundling model with Whispernet, the network service that allows users of certain Kindles to download books at will… without paying a separate data fee. Initially Amazon opened the network service up to any kind of consumer Internet activity, but in 2012 the company began capping service so that users can only use it for Amazon and Wikipedia access beyond a certain data threshold.

If ESPN ultimately does look to bundle data service with its content, there will be new net neutrality issues to wade through. However, unlike the situation with Comcast separating out its own IP-delivered video from monthly usage caps, at least in this case ESPN doesn’t own the mobile networks its riding on.

That’s a point in ESPN’s favor.

VOD Gets Fast Forward Back

Mari Silbey —  April 25, 2013

TV Remote Control

You know how annoying it is when your on-demand session times out and you have to start a show over from the beginning? Oh, and then you find out fast forwarding has been disabled? Well, fear no more. The cable gods are hard at work fixing the problem.

The SCTE, a standards body for the cable industry, has just created a new standard letting operators apply trick-play functions to select portions of a video stream only. That means they can still prevent you from fast forwarding through ads, but if there’s some regular content you want to skip through, go right ahead.

Operators can also disable rewind and pause functionality within a stream, or restrict fast forwarding to twice the normal playback speed.

Related – remember how Time Warner Cable filed a patent last year for disabling trick-play functions on home DVRs? Yeah, still hoping that one doesn’t drop.

Hillcrest HoME TV UI 1

Hillcrest Labs stopped working on its HoME interface for smart TVs close to seven years ago. And yet the UI is still better than most you’ll see on the market today.

I stopped by the Hillcrest Labs HQ earlier this month, and, as part of the visit, got a full demo walk-through of HoME. The reference TV UI includes web apps, movie cover art, a beautiful zooming motion, and easy drill-down options for content discovery across TV and personal media. Kodak used the design in its Kodak Theatre HD player, but unfortunately that product launched in 2008… just before the financial crash, and just as Kodak was starting to slide into bankruptcy.

The HoME interface isn’t used anywhere today, and Hillcrest has decided to back-burner the technology. However, the company still holds numerous patents in the space. While Hillcrest execs have turned their focus to motion-sensing software (more on that another time), they also aren’t closing the door on future TV UI development efforts. HoME could make a return someday.

Hillcrest HoME TV UI 6

In the meantime, check out another photo from my Hillcrest visit. My favorite is the photo library from CES 2005. That happens to be the first year I ever made it out to the Vegas show. Bill Gates was keynoting, and the Ojo video phone was making its rounds. Good times.

Aereo logo and antenna array

Aereo has been super savvy in grabbing headlines of late. If you’re not caught up on the story so far, the start-up TV company has expanded to a few new markets, won another round in court against broadcasters, and left Fox, CBS and others frothing at the mouth and threatening to move free programming over to a paid service model.

The thing about Aereo is, while the conceptual disruption is huge, the impact of the actual service is still vanishingly small.

Continue Reading…

Google Fiber TV

There’s been a flood of video news over the last two weeks, and mostly your friends here at Zatz Not Funny have been too busy to cover the excitement. We promise to do better, but in the meantime, here’s a quick round-up of happenings.

Austin gets Google – It won’t happen until 2014, but Austin is the next city on the list for Google Fiber, and Google Fiber TV. Exact pricing isn’t nailed down yet, but execs say it should stick close to the Kansas City deployments where gigabit Internet service is $70/month, and Internet plus TV rings in at $120 per month.

Vdio launches – The founders of Rdio have introduced Vdio, a new streaming VOD service. It’s no Netflix killer, however, as Vdio comes without a monthly subscription option. Like Amazon VOD or iTunes, everything you want to watch through Vdio requires an individual paid transaction. For now, you also have to be an existing Rdio subscriber.

Simple.TV gets funding – The folks at Simple.TV have branched out from their Kickstarter roots and raised a very official-sounding sum of $5.7 million. Dave says that “by incorporating just a single OTA tuner and requiring owners supply their own USB storage, [Simple.TV] remains the province of geeks.” But the company apparently has bigger plans for its DVR streamer. The founder says the company wants to add cable and OTT content, and extend the software to third-party hardware. Continue Reading…

ACA Summit Matthew Polka Ajit Pai

ACA President Matthew Polka with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai

You know how a lot of consumers are fed up with rising cable bills, excessive program bundling, and limited access to TV shows? It turns out independent cable operators feels the same way.

Over and over and over at today’s American Cable Association Summit – a policy-driven event put on by the independent cable organization – I heard frustration about the state of the pay-TV business from small cable companies who feel outgunned in a market where the content bills just keep going up. Indie operators have two main complaints, and they’re both related. First, they have no leverage in licensing retransmission agreements because content owners can threaten TV blackouts. Second, in some markets, broadcasters are working together to set licensing fees, a practice the cable operators consider to be collusion. According to Wide Open West CEO Colleen Abdoulah, collusion is taking place in 20% of TV markets and is driving up retransmission costs by at least 22%. Continue Reading…

Aereo hearts cable

People think of Aereo as a cable competitor, but the company’s real fight is with OTA broadcasters who don’t want to lose retransmission revenue. And if Aereo were to win its war in court, some pay-TV providers might very well decide to partner with the company rather than battle against it.

Jeff Baumgartner reports that the topic of cable partnerships came up this week at the annual NCTC winter conference. The National Cable  Telecommunications Cooperative is made up of independent cable operators, and Aereo’s CEO Chet Kanojia participated on a panel at the organization’s recent event. Reportedly Kenojia said Aereo would “take a very open approach with everyone we choose to work with,” and that he’d be “‘ecstatic’ to work with a like-thinking cable ISP.”

In other words, despite its marketing rhetoric, Aereo – like TiVo before it – would love to break into the cable biz.

Personally, I’m convinced that even if Aereo doesn’t win in court, it has other options for peddling its services. Beyond the now-famous dime-size antennas, Aereo appears to be operating sophisticated transcoding and video delivery technology. I imagine the Aereo solution is similar to what the TiVo Stream or Morega’s DirecTV Nomad device provides, except that the transcoding process takes place in the cloud rather than on a device in the home. The basic transcoding isn’t novel – plenty of companies offer transcoding services – but the ability to do it well and at scale is another thing entirely. Until all television content is transmitted in IP, Aereo has another potential technology ace up its sleeve, and plenty of patents to support it.

ESPN for $7

I love ESPN. I am entirely willing to spend gobs of money on my cable bill just to get it. Even so, my jaw dropped when I read that the licensing fee for ESPN programming is set to go above $7 per month in 2017. That’s the amount pay-TV operators have to spend per subscriber to get ESPN programming, and the amount that gets factored into our monthly cable bills for including the sports juggernaut. For $7 a month, I get ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3, the WatchESPN app, and… wait a minute. I get all that for $7?

Yes, I was all set to write a snarky post about retransmission fees and the high cost of programming these days, and then I thought about all that I get from ESPN. Pretty much any sporting event I want to watch that’s not being broadcast on the free networks is available somewhere on ESPN. And that WatchESPN app? Man that’s come in handy when I’ve been away from the living room TV and wanted to catch a college basketball game or two. And it works on both my iPad and my Android phone. Inside and outside my house.

The big catch of course is that not everyone is a sports fan, and most cable subscribers have to pay for ESPN programming whether they watch it or not. On the other hand, I don’t watch a lot of the junk on the “free” networks (morning news programs, terrible reality TV shows, etc.), and I still have to pay for their skyrocketing licensing fees. So maybe all’s fair in love and TV programming. Regardless, there’s no cord-cutting in my future. Cable is expensive, but at least I enjoy what I get for my money.