Posts Tagged ‘DVR’

Aereo And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

For readers who aren’t up to speed, Aereo is a new service that receives terrestrial digital TV broadcasts in major markets and re-transmits them over the Internet, using AVC coding with IP headers. The concept is to provide local reception for those who can’t pick up these signals for one reason or another on their regular TV.

Now, the devil in the details: Ever since Aereo launched a couple of years ago, it has been in court, fighting off challenges by the major broadcast networks who are crying “foul!” and saying that Aereo’s retransmission is a violation of copyright laws. They also claim that Aereo owes them retransmission fees.

Aereo’s rebuttal and defense centers around a flimsy (to me) technical argument: Each subscriber gains access to an individual antenna about the size of a dime, which then is connected to an individual receiver, decoder, DVR, and encoder. It’s as if the subscriber built his or her own TV antenna system, which is certainly within their rights.

I remain skeptical because the cost of actually setting up thousands of individual antennas, terrestrial receivers, video decoders, and video encoders would be prohibitively expensive and never be recovered by the $8 monthly subscriber fee (for 20 hours of recording time, $12 for 40 hours).

And anyone who has ever taken a modicum of courses in electrical physics and RF theory knows that (a) the tiny antennas Aereo assigns to each subscriber can’t possibly have enough gain to work for high band VHF reception, let along UHF reception, and (b) the close spacing of those antennas – as seen from earlier PR photos released by the service – means they interact with each other to form a larger array, based on the principles of inductive and capacitive coupling. That, in essence, is a master antenna TV system – delivering TV channels to many viewers, not one.

Thanks to a sub-par presentation by expert witnesses called by broadcasters at the first hearing, the 2nd Circuit Court (New York City) ruled 2-1 that Aereo didn’t infringe on copyrights and cited the earlier Cablevision “cloud” DVR decision as precedent. Aereo’s right to operate was subsequently upheld in the 1st Circuit (Boston). Service is active in both cities now.

However; two weeks ago, Aereo was rebuffed by a 10th Circuit judge in Salt Lake City, who unequivocally stated that “The plain language of the 1976 Copyright Act supports the plaintiffs’ position. Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” As a result, Aereo had to shut down its service in Salt Lake City and Denver for the time being.

While this case winds its way on to the Supreme Court, another twist in the story has surfaced. Apparently subscribers in New York City had massive problems with the Aereo stream of the Oscars telecast on WABC-TV a week ago Sunday. Consequently, the company’s Twitter feed was lit up with complaints about “buffering” and “locked-up pictures.”

Here are some of the dozens of tweets I found: “Awful service, bad image quality & not recording scheduled shows but it sad you treat ORIGINAL customers the way you do.” “It goes out now and then requiring me to select Oscars all over again. Common? I have it on auto quality.”  “Thanks for doing work on the site tonight. It’s not like I wanted to watch the Oscars. No big deal.” (Gotta LOVE that sarcasm!)

And more: “C’mon Aereo. Get your s–t together.” “Anyone else watching the Oscars using Aereo like me? S–t keeps buffering every 30 seconds. Frustrating the hell out of me.” “Hmm is Aereo down for anyone else? Is it just an East Village or Roku thing? #CordCutting fail during the Oscars” “@Aereo Support I keep getting the message “The Oscars has ended.” A total of 8 seconds recorded. Worst. Oscars. Ever.”

This one was my personal favorite: “@Aereo I don’t have time to run to Best Buy and buy some rabbit ears right now.” Well, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.

A couple of observations are in order. First, I don’t know how exactly Aereo has its front end configured, but if they’ve actually tried to keep every single subscriber’s hardware separate by various technical tricks to pass legal review, then they might have run out of server capacity and brought this service failure on themselves. (Apparently this also happened during the Golden Globes, according to a story on the Quartz Web site.)

There is a reason why cable and satellite companies use a single receiver for each broadcast and premium channel they carry, and multiplex (copy and repeat) those channels on their outgoing RF and IP channels: It’s WAY more cost-effective and less troublesome! So they have to pay a retransmission fee: Big deal! What will the cost be now to Aereo in dropped subscriptions, not to mention bad publicity from these service problems?

Second, I’ll bet that more than a few Aereo subscribers could actually pick up the HD broadcasts from New York City stations if they tried. Over the years, I’ve tested numerous indoor TV antennas and there have been some real winners out there like the Mohu Leaf Ultimate series and Winegard’s amplified FlatWave antenna.

Both are reasonably priced and perform adequately on VHF channels and very well on UHF channels, which in New York City means you can also use them to watch WNBC, WCBS, and WNYW among the major networks. (By the way, those are the three networks that carry NFL games in the New York City metro area.)

Third; if you can pick up local TV broadcasts with one of the aforementioned antennas, there are terrestrial DVR products that will let you record those channels, like Channel Master’s new DVR+. It has dual tuners, built-in capacity for about 2 hours of HD recording (expandable with any external hard drives or solid state drives through USB ports), plus Wi-Fi connectivity and support for Internet video services like Vudu.

Or you can pick up one of Hauppauge’s WinTV receivers that plug directly into a USB port on your computer and provide terrestrial digital TV reception, letting you use your hard drive as a DVR. I carry around a few of the Hauppauge Aero-M stick receivers and a Mohu Leaf for reception on the road, and they work great.

We’ll never know the actual reason for Aereo’s system failures during the Golden Globes and Oscars, but it’s entirely possible that the company was too clever for its own good by engineering and building a system that was designed to neatly parse and side-step copyright laws.

It’s funny how the law of unintended consequences works, isn’t it?

Nothing Lasts Forever

Earlier this week at an investor conference sponsored by UBS in New York City, the chief executive of Liberty Media decried the rising cost of sports programming on pay television. And he may have inadvertently lifted the cover on Pandora’s Box by doing so.

 

Greg Maffei was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the average $4.69 per household subscription fee for ESPN and all of its affiliated networks amounted to “a tax on every American household” and asked, “what happens to the bundle of cable if you keep pushing [the price] higher and higher?”

 

He’s not alone in wondering if Americans are reaching the breaking point with ever-escalating costs of pay television. There is no question that a small segment of the population is disconnecting from pay TV services and opting instead to keep broadband connections only. This movement is 100% driven by cost – the average tab for a digital TV package of channels, voice over IP, and broadband now exceeds $150 on many cable systems. That’s $1,800 a year!

 

To put things in perspective, the average subscription (retransmission) fee for cable networks is about what it costs you to park for an hour at a meter – 26 cents.

 

Viacom’s CEO Philippe Dauman also put the spotlight directly on ESPN for driving pay TV costs through the roof. He stated that ESPN by itself in many systems costs twice as much as of all their own networks combined.

 

The problem with rising costs for ESPN is that it usually comes as part of a bundle. Yet, many American viewers have little or no interest in sports programming, at least not to the extent that they need a 24/7 ‘fix’ of scores, talk shows, and specials.

 

Those rising charges are driven mostly by deals that ESPN has negotiated directly with major sports leagues. For example, the Bristol, CT-based network has also managed to get exclusive broadcast rights to the major college football bowl games (the Bowl Championship Series), taking them away from their traditional homes on free broadcast networks.

 

More than one pay TV system operator has speculated out loud that sports channels could soon migrate to premium tiers instead of being bundled with basic or extended digital channel packages. That would in turn allow pay TV MSOs to lower prices on TV channel packages, which are increasingly seen by futurists as ‘obsolete’ with the increased penetration of high-speed Internet access, the use of DVRs, and the growth in streaming services like Netflix.

 

Until the past year or so, cable and satellite TV executives were mum on the issue of ever-escalating monthly service charges. Now, one of the culprits has been called out, and it will be interesting to see if MSOs will make noise about moving ESPN and other costly sports networks like Fox to add-on tiers where HBO and Showtime currently reside.

 

In the meantime, you can still watch plenty of sports for free over the air, including (but not limited to) NFL games on CBS, Fox, and NBC, major league baseball on Fox and local stations, the NBA finals on ABC, college football on CBS, NBC, and ABC, golf and tennis on all the major channels, the NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments and selected games on CBS and ABC, and of course next year’s Olympics on NBC.

 

Enjoy them while you still can…

Attention, All Cord-Cutters!

At the September 14 Pepcom table-top show (dubbed the ‘Parisian Holiday Spectacular’ show, as so many gadgets were being pushed for gift-wrapping under the tree), Channel Master showed something that ought to bring a smile to every cord-cutter’s face: A dual DVR for digital terrestrial television.

 

Not only that, this same product also supports Vudu streaming and Vudu apps, in case you’re jonesing for a movie and don’t want to mess with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. It’s called Channel Master TV, and it will start shipping in mid-October. (Yes, I’ve already asked for a review unit. C’est si bon!)

 

You can find out all of the details about this new product by clicking here (the dedicated Channel Master TV Web site still was not up and running at the time I wrote this), or you can read on.

It's smaller than a TiVo Premiere. Dig those three WiFi antennas!

Channel Master’s big selling point for this dual-DVR box is that there are NO monthly subscription fees required. Well, that’s not exactly true: If you are content to rely on the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data transmitted by each station – correctly or not – then you don’t need additional program guide data.

 

But if you want to program recordings more than 14 days out, you’ll want to add CM’s optional enhanced program guide service, for which no firm price was stated at the event. Both basic PSIP and day/time scheduling can be used to record DTV programs.

 

And you’ll have plenty of space to record. The CM TV box comes with a 320 GB hard disk drive, which ought to be sufficient for up to 35 hours of HDTV programs and about 150 hours of SD programs. Like TiVo’s HD and Premier DVRs, you can watch one program while recording another, or playback a program while recording two others.

Mira esto! Una telenovela de WXTV-HD!

Vudu movies are generally pay-as-you-go, so there’s no monthly subscription fee. And the supported apps include Pandora, MTV News, Discovery, Twitter, Facebook, AP, and The New York Times, among others.

 

From a technical perspective, CM TV interfaces to your existing HDTV either through an HDMI connection or component video outputs. You can set the video output of the box to 1080p/30, 1080p/24, 1080i/30, or 720p/60. (Sorry, no support for 1080p/60 yet. I did ask…)

 

There’s also a discrete optical digital audio (Dolby AC-3, Dolby 5.1) connection for a separate AV receiver, along with wireless (802.11n) and wired Ethernet connectivity for Vudu access and Vudu Apps, a USB port for viewing photos and videos from a flash drive, and an eSATA connection for an external expansion hard drive.

 

Technically speaking, CM TV will also receive ‘in the clear’ digital cable broadcasts, but you won’t receive any program guide data as cable systems use a different implementation of PSIP.

Scanning for active DTV channels can take a while, as all of the PSIP information is read and stored.

And the price for all of this wonderfulness? Why, just $399. That is a substantial premium over the latest TiVo boxes, but then again, you won’t be paying $12.99 a month for program guide information. (Mark my words, the price on this box will drop below $300 by December. There’s a big psychological difference between $299 and $399 to the average consumer.)

 

So if you’ve been seriously thinking about dumping your digital cable channel package and relying on broadband video and free, over-the-air HDTV, your days of waiting are over. Now you have the missing piece of the puzzle – a dual DVR with a nice electronic program guide GUI (and it is VERY nice and user-friendly.)

 

Watch your local brick-and-mortar store for the first shipments in mid-October. You can also buy the box directly from Channel Master, and I suspect it will also be available from major Web outlets like Amazon.

Useful Gadgets: Hauppauge WinTV Aero-M ATSC/MH USB Tuner

The digital TV transition – now two years over, and counting – has resulted in a cornucopia of portable DTV receiver products. After all, digital TV and computers go together like soup and sandwich (sorry, Campbell’s!)! Some of these receivers work very well; others not so well.

 

For many years, my top-rated PC/DTV tuner was the OnAir Solution HDTV-GT. Introduced in 2006, it did everything right, including outboard MPEG stream decoding, a process that put quite a load on the CPU of Windows XP operating systems.

 

That was then; this is now. The US importer of OnAir products shut its doors in 2010, and operating systems have evolved far beyond XP. So it was time to look for a replacement PC/DTV tuner.

 

Timing is everything. At CES 2011, Hauppauge Computer Works announced its latest PC/DTV tuner product, the WinTV Aero-M. It works so well that you can finally bury your HDTV-GTs and never look back. And, it’s a lot smaller, too. What’s more; the Aero-M also receives the new ATSC MH services, and there are a few of them operating in major TV markets.

Hauppauge's WinTv Aero-M is super-compact.

Incidentally, if you work with wireless audio and need to conduct spot checks for activity on UHF digital TV channels, the Aero-M should be part of your tool kit.

 

WHAT’S INSIDE

 

Not much! The Aero-M is a very compact, 2.75” long USB stick design with a built-in whip antenna. Unlike the HDTV-GT, it does use your laptop or desktop’s CPU to decode MPEG and convert it to video. But of course, your laptop is likely to be running the Windows 7 OS, which is more than ready for the challenge.

 

In addition to the built-in whip, Hauppauge provides a SMB-type adapter (push-on) that breaks out to a standard F-style thread. The connector pops in and out, so be careful not to lose it! You can connect any antenna you want to this input, and you should use larger antennas with the Aero-M as its built-in whip is only six inches long and won’t provide enough signal induction unless you are about 10 miles or less from any antenna tower.

 

And of course, VHF signals require a much longer wavelength than UHF, so don’t expect much performance from channels 2 through 13 with the built-in whip. There are plenty of other options out there for VHF reception – Radio Shack’s #15-1874 budget VHF/UHF antenna works just fine and will cost you all of $13.

 

SET UP AND OPERATION

 

The supplied software loads easily and guides you through tuner configuration. You can select channel scans for regular ATSC channels, MH channels, and even unscrambled QAM (digital cable) channels. The process takes just a few minutes and you will be provided with a channel list which you can prioritize.

 

Changing channels is as simple as hitting the up/down buttons on your computer, or opening the ‘Find Channel’ menu option. You can also record the transport stream from any station (including MH) for later playback – a useful feature when you are checking for quality of service. Hauppauge also provides a ‘snapshot’ button for capturing still images from channels.

Here's the ATSC chanel scan menu.

You can view programs in variable window sizes, or go full screen. The native aspect ratio is 16:9, but you can also select 4:3. If a given program has multiple streams of audio, you can toggle between them, and of course, closed captions are supported.

 

The Aero-M, like all PC/DTV products, uses your hard drive as a digital video recorder, and you can schedule programs to watch by time interval and image quality. This feature can be handy when you are traveling and want to watch a program that’s broadcast when you are out to dinner, or at a meeting. Recording are also saved in the transport stream (TS) format.

 

I also found the Aero-M works perfectly with the latest build of TSReader, which is an MPEG-2 transport stream analyzer program. TSReader allows you to identify individual MPEG programs in a stream multiplex, check bit error rates, and verify streaming bit rates. It works with any system using MPEG-2 encoding,  and hopefully there is an MPEG-4 AVC version in the works.

Here's an NBC HD program viewed inside the factory default window setting.

IN USE

 

The key to any ATSC PC receiver is its adaptive equalizer. Most echo and drop-out problems with ATSC were solved with generation 5 adaptive equalizers, which were used in the OnAir HDTV-GT. The Aero-M relies on Gen 6 adaptive equalizer technology, which means it’s less sensitive to echoes and cancellation. That in turn results in fewer drop-outs of programs and also reception in ‘tough’ areas, such as cities with lots of tall buildings, deep valleys, and fringe areas.

 

I’ve used the Aero-M numerous times on the road in Las Vegas, New York City, Philly, and Palm Springs, and it has performed above expectations in every location. Reception hasn’t been an issue anywhere, aside from the occasional drop-out on very weak signals.

 

ATSC MH signals are even more robust, as they have lots of forward error correction built-in. Of course, MH programs are designed for much smaller screens, so the image quality isn’t very good on a laptop screen. On the other hand, full HD programs (720p and 1080i) display beautifully on laptops. My new Toshiba M645 has Harmon-Kardon mini-speakers and sounds great with digital programs, and I can also connect the output through HDMI to a TV and listen to surround sound audio.

Don't expect high image quality from ATSC MH stations - the image size is optimized for smart phones and portable mediap layers, not laptops or TV screens.

I don’t have any major issues with the Aero-M. The tiny whip antenna could be easily damaged, which is why I usually travel with a compact panel antenna instead. Every now and then, after watching an MH channel, I can’t select a conventional ATSC channel, but most of the time channel changing is seamless and quick.

 

If you are a fan of digital TV or need to diagnose ATSC signals on the road, then you should add the Aero-M to your tool kit.  And you can’t beat the price: Buy the WinTV Aero-M directly from Hauppauge’s Web store for $59.95, or shop around –  I’ve seen it for as low as $48 online.  Such a deal!

3D: Americans Still Aren’t Buying It

Nielsen’s latest report on American media device ownership and use is now available here, and it contains plenty of useful tidbits of market information.

For example, the average American watches 35.6 hours of television a week, which is almost as much time as they spend at a full-time job. As for our constant obsession with ‘too much TV viewing’ for kids, we’re looking at the wrong age group: Children 2-11 watch about 26 hours a week, while adults over 65 are hooked to the boob tube almost 50 hours a week.

As far as media devices go, 75% of respondents own a computer with high-speed Internet, while 46% own at least one HDTV. Digital video recorders were next on the list (35% of respondents own one), followed by handheld media devices like iPods (20%), NeTVs (14%), peripheral devices with Internet video connections like Blu-ray players (10%), Netbooks (9%), E-book readers (5%), tablet computers (less than 3%) and 3D TVs (2%).

About 116 million U.S. homes own at least one TV, with 105 million of them cable- or satellite-ready. 100 million homes have a DVD player, while (gasp!) 71 million still have a VCR. HD-compatible TVs are found in 65 million homes, and 56 million homes have digital cable TV service. In addition, 43 million have a digital video recorder.

Are you following the cord-cutting stories? According to Nielsen, the number of homes equipped with broadband service but no cable TV is relatively small and unchanged through 2010 (about 4%), while homes that have both broadband and cable TV actually increased from 62% to 66% from January 2009 to January 2010.

Another very interesting part of the study reveals that 76% of respondents ‘probably won’t or ‘definitely won’t’ buy a 3D TV in the next 12 months. 2% of respondents already own one, while only 6% “definitely’ or ‘probably’ will buy one. That’s not good news at all for TV manufacturers, who are currently struggling with profit margins and an ultra-competitive marketplace.

The fact that 14% of respondents own a NeTV and 10% own some sort of connected peripheral indicates that focusing on connected TVs may be a better strategy for manufacturers in 2011. 3D is still a tough sell for any number of reasons, but NeTVs are appealing to just about everybody, particularly those keen on streaming movies and TV shows, even if they are in less-than-standard definition.