Posts Tagged ‘Free HDTV’

Interview with a Cord-Cutter – Pete Putman

My son, Ross Putman, has lived in Los Angeles since 2008. Like many members of the Millennial generation, he’s always looking for a way to cut costs and get a better deal. Also like other Millennials, he’s proficient in using computers and the Internet.

Recently, Ross decided that his monthly charges for broadband and TV service were becoming unbearable, so he decided to “cut the cord” and switch to streaming video, plus free, over-the-air HDTV programs. I pitched in to help by shipping him a Mohu Leaf Plus indoor TV antenna (about $75). This model has scored consistently well in my antenna tests.

Now that the changes have been made and the antenna is in place, how is his cord-cutting experiment going? Ross was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process, and I’ll share them here.

*************************************************************************************

PP.  Who was your cable TV service provider originally?

A. Our service provider was Time Warner Cable, SoCal.  We had the basic package with standard broadband internet, an HD DVR, and no premium channels.  It cost $90/month for the first year, as part of a promotional deal.  When that period ended, the price skyrocketed to $140.

PP. What were your viewing habits? What channels did you watch on a regular basis? About how many hours a week did you watch? How many were ‘premium?’

A. We realized fairly quickly that we only watched AMC (for Mad Men and Breaking Bad), Comedy Central (we would DVR the Colbert Report nightly), FX (literally just to watch Louis C.K.), and IFC to watch Portlandia, as well as the odd movie here and there.  I watch football, which is on network channels anyways, and sometimes we would turn on the TV just to have it in the background.  But on the whole, our habits were fairly limited, especially considering the price we were paying.

PP. What made you decide to drop cable TV channel service?

A.  We decided to drop cable after our bill skyrocketed and we did the math: All the shows we love are available the next day for $1.99/episode on Amazon Streaming.  If there are four episodes a month while the series is on, that’s a little under $8/month for our favorite shows.  So even if we’re watching three shows at a time (which is really the max), that’s $24/month for the programming we want, plus our subscriptions and $40/month for cable internet, which we still get through Time Warner.  Hulu and Netflix are $16/month total, so that means we’re paying a maximum of $80 instead of $140 and still get to watch all the programming we love.  Sometimes, that number is as low as $60.

PP. How do you get channels now? Do you stream to a Blu-ray player, or a dedicated receiver, like Roku or Apple TV?

A. We now use a Roku for streaming and have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus.  Even with all this, it’s still only $80/month at the peak for programming, plus all the additional things we get through Hulu– for example, Comedy Central shows like Colbert, which we watch, are streaming for free the next day.  We have a Blu-Ray player, though we canceled our disc service from Netflix and generally “rent” movies off Amazon Prime (which tend to range between free and $2.99 apiece) when we want to watch them.  Our broadband service still comes from Time Warner Cable.

PP. Do you time-shift at all? Do you stream video over other devices, such as computers, tablets, and/or phones?

A. We no longer time-shift, which isn’t a problem since we don’t watch network television.  All our cable shows are on Amazon or Hulu. As for streaming on other devices, we don’t have the time in our busy schedules to do so, but we own a Kindle Fire and an iPhone.

PP. Which over-the-air channels do you watch on a regular basis?

A. We only watch over the air for football.  NBC, CBS, and Fox.

PP. Which streaming services do you use?

A. We use Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Crackle to stream video.

PP. How often do you watch movies? Do you watch them on DVD or Blu-ray? Do you stream them?

A. We got to the movies more than we watch them at home, though I’m probably an outlier since I work in the industry.  We watch a movie maybe once a week, almost always on some streaming device.  We either watch what’s free on Netflix, or we pay for it on Amazon (generally $2.99). No discs.

PP. How satisfactory is your new selection of channels and the quality and reliability of Internet streaming?

A. While we miss the cable channels a bit, we’ve made sure we have access to all our favorite shows.  Our internet and streaming are both very reliable, and our antenna picks up all channels available perfectly. (Editor’s note: The actual total is 27 major channels and over 130 minor channels.)

PP. What would you say about the overall experience of cord-cutting compared to previous cable TV viewing, and how much money has it saved you?

A. After cutting the cord, we realized how little TV we actually watched.  Many times, we’d just turn on the TV “to have it on,” rather than to watch something specific.  For the most part, we lost nothing by cutting the cord.  We’re still able to watch our favorite shows on a pay-per-view basis, and network TV covers my main category: Sports.  We’re saving somewhere between $20 and $50/month, which really adds up over a whole year.  We don’t really miss it.  Worst case scenario, we go over to a friend’s house to watch things, which is more social and enjoyable anyway.  That’s what we did with the Breaking Bad season finale. Until Apple TV starts offering channels a la carte, this seems like the way to go.

 

This article also appears on the Display Central Web site.

Useful Gadgets: Channel Master CM-7400 TV

For those readers who are either (a) tired of ever-increasing bills for cable TV, or (b) looking for a different TV experience, I’ve got a product for you: Channel Master TV.

 

This new product from the folks who were formerly best-known for TV antennas, amplifiers, and related products, is an ATSC receiver with dual DVRs (320 GB total capacity) and tuners, plus built-in WiFi connectivity for Vudu’s streaming HD movie service and Vudu apps. If you live in an area with plots of digital TV stations and are content to give up premium news, sports, and lifestyle channels (replacing some of them with Internet-delivered content), then you should check out this product.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

 

The CM7400 is a stylish, small (10” W x 7” D x 1.75” H) black box with three ‘rubber duck’ WiFi antennas attached to its rear panel. The front panel has a black gloss finish and shows only the power indicator, current time, and indicator LEDs for menu navigation. There’s also a small USB 2.0 port above the clock.

 

The rear panel is loaded with jacks, including an RF loop-through (two ‘F’ connectors), component and composite analog video outputs, an HDMI output, a Toslink connector for digital audio, a second USB 2.0 port, a 100BaseT Ethernet port, and an eSATA connection, presumably for an external hard drive. Power for the CM-7400 comes from a small wall transformer – there’s no internal supply.

The supplied remote resembles those shipped by TiVo. It provides the usual secondary control of set-top boxes and other connected gadgets in your system, plus volume, channel, mousedisk, and numeric keypad functions.  It’s actually pretty hefty, compared to the box it’s controlling!

 

To hook up the CM-7400, your best bet is to use the HDMI port, but if you have an older TV, the analog RCA jacks will suffice. Keep in mind you can only get 720p and 1080i resolutions through component jacks – if you want 1080p playback (24-frame or 30-frame), you’ll need to use the HDMI connector. Digital audio is accessible through the Toslink connector, or embedded in the HDMI hook-up.

Does this remote remind of you anything in particular?

 

MENUS AND SETTINGS

 

The first thing you’ll want to do is configure your channels. Go into the Settings menu and select Channels, and the CM-7400 will prompt you for your location. Scroll to the Local Broadcast option and select it (make sure your TV antenna is connected first!). The box will take a few minutes to scan for all local channels and will also start building program guide information from each station’s PSIP data.

 

You’ll notice that the box can receive digital cable channels that are not scrambled (conditional access) and if you enter your zip code, will ask you for your cable provider. The problem is; most cable systems are moving to scramble all channels in the future, even over-the-air retransmissions. It appears the FCC will give in on this request (they already have with RCN), so plan on sticking to free over-the-air channels.

 

The next step is to configure your wireless network. (Or, you can simply plug in a wired Ethernet cable, but wireless gives you more options.) The CM-7400 supports 802.11 b/g/n protocols and will connect quickly to your network – if there is a password, you’ll be prompted to enter it on the remarkably easy-to-read menu GUI, which uses mostly white text on a black background.

 

Channel Master provides a nice Quick Start Guide to get you through these steps, so you should be up and running pretty quickly. Now, it’s time to watch TV.

Here's the top level menu bar.

And here's the program guide interface.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the CM-7400 uses each station’s Program and System Information Protocol data to build an electronic program guide. That’s how the DVR knows what programs are coming up in the schedule and when to record them. As you tune through each major and minor channel, you’ll see a program synopsis appear in a black bar at the top of the screen. This bar will list the major and minor channel numbers, the program name, its duration, the rating, and a brief description.

 

You can also press the GUIDE button and a complete program schedule for all receivable stations will appear, showing 30-minute increments. Scroll to a program listing and press OK, and the scheduler will appear, asking you if you want to (a) record the episode, (b) record the series (repeated scheduled recordings), (c) find other times that the program is scheduled, or (d) manually record the program.

 

The manual feature is handy if your local station isn’t listing program guide information correctly, or it is simply missing, a problem I had with local station WCAU-10 (NBC) a couple of months ago. Scheduling a manual recording without the correct program guide info is not an easy task, as you have to carefully enter a start and stop time and how often you want to record this time block (One Time Only, etc). For all recordings, http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/ you can select the record quality, how long to keep it, and if you want the program to start early or end late in one-minute increments.

 

IN ACTUAL USE

 

The more I used this product, the more similarities I saw to the TiVo interface, which IMHO is the best GUI around for a DVR. About the only things missing from Channel Master TV are “thumbs up and down” controls, an audible “beep” or “boop” each time you execute a keystroke or command, and the program preference and search functions that make TiVo so powerful. Well, you can’t win them all…

 

As for the Vudu streaming and apps section, you will see a lot of familiar Internet TV services, including Pandora, Facebook, Picasa, Flickr, and some newbies like NBC Nightly News, New York Times, Associated Press, CNN Daily, and quite a few premium channels like Dexter, Californication, Big Love, and TrueBlood. Just select and click away to start watching.

Here's what the Vudu Apps screen looks like.

And here's the Vudu Movie selection screen. You can choose from SD, HD< or HDX resolution (see text for warnings).

 

To test out Vudu, I opened an account and purchased two movies – Bridesmaids (or as I like to call it, The Hangover on Estrogen), and The Help. Yeah, they are both chick flicks, but quite entertaining (in fact, Bridesmaids was flat-out hilariously gross!). Vudu gives you the choice of renting using HDX (1080p/24) quality, HD (720p) quality, and SD (480p) quality. The price difference is small, but you need to check first to see how fast your Internet speeds are.

 

Channel Master TV will do that for you automatically through the Vudu interface and recommend a quality level. But be warned – Internet speeds vary widely  and typically slow down in the evening during peak viewing hours. My suggestion is to go to the CNET Internet Speed Checker Web site (http://reviews.cnet.com/internet-speed-test/) and see what your typical download speeds are during the day and at night. You may find that SD mode works most consistently.

 

My rule of thumb is – up to 2-3 megabits per second (Mb/s) is good for SD video delivery. Figure on 5-6 Mb/s to get 720p HD content reliably, and 8 Mb/s or better for 1080p video. Otherwise, you may find your movie stops abruptly and the Vudu screen will tell you it is “buffering” – something that can take a few minutes if download speeds drop.

 

Bridesmaids took four tries to start correctly, then played perfectly in HDX resolution until the past 10 minutes when it stopped and started “buffering” again. I dropped down to SD resolution to finish the movie and it didn’t look all that bad on my Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma. The Help ran smoothly except for one hiccup near the middle, but this time, I selected SD playback for the entire film. The reason? My average nighttime Internet speeds were dropping into the 2 – 4 Mb/s range.

 

As for over-the-air channels, the CM-7400 has a very sensitive receiver and evidently uses sophisticated adaptive equalization. What that means in English is reliable reception of weak stations or stations off to the side of the antenna, as well as good reception during periods of signal fading, such as during a thunderstorm. I was able to lock in and watch 38 different minor channels in the Philadelphia market, which is basically a small hotel cable TV system. And they’re all free.

 

Sports fans should also keep in mind that there is a growing cry to move all cable sports channels to premium tiers as cable bills continue to climb. You won’t need to pay to watch NFL games (available on CBS, NBC, and FOX through 2022), the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, selected major league baseball games and the World Series, SEC and Big Ten football, and the Olympics – not to mention the Masters golf tournament, selected tennis matches, and the Indianapolis 500. All free with an antenna!

 

I should mention that the test unit seemed to run a bit warm to me, even when it was switched off. One product review on the Channel Mater Web site recommended using a laptop cooler (external heat sink) to help with heat dissipation. Also, Channel Master released an updated version of the OS on January 18, which you should install and upgrade.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Channel Master’s CM-7400 TV DVR is a clever product that nicely combines dual DVRs with Vudu streaming. It has a nicely-designed and executed user interface, sets up quickly, and supports 1080p playback through its HDMI connector. You can also loop your antenna connection through the CM-7400 and continue to watch on your regular TV, giving you the ability to watch three programs at once while recording two of them. Clever, eh?

 

SPECIFICATIONS

 

Channel Master CM-7400 TV DVR

SRP: $400

Available at: http://tinyurl.com/7m6qbgk

And other online outlets including Amazon.com

 

Video

  • 480i/480p
  • 720p
  • 1080p/1080i

Audio

  • Dolby® Digital and Dolby® Digital Plus

Tuners

  • Dual ATSC/Clear QAM¹
  • No monthly subscription fee
  • Includes a one year manufacturer’s limited warranty

Recording Capacity

  • 320GB Hard Disk Drive²
  • Up to 35 hours of HD recording³
  • Up to 150 hours of SD recording³

Wireless

  • Built-in 802.11b/g/n

Dimensions

  • 10(w) x 7(d) x 1.75(h) inches

Rear Panel Features

  • RJ-45 Ethernet
  • USB 2.0
  • HDMI®
  • eSATA
  • Digital Audio (Optical)
  • RF output
  • RF antenna/cable input
  • RCA component and composite video
  • Stereo audio

Front Panel Features

  • Illuminated power standby button
  • Indicators for network status, HD and recording status
  • USB 2.0
  • IR receiver
  • Capacitive touchpad
  • Clock display

Contents Included

  • Channel Master TV Unit
  • User Guide
  • Quick Start Guide
  • IR Universal Remote Control
  • AA Batteries
  • Composite and Stero Audio Cable
  • RF Coaxial Cable
  • HDMI Cable
  • AC Adapter

Useful Gadgets: Super-Flat Indoor TV Antennas – Do They Really Work?

Depending on you believe, Americans are fed up with ever-increasing cable TV bills and are bailing out by the thousands on channel bundles, opting for free, over-the-air HDTV and movies and TV shows streamed over Internet connections.

 

Or maybe not.

 

While there’s no question that a cord-cutting movement does exist, it’s hard to tell how big that movement really is. But the allure of dropping $50, $60, $70, or more from your monthly Kabletown bill is strong, and the recent battles between Time Warner and MSG network over rights fees only serve to highlight the inflationary spiral of pay TV services.

 

If you live in a metropolitan area and have the major networks (CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC), chances are you already have access to quite a bit of sports programming. Maybe not the 24/7 deluge from ESPN, but you do have NFL games through 2022, selected Major League Baseball games, the NBA Finals, the NCAA Final Four tournament, college football and basketball, and numerous golf and tennis tournaments. (Oh, and let’s not forget next summer’s London Olympics on NBC.)

 

And if you aren’t into sports, that’s all the more reason to stop paying for programming you don’t watch. There’s still plenty of good prime time programming available for free, not to mention reruns of older cable network shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm was available recently on UHF channel 17 in Philadelphia).

 

With that in mind, I recently tested a pair of flat TV antennas for indoor reception. The first is the MoHu Leaf antenna (http://www.gomohu.com/) ,available direct from MoHu for $39.95 plus shipping, and the second is the Walltenna (http://www.walltenna.com/) , sold by a company known as Urban Freedom LLC for $40 (also at online stores).

 

Figure 1. The Walltenna is transparent and flexible (and maybe not too attractive).

Figure 2. Mohu's Leaf antenna is also flexible, but opaque and a bit less inconspicious.

Both are marketed to cord-cutters. Both companies cite the trend away from pay TV services “…as more and more viewers look for higher value alternatives” and “…and to get free from recurring monthly cable or satellite bills, high-maintenance rooftop antennas, or bulky tabletop models.”

 

Do they work? I tested both recently for wall-mount and window DTV reception, alongside two other stalwarts – Kowatec’s UHF panel antenna  (discontinued) and Radio Shack’s model 15-1874 ‘budget’ TV antenna. Let’s see how they stack up.

 

THE TEST

 

My house isn’t in the best location for indoor DTV reception. Although it’s less than 25 miles from the Roxborough (Philadelphia) digital TV antenna farm, there is a slight hill and a bunch of tall trees in the way.  Only a couple of UHF stations (17, 26) and one VHF station (6) are strong enough to come through without separate amplification.

 

The back side of my house looks north towards Allentown, which has DTV stations on channels 9, 39, and 46. And they’re not all that strong, either. In short, I have the perfect location to test these flat antennas – weak signals, but just strong enough to lock up a tuner.

 

To quantify my tests, I looked at the received waveform for each DTV station on an AVCOM PSA-2500C spectrum analyzer. And I used Hauppauge’s WinTV Aero-M USB stick receiver to verify reception and get some screen grabs of the stations that came in reliably.

Figure 3. (clockwise from upper left) The Walltenna, Leaf, Kowatec, and RS 'budget' antennas in position.

THE CONTESTANTS

 

MoHu’s Leaf antenna looks mysterious and ‘stealthy’ with opaque black and white sides, but hold the black side at an angle to a bright light and you’ll see exactly what’s going on under that “luncheonette counter menu” plastic housing: A pair of dipole antennas with X-shaped capacity hats at the ends.

 

The Walltenna takes that design and makes it larger, except you can see exactly what’s embedded in the plastic – copper foil shaped much the same way as the Leaf antenna. It just doesn’t look as nice on the wall as the Leaf, but then again, some of the best antennas have little eye appeal. (In the eyes of us RF enthusiasts, however, they are things of beauty.)

 

The significant difference between both antennas – and one which I figured ahead of time would give the Walltenna the edge in receiving more DTV channels – is that the elements on the Walltenna are electrically longer than the Leaf. This means the antenna should be resonant at lower frequencies.

 

I should point out that neither antenna uses a traditional collinear dipole array, as many rooftop and wall-mount UHF antennas do. With a collinear design, the physical connection ‘crosses over’ from one dipole array to the next, so that each X-shaped dipole array is out of phase with the one behind and/or in front of it, creating a broadband response. In the case of the Leaf and Walltenna, the physical connection to each ‘X’ element remains on the same side of the antenna.

 

Both antennas are designed to be stuck to a window or fastened to a wall. Mohu doesn’t provide mounting holes, but Walltenna does. On the other hand, Mohu has encased the coaxial cable connection to the antenna in a solid plastic block, while Walltenna simply solders a balun to the copper strips and attaches the balun to the plastic cover with a rivet.

 

I do not like the latter method at all. First off, inserting a piece of metal between the balun legs at such close range de-tunes the balun lines. Secondly, the balun is stiff enough that it provides too much torque on the base of the antenna when bent – you must be careful not to put too much strain on the connector, and the supplied RG-6 cable jumper is too stiff and heavy for the balun.

 

Mohu’s antenna comes with a long run of mini 75-ohm coaxial cable. This cable has higher signal losses per foot, but is much lighter and more flexible for indoor installations. Given the rough handling that such antennas are likely to receive, this is a much better approach.

 

THE TEST: ROUND ONE

 

My first test took place in an upstairs bedroom. I removed an oil painting and hung/clipped the antennas to the picture hooks. For comparison, I elevated the Kowatec and Radio Shack antennas and placed them in the same position. This wall position is on the part of my house closest to Roxborough.

 

After scanning for channels, the Walltenna snagged a few expected stations and a few that were not. Channel 6 (WPVI) runs tons of power to overcome interference from nearby FM stations (Channel 6 is at 85 MHz, and the first strong FM channel in Philly is 88.5). So it wasn’t a surprise to lock up.

Figure 4. (Clockwise from upper left) Spectrum analyzer waveforms of WPVI-6 as received with the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Figure 5. (Clockwise from upper left) WBPH-9 and WHYY-12 as received using the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Neither was WHYY-12, which also runs beacoup power now that they don’t need to protect channel 12 in Binghamton, NY. WHYY locked up just fine without dropout. WBPH-9 from Allentown was also rock steady.

 

So were UHF stations WPHL-17 and KYW-26, also a couple of powerhouses. WCAU-34 was mostly reliable with the occasional ‘hit,’ as was WFMZ-46 from Allentown, another strong station. (WBPH-9 and WFMZ-46 antennas were on the wrong side of my house.)

Figure 6. (Clockwise from upper left) KYW-26 as receivedon the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

Figure 7. (Clockwise from upper left) WFMZ-46 as received on the Walltenna, Leaf, RS 'budget,' and Kowatec antennas.

I could see RF carriers from other stations, but none were strong enough to lock up the Aero-M tuner. Even so, this was impressive performance from a so-called “all band” omnidirectional antenna. What the designer got right was to make the antenna elements longer, which helps with gain at highband VHF frequencies (channels 7-13). But it can also degrade performance in the UHF spectrum – you never get something for nothing.

 

By using a balanced line connection to the balun, that problem is overcome. At higher frequencies, only the dipole elements are active. At lower frequencies, part of the transmission line becomes part of the antenna. It’s a technique I’ve used for years on ham radio antennas and on my ‘ugly duckling’ UHF antenna prototypes from a decade ago.

 

So, how’d the Leaf do? Not too bad, but it only pulled in channels 6, 12, 17, 26, and 46 reliably. Channel 9 was nowhere to be seen, while channel 34 suffered from constant breakup. Odd, considering the Leaf is primarily a UHF antenna design and WCAU’s signal on channel 34 is one of the stronger signals around.

 

The fact that the Leaf pulled in both channels 6 and 12 is a testament to how much power both stations run.  This antenna also uses a balanced line feeder to its coaxial connection, which provides resonance over a wider range of frequencies.

 

But the ‘X’ elements at the end of the balanced line are only 4.25” long, whereas the Walltenna ‘X’ elements are over 7” long.  So the Walltenna has a decided edge in reception of VHF signals.

 

How about the two ‘control’ antennas? Kowatec’s panel antenna is usually a strong performer with UHF TV stations, but all it could receive reliably in the test position was WBPH-9, WCAU-34, and WFMZ-69. Radio Shack’s ‘budget’ antenna (UHF loop and rabbit ears) did marginally better, pulling in WPVI-6, WHYY-12, KYW-26, and WFMZ-46.

 

THE TEST: ROUND TWO

 

For the next part of the test, I hung or placed each antenna in a back bedroom window, facing north towards the Allentown and Bethlehem stations. Once again, channel scans were run using the Aero-M and screen grabs were taken of actual DTV waveforms.

 

I didn’t expect to pull in much from this location, save for WBPH-9 and WFMZ-46. The Walltenna met those expectations and also pulled in KYW-26 as a bonus, off the side of the antenna. The Leaf antenna located the exact same stations with comparable reception results.

 

The control antennas provided mixed results, but one did marginally better. Kowatec’s panel antenna snagged WPVI-6, WBPH-9, and KYW-26 (no sign of WFMZ-46 and its million-watt ERP signal), while the Radio Shack 15-1874 delivered WPVI-6, WBPH-9, KYW-26, and WFMZ-46.

 

Obviously all of the antennas could have been placed more carefully for optimum results. But how many readers have access to a signal level meter, or a spectrum analyzer? I’m betting  not many. So my methodology of just picking an arbitrary antenna position yielded a fair set of results.

 

CONCLUSION

 

There’s definitely something to the Walltenna design, but it’s not black magic. Just make the elements bigger and you will approach resonance at lower frequencies. The X-shaped elements on the end act like capacity hats and do the trick! (A full wavelength @ 175 MHz – channel 7 – is 1.7 meters, while a full wavelength @ 665 MHz – channel 46 – is .45 meters.)

 

The Mohu Leaf is a solid performer on UHF and will pull in the odd VHF station, if it’s strong enough. Both antennas are easily concealed, but take care in what you place them behind or near, as metallic surfaces will detune each antenna and the balanced feed line, degrading performance. (Tip: If a metallic surface is placed ¼ wavelength behind each antenna at the desired frequency, it will become more directional on the opposite side.)

 

As for the control antennas, they held their own in at least one test, so I can’t say that either flat antenna had a distinct advantage over the Kowatec and Radio Shack entries. Where the flat antennas have the upper hand is in design – they’re easier to hide and to look at . (Although Walltenna should really take a page from Mohu and encase their product in an opaque plastic coating. )

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…

A ‘Contrived’ Broadband Crisis, Indeed

A news story in the Wednesday 10/12 edition of the New York Times announced that the Federal Communications Commission is partnering with Best Buy’s Geek Squad to teach Americans how to use the Internet and take full advantage of broadband services that are available to them.

According to the story, only 68% of Americans are taking advantage of broadband access. The author of the article compares that rate unfavorably to South Korea, where over 90% of Koreans use available broadband services.

The source of that statistic is not provided. But it’s a big “Uh Oh!” for the FCC, whose chairman Julius Genachowski has been on a one-man crusade to convince everyone that we have a wireless broadband spectrum crisis in the United States, and that TV stations should willingly give up 120 MHz of UHF TV channels (basically everything above channel 31) to address this ‘crisis.’

His clarion calls have also been parroted by the head of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro. Neither individual has provided substantive proof to back up their claims, leading many of us industry analysts to believe that the impetus for this fabricated crisis is being driven by telecoms like Verizon and AT&T at the expense of millions of Americans who rely on free, over-the-air digital TV as a counter to high-priced cable TV subscription plans.

Three reasons were cited in the article for the reluctance or refusal of 32% of Americans to sign up for and take advantage of ‘available’ broadband services to surf the Web. The first was the cost of Internet services and the cost of computers. Number two was not knowing how to use a computer, and number three was ‘not understanding why the Internet is relevant.’

The plan is for Geek Squad staff to partner with service organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill and 4-H in 20 cities to offer training in basic computer literacy. Microsoft is also on-board,  and will offer training in stores, schools, and libraries.

Now, I am not not by nature a political animal. But this seems like a waste of taxpayer money to me, particularly if Best Buy is deriving any benefit from the program.

Mr. Chairman: Have you not been reading the papers lately? (Sorry, I should have said ‘reading the on-line news sites.’) There are hundreds of thousands of newly-minted college graduates who cannot find jobs that pay decently, and are taking whatever work they can find to cover their monthly bills and student loans.

I’ll bet a sizable number are quite computer-literate and would be quite happy to instruct Americans about the ecstasies of ordering from Amazon, friending on Facebook, and streaming from Netflix, in return for a modest stipend from Washington, DC. Sort of a “Bits Corps” program, if you will. Why not put them to work? Best Buy doesn’t need the money.

I’d also like to mention that I know a few people who spend little or no time on the Internet, and have acquaintances that don’t even own a computer. They have no interest in surfing the Web and are quite happy functioning in what to them is a ‘normal’ world. Call them Luddites if you will, but they are co-existing with us ‘connected’ folks quite nicely.

It should not be the federal government’s job to make sure 100% of Americans know how to use a computer and do so on a regular basis. That is a choice for individual citizens to make. If Washington wants to establish an outreach program to help citizens get over a technology learning curve ‘hump’ so they can then make use of broadband connectivity, fine. But let it be run by volunteers in the finest spirit of our country, not government-subsidized employees of a big box retailer.

As for the ‘wireless spectrum crisis;’ we’ve called you out on it, Mr. Genachowski. It is a claim fabricated out of whole cloth and you should just drop it and leave what’s left of the free broadcast TV spectrum alone. Stop penalizing financially-pressed Americans by taking away one of the very few really good deals left out there…free HDTV.

Nuff said!