Posts Tagged ‘OTT’

Useful Gadgets – Channel Master Stream+ OTA/OTT Media Player

Hard on the heels of my review of the Channel Master SMARTenna+ comes this rather odd-looking digital TV receiver. It doesn’t look like much, but thanks to tiny solid-state memory cards and miniaturization, it is a fully-functional digital TV receiver that also streams content from a variety of online channels like Google Play and YouTube.

I call the Stream+ a “sidecar” box because we haven’t anything like set-top boxes in years (especially since our TVs don’t have “set tops” to begin with). Even so, many contemporary designs for STBs are still rectangular boxes that can be difficult to fit alongside or under an LCD or OLED TV.

There are signs that manufacturers are willing to break those rules, such as the “puck” tuner for Internet-delivered cable TV channels that Arris has shown at NAB. Channel Master’s Stream+ fits into that mold nicely: It stands all of 3 inches tall and measures 3 inches in diameter at the top and 4 inches across its base. You aren’t likely to notice it on your elegant TV stand, and you might even be able to tuck it under a big flat screen set.

OUT OF THE BOX

Channel Master’s Stream+ box looks more like a voice control gadget than a digital TV receiver.

There are only a few connections you need to make to start using the Stream+. Plug in the external AC adapter, run an HDMI cable to your TV, and connect an antenna to the RF input to pull in local stations. There’s also a USB port for a future DVR product, along with a Micro SD card slot. Plug in a memory card here and it will function as your DVR.

Two connectors remain. One is a wired Ethernet port in case you want a physical connection to your network, and there’s also an optical SPDIF output to drive a separate AV receiver or sound bar. The Stream+ also supports 802.11ac dual-band WiFi connectivity, which makes streaming video content a lot easier – the 5 GHz band is nowhere as congested as the 2.4 GHz band, and channel-bonding technology increases bandwidth “on the fly” for video.

Did I mention that the Stream+ is “4K ready?” If you have a 4K TV, connect a 4K HDMI cable from the Stream+ to your TV. The HDMI port is version 2.0 with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, so if you come across any 4K streaming content, you can watch it at full resolution. (Sorry, no 4K OTA broadcasts are available yet.) The USB port mentioned earlier is version 3.0 with fast transfer speeds and It would be a good idea to pick up an external hard or flash drive for recording shows. (Channel Master recommends at least a 1 terabyte (TB) drive for recording.)

The connector complement on Stream+ is minimal, but functional. If you can’t make a wired network connection, Stream+ supports 2.4 and 5 GHz 802.11ac WiFi.

In addition to supporting MPEG2 decoding, the standard for over-the-air broadcasts, this little box can also decode MPEG4 H.264 and HEVC H.265 content. What that means is that you’ll be ready to watch just about any streaming content you come across.

Things aren’t so sanguine for broadcast television. The current version of digital TV in this country uses 8VSB modulation with MPEG2 encoding, but ATSC 3.0 (if and when it gets launched and adopted) works on an entirely different modulation system – Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, or OFDM. This latter system is the basis for digital TV broadcasting in most of the world. The Stream+ isn’t compatible with ATSC 3.0, but it’s still early in the game and you should get quite a few years of service from this sidecar tuner.

Another cool feature is speech recognition. Push the microphone icon and you can navigate through channels, bring up the guide, and find programs simply by using your voice. This is becoming a very popular feature on cable boxes and smart TVs and couch potatoes love it. The Stream+ uses Android TV to provide guide info on all broadcast and streaming channels and include Chromecast support.

SETTING UP

Channel Master doesn’t provide a full operating manual for the Stream+. Instead, they provide a simple “quick start guide,” so you can get up and running. Once you’ve made your power, HDMI, and wired network connections, you can start scanning for channels. If you don’t have access to a wired Ethernet connection, you will be prompted to select a WiFi network and enter the password.

The whole process takes less than 5 minutes, during which time you will also be asked if you want to pair the Channel Master remote control with your TV and/or sound bar. I would say, “go for it!” as the CM remote is compact and sports a minimal number of buttons and has excellent range. (It’s not backlit, though.)

The Stream+ remote control has a very simple layout, big buttons, and even a voice control function. (But it’s not backlit. Oh, well…)

The channel scan proceeds quickly, no doubt aided by the fact that we’re in the midst of a massive channel re-pack that will contract the UHF television band to channels 14 through 36 by 2020. In my market, many stations have started “channel sharing,” meaning that two or more minor channels of television are combined in the same encoder multiplex. No worries – the Stream+ will pick them up and sort them nicely into the Android program guide. All you need to do is to scan and then they’ll populate the “Live TV” tab.

If you have a Google account, you’ll be prompted to sign into that account. During the setup process, you’ll be prompted to enter a code sent to you by Google that will link your account to the Stream+. Your location will also be required to download the program guide for your local stations. Once you’ve linked the Stream+ to your Google account, you can download and watch movies and TV shows for Google Play and stream video from YouTube.

I tested the Stream+ with CM’s SMARTenna+ and they do work well together. However, if you have any low-band VHF channels (2-6) and or high-band VHF channels (7-13) active in your market, you probably won’t pick them up with this antenna unless you live super-close to the transmitters. The SMARTenna+ is optimized for UHF reception only, so drag out those rabbit ears!

IN USE

Because I inadvertently skipped a couple of steps the first time I set up the Stream+, there were no OTA channels in my “Live Channels” list – just Google Play at 1-1. A reset to factory values and repeating all of the setup steps fixed the problem. Stream+ reads the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) of your TV and will recognize it, bringing up a set of IR codes to try out with the CM remote. In my case, the test TV was a 2011-vintage Samsung 46-inch LCD with a matching Samsung soundbar, and I was able to find IR codes that controlled both.

Navigating between live channels and apps is pretty easy, although I didn’t always land on the video I wanted. For example, the Stream+ menu bar suggested a YouTube video about sports collectibles and when I clicked on it, I wound up watching the ABC-TV affiliate in Orlando, Florida. It took a few tries to get the feature video to play back correctly.

Also, you can’t navigate to an OTA channel using the voice function. Every time I tried this by saying “Watch live TV” or “watch [channel] name,” I got a tab showing numerous video clips on YouTube – all having the same name. I even tried searching for a local channel using their “branded” moniker (i.e. 6ABC, NBC10, etc.) and the same thing happened – I wound up with listings for YouTube video clips from those channels.

The solution is simply to select “Live Channels” and navigate through them with the channel selector, or bring up the program guide, navigate to the desired channel, and push the OK button on the remote. To record a program, simply scroll to it in the program guide and you’ll be prompted to (a) record just this episode, or (b) record the entire series. If you want to record a show while watching it, just push the Play/Pause button and scroll to the Record button (a red dot). Stream+ will let you record two live programs at the same time while watching a recorded program or using a streaming service.

Note that a removable drive can’t be used to record programs. I suspect that was done to ensure against illegal copying and sharing of programs. If you connect a large Micro SD card or an external drive, they will be both be formatted to work specifically with the Stream+ and not with computers. The Micro SD card approach is appealing because it doesn’t take up any additional room and card prices have dropped to reasonable levels.

CONCLUSION

This product is a big step up from the company’s previous set-top box and having the Android TV OS onboard results in an integrated package and program guide that would give TiVo a run for its money. I would like the voice-activated control a lot better if it actually let me switch between line channels on the fly, instead of taking me to a tile window showing YouTube videos.

Still, if you are ready to “cut the cord” and live in a metropolitan area, you could exist quite nicely on a diet of free, over-the-air television and streaming services such as Google Play. And you’re not limited to Google offerings: You can download the apps for other streaming services from the Google Play store and run those just as easily with Stream+. At an MSRP of $149, Stream+ won’t break the bank, either.

Channel Master CM-7600 Smart+ Media Player

MSRP: $149

Available from Channel Master, Amazon, and other retailers

More info: https://www.channelmaster.com/Stream_Plus_p/cm-7600.htm#Header_ProductDetail_TechSpecs

To Cut, Or Not To Cut: That Is The Question…

A recent report from Convergence Consulting Group states that by their estimates, 1.13 million TV households in the United States canceled pay TV services in 2015, which is about four times the pace of cancellations in 2014.

The report is somewhat humorously called “The Battle For The North America Couch Potato” and shows that even though pay TV subscription revenue increased by 3% in 2015 to $105B and is expected to tick up another 2% in 2016 to $107B, those percentages don’t match up to the rapid growth now being experienced with over-the-top (OTT) video services, like Netflix and Hulu.

Over the same time period, OTT subscription revenue increased by 29% to $5.1B in 2015, and is expected to grow another 20% this year to $6.1B. Now, that’s just 5.6% of the revenue forecast for conventional pay TV this year. But the growth rate of OTT is impressive and is mostly at the expense of conventional cable, fiber, and satellite TV subscriptions.

Convergence also reports that “cord never” and “cord cutter” households increased to 24.6M in 2015 from 22.5M in 2014. It’s expected that number will continue to increase to 26.7M households by the end of this year. (For some perspective, Comcast has a total of about 23 million broadband subscribers, which is more than their pay TV subscriber total.)

It’s no mystery why OTT continues to grow in popularity. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime allow viewers to watch individual movies and episodes of TV shows on demand for reasonable prices, either as part of a mow monthly subscriber fee or an annual membership fee + small per-viewing charges.

In essence, what OTT viewers get is a la carte TV, instead of paying a hundred dollars or more for a service bundle that includes large blocks of TV channels that never get watched. (The average TV viewer watches about 17 different channels in a year.)  And the key to making that possible is ever-faster broadband speeds, which (perhaps ironically) are being offered by cable TV companies to hold off the likes of Verizon’s FiOS, DirecTV, and Dish.

The analogy is of someone providing you the rope with which they will be hung. As Internet speeds increase along with cable bills, the first thing to get dumped is the pay TV channels. With many families, they’ve also dropped landline service in favor of mobile phones, so there’s no need for a “triple play” package (or even a “double play,” which in baseball means you’re out!)

There aren’t enough studies on hand to show how many of those cutters have picked up on watching free, over-the-air (OTA) digital TV broadcasts. And there continues to be disputes between different advocacy groups as to how much of the population actually watches OTA TV: I’ve seen estimates as low as 5-6% and as high as 20%.

Now, the second part of the story: Vizio, a leading TV brand, is now shipping a line of SmartCast Ultra HDTVs that will be “tuner-free.” You read that right; these TVs won’t have an on-board ATSC tuner for OTA broadcasts. An extra tuner would be required, along with an HDMI connection and indoor or outdoor antenna.

Technically speaking, a “TV” sold in the United States MUST have an ATSC tuner built-in, according to the FCC mandate that set a final compliance deadline of March 1, 2007. However, there is no reason why a company can’t sell a “monitor” or “display,” which would not be required to contain such a tuner. (The original FCC mandate exempted monitors that did not include analog tuners from having a digital tuner.)

Don't bother buying an antenna for SmartCast TVs. There's no built-in tuner to use it with.

Don’t bother buying an antenna for SmartCast TVs. There’s no built-in tuner to use it with.

 

According to a story on the TechHive Web site, the changes will apply to all of Vizio’s 4K Ultra HD TVs with SmartCast, including the new P-Series and upcoming E- and M-Series sets. In the story, a Vizio representative was quoted as saying that the company’s own surveys showed that less than 10 percent of their customers watched OTA broadcasts, and that a CEA (now CTA) study in 2013 claimed that just 7% of U.S. households used antennas to watch TV.

That figure is obviously low by an order of magnitude. In the 3rd quarter of 2015, the research firm Nielsen found that 12.8 million U.S. homes were relying solely on OTA TV reception, up from 12.2 the year before, and that this number didn’t include homes that are combining antenna broadcasts and streaming. All told, the percentage of homes that use an indoor or outdoor antenna in some way to watch TV probably falls between 10% and 12% – and could be even higher.

So why would Vizio drop the tuner? There’s certainly a cost savings associated with it, and not just for the hardware – there are also royalties associated with the underlying technology. But given that you can buy an outboard ATSC tuner for as little as $40, it can’t be a huge cost savings.

What’s funny about Vizio’s approach is that retailers are offering more antennas and even offering streaming media players and antennas as bundles. I’ve even noticed that the offerings of indoor TV antennas have increased at the local Best Buy (outdoor antennas are still a tough sell; only us hard-core OTA viewers will take the time to install them).

It doesn’t appear any other TV brands are following suit. However, there is a fly in the ointment: ATSC 3.0, which as a completely new standard would require an outboard set-top box or perhaps a USB stick to work with existing TVs. That’s because it supports different transmission modes that are incompatible with current ATSC tuners.

Another wrinkle – there’s no timeline for adoption of version 3.0. Right now, we’re in the middle of the first wave of FCC channel auctions, meaning that the UHF TV spectrum may be somewhat truncated after all is said and done – and many stations will have to relocate. So moving to a new terrestrial broadcast standard won’t be a priority for broadcasters any time soon.

A La Carte TV: No Blue Plate Special?

As the winds of change push more and more consumers away from conventional pay TV packages and toward streaming, “over the top” video, an interesting report has just arrived from Needham and Co. analyst Laura Martin.

The report, detailed in the Los Angeles Times, says that moving to an “a la carte” model for delivery of TV programming would result in higher costs for consumers and possibly knock the foundation out from under media companies.

According to Martin, a la carte delivery of pay TV channels would cause at least 124 smaller channels to disappear altogether, taking with them 1.4 million jobs and at least $45B in advertising.

Martin has calculated that a typical entertainment cable channel costs about $280 million per year to operate and requires (with current retransmission and rights fees) about 165,000 viewers annually just to break even. As a result, only 50 or so channels would be likely to survive out of the nearly 200 channels of programming currently available across a multitude of pay TV outlets.

Martin also notes that the typical subscriber watches perhaps 20 channels at most out of an average selection of 180 channels. I think that number is high; anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues suggest the number is much lower and close to 10 – 15 channels.

The Needham study states that, in addition to the economic cost of a move to a la carte pay TV – pegged at $80B to $113B of “U.S. consumer value” – the costs to subscribe to existing channels would also increase, as they would inevitably lose subscribers as well.

I’ve previously detailed the growing calls for moving sports channels to their own tier, given the additional cost burden they add to the average monthly cable bill (about 10% to 12%). Not surprisingly, companies like Disney (ABC, ESPN), Fox, Comcast (NBC), and CBS oppose a move like this.

But the fact is; consumers are increasingly voting to switch off pay TV services and instead rely on the likes of Comcast and Time Warner to deliver broadband connectivity, and nothing more. This “cutting the cord” trend finally gained the recognition it deserved earlier this year when it was revealed that pay TV subscriptions went into decline for the first year ever.

Aereo, the disruptive “remote antenna” service that is rolling out nationwide and faces continued court challenges, charges about $10 to stream over-the-air broadcasts through the Internet to connected TVs, tablets, and phones, and is another approach to OTT delivery. Yesterday, the company petitioned the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals for a Writ of Certiorari – in essence, forcing the issue to the Supreme Court for review.

If Aereo wins here – and it could – then the floodgates will surely open for other, competing OTT services that could cherry-pick channels and deliver them to the home in an attempt to lower monthly subscription costs. And even the cable companies are paying attention: Comcast announced in October a limited entry-level pay TV channel bundle that also includes fast Internet and HBO Go for about $60 – $70/month.

Even so, Netflix is still the largest pay TV service in the world, closing in on 30 million subscribers. And all you need to watch it is a fast Internet connection (if it’s fast enough, you might even be able to watch Netflix’ 4K movie service that is scheduled to roll out next year). In many markets, all you really need as a Roku or Apple TV box plus an antenna to get a nice selection of free and premium programming.

Granted, you won’t get as many sporting events, but studies have shown that only about 4% of pay TV subscribers watch sports channels on a regular basis to begin with. And many big-ticket events like NFL games, major league baseball, college football and basketball, and (of course) the Olympics are still available on broadcast TV channels.

While Martin’s study is interesting, it discounts the “free market” effect of consumers voting to save money and find other ways to access TV programming.  There are always winners and losers in a free market system, and the fact is; pay TV subscriptions continue to rise annually at rates above inflation. Consequently, consumers are making necessary economic decisions about the price paid versus the value received, which is why interest in OTT video is slowly growing.

Starting next year, Canada will require pay TV services to “unbundle” TV channel packages as a way to rein in expensive monthly bills. So we have the perfect test lab north of the border to see just how a la carte pay TV will work, or won’t work. Stay tuned!

Who Wins In The New Media Landscape?

The past few weeks have been mostly a blur for me, what with trips to and presentations at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat the week of February 14, plus presentations to the Delaware Valley chapter of SCTE last Wednesday (my annual CES recap) and the New York City chapter of SMPTE last Thursday (plasma and OLEDs as candidates for reference monitor technologies).

Through it all, I’ve been staying on top of a blizzard of news stories and press releases pertaining to media distribution (over the top, or OTT), the continued decline in packaged media sales and rentals, a new streaming service from Redbox (presumably with Amazon) and a new 3D channel from Comcast.

If you’re not tracking this brave new world of media distribution and consumption on a daily basis, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changes. At the Tech Retreat, we had an interesting breakfast roundtable discussion on 3D in the home, and whether it was a flop, partially successful, or had any real future.

That discussion also turned to the relative scarcity of 3D movies, which in turn brought up a comment from one of the participants (Ethan Schur of TDVision) as to why more studios didn’t remaster more of their older 3D movie titles into the Blu-ray format.

The reply, as worded by participant Wade Hannibal of NBC Universal, is that the cost to do those remasters probably wouldn’t be justified by Blu-ray disc sales, let alone rentals. Similar comments were offered after we watched a beautiful restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove on Thursday evening. Kudos to everyone involved, but how would Sony Pictures possibly recover its investment, instead of charging it off as goodwill against taxable income?

The fact is; Hollywood does not like streaming at all. At least, not the way Netflix practices it. The revenue stream isn’t substantial enough to replace the lost income from DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals. But with Netflix now boasting in excess of 20 million subscribers (second only to Comcast) and Blockbuster in Chapter 11 – and possible Chapter 7 bankruptcy – the studios are rapidly losing all of the high-value outlets they once had for selling movies and TV shows.

Along with Jerry Pierce, I moderated a panel discussion at HPA on over-the-top (OTT) video. Panel participants included Dan Holden of Comcast, Jeff Cove of Panasonic, and Dani Grindlinger of TiVo, and the discussions were lively. Is OTT video a real threat to traditional pay TV channel subscriptions? Comcast’s Q4 2010 financial results, released during the conference, would seem to indicate ‘no’ as they only lost about 135,000 subscribers during that time period.

TiVo has made some nice gains with Charter Communications, who will offer their Premiere series of DVRs to customers for traditional pay TV service. But TiVo also supports Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet video channels that could compete with Charter’s bread-and-butter services. Is this tantamount to letting the fox into the chicken coop and hoping he’ll stay honest?

Panasonic, who was among the leaders in pushing 3D last year, now has a Viera tablet PC and their TVs offer a wide range of connected (OTT) services, including Netflix (who else?), Pandora, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, MLB.com and NHL.com. But they’ve also opted for a proprietary ‘apps’ platform, which means that app developers have yet another proprietary format to deal with.

The one company missing from our discussion was (of course) Netflix. Their business lately can best be described as “a house on fire,” and with their stock price in the mid-$200s per share, they don’t need to explain themselves to anyone.

But there will be pushback against the big red N. And that will come with higher rights fees in future licensing agreements from the likes of Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, et al not to mention major TV networks. It’s been pretty much conceded that packaged media (for better or worse) is on the way out, and that digital downloads and streaming are what the marketplace wants.

So the big question is how to make any money from it. Believe me, studios are very concerned about future revenue streams, which is why some of them are also discussing a shorter exclusivity window with movie theaters before popular movie titles would be available on pay-per-view (probably for $29.95 or $39.95), a proposal that is being roundly criticized by the North American Theater Owners (NATO) group.

The so-called 28-day reserve period that protects Blockbuster against Netflix and Redbox may also have to go out the window. The latest news from ‘the Block” is that it may shed as many as 600 stores, and that even a move to a streaming model isn’t going to save their chestnuts as studios sue to get millions of dollars back in unsold DVDs and Blu-rays.

However all of this turns out, there will be casualties. Blockbuster looks to be cooked and I don’t see anyone else looking to get into the brick-and-mortar DVD rental/sale model. What DVD/BD sales there are will be handled by the likes of Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and even my local Acme market (which had a 3’ x 3’ bin full of $9 DVDs in the candy aisle last week, including recent titles like Kick-Ass).

Netflix will likely pass Comcast in total subscribers by June of this year; maybe sooner (they added 3 million subscribers in Q4 of 2010). Redbox should have its movie streaming service up and running by then, and they may soon be joined by none other than YouTube. What kinds of deals will Hollywood ink with these companies?

One of the great ironies of all this is that Blu-ray player sales are picking up speed as their prices continue to drop. But anecdotal evidence so far is that consumers are buying BD players mostly for Netflix streaming – it’s cheaper than buying a new TV to gain Internet connectivity, and you can always play the occasional DVD or Blu-ray disc if you need to. (And I know where you can find some really good deals on cheap Blu-ray discs, over by the detergent, paper towels, napkins, and household items aisle…)