Category Archives: TV

TV Rebroadcaster ivi.tv Shut Down by Injunction

I didn’t see any tech blogger coverage of this, then I remembered I had a dusty old blog of my own, so I’ll do a quick summary here. ivi.tv is a terrific television rebroadcasting product that enables you to watch local stations from various US markets on your computer using a downloadable client application that works on both Mac and PC. They charge a very reasonable monthly subscription fee (a fraction of what we paid for DirecTV before we got rid of it last year), but it was a bargain for the few times a month we want to watch live TV (basically, baseball playoffs and entertainment awards shows).

As you might guess, whenever big media is perturbed by technological innovation, a lawsuit must necessarily follow, and this time is no exception. This TechCrunch piece from last October, written by a presumably non-insane lawyer, talks about the legal status of ivi.tv. The writer points out that there’s an exemption to copyright law called the “passive carrier exemption” that theoretically enables companies to do what ivi.tv does as long as they don’t alter the programming (there were a few failed attempts at this where companies tried to superimpose their own advertisements, which is obviously evil). But ivi.tv doesn’t do that — they just charge subscribers a monthly fee, like any other cable operator. And importantly, ivi.tv kicks back a portion of subscriber fees to broadcasters, just like cable operators do.

Today the company announced that they were shut down by a court injunction brought by the standard evil media conglomerates (Comcast, Disney, CBS, Fox, Major League Baseball, etc.).

The net effect is that our consumption of live broadcast TV will be going from “very little” to “zero”. Well played, entertainment industry. If the Giants make the playoffs again this year, which they will, I guess I’ll watch every game from a barstool somewhere instead of the comfort of my laptop. Maybe I can teach my daughter to fetch peanuts for me or something. The net result is that the local pub will make more money from me than the TV nets ever will. That can’t possibly have been the intention here. And honestly, it can’t be long now before the black hats (also known as Our Triumphant Liberators of Content) will set up some kind of peer-to-peer rebroadcasting network. Have fun bringing a lawsuit against that, jerks.

Update: Over on GigaOM, Ryan Lawler has excerpts from the injunction, which seems to assert that because they send TV over the internet (instead of wires or via satellite), they can’t be classified as a cable operator. This seems like a pretty dippy interpretation of the law (it’s not ivi.tv is broadcasting content willy-nilly — they’re only sending it to paid users of their custom client app).

Provide an Efficient Market for Pay TV

I’ve been following the News Corp vs. Time Warner Cable standoff over retransmission pricing, not because it affects us (we are longtime DirecTV satellite subscribers) but because it calls out how inefficient the market for pay TV is. The basis of the conflict is that News Corp (the content provider) is trying to shake down Time Warner (the delivery system) for a huge increase in the fees it pays, far more than any other delivery system pays. Time Warner is threatening to kick Fox stations off its system unless they’re priced more reasonably. They’re in a standoff at the moment, with the retransmission contract being extended hour-by-hour while the negotiators negotiate. A number of New Year’s football bowl games hang in the balance for anxious New Yorkers who are into that kind of thing.

News outlets like the NY Times are focusing on the standoff drama of the whole thing and barely touching on the consumer choice angle. To me, it seems absolutely crazy that the channels that appear on my TV are being randomly turned on and off by teams of lawyers meeting in a conference room somewhere in New York. The whole reason why this is happening is because of content providers’ insistence on acting like a cartel. Right now pay TV customers have very limited choices in terms of pricing and selection — cable and satellite providers price channels in bundled packages as a way to sell you more than you need. For example, we never, ever watch ESPN, yet its retransmission cost has been tacked on to our monthly DirecTV fee since the beginning of time. Why are we forced to pay for something that we never use?

It’s clear that left to their own devices, content providers and delivery systems will never work this out themselves — quality of product will become poorer and the number of choices will become smaller over time. So this situation should be dismantled, using the FCC’s regulatory authority (or federal antitrust statutes), if necessary.

Rather than forcing customers to choose from two or three expensive programming bundles containing mostly stations they don’t watch, it would make way more sense to give customers the ability to pick and choose the individual channels they want. This isn’t a new idea; it’s called a la carte pricing and it’s been batted around for more than five years, although it doesn’t seem to have gotten anywhere during that time, possibly because the idea came about during an administration that was all about throwing consumers under the bus in favor of the whims of big business.

But there’s actually something for the big businesses in this if the unbundling is handled fairly (through regulation instead of through a million drawn-out conflicts and back-room negotiations). Some chaotic evil delivery systems such as Comcast seem opposed to unbundling, while the neutral good systems such as Cablevision see the potential and are in favor. Using our family’s viewing habits as an example again: We probably wouldn’t spend an extra $10 a month upgrade to a premium satellite package with 100 extra useless channels just to get the two or three kids’ channels we don’t get today, but we might spend $0.50 a month per additional channel if channels were offered that way. That way, DirecTV would make an extra $12 a year from us that they wouldn’t otherwise see. And at the end of the day, if the content providers went crazy and decided to charge $97 a month for QVC, they could, with the understanding that the cost will passed directly on to customers, who will then have the choice to cancel the channel or not.

Content delivery systems (cable and satellite providers) have argued that they don’t have the technology to enable each customer to create their own custom package of channels. This is nonsense. All they need to do is extend custom pricing today, and then figure out how to restrict content when they get around to it.

Sci Fi Channel changing name, logo

Link: Sci Fi Channel changing name, logo

After 16 years, Sci Fi Channel is changing its name … unless you say it aloud. NBC Universal-owned cable network will become SyFy starting in June. The phonics-friendly moniker is part of a network-wide rebranding campaign that has been in the works for more than a year. It’s an evolution that also includes a new logo and tagline — “Imagine Greater” — and will be announced Monday at the network’s “upfront” presentation to advertisers for the new programing season.

I’m having a hard time figuring out whether this is a genius move or an MBAtard move.

Conan O’Brien Sidekick Joins “Tonight Show”

Great news, the very funny Andy Richter will rejoin Conan O’Brien when he takes over the Tonight Show in June. We watched the last episode of Conan’s “Late Night” last Friday and it was hilarious.

O’Brien said in a statement that Richter is “one of the funniest people I know” and that the two have remained friends since Richter left NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2000 to pursue an acting career.

O’Brien also joked that he is glad to have Richter back, because his former sidekick owes him $300.

Conan O’Brien Sidekick Joins “Tonight Show”

Breaking up with Sony

We just picked up our first HDTV for our rumpus room (a really sweet Samsung LCD) and an Apple TV to go along with it. Love the new TV. Love the Apple TV. But I’m not enamored with the Playstation 3 we’ve had basically gathering dust for a year. The idea was to use it as a Blu-Ray DVD player (only — we aren’t using it as a game machine). So I tried to hook it up to the HDTV last night and it wouldn’t talk to the new TV over the HDMI port (it would only send output via the low-fi analog connection). So I downloaded the latest system software upgrade for the PS3 to see if that would help. After running it, it got stuck on a screen that said “Updating Database/Do Not Turn Off The System/0%”. For eight hours. Restarting the unit got us back to this same screen.

Now, in this situation, you’d think that a little something might have gone wrong with the system update software, right? But Sony doesn’t think so. After calling Sony tech support, they wanted me to send them the PS3 and pay $150 to have it fixed, since, incredibly, there is no way for a civilian to reformat and reinstall system software on a PS3 that is in this state.

So I told the customer service rep (very politely) to cram it, and to provide a rationale why I should have to pay $150 to remedy an obvious fault in their system updater. Here are two of the most awesome excuses I got from Sony reps over the phone:

1) “The unit is out of warranty.”

So that’s fine, but it’s not like my two-year-old was jamming unwrapped slices of American cheese singles in the DVD slot — Sony’s software upgrade clearly caused the problem. Have you never heard of the phrase “you break it, you bought it”?

2) “There are no known issues with this update.”

Wrong, chuckles. There is at least one known issue with this update, and it’s going on right this effing minute on the PS3 in my living room. The fact that 10,000 other people haven’t complained to you doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. This is the same rationale as the fictitious auto maufacturer that Ed Norton worked for in Fight Club, the one that only does a product recall if the number of accidents times the number of insurance settlements exceeds the cost of a recall. Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that if Sony ever gets into the automobile or heart-monitor business, we should all run screaming.

At one point I asked the customer service rep “Why would I send you $150 to fix a problem that was obviously caused by your software? I mean, is there any question in your mind that this problem is not my fault? Why wouldn’t I just put the PS3 on the curb, let the neighborhood kids ride their bicycles over it, and take photos to post on my blog as an art project?” (I am pretty sure that they didn’t have an answer for that one in their call center script, so I got sent to the assistant supervisor. Pro tip: to get escalated through customer support voice jail, be as surrealistic as possible.)

But being escalated through the hypothetical chain of command sadly didn’t do anything. Each time I asked to talk to someone who could describe to me why I had to pay $150 for Sony’s messed-up software, each person said “That’s our policy, I don’t have the authority to change it.” If that’s the case, then why am I talking to you? You’re wasting your time and mine.

In years past, I’d stuck with Sony components because they were fairly indestructable and they weren’t too expensive. (Our stereo and standard-def TV have always been all Sony and we’ve been pretty happy with them.) I hate to feel like I’m the old guy with his pants hiked up waving a garden rake at the neighborhood kids on his front lawn, but seriously, I’m going to avoid Sony products (all of them) for at least the next few years because of the excreable customer service experience I had today.