television

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Tossed TVsI’m sitting in a medical office (routine stuff) where a number of people, myself included, are doing our best to ignore the flat TV screen on the wall. Most of us are reading magazines, using our phones or tablets, or (in one case — mine) working on a laptop.

When I arrived around 8am, I found the flat screen interesting, because it was showing a radio show I like: Dennis & Callahan, of WEEI. While most sports talk shows sound like human beer cans yelling at each other, D&C is always thoughtful and informative, even (or especially) when it veers off the sports groove, as it often does. I’d never seen John Dennis or Gerry Callahan before, so it was interesting to see them at work. I also like their long 8am conversation with Boomer Esiason every Monday during the NFL season. So digging all that was cool. Then, at 9am, when the show ended, the first of a series of half-hour-long ads began to run. Says here on the NESN schedule page that “paid programming” will continue until noon. Nobody in the room is watching. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that most of them find the non-stop pitches annoying.

NESN is the New England Sports Network. I’d never seen it before, except maybe in a bar or another place like this one. Nothing I’ve seen so far this morning would make me want to see it again. (I’m still in the Waiting Room, waiting.) While it was nice seeing D&C, I don’t need a TV for that. And, while “paid programming” fills the time between D&C and sports news later in the day, it’s otherwise one big value-subtract for everybody but the station and the advertiser (and, I suppose the people who buy the crap being advertised — currently some kind of electronic “Amish fireplace.”). But then, so might be pretty much everything else on TV that isn’t news or sports you can’t get anywhere else.

That’s being unfair, of course. There is plenty of worthwhile stuff on TV. Talent shows. Sit-coms. Dramas and comedies. Even some reality shows. (I know people who love “Dancing With the Stars.”) My point is that none of it needs to be on TV, because today TV = Cable, and only Cable needs Cable. What we call “channels” and “networks” are just sources of programs, most of which are just files or streams that can be stored as files. We have the Net for that now.

Programs should be made available to pay for and watch on an a la carte basis, or as part of subscription packages that make sense to viewers. Apple does some of that, but most of the programs are too expensive at this point.

Sure, NBC, ABC, TNT, AMC and the rest of them have “brands” as sources of programs. But why should they be stuffed inside so much packing material, like D&C gets stuffed between “paid programming” nobody watches? Why not buy what’s worth more than $zero at prices that also exceed $zero, without also buying all the pure crap that serves as filler?

Mostly because the flywheels of Business As Usual in TV are enormous, and are sustained by FCC regulations for over-the-air, Cable and Satellite (a variety of Cable) that remain anchored in the nearly-vanished Antenna Age. (Speaking of which, there is an excellent exhibition called TV in the Antenna Age, in Terminal 3 at SFO. Check it out if you’re flying United in or out of there.)

Conveniently, all Cable companies offer Internet service as well. TV on the Net they call “over the top.” But in the long run, “over the top” will be the whole thing. The writing is already on the wall. Progress toward the inevitable is slow, but we can see how it ends. What used to be TV will just be files and streams, some of which we’ll pay for, and some of which will be free. Meanwhile, more of the usual crap will just be ignored.

[Later...] Brett (below) makes a good point about the high efficiency of broadcast (cable) for streaming. I should add that cable broadcast as a way of delivering video will make sense for a long time. But the business and technical model as it stands is obsolete and out of alignment with the marketplace. “TV” will become as obsolete as telegraphy. Video will never be.

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A couple days ago I responded to a posting on an email list. What I wrote struck a few chords, so I thought I’d repeat it here, with just a few edits, and then add a few additional thoughts as well. Here goes.

Reading _____’s references to ancient electrical power science brings to mind my own technical background, most of which is now also antique. Yet that background still informs of my understanding of the world, and my curiosities about What’s Going On Now, and What We Can Do Next. In fact I suspect that it is because I know so much about old technology that I am bullish about framing What We Can Do Next on both solid modern science and maximal liberation from technically obsolete legal and technical frameworks — even though I struggle as hard as the next geek to escape those.

(Autobiographical digression begins here. If you’re not into geeky stuff, skip.)

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s I was obsessed with electricity and radio. I studied electronics and RF transmission and reception, was a ham radio operator, and put an inordinate amount of time into studying how antennas worked and electromagnetic waves propagated. From my home in New Jersey’s blue collar suburbs, I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York AM stations in the stinky tidewaters flanking the Turnpike, Routes 46 and 17, Paterson Plank Road and the Belleville Pike. (Nobody called them “Meadowlands” until many acres of them were paved in the ’70s to support a sports complex by that name.) I loved hanging with the old guys who manned those transmitters, and who were glad to take me out on the gangways to show how readings were made, how phasing worked (sinusoidal synchronization again), how a night transmitter had to address a dummy load before somebody manually switched from day to night power levels and directional arrays. After I learned to drive, my idea of a fun trip was to visit FM and TV transmitters on the tops of buildings and mountains. (Hell, I still do that.) Thus I came to understand skywaves and groundwaves, soil and salt water conductivity, ground systems, directional arrays and the inverse square law, all in the context of practical applications that required no shortage of engineering vernacular and black art.

I also obsessed on the reception end. In spite of living within sight of nearly every New York AM transmitter (WABC’s tower was close that we could hear its audio in our kitchen toaster), I logged more than 800 AM stations on my 40s-vintage Hammarlund HQ-129x receiver, which is still in storage at my sister’s place. That’s about 8 stations per channel. I came to understand how two-hop skywave reflection off the E layer of the ionosphere favored flat land or open water midway between transmission and reception points . This, I figured, is why I got KSL from Salt Lake City so well, but WOAI from San Antonio hardly at all. (Both were “clear channel” stations in the literal sense — nothing else in North America was on their channels at night, when the ionosphere becomes reflective of signals on the AM band.) Midpoint for the latter lay within the topographical corrugations of the southern Apalachians. Many years later I found this theory supported by listening in Hawaii to AM stations from Western North America, on an ordinary car radio. I’m still not sure why I found those skywave signals fading and distorting (from multiple reflections in the very uneven ionosphere) far less than those over land. I am sure, however, that most of this hardly matters at all to current RF and digital communication science. After I moved to North Carolina, I used Sporadic E reflections to log more than 1200 FM stations, mostly from 800 to 1200 miles away, plus nearly every Channel 3 and 6 (locally, 2,4 and 5 were occupied) in that same range. All those TV signals are now off the air. (Low-band VHF TV — channels 2 to 6 — are not used for digital signals in the U.S.) My knowledge of this old stuff is now mostly of nostalgia value; but seeking it has left me with a continuing curiosity about the physical world and our infrastructural additions to it. This is why much of what looks like photography is actually research. For example, this and this. What you’re looking at there are pictures taken in service to geology and archaeology.

(End of autobiographical digression.)

Speaking of which, I am also busy lately studying the history of copyright, royalties and the music business — mostly so ProjectVRM can avoid banging into any of those. This research amounts to legal and regulatory archaeology. Three preliminary findings stand out, and I would like to share them.

First, regulatory capture is real, and nearly impossible to escape. The best you can do is keep it from spreading. Most regulations protect last week from yesterday, and are driven by the last century’s leading industries. Little if any regulatory lawmaking by established industries — especially if they feel their revenue bases threatened, clears room for future development. Rather, it prevents future development, even for the threatened parties who might need it most. Thus the bulk of conversation and debate, even among the most progressive and original participants, takes place within the bounds of still-captive markets. This is why it is nearly impossible to talk about Net-supportive infrastructure development without employing the conceptual scaffolding of telecom and cablecom. We can rationalize this, for example, by saying that demand for telephone and cable (or satellite TV) services is real and persists, but the deeper and more important fact is that it is very difficult for any of us to exit the framing of those businesses and still make sense.

Second, infrastructure is plastic. The term “infrastructure” suggests physicality of the sturdiest kind, but in fact all of it is doomed to alteration, obsolescence and replacement. Some of it (Roman roads, for example) may last for centuries, but most of it is obsolete in a matter of decades, if not sooner. Consider over-the-air (OTA) TV. It is already a fossil. Numbered channels persist as station brands; but today very few of those stations transmit on their branded analog channels, and most of them are viewed over cable or satellite connections anyway. There are no reasons other than legacy regulatory ones to maintain the fiction that TV station locality is a matter of transmitter siting and signal range. Viewing of OTA TV signals is headed fast toward zero. It doesn’t help that digital signals play hard-to-get, and that the gear required for getting it sucks rocks. Nor does it help that cable and satellite providers that have gone out of their way to exclude OTA receiving circuitry from their latest gear, mostly force subscribing to channels that used to be free. As a result ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS are now a premium pay TV package. (For an example of how screwed this is, see here.) Among the biggest fossils are thousands of TV towers, some more than 2000 feet high, maintained to continue reifying the concept of “coverage,” and to legitimize “must carry” rules for cable. After live audio stream playing on mobile devices becomes cheap and easy, watch AM and FM radio transmission fossilize in exactly the same ways. (By the way, if you want to do something green and good for the environment, lobby for taking down some of these towers, which are expensive to maintain and hazards to anything that flies. Start with this list here. Note the “UHF/VHF transmission” column. Nearly all these towers were built for analog transmission and many are already abandoned. This one, for example.)

Third, “infrastructure” is a relatively new term and vaguely understood outside arcane uses within various industries. It drifted from military to everyday use in the 1970s, and is still not a field in itself. Try looking for an authoritative reference book on the general subject of infrastructure. There isn’t one. Yet digital technology requires that we challenge the physical anchoring of infrastructure as a concept. Are bits infrastructural? How about the means for arranging and moving them? The Internet (the most widespread means for moving bits) is defined fundamentally by its suite of protocols, not by the physical media over which data travels, even though there are capacity and performance dependencies on the latter. Again, we are in captured territory here. Only in conceptual jails can we sensibly debate whether something is an “information service” or a “telecommunication service”. And yet most of us who care about the internet and infrasructure do exactly that.

That last one is big. Maybe too big. I’ve written often about how hard it is to frame our understanding of the Net. Now I’m beginning to think we should admit that the Internet itself, as concept, is too limiting, and not much less antique than telecom or “power grid”.

“The Internet” is not a thing. It’s a finger pointing in the direction of a thing that isn’t. It is the name we give to the sense of place we get when we go “on” a mesh of unseen connections to interact with other entitites. Even the term “cloud“, labeling a utility data service, betrays the vagueness of our regard toward The Net.

I’ve been on the phone a lot lately with Erik Cecil, a veteran telecom attorney who has been thinking out loud about how networks are something other than the physical paths we reduce them to. He regards network mostly in its verb form: as what we do with our freedom — to enhance our intelligence, our wealth, our productivity, and the rest of what we do as contributors to civilization. To network we need technologies that enable what we do in maximal ways.  This, he says, requires that we re-think all our public utilities — energy, water, communications, transportation, military/security and law, to name a few — within the context of networking as something we do rather than something we have. (Think also of Jonathan Zittrain’s elevation of generativity as a supportive quality of open technology and standards. As verbs here, network and generate might not be too far apart.)

The social production side of this is well covered in Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, but the full challenge of what Erik talks about is to re-think all infrastructure outside all old boxes, including the one we call The Internet.

As we do that, it is essential that we look to employ the innovative capacities of businesses old and new. This is a hat tip in the general direction of ISPs, and to the concerns often expressed by Richard Bennett and Brett Glass: that new Internet regulation may already be antique and unnecessary, and that small ISPs (a WISP in Brett’s case) should be the best connections of high-minded thinkers like yours truly (and others named above) to the real world where rubber meets road.

There is a bigger picture here. We can’t have only some of us painting it.

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One of the reasons I liked Dish Network (to the extent anybody can like a purely commercial entertainment utility) was that their satellite receivers included an over-the-air tuner. It nicely folded your over-the-air (OTA) stations in with others in the system’s channel guide. Here’s how it looked:

dish_guide1

Well, the week before last I discovered that our Dish receiver was having trouble seeing and using its broadband connection — and, for that matter, the phone line as well. That receiver was this one here…

vip622-lrg

… a ViP 622. Vintage 2006. Top of Dish’s line at the time. Note the round jack on the far left of the back side. That’s where your outside (or inside) over-the-air antenna plugged in. We’ll be revisiting the subject shortly.

So Dish sent a guy out. He replaced the ViP 622 with Dish’s latest (or so he said): a ViP 722. I looked it up on the Web and ran across “DISH Network’s forthcoming DVRs get detailed: hints of Sling all over“, by Darren Murph, posted May 18th 2008. Among other things it said, “The forthcoming ViP 722 will be the first HD DVR from the outfit with loads of Sling technology built in — not too shocking considering the recent acquisition. Additionally, the box is said to feature an all new interface and the ability to browse to (select) websites, double as a SlingCatcher and even handle Clip & Sling duties.”

So here it was, July 2009, and I had a ViP 722 hooked up to my nice Sony flat screen, and … no hint of anything remotely suggestive of a Sling feature. When I asked the Dish guy about it, he didn’t have a clue. Sling? What’s that? Didn’t matter anyway, because the thing couldn’t use our broadband. The guy thought it might be my firewall, but I don’t have one of those.  Just a straight Net connection, through a router and a switch in a wiring closet that works fine for every other Net-aware device hooked up to it. We tested the receiver’s connection with a laptop: 18Mb down, 4Mb up. No problems. The receiver gets an IP address from the router (and can display it), and lights blink by the ethernet jack. But… it doesn’t communicate. The Dish guy said the broadband was only used for pay-per-view, and we don’t care about that, it doesn’t much matter. But we do care about customer support. Dish has buttons and menu choices for that, but—get this—has to dial out on a phone line to get the information you want. I had thought this was just a retro feature of the old ViP 622, but when I called Dish they said no, it’s still a feature of ALL Dish receivers.

It’s 2009, and these things are still dialing out. On a land line. Amazing.

So a couple days ago my wife called me from the house (I’m back in Boston) and said that the ViP 722 was dead. Tot. Mort. We tried re-setting it, unplugging and plugging it back in. Nothing. Then yesterday Dish came out to fix the thing, found was indeed croaked, and put in a new one: a ViP 722k, Dish’s “advanced, state-of-the-art” reciever of the moment.

Well, it may be advanced in lots of ways, but it’s retarded in one that royally pisses me off: no over-the-air receiver. That jack in the back I pointed out above? Not there.  So, no longer can I plug in my roof antenna to watch over-the-air TV. To do that I’ll have to bypass the receiver and plug the antenna cable straight into the TV. (That has never worked either, because Sony makes the channel-tuning impossible to understand, much less operate. On that TV, switching between satellite and anything else, such as the DVD, is a freaking ordeal.) Oh, and I won’t be able to record over-the-air programs, either. Unless I get a second DVR that’s not Dish’s.

Okay, so I just did some looking around, and found through this video that the ViP 722K has an optional “MT2 OTA module” that gets you over-the-air TV on the ViP 722k. Here’s some more confusing shit about it. Here’s more from Dishuser.org. Here’s the product brochure (pdf). Digging in, I see it’s two ATSC (digital TV) tuners in one, with two antenna inputs, and it goes in a drawer in the back of the set. It costs $30. I don’t think the Dish installer even knew about it. He told me that the feature had been eliminated on the 722K, and that I was SOL.

Bonus bummer: The VIP 722k also features a much more complicated remote control. This reduces another long-standing advantage of Dish: remote controls so simple to use that you could operate them in the dark. Bye to that too.

So. Why did Dish subtract value like that? I can think of only two reasons. One is that approximately nobody still watches over-the-air TV. (This is true. I’m one of the very few exceptions. Color me retro.) The other is that Dish charges $5.99/month for local channels. They did that before, but now they can force the purchase. “Yes, we blew off your antenna, but now you can get the same channels over satellite for six bucks a month.” Except for us it’s not the same channels. We live in Santa Barbara, but can’t get the local over-the-air channels. Instead we watch San Diego’s. Dish doesn’t offer us those, at any price.

The final irony is that the ViP 722k can’t use our broadband or our phone line either. Nobody ever figured out that problem. That means this whole adventure was for worse than naught. We’d have been better off if with our old ViP 622. There was nothing wrong with it that isn’t still wrong with its replacements.

Later my wife shared a conversation she had with a couple other people in town who had gone through similar craziness at their homes. “What happened to TV?” one of them said. “It’s gotten so freaking complicated. I just hate it.”

What’s happening is a dying industry milking its customers. That much is clear. The rest is all snow.

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Barack Obama wants to wait on the DTV shift currently scheduled for 17 February. On the grounds that it’ll be a mess, this is a good idea. But nothing can make it a better idea. It’s not that the train has left the station. It’s that the new OTA (over the air) Oz is mostly built-out and it’s going to fail. Not totally, but in enough ways to bring huge piles of opprobrium down on the FCC, which has been rationalizing this thing for years.

I explain why in What happens when TV’s mainframe era ends next February?. Most VHF stations moving to UHF will have sharply reduced coverage. The converter shortage is just a red herring. The real problem is signals that won’t be there.

Most cable customers won’t be affected. But even cable offerings are based on over-the-air coverage assumptions. Those may stay the same, but the facts of coverage will not. In most cases coverage will shrink.

FCC maps (more here and here) paint an optimistic picture. But they are based on assumptions that are also overly optimistic, to say the least. Wilimington, NC was chosen as a demonstration market. Bad idea. One of the biggest stations there, WECT, suffers huge losses of coverage.

Anyway, it’s gonna be FUBAR in any case.

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