Tag Archives: cable television

Cord-Cutter Journals: Cable Bill Shock

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My monthly cable bill arrived with a notice tucked inside it that said Rate Adjustment Notice. My local cable company–one of the few that is run by a municipality–is raising their rates. It is the first time in four years and the letter opens by reminding us they are an integral part of our city. Meanwhile as satellite dishes pop up all over the city and Internet streaming brings more content then before, the rates will be going up seven percent come September. Thus if you get what is called the Expanded Basic (channels 2-99 with cable news and sports) the cost will go up to $66.89.

As is usual when you get these notices, they point out their rates are not out of line but that due to rising costs they have to make an adjustment. Here is how to read such notices: High price cable channels like ESPN get high fees per subscriber so we have to pass those costs to you. You are subsidizing channels that make little profit from advertising (think MSNBC)but rake in those per subscriber fees to keep them afloat. As more evidence that people are moving away from cable company offerings, getting this kind of jolt in the mail will probably convince many to reduce their cable subscription and get most of their news and entertainment online.

I did that a long time ago when I reduced my cable subscription to limited basic (local broadcast channels). I have an indoor antenna that allows me to see all the local channels in hd (and a lot of those sub channels not in the cable subscription). Alas my apartment will not allow a antenna on the roof (and satellite while cheaper than cable has contracts you have to sign)so limited basic is a back up when things go haywire. Fortunately the rate increase does not hit the limited subscription. Why? Simple since just about all the local channels do not charge a retransmit fee for cable use. In order to be seen on cable, broadcast channels have to periodically consent to it. And they usually grant it because it works out well for them. Sadly though some channel owners are starting to demand fees from cable companies to retransmit. One channel in my area did just that and was dropped for a few years. They dropped the fee and now are back on.

The squeeze to force high rates on cable only channels and then to demand fees for carrying broadcast channels means consumers are being hit both ways. They are being forced to subsidize cable channels they do not watch. And to watch local broadcast channels with national programming means fees as well. So cable bills start going up to reflect this reality. And will get worse as more people cut back on cable. Cable is getting desperate in trying to stop this bleeding by offering their own Internet streaming options. The cable bundle death watch has begun.

DSL Reports reported on its blog the following: “Cord cutting is accelerating with the pay TV industry losing 566,000 subscribers last quarter alone. With DirecTV alone losing 133,000 subscribers last quarter, MoffettNathanson notes it was the worst second quarter net loss in history for the nation’s legacy TV industry. The 566,000 subscriber loss comes on the heels of a 321,000 subscriber net loss the quarter before.” And it is predicted to get much worse as the number of pay-tv households is shrinking. Consumers no longer see the value in cable television they once did. Some have called the concept of bundled cable television a great swindle because cable subscribers are forced to subsidize a whole lot of channels they do not watch or do not want to watch. It is great for the cable channel owners because they have a guaranteed revenue stream from cable subscribers. Not any more. Which is why Netflix and Amazon (along with others) are getting more customers. When ESPN, one of the priciest channels on cable per subscriber, starts feeling people no longer watching you know they are getting worried in the corporate suites. They can try to compete for viewers the old fashioned way by earning them but cable tv is not used to that. Broadcast tv has to do that which is why its numbers are higher than cable channels. If Lifetime, Food or SyFy actually have to compete on the open market for viewers, will they be able to do so? We may find that out in a few years.

The Perils of Sling TV II

"Please Stand By" Old Indian Head test pattern from RCA used from 1940's till color was used. Public Domain
“Please Stand By”
Old Indian Head test pattern from RCA used from 1940’s till color was used.
Public Domain

It is Monday and another black eye for Sling TV hoping to convince people to switch to them. HBO is now part of the growing options one can access through the service so many people signed up so they could view Game of Thrones on HBO. Unfortunately the service experienced technical problems. The Roku app would not load in some cases (that happened to me though I was trying to access ESPN) or took a very long time to load. The upshot: plenty of angry subscribers and Sling having to apologize.

 Tech Crunch said it succinctly:

The network finally risked offering an over-the-top version of its service to the 10 million broadband-only U.S. homes, despite the fact that the majority of its revenues still come from pay TV subscribers, but it could struggle to grow that cord cutting audience if they think that the streaming options are hit-or-miss when it comes to reliability and stability.

And that is exactly the problem. If people believe that services like Sling are hit and miss in content delivery, they will not be so quick to sign up for them. Apple will be the next big entrant into the field with their own service in the fall. Hopefully it will run much smoother.

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Sling TV:Not For Everyone

It is hard to recall but at one time cable television was a radical change in viewing television. When I was very young, rabbit ears on top of our old television set brought television into the living room. There were not many channels to watch back then. There were the three big networks (ABC,CBS & NBC) plus taxpayer supported PBS, and a very small number of independent channels. It was about six or seven channels that you could watch. We said goodbye to the antenna when cable finally arrived and hello to the cable box. It brought clearer signals and unless something was wrong with the cable service, reliable quality. Cable television spurred the growth of cable only channels and of course movie channels.

Cable companies became de facto monopolies in most cities and without competition, the rates began to soar. Changes in technology and how information was delivered changed all that. Not just the obvious one (the Internet) but smaller steps that changed how media was delivered. It began with the humble video cassette recorder. Yes the humble vcr allowed you to record movies off live television but opened up a market for renting and selling movies to customers. There were grumbles from the big movie companies but eventually they all lined up.Then came the compact disc and later the dvd. Cable boxes became a thing of the past with a cable tuner inside a standard television or vcr. Then came the digital video recorder allowing the pausing of live television as well as record shows. The Internet begat streaming and services like Netflix took advantage of it to stream media right into people’s homes. Satellite technology had advanced enough to have small antennas and compete directly with cable companies as well (and offer channels at less cost than cable).

The Internet though is the game changer. With more people wanting to view movies online or streamed to their favorite media device, people began cord cutting. Most downgraded their services, like me, to just local broadcast channels and used services like Netflix or Hulu to fill in the gaps. Suddenly the cable companies had a serious threat. People are fed up with paying bundles for a whole bunch of channels they do not watch. Cable companies have to pay a fee to every cable channel based on subscribers. Some channels have small fees and others like ESPN command high fees that in turn cause rate hikes and spats. This inefficient system means cable channels are being subsidized by every cable subscriber in the country. Which explains why very low rated cable only channels can stay afloat as long as they are picked up by cable systems.

Which brings us to Sling TV. By no means is this the end of the cable companies but it marks a shift in how people are going to get cable channel programming. Sling TV is offering a limited number of packages that have some popular cable channels. The basic package is $20 and comes with ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN, El Rey Network, Maker, and Galavision. AMC is coming soon. Other packages add some extra sports, kids programming, and news. Sling is owned by Dish TV, a satellite television provider. Sling is available on most mobile, computer, and streaming services. I have a Roku box and a computer so I can watch on either one (but not at the same time). The video quality is good but there are caveats. There is limited dvr like abilities. ESPN does not allow you to pause live television but others do. There is limited archive of shows you missed. Schedules shown may not be accurate (I use TVGuide app on my iPhone to see what is upcoming-I just have to remember to add three hours for Eastern time).

Aside from the problems I mentioned, another issue for many is that Sling simply replicates cable tv in a different format. You still get bundled television and not al la carte programming where you create a bundle of channels you want to watch. Thus you are still paying for channels you do not want to watch. Out of the basic bundle only ESPN, Food and Travel are of interest to me. The other channels are of little interest so I am paying again (but with a smaller fee)for channels I do not want or watch. ESPN is the big draw and one reason many will want to try it out. I probably will drop Sling for now but sign back up again when baseball season gets going because some games are only played on ESPN.Then again without that dvr function I would be hard pressed to do that.

Will Sling TV work? The cable companies do not want the competition and channel owners will put restrictions on how their channels are shown (like preventing people from fast forwarding through commercials when viewing the archive). Without the dvr ability, I see a lot of people checking it out then saying meh and moving on. Perhaps Tivo and Sling ought to work together for an app that will allow OTA/limited cable users the ability to record shows. It is a step in the right direction but only just a step.

Saying Goodbye To Cable?

Ditching cable for Internet or Over-the-Air (OTA) only programming has been simmering for a while. The reason is simple: cost. Every year the rates go up for what is considered basic service on most services, which can be from 76 to 99 channels that include all local broadcast, the major cable networks, news, sports and entertainment to name a few. Premium channels (HBO, Showtime etc) are usually excluded along with HD programming. To compete with Netflix, many cable companies offer On Demand or Pay Per View services allowing you to order movies right from your cable box.

I come from the generation that remembers using antenna to get local ota programming. Back then you had the three major networks, PBS, and a smattering of local channels. Sometimes you had to fiddle with the horizontal or vertical to stabilize the signal. You had to actually turn a dial to change channels and weather could effect signal quality. Cable changed all that back in the 1970’s. I recall our first cable television and seeing pictures crisp and clear for the first time. We still got local channels but some far away ones as well. There were no cable news channels or MTV back then, but HBO and Showtime showed up by the time I was in high school.

Simpler times but the downside was there was no competition. It was either cable or ota. Most cities signed exclusive contracts with one cable provider so that was it. Today that has changed with satellite and Internet. Looking around my apartment complex, it is amazing the number of Dish or Direct TV satellite dishes on balconies pointing south to get the signal. Driving around my area you see a combination of both satellite and digital antennas. My local cable company, a rare municipal one, is losing customers and trying to win them back with specials. They tried a door-to-door approach that got lots of angry calls (mine being one of them) and now tries a softer approach to win back those who defected to the other guys.

The Internet provides streaming of movies and television shows (sometimes free or for a fee like Netflix or Hulu) that competes with cable. Yet it has not quite yet replaced cable television. Despite a lot of concern, cable is not being dumped but reduced. In my case, I decided not to pay $60+ for getting 99 channels most of which I never watched. I downsized to just getting local channels for $20 a month. I gave up watching a few channels I watched regularly and seeing S.F. Giant’s games that were shown exclusively on cable. Rather than pay for HD programming, I hook up an indoor antenna and get all the local HD channels for free. Netflix fills me in on the shows I missed on SyFY (Warehouse 13 and Eureka) and with free On-Demand I get to see a lot of cable shows such as The Next Food Network Star.

So why do I keep cable? Well I do not have broadband yet (it is coming!) and while I get strong reception on the digital antenna, signals drop for all kinds of reasons. So while it works 80% of the time, I can and do lose the signal to atmospherics, the station switching to a backup while main transmitter is being fixed, or on the weaker stations when my neighbor upstairs is playing with his litle kid. HD programming looks great but on just ordinary programming does not add much. Okay, take that back. Local news reporters and anchors like Darya Folsom, Julie Haener or Gasia Mikaelian look good in HD.

The folks over internetserviceproviders.org sent me a list of the “100 Sites That Can Replace Your Cable TV Service.” The list is  interesting showing what content is available online. So if you are thinking about downsizing your cable (or going ota), the Internet offers a lot to fill in the gaps. And you do not have to pay a princely sum for it either.

Off-Topic:ReplayTV Smacks Users Hard

Replay users got a shocking message yesterday when they turned on their televisions and checked the program guide:

The ReplayTV Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) Service will be permanently discontinued on July 31, 2011. After this date, owners of ReplayTV DVR units will still be able to manually record analog TV programs, but will not have the benefit of access to the interactive program guide. Effective immediately, monthly billing for the ReplayTV service to remaining customers has been suspended.

The industry conversion to HDTV is complete and ReplayTV DVRs are unable to take advantage of the wealth of HDTV programming. Please contact your service provider for current offerings.

Needless to say the reaction from Replay users was shock, dismay, anger, and resignation. Many said they knew this day would come. Replay was once the leader in the digital video recorder industry and considered better than Tivo at the time. Through mismanagement and bad marketing campaigns, Replay fell behind while Tivo became a verb (to tivo). The company changed hands several times and gradually the brand faded into the niche legacy market. Replay has its fans though. Lots of them who love their units and despair at how such a good product ended up being left behind.

But the question today for Replay users is how to use the units after 31 Jul 2011. Without a channel guide, the unit is pretty much just a hunk of metal sitting on the shelf. PC users have some options using third party software to download schedules but Mac users are out in the cold here. Worse though comes information that the entire Replay operation is being shut down from servers, tech support and the website. A posting on the AVS site and Planet Replay relates the grim news when someone called up to find out the details:

“Here is what I learned: Everything is closing down on 7/31- Despite what the official word was to users, there will be no way for the units to do anything once the system shuts down for good. No clock the servers, tech support, the website. No servers means no clock or channels, and you will not be able to choose a provider. The blaster codes are on the hard drive of the units, so if you manually enter a channel, it can send it to the cable box. You will not be able to choose a provider, so you will not be able to get channels, or a blank channel guide. All recording setups will disappear. Any on-going (record every week, etc), will be gone. They have no idea how anyone will even be able to manually record since you will need the clock to be in sync and channels (which cannot be manually entered since you have to get them via a provider) to do this. They hope to get clarification on this later.”

In short, the message to Replay users is you have scrap metal. There will be no ability to manually record anything since the unit needs to have both a clock set and channels downloaded based upon the provider. Unless you can use third party software that can feed the information to the unit, your Replay unit will do nothing. For those who bought lifetime service (like me) it is really bad news. We paid upfront to avoid a monthly fee. Even if lawyers get the company to cough up money, it will not be much.

No doubt many will find creative ways to keep their units going but for most it will mean the end of a great dvr.

There is hope though that some will pool resources together and buy the rights to keep ReplayTV going. They would set up the necessary servers and then allow the service to continue. It might be limited with only a few telephone numbers and a fee charged for the service (perhaps with discounted plans if you purchase for a set number of years) but for many Replay users it would be worth it. Most have no desire to go that other dvr with a T in it. Moxi is too expensive and has mixed reviews.

And so the story is not quite over yet. Hope still exists but in the short term come 31 July ReplayTV service as we knew it comes to an abrupt end.