Tag Archives: dvr

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.

Replay Users Get Reprieve

Today was to be the end of ReplayTV. Users were notified weeks ago that the electronic programming guide service (epg) would be discontinued on 31 July. “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,” said the announcement. Replay users were outraged. Complaints to DNNA met with little comfort. Pansonic which sold Showstoppers using Replay technology said little except the usual “thanks for your inquiry and we are looking into the matter” statements. Some wrote letters to state attorney generals hoping for some intercession.

In the meantime the scramble went forth to replace DNNA service. Tech savvy folks already had a way but it required setting up PC server to make it work. For those who neither had the time, the money, or used a Mac that was not a option. So some of those folks got together to put together a service for the rest of us, a dial-up service so that Replay users could dial-up and update the epg. It was by no means easy to do. Servers had to be made ready and software configured. Then getting a provider of the tv schedules had to be set up. The initial fee would be $7.00 per month, per model (some people have more than one Replay unit in their homes). Not a bad price to continue the service.

As the deadline drew near, the Replay board at AVS Forum was busy with people posting info and asking questions. Likewise at the other forum, Planet Replay. Then out of the blue came the announcement on Friday (29 Jul):

After the announced shutdown of the ReplayTV programming guide service, we have had many positive, enthusiastic comments about the ReplayTV DVR products and services. In light of this response, ReplayTV and its parent company Digital Networks North America, Inc. have decided to continue the electronic programming guide service pursuant to the terms of your service activation agreement. We thank you very much for all of your support and enthusiasm over the many years these products have been sold.

Suddenly everything ground to a halt when that message appeared on units updated that day. Everyone was stunned. It was so sudden that the customer service people had no idea it had happened. It was confirmed and everyone stood back. Everyone was pleased but questions lingered. Why did DNNA back off? Speculation was rampant and so far little facts are known. Panasonic might have been angry since they were not notified and nothing offered to replace the service. And it is possible someone either at the state or federal level said exactly the same thing.

And that was the problem right from the start. DNNA offered nothing to replace the the discontinued service. Once the guide ran out (around 7 Aug), you were on your own. With no ability to set the clock and no epg, manual recording was going to be a chore. You would have to manually hit record and stop when done. So much for recording when your are sleeping or at work Tivo offered special deals to Replay users but many have no desire to switch. Lifetime users were even more out in the cold than monthly users. When lifetime users bought those units (at a premium), many assumed they were buying for the lifetime of the unit or service. Lawyers for DNNA argue that the actual lifetime service is one year under California law.

Many though are skeptical and even hostile to DNNA. Some have already transitioned away from DNNA using the Internet option and not likely to return. The message from DNNA also said the following:

As we have said previously, the analog programming that the ReplayTV units are capable of recording is in fact likely to be converted to digital signals in the very near future at which point the ReplayTV units will no longer be able to record such programming.

This is misleading. Since the conversion to digital, all Replay units get cable using a cable box. The cable box provides the conversion necessary for them. My television has a digital tuner but cannot unscramble the programming from my cable company. Hence the cable box (which my cable service provides for free). So this statement is not accurate except that way down the road the need for cable boxes will diminish as computers are integrated with television (meaning the computers will have dvr capacity in them).

We encourage our users to consider digital video recorders that have this digital recording capability as well as additional technological advances which are not a part of the ReplayTV units (all of which were end of lifed by 2006).

This is illuminating and the line most Replay users in the forums focused on. It tells them DNNA wants them to go elsewhere. Just go. Okay we will provide you with a service but we would prefer that you leave.  Like the hotel manager said to Ryan O’Neill’s character in the movie What’s Up Doc? about when he should check out, the manager (played by John Hillerman) said yesterday. The last line told lifetime service people that they would be paying a fee for the epg service. The good news is that Replay users have gotten a reprieve.

For how long is the next question. I speculate six months to a year at most. ReplayTV units are no longer being manufactured but there are units still being sold but by now the inventory is getting low. Since ReplayTV is no longer marketed, there is a finite number using them right now. In short, a no growth sector. So DNNA sees little reason to continue paying the costs associated with maintaining the epg for little profit. They have to pay for the digital schedule, tech and customer support, and other costs associated with the service. So for them, there is no incentive to keep it going.

The other good news is that the alternative dial-up service that was in beta testing (called Laho meaning Last Hope) can be further refined. DNNA ought to work with those at Laho so that dial-up users could migrate there in that period of time. They could also offer some deals with Tivo if people want to go there (or coupons for free dvr service from the local cable company). In other words, offer something tangible other than shutting off the service and telling everyone to push manual record. To sum up DNNA can:

(1) Work with LaHo to create a viable, working alternative dial-up for ReplayTv users;

(2) Offer deals with other dvr units (Tivo, Moxie);

(3) Offer coupons for free rental of cable company dvr’s.

Also, as a last option, consider some sort of buy back for recycling of parts. Some may want to junk their units and those parts (and the metal) have value.

The ball is in your court DNNA. If you are determined to phase out the service, do it smartly.

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.