Not How It Was Supposed to Work

Cord cutting via online streaming services was supposed to free us from the stupidities of cable and satellite.

You know the ones I mean. Paying for dozens of channels you don’t want in order to get the two or three you actually watch. Losing channels because the channel and the carrier are feuding.

And yet, here we are.

Want to watch Food Network? You either need to have a subscription bundle from a streaming provider such as Sling, YouTube TV, or Philo, or you need to be signed up with a Dish, Comcast, or some local cable system.

Because if you don’t have a streaming bundle that includes the channel, Food Network’s standalone streaming app requires a sign-in via “your TV provider”. And may still be subject to blackouts for some shows.

Ditto for other popular channels.

There are some channels that have their own services. You can get ESPN+ for a mere six bucks a month. Not bad–but wait! That’s not the ESPN TV channels. It’s extra content and on demand access to the talk shows and other not-actually-sports content. Want the familiar channels and the sports from your local listings? You can stream ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPNEWS and the other channels in the ESPN family if you sign in via your “content provider”. What’s that? Yup, your streaming aggregator, such as Sling, YouTube TV, Fubu, or your satellite or cable provider.

Then there’s that lovely reminder of days not-so-gone-by, the carriage dispute.

Remember those? Your cable provider would threaten to drop a channel because of the cost; the channel would claim the cost was necessary to pay for the content; the cable system would remind everyone that if the popular channels didn’t subsidize the niche content, it wouldn’t be able to carry those small channels; and then they’d raise the cost of the cable subscription or drop the channel. Or both.

Now our streaming world has raised the ante. Instead of threating to drop channels, they threaten to drop whole streaming aggregators.

Seriously. Roku is currently feuding with YouTube TV and threatening to force them off of all Roku streaming boxes. Google is responding by complaining about Roku taking negotiations public.

And the viewers simply roll their eyes, well aware that there are plenty of other ways to get YouTube TV’s content on their televisions. Roku may be the big name in streaming boxen, but there are smaller companies playing in that pool. You might have heard of some of them: Google. Apple. Amazon.

There are only two ways this can go. If Roku gets too aggressive and throws too many services off their hardware–or starts charging a monthly fee on top of the cost of the box–customers are going to migrate to cheaper and/or more flexible systems. Or they can stay the course, keep themselves an open and independent portal, concentrate on convenience and ease of use, and they’ll still be around, still making money, years down the road.

Right now, though, the posturing and threats are a pain in the rear–or, more accurately, a poke in the ear.

Annoying that the brave new world looks and sounds so much like the old one.

Cutting Loose

Let’s go over that cord-cutting thing.

Bottom line: I’m not sorry to have done it. I’m not considering going back to satellite or–looking even further back–cable.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, the big attraction was a lower bill. We’ve definitely got that, but there is some truth in the saying that you get what you pay for.

For one thing, we get fewer channels. Granted, we never watched the overwhelming majority of the ones we’ve lost. But there’s that little voice in the back of my head that says, “Now you’ll never know what you’re missing by not checking out The Polka Channel.”

That said, one of the beauties of the cable-free life is that, as far as I can tell, none of the services require a contract. You can add ’em, drop ’em, and change packages on a whim. So if I ever wake up in the middle of the night craving the “Polka ‘Round the Clock” show, all I have to do is sign up for a service that carries the channel–and then cancel when I discover that 96 straight hours of polka is as much as any person can endure.

Without having to cancel and reinstate the current service. Unlike the traditional model where you can’t easily have more than one TV provider*, in this wonderful new world, you don’t have to choose. Sign up with ’em all. Assuming you can afford it, of course.

* Of course, that statement just shows how ancient I am when it comes to the television marketplace. With modern sets having multiple inputs, you could have Dish, Comcast, and DIRECTV. Nobody does, mind you, but it’s easily possible, unlike back in the days before I started chasing the damn kids off my lawn.

Which brings us to that channel selection thing. Don’t believe the advertising about ala carte programming and freedom from pricy packages. You still can’t choose just the channels you want to watch.

Look, in my ideal TV world, I’d get Food Network, the local regional sports channels, the Seattle regional sports channels, and a handful of nationals like ESPN and MLB.

Not happening. The only difference between the offerings of Sling TV and its parent, Dish, is that Sling’s only got two packages. Dish has–last I checked–half a dozen packages, not counting the “customer retention” package they tried to sell me. Both also have an assortment of specialty add-on packages. The point is, you’re still picking packages.

And forget my dream. None of the streaming services carry all of the regional sports networks. Even if they did, I couldn’t get the Seattle channels in California, because the carriage agreements limit distribution based on the billing address of the credit card.

On the other hand, I’m no worse off than I was with satellite. I ignore the channels I don’t watch–and, since the packages are smaller, there are fewer to scroll past in the channel guide.

Maybe I’d be happier with a streaming service that specialized in sports. There are a couple, of course. I don’t want to pay for two services, but perhaps one of the sports services also has Food Network. If so, I could switch at any time. And switch back just as quickly if I don’t like what I get for the price.

Moving on.

Video quality is good. Better, in some cases than I got with the satellite, not as good in others. As you might expect, it depends on the quality of the Internet service*. That glitches occasionally (thanks, Comcast), but on the whole I’m satisfied.

* So we haven’t really cut the cord. Wireless Internet is a complete dream around here, with no line of sight to any radio towers.

There are quirks, though. On some channels, there’s often a couple of seconds where the audio track drops out right before a commercial break. This seems to be related to the carrier supplying the ads; the selection of ads on Food Network, for example, appear to be different than what we got with Dish, suggesting that Sling TV’s technology for inserting their advertisers’ messages isn’t quite up to snuff.

Some channels seem to be more prone to buffering issues than others. If I had to guess, I’d say that the culprits are running at a higher bitrate, and are more likely to trip over those network glitches. But it’s a guess.

Sling TV’s user interface has a few quirks as well. Most notably, selecting a specific show from the channel guide sometimes drops you back at the guide when the show ends. Sometimes. Other times you get to see the next show. Choosing the channel always keeps the programming running instead of reverting to the guide.

It’s the inconsistency that gets me. Who QAed this shit, anyway?

The other big quirk is that Sling TV restricts the number of simultaneous viewers according to which package you have. “Orange” channels can only be watched on one device at a time. Put ESPN on the bedroom TV, and that’s it. But “Blue” lets you watch on three devices at once. ESPN in the bedroom, Food Network in the tablet in the kitchen, and BBC America in the family room.

Oops. Except that ESPN isn’t in the Blue package. Better get both packages. Of course, now you’re paying twice for Food Network and BBC America.

What was that about freely choosing your viewing and no useless channels? Ahem.

Mind you, the simultaneous viewing limits don’t much affect us. We usually watch together, anyway. But in a larger family it might matter more. (There’s the reason we don’t teach the cats how to use the remote.)

Moving on.

One final note about the whole experience. To get streaming TV services on your actual television, you do need a player of some sort. A computer will work, but the experience of navigating a web browser using a wireless mouse from ten feet away is less than ideal.

Many DVD and Blu-ray players include apps for major streaming services. That might do it. For that matter, new “Smart TVs” have the same apps built in. But do you really want to buy a new TV just to cut the cord? And the apps on the disc players, IMNSHO, are uniformly slow, buggy, and awkward to use.

And speaking of awkward, if you’ve got a Chromecast, you can use that. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the experience of starting a program on my phone, restarting it on the TV, and then using the phone as a remote to be frustrating and counter-intuitive.

So if you’re cutting the cord, budget for a dedicated streaming device. Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or something of that sort.

We wound up going with the cheapest Roku stick. Getting it connected to our wi-fi was an experience I’d prefer not to repeat–there seems to be an incompatibility with our router–but now that they’re talking, everything’s good.

The Sling TV UI on Roku is more internally consistent and logical than the web interface, the Roku app is faster than the one on our Blu-ray player, and as an added bonus, the Roku app for MLB TV is cleaner and simpler than the iOS and Android apps.

Of course, there are a bunch of Roku channels we never watch…

Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.


I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.