• Newsletter Issue #798

    March 16th, 2015


    Apple’s media event dominated the conversation last week. As expected, the developments at the previous week’s Mobile World Congress were mostly forgotten. So Samsung is releasing a new flagship smartphone that more closely resembles an iPhone. Big deal! There will be reviews when it is officially released, and some will suggest that the imitation is somehow better than the original. The features that differentiate a Samsung Galaxy S6 from an iPhone 6 will be touted, but as often as not, you won’t see test results that demonstrate whether the features work well — or at all.

    While you might have expected almost all of this week’s tech chatter to be heavily focused on the Apple Watch — and it is to a great extent — there has also been a lot of discussion about the new MacBook. First rumored as a possible replacement for the MacBook Air, one of Apple’s most successful note-books, the thinner and lighter MacBook strongly hints at the future of portable computing. At two pounds, it’s svelte and sexy. Apple has gone to extraordinary lengths to make it as compact as possible with new keyboard and trackpad designs. By using the low-power Intel Core M processor, there’s no need for a cooling fan.

    But the move to make the lightest possible note-book comes with tradeoffs. There’s only one combo peripheral/charging port, USB-C, which may or may not have been inspired or invented by Apple. Apple has dedicated the MacBook to a wireless world, and if you want to use wires, get a dongle, or get a different computer.

    Regardless, it’s clear Apple is still investing heavily in Macs, and MacBook technologies are already starting to filter into other products, such as using the Force Touch trackpad on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

    So on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, author and publisher Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books, gave you his insights about Apple’s recent media event, which featured the rollout of the Apple Watch, new Mac note-books, and a slight price reduction for the aging Apple TV streaming set-top box. What about the new and slimmer MacBook keyboard, the use of a single USB-C port to handle your connections and charging? Did Apple maybe push the envelope a little too far, or are they showing us the wave of the future for note-book computers?

    You also heard from columnist John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer and a columnist for The Street, who explained how the new MacBook has “iPad envy” and why he’s disappointed with the present status of Apple TV. He also covered Apple Watch, why some industry observers are doubtful of its success, and why he can predict that it will succeed. And what about database apps, such as Apple’s FileMaker Pro? Are they now obsolete except for some business users?

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: For a change of pace, we present  Linda Godfrey, author of a recent new book,“American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America.” According to the publisher, “From pre-Columbian legends to modern-day eyewitness accounts, this comprehensive guide covers the history, sightings and lore surrounding the most mysterious monsters in America — including Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and more.” As with our previous session with Linda, this episode will focus more on amazing and sometimes frightening case histories than just about theorizing.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.


    So it may seem that the cable and satellite TV industry is in deep trouble. People are getting more and more disgusted with paying up to $150 or more each month for a bucket of channels, many of which they don’t even watch. Even when you want to get a cheaper deal, in order to get a good cross-section of the content you want, you may have to buy several tiers — or higher tiers — of service. You cannot choose from Column A and Column B. So you’re stuck!

    To some degree, you may blame the entertainment companies who bundle channels and provide them to the cable/satellite industry as packages. You may be surprised to know that NBCUniversal’s cable networks include not just Syfy and USA Network. They also include such channels — some of which may be unknown to many of you — as Chiller, Cloo, Sprout, Universal HD, and several more.

    Now not all of these channels may be available from your cable company. Cloo, for example, which offers mostly crime procedurals, such as Law & Order and NCIS. It’s not even available in HD, and many of the content carriers, such as Dish Network and Cox, don’t include it on their schedule.

    Still, your cable company will usually force you into packages that include far more stations than you may care about. That raises your monthly bill substantially. Worse, as the entertainment companies exact higher fees, the costs are passed on to you. It never seems to get any better, so jumping ship may seem an attractive way to reduce your expenses.

    If you try it, however, and you try a little too hard to replace what you lost, you may find that it’s not really so cheap after all.

    Now remember that cable TV was originally created to allow you to get TV in areas where reception was poor or nonexistent. The local cable company set up a master antenna system — these days they use satellite dishes too — along with a series of amplifiers that enhanced reception of marginal signals and allowed their customers to get pretty decent pictures. Well, not perfect, but far better than you’d expect from the rabbit ears or the roof antenna. Remember, that was before digital TV.

    Back in the mid-1970s, the fledgling cable services were expanded with local content. I remember creating, producing and hosting a news interview show, a sort of local Meet the Press program, which was broadcast to subscribers once a week over a small cable system near Philadelphia. Over time, commercial networks came along, originally offering mostly reruns of TV series and movies, but eventually branching out to deliver original shows.

    Nowadays, there seems little difference between cable and traditional TV, except that the former may offer more provocative stories and language. A show such as The Americans, a spy drama about KGB agents infiltrating the U.S. in the 1980s, and Justified, a crime drama based on a short story from the late Elmore Leonard, would be a little too much for network TV.

    As a practical matter, though, whether the show is cable-only or broadcast by a local station, there’s little practical difference in how you receive it. Just select the channel on your set-top box.

    But if you want to throw out the satellite dish or ditch the cable box, how do you replace them?

    Well, if you’re close enough to the local TV stations, you can return to a regular antenna. Digital TV rids you of ghosts, but if you’re in a marginal reception area, you may be forced to try a rooftop antenna. You might also replace series content by buying shows from a service such as iTunes or subscribing to Hulu, which also offers a paid service, Hulu Plus. With either variation of Hulu, you can receive TV network fare, with limited commercial content. It’s owners include NBCUniversal, Fox Broadcasting and Disney-ABC, so you can see where most of the content originates from. Hint: It’s not CBS.

    The force to be reckoned with is Netflix, which used to rent DVDs, but has seen its streaming service deliver the first credible alternative to broadcast television. Such originals shows as House of Cards, that provocative political drama featuring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, to Orange is the New Black, a prison drama, and the forthcoming Daredevil, featuring the comic book hero in a darker setting, have made Netflix well worth a monthly fee that recently rose to $8.99.

    Get out your adding machines.

    Now on iTunes, you can buy a recent episode of many of your favorite TV shows for $2.99, or pay upwards of $25.99 for a season pass. You can’t just rent, and if you want to watch a decent number of shows, you’ll soon be saddled with high credit card bills and lots of huge video files to deal with.

    Jumping into the fray, Dish Network has introduced Sling TV as a video streaming service offering a subset of cable channels at $19.99 per month for the basic package. Upgraded tiers are being offered for $5.00 extra per month, each.

    Coming in April, you’ll be able to spend $15 per month for HBO Now, which will premiere on Apple TV, but will eventually spread to other streaming boxes.

    If you pick and choose, you can find a rich variety of programming, some of which, on such services as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, are not available on traditional cable or satellite TV.

    But a replacement?

    Well, Netflix and Amazon do offer a fair number of traditional TV shows, with no guarantee how long they’ll be available. As content deals change, the shows come and go. It’s not as if you can get the shows you want when you want them. There’s no DVR that lets you record the shows you want for later viewing if you aren’t buying them outright.

    Before I go on, let’s not forget about the real Achilles heel of cord-cutting, which is your ISP’s bandwidth cap. Certainly if a broadband provider offers their own TV option, it’s excluded from the bandwidth limit. But anything you download counts towards the total. If you spend several hours each day consuming HD programming from a video service, or downloading a purchased copy from iTunes or another service, you’ll hit the bandwidth limit real fast.

    Here in the Phoenix area, I am allowed up to 250GB from CenturyLink. It’s up to 400GB with Cox, depending on the package. If you’re lucky enough to reside within one of the few areas where GIG Life, gigabit Internet, is being rolled out, you can get 1TB of bandwidth. That might do for one set, but if you have several TVs in your household, watch out! Exceeding your ISP’s bandwidth cap may result in your service being throttled or interrupted until the next month, when it starts all over again.

    Or you may end up paying huge overage charges, and suddenly that $150 monthly cable/satellite bill doesn’t seem so expensive after all.

    Does this mean that cord cutting is a bad idea? Not at all. If you are judicious about how many programming options you select, you can keep your costs down, and don’t forget your ISP’s limitations. You might find, at the end of the day, that you want to keep around a basic cable package with local stations and some of the cable channels. Flesh it out with Netflix and that might be more than sufficient to meet your needs. Besides, you won’t have to mess with a TV antenna, and you can still rent a DVR for time shifting.

    To be sure, the cable and satellite providers are clearly taking notice of the state of affairs. Even though the percentage of lost customers is slow, growth has stalled. The entertainment companies are also looking for alternate ways to grab your attention, and your dollars, for their content. If it can’t be done with cable and satellite, let it be streaming. Let it be something.

    For the existing content carriers, they are clearly looking at other ways to get you to subscribe to their stuff. For example, how much difference does it make if you buy Sling TV from Dish, or take advantage of one of their cheapest introductory packages? You can get a so-called “Smart Pack” with 55 channels for a starting monthly price of $19.99 for the first 12 months (it’s $34.99 per month thereafter). All right, it doesn’t include Syfy or USA Network, so it’s not on my preferred list.

    But you get the picture.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis

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    6 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #798”

    1. Doug Petrosky says:

      This is getting old! The idea that iTunes is a more expensive proposition than what people are already spending is in many cases not true (take it from someone who cut the cord 5 years ago). For me, my monthly bill was about $90/month, just for the TV portion of my bill. And sure if you are looking at $25/Season that would only cover 3 seasons. But that is 3 Seasons/month and seasons are actually per year. So that would equate out to 36 seasons every year. With seasons, normally being between 18-25 shows, that’s around 2 shows per day. Every day! Monday-Sunday with no season breaks or re-runs. Combine this with NetFlix and you can watch a ton of content.

      But the beauty of AppleTV/iTunes is you own the content, and unlike the author’s assertion of needing to deal with huge files, all of this content is contained in the cloud! Sure, you can down load a copy to minimize your bandwidth usage as multiple people watch the same shows at different times. But to be clear, even at HD, a one hour show is about 1.5GB. So the authors assertion that a TB/month might satisfy one TV is assuming an awful lot of TV viewing. That equates to 900 hours/month or 30 hours per day. I’m not saying that you will not butt you head against a 300GB limit at times. But I wanted to put this into perspective.

      Also, all of this content is commercial free! And lastly, all of this content can be purchased at a discount of 15-20% if you purchase iTunes Gift cards when they go on Sale. With AppleTV available for $60-$70, why not give it a try.

      • @Doug Petrosky, It’s not one service. It’s adding up several services. And if you watch a lot of TV shows, getting lots of season passes gets to be real costly. Besides, how often do you actually watch shows a second time? Is it worth buying content you will never see again?

        Look at how many hours the average person spends watching TV in the U.S.


    2. Woochifer says:

      The real Achilles heel is sports programming, which most articles on cord cutting (including this one) neglect to mention. Unlike scripted programs, sports derives its value from being a live event. There’s little value in a sporting event once it has concluded. The live event nature of sports makes it difficult for cord cutting, and cable/satellite providers know this.

      That’s why Comcast and TWC have invested billions of dollars building their own regional sports networks. These ownership stakes effectively wall off local teams from anyone without a pay TV subscription. I always read about sports leagues putting their sports packages online, and how that’s a win for cord cutting. But, cord cutting articles will often neglect to mention that the online sports packages still blackout the local teams. And the local teams create most of the value for particular regions.

      It’s no accident that ESPN commands the highest carriage fees in the industry, and regional sports networks also charge higher carriage fees than all other cable networks. If these get added to Apple TV as standalone options, they will go for a lot more than the $5-6/month that ESPN current gets from all pay TV subscribers as part of the basic service tier.

      Plus, live sports frankly look like crap when streamed live, and the signal is nowhere near as reliable as even cable or satellite service. I suspect that there are server load issues, especially for popular games. And this carries over to any kind of live event programming — something that broadcast networks have embraced in a big way. For scripted programming and movies, this is not an issue because not everybody accesses the same program at the same time. But, live events seem a lot more problematic.

      • @Woochifer, Sling TV includes ESPN. The latest reports about a possible TV service from Apple also include ESPN.


        • Woochifer says:

          @Gene Steinberg, Thanks. The thing about Sling TV is that it piggybacks off of Dish Network’s existing carriage deals. It does include ESPN and ESPN2. But, other sports channels would cost an extra $5, and that tier excludes all of the regional sports networks, the pro league networks (NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB), most college networks (Big 10, Pac 12, etc.), and specialty channels like Golf and Tennis.

          If Sling TV takes off, then the next round of carriage negotiations will be very interesting.

          It will also be interesting to see how Apple can pull off its TV service, and how much it would cost. Having ESPN on board would be a plus, but the RSNs are just as important in terms of subscriber acquisition and retention. Just as an example, until a few years ago the market penetration for satellite TV was about half the national average in the Philly market. This was because Comcast exploited a regulatory loophole that allowed them to keep Comcast-owned Sportsnet (which had rights to the Phillies, Flyers, and Sixers) exclusively on cable.

          • @Woochifer, As you can see, you add packs for additional channels, and the price soon edges up. How long does it take before the monthly rate isn’t much different from a traditional cable or satellite package? Don’t forget your local stations.

            Maybe the best solution for cable and satellite — other than delivering their own streaming services — is to fine tune the packages, so you have a better chance of getting only the stations you want, and not the ones that clutter up the dial unwatched.


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