Sling’s AirTV Expected To Blend OTA + OTT

Is it an Aereo clone? October 21, 2016
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BETHESDA, MD.—“AirTV,” an anticipated Echostar Sling Media service that will deliver live local TV programs plus streamed video, is expected to debut imminently, again. An Echostar spokeswoman declined to provide details or a timetable regarding the hybrid product, which apparently treads where Aereo legally stumbled in carriage of local broadcast TV channels. But she did not disavow independently published reports about AirTV, which apparently combines the IP-based “slinging” capacity of DISH’s SlingTV (an Echostar subsidiary) and Echostar’s own Sling Media unit.

Stories about AirTV have been bruited around since “coming soon” offers for the $149 receiver device began appearing on Amazon and B&H PhotoVideo websites several months ago. Those listings are no longer visible on the ecommerce sites or at Echostar’s own site. A company website that presumably explains the antenna service—www.airtv.net/antennas— was behind a customer firewall at deadline time.

Melodie Virtue
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS?
Analysts expect that the AirTV receiver, which would connect to an OTA antenna and home network, will handle broadcast tuning and also streaming content to be directed to smart TVs and wireless devices in the home.

Increasing chatter about AirTV coincided with a DISH announcement in August that it will support efforts by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the National Association of Broadcasters, Antennas Direct and TVfreedom.org to give away free OTA antennas. Although Echostar subsidiary DISH operates separately from the Echostar AirTV venture, there is believed to be extensive coordination between the two companies for this convergent venture.

“Complementing the pay-TV experience, which includes the increasing adoption of streaming services like Sling TV... is good business and may drive a solution to the otherwise compounding problem of ever-rising retransmission consent fees for local TV,” said Warren Schlichting, DISH executive vice president of marketing/programming/media sales.

SlingTV monthly pricing is about $20 for single-stream service, with additional fees for larger tiers. Again, Echostar declined to indicate what a bundled product would cost consumers.

A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which reveled at the defeat of the Aereo venture two years ago, declined to comment about the AirTV proposal.

Several telecom and electronics blogs posted sketchy reports about AirTV in late summer, suggesting that the device works with an antenna and SlingTV’s app to carry over-the-air local channels plus Sling TV’s over-the-top streaming video. The stories speculated that the service would include a program guide and possibly other add-ons, but not a digital video recorder. Dave Zatz, who covers cord-cutting at his ZatzNotFunny site (http://zatznotfunny.com) observed that a Spring debut may have been postponed because of limited retailer interest in selling the $150 device. Later speculation focused on a September launch. The Echostar spokeswoman repeatedly told TV Technology in late September that “We don’t have anything to share at this time.”

AVOID AEREO PITFALLS
Kevin Goldberg, an attorney specializing in first amendment and intellectual property issues at Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, a Washington, D.C. law firm, observed that the AirTV proposal seems to “work into the gray area of the Aereo case.” In June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo, a television streaming service, violated copyright laws by capturing broadcast signals on miniature antennas at a central location and then delivering them via the internet to subscribers for a fee.

“The justices seemed sympathetic if the device had been entirely in the home,” Goldberg told TV Technology. He speculated that Echostar may differentiate itself by “setting it up entirely in the home” rather than at a remote location, which was Aereo’s architecture.

“Transmitting signals into the subscriber’s home” may make the difference, he explained. Goldberg also observed that a “live only” solution would likely placate the Supreme Court’s apparent concern about the DVR record and playback functions. While such programming could be “slung” using Sling’s AirTV set-top box via IP to consumer viewing devices (such as a smart TV, smartphones or tablets), the activity would be entirely run at the consumer’s premises. But he fretted that “there may still be a problem... for out-of-home transmissions.”

“The biggest impediment is that the Copyright Office has been clear that it will not treat internet systems as cable TV,” he said, adding that live sports events would be a primary usage for this function.

Separately, in mid-September, SlingTV (which is run by DISH) added two more ESPN-owned sports networks to its line-up: ESPN3, a multi-platform online channel that carries games not usually transmitted on the primary ESPN networks; and ESPN’s SEC Network, the Southeastern Conference college sports channel. Earlier in the month, SlingTV picked up the streaming signals of six regional feeds from the Pac-12 Networks, which collectively offer live coverage of more than 800 sporting events.

Although this collection of college sports programming is large but limited, the streamed channels provide a base of popular sports content.

LINING UP CONTENT
Sling has begun carrying about two dozen Fox Network Group channels earlier this year, including local broadcast stations in 17 markets plus Fox regional sports networks. At the time, a SlingTV official said he expected to add more Fox affiliates later this year.

Analysts have pointed out that the deals with broadcasters may assuage DISH’s frequent uneasy relationship with group owners during transmission consent negotiations.

Marrying SlingTV to OTA signals already exists on an ad hoc basis. Antenna maker Channel Master, which calls itself a “DVR for cord cutters,” integrated SlingTV into its hardware earlier this year, using Echostar technology.

Melodie Virtue, a broadcast and internet attorney at the Garvey Schubert Barer law firm in Washington, also agreed that compared to Aereo, AirTV “will have a better argument if it’s confined to the home” and OTA signals are picked up directly at the consumer premises. But she warned that, “It’s hard to know without knowing how it’s configured.” She expects that, “whatever they’re doing will get pushback from the networks.” But Virtue cautioned that networks and local stations “have their own copyright fees to worry about.” She speculated that AirTV might “need to get additional clearances” for its plan, but warned that it is inappropriate to speculate about the structure until details are presented.

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