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McAdams On: My Month With Dish Anywhere

ANYWHERE, BUT MOSTLY HERE — This is not a review, but a contextual setup and some behavioral observations about my relationship with a Dish Network cloud-synced iPad.

It starts with a very persistent PR woman determined to have me review the Dish Sling-Hopper “unbeatable whole-home HD DVR.” This is the set-top box system that caused a stir at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas last January, and that broadcasters are suing over in two federal courts. The original Hopper set-top, introduced in early 2012, included an “Auto Hop” feature that could be set to skip commercials in primetime, only on broadcast networks.

Oddly, the very broadcast networks singled out for the attack on their business model—as sooo 2010 as it may be—have been cast as obstructionists, resistant to the “innovation” and change inevitably triggered by the digitization of media, which they largely innovated. Dish, meanwhile, is being held up as the white hat for creating a set-top box surely destined to save mankind from itself by slashing the number of fridge visitations while watching TV.

Admittedly, CBS execs didn’t help the broadcast rep when they kyboshed underling CNET’s “Best of CES” award for the Sling-Hopper this year. It was a slo-mo lob over the plate for Gary Shapiro, chief of the Consumer Electronics Association, CES organizer and lobbyist for set-top box makers. He knocked it out of the park, defying CES protocol and best-in-showing the Sling-Hopper himself.

And so thus intensified the outcry against the broadcasters and the deification of poor Dish, a megamillion dollar corporation run by Charlie Ergen, one of the most ruthless folksy CEOs in business. (The other being John Malone. The biggest all-time PPV cage match ever in my mind is John vs. Charlie, whose shareholders are suing him for buying fire sale LightSquared debt and peddling it to Dish for millions in profit. What, they don’t like that? Charlie has needs.)

So as Dish and its Sling-Hopper became a poster technology for the greater good of all consumers everywhere, I responded with a soupçon of snark as is my wont when the manure approaches hip-wader threshold. I proposed that the Sling-Hopper was about money, pure and simple. (There’s nothing either right or wrong about that as far as I’m concerned. It’s merely that portraying a money play as a great kindness to humanity is, to me, an abundance of excretia, and McAdams On has a fetish for calling out scatological creativity. )

Dish needed a money play because, like all mature service providers, it no longer will grow significantly through subscriber acquisition. It can only poach disgruntled cable subscribers or add whiz-bangs and charge more them. Props, then, to Dish, because while the Sling-Hopper doesn’t cure cancer, it is a doozy of a whiz-bang. And thanks in part to a goofy CBS exec, anyone who didn’t know about it before 2013 CES knew about it afterward.

The whiz-bang effect is important because it’s a way to reel in new subs and secure old ones. Cable’s done it by locking broadband and phone service to TV. Satellite guys no-cando broadband and phone on their own, but they yes-cando TV on every piece of electronics you own with access to apps. Dish has done so with that near-perfect balance of complexity and intuitivity that hooks users like aspartame.At least it has with its Dish Anywhere app for the iPad.

I know this because of the aforementioned flack (a term reserved for PR folks I greatly respect). Unable to get me to uproot Time Warner Cable from the small enclave where I reside, she chased me to the ground to review a connected iPad. I can do so only from the singular perspective of my own media usage habits and experience.

Since this was the first time I’ve had an iPad, I can’t attest unequivocally it wasn’t the form factor itself that changed my viewing behavior. The same holds for content, because I had access to shows on the Dish iPad Anywhere app I did not have readily on TV.The final phase of “Dexter,” for example.

Dish sent the iPad loaded with Anywhere—cloud-based stuff that follows you—and Transfer—stuff you’ve pulled off your set-top’s DVR to watch when the cloud’s out of reach. I stuck with Anywhere because the preloaded Transfer material did not interest me. Also, since I don’t have a Dish subscription and the Hopper set-top, I couldn’t go digging around for something I preferred. Nor was I able to skip commercials in primetime, broadcast TV shows. More on that in a moment.

The Dish folks preloaded some shows on Anywhere and set future episodes for “recording,” which actually means “cloud syncing.” Setting up recording is the simplest operation of all. You touch the screen twice. Once to identify the show and a second time to ID it for recording. Recorded shows appear as thumbnails under “My DVR.”

I compiled very little in My DVR because the review iPad turns into a serving tray after 30 days. Thirty days in a busy life goes fast, and there was already a virtual lifetime of content available through any of four interfaces: Showcase, On-Demand and Blockbuster, which resemble the Netflix interface; and the Guide, similar in appearance to the rolling spreadsheet version on TV, but that you finger-swipe to scroll. These interfaces are the intuitivity of Dish Anywhere.

The Guide alone, at right, is enough for any sentient being to look at an infrared remote control a if it were an ancient relic. You whip through the Guide, touching once for a show summary as well as the choice to either watch or record. The same thing on TV robs you of part of your life because you can’t set it to “speed read.”

The sheer volume of content available through the four interfaces is the previously cited element of complication. It’s enough to keep you looking for some elusive thing that you can’t identify but that you’ll know when you see—the media equivalent of returning to the fridge again and again to see if cookies materialized since you opened the door 10 minutes ago.

Neurologically, this behavior arises from, and reinforces, an overactive orbital cortex, which when associated with cleanliness is considered OCD, but when associated with media usage is deemed desirable. This is so because habitual, addictive media usage assures user loyalty and predictability. The same thing keeps pay TV subscribers who gripe incessantly about the medium from cancelling. It’s called “addiction��� from which there is “withdrawal.” And I will go through withdrawal when I give up this iPad tomorrow, in part because it altered my locational viewing habits.

Now I certainly can take my laptop out to the pool and watch something under the stars, but I seldom do. I connect it to the TV. I used the iPad outside and in bed much more often, due in part to the form factor. It doesn’t roast my lap, it’s less cumbersome and it has the touchscreen. I don’t see how it could be easier to watch TV on this thing unless Lenny Kravitz came over in his fur vest and held it in front of my face.

The single, most frustrating thing about Dish Anywhere was in the viewer. The rewind and fast-forward functions are indistinct and random. You cannot tell where they stop, so skipping commercials on basic cable programs such as “Breaking Bad” is impractical. I would have skipped them if I could have, which speaks to the convenience of Auto-Hop.At the same time, I didn't not watch “Breaking Bad” because I couldn’t skip commercials.

The fact that Auto-Hop targets only broadcast networks in their most lucrative time period suggests it’s all about leverage in retransmission negotiations rather than some great technological innovation to better peoples’ lives. In fact, ad-skipping alone is hardly an innovation at all. This Lifehacker article tells you how to program a skip-button on your remote for both broadcast and cable networks.

Even without ad-skipping, the Dish Anywhere iPad is a compelling play. Within 30 very busy days, my viewing moved from the 40-inch Bravia (most content in SD) and the laptop to the iPad. It would take more than 30 days to determine how the device would settle into my overall media usage habits. I suspect there would be an interest plateau and decline as with any new media form, electronic device, Barbie Doll or power tool. I definitely will miss it for a while. And while it was not enough for me to switch to a Dish subscription, it may be for someone selecting a new provider or at the breaking point with their current one.
~ D.