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Apple’s Arrogance Meets Big Cable, Hollywood’s Intransigence

Apple TV

Apple TV

Apple’s ability to successfully force its way into the pay television business with a cord-cutter’s streaming TV solution has been left languishing since 2009, thanks to some of America’s largest cable and entertainment companies who think Apple is arrogant and out of touch.

The Wall Street Journal today published a story showing how Apple’s plans to challenge the cable TV industry much the same way it revolutionized digital music has rubbed the big and powerful the wrong way. Apple’s desire to launch a cheaper streaming video service with a slimmed down TV lineup and robust on-demand options has flopped, because executives have no interest in bending to Apple’s way of thinking.

In 2009, Apple decided it wanted in on the streaming pay-TV business. At the same time Time Warner Cable began experimenting with data caps, Apple was approaching local stations and broadcast networks and offering them premium payments — higher than what the cable industry itself paid — for Apple’s choice of stations and cable networks. The deal meant Apple would alone be free to pick only the channels it wanted to carry, a major departure from the industry practice of contract renewals that bundled popular networks with spinoff and lesser-known channels cable operators didn’t want to carry. Apple’s hard-charging negotiator, Eddy Cue, seemed to believe that if Apple was at the negotiating table, that alone would be enough to get a deal done. It wasn’t.

Two years later, Time Warner Cable approached Apple seeking to launch a joint TV venture that could compete nationwide with satellite and phone company competitors. The talks were at the highest levels at both companies, involving Time Warner Cable’s then-CEO Glenn Britt, Cue, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Cook also approached Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, promising him the service would only be sold through cable operators — good news for Comcast but bad news for open competition.

market share streamingThis time, Apple sought money from the cable companies, not the other way around. Cable operators were told they would need to pay $10 a month per subscriber to Apple, with no guarantee that fee would not increase in the future. Just as concerning was Apple’s insistence that subscriber authentication would require customers to use their Apple IDs, a departure from the cable industry’s push to adopt TV Everywhere, where customers could unlock streaming video from any cable network simply by logging in with the username and password they set up with their pay TV provider. Apple was also characteristically secretive about their user interface and left cable industry executives flummoxed when they asked Apple to sketch out what the service would look like on a napkin. An Apple official would only respond that their interface would be great and “better than anything you’ve ever had.” The fact Apple refused to answer the question did not go unnoticed.

Nor did Cue’s unconventional way of negotiating with some of the most powerful entertainment executives in the country. When Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner (Entertainment) agreed to meet with Cue about Apple licensing Time Warner’s critical networks — which include HBO, CNN, and TNT — Apple’s negotiator showed up 10 minutes late. While Time Warner’s negotiators were smartly dressed in business attire, Cue turned up wearing jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and sneakers with no socks. It went downhill from there, because Apple insisted on valuable on-demand rights to full seasons of hit shows and permission to let viewers store their favorite recordings on a massive cloud-based DVR that included features like automatic recordings of hit shows and advanced ad-skipping technology.

Crickets.

More than a few programmers used to having their way with cable operators were shocked by Apple’s ‘arrogance’ and unconventional way of doing business. The newspaper reports one former Time Warner Cable executive watched with amusement as stone-faced programmers were unimpressed with Apple’s demands.

Jon Lovitz offers a visual hint what Mr. Cue must have looked like meeting with high-powered execs at Time Warner (Entertainment)

Jon Lovitz offers a visual hint what Mr. Cue must have looked like meeting with high-powered execs at Time Warner (Entertainment)

“[They] kept looking at the Apple guys like: ‘Do you have any idea how this industry works?'” said the former executive.

Apple responded ‘doing new things requires changes that often are unsettling.’

A year later the negotiations were on life support, as Apple struggled with the arrival of 2015 with no slimmed down streaming TV package to offer Apple TV owners.

Apple’s demands flew in the face of decades of cable industry business practices, which give channel owners virtual guarantees of rate hikes with each contract renewal, the right to force their spinoff networks on the cable lineup in return for a comfortable renewal process, and the cable industry’s right to an assurance everyone was getting the same kind of deal (except volume discounts). Any deviation from this would result in panic on Wall Street, as investors’ dependence on perpetually improving quarterly financial results based on revenue boosts from new or higher fees would come crashing down if a company like Apple got a better deal.

One industry insider suggested once a company like Apple got a deal on sweetheart terms, every other distributor would demand the same deal (and many have contract provisions that require it). Apple may have assumed that because it managed to get the recording industry to agree to its iTunes digital music distribution deal 15 years earlier, so the cable industry would go. Except the road to cut-throat deals for entertainment programming is littered with dead-end business plans that had to be quickly modified when the discounts ended.

Netflix and Starz both learned expensive lessons when early discounts on licensing deals ended after Hollywood saw how much money those companies made from streaming. When licensing contracts expired, entertainment companies sought massive increases in licensing fees to “fairly share” the proceeds. Netflix ended up walking away from several studios, seriously impacting their online streaming catalog. Eventually, Netflix decided if they cannot beat the studios, they should join them, creating original programming to attract and keep subscribers.

Cue in real life

Cue in real life

After almost a decade spent trying to get into the online cable business, Apple now seems more likely to follow Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and devote time and money on developing its own original programming. Instead of trying to license and bundle network programming, Apple TV today supports independent apps created by various networks. Viewers still get to watch their favorite shows, Apple does not have to pay for streaming rights, and there is a joint effort to create and support a single login so viewers can get access to content without constantly re-entering usernames and passwords.

Apple’s original shows include “Planet of the Apps,” a reality series, a miniseries being developed by Dr. Dre, and a spinoff of CBS’ “Carpool Karaoke.” The shows serve a dual purpose — entertaining viewers and helping push sales in Apple’s App Store and streaming music service.

Also under consideration are big budget, critically acclaimed original shows and series that could generate positive buzz for Apple TV, like “House of Cards” has done for Netflix.

Developing programming keeps negotiators like Apple’s Mr. Cue from having to challenge a very profitable pay television industry on their terms and spares Apple from creating a cable package of linear TV channels subscribers increasingly don’t care about. Viewers want on-demand access to the shows they want to see and don’t care that much about who supplies them and how.

So in the end, the intransigence of Big Cable and Hollywood studios that are now worried about cord-cutting may have done Apple an enormous favor, sparing them from being entangled in a business that buys and sells channels to fill a bloated and expensive cable television lineup more and more consumers are now deciding they can do without.

Charter Ready to Introduce HD and Internet Access on Berkshire Cable Systems… in 2016

lanesboroughIt is hard to imagine there are still cable systems serving customers with nothing more than a slim lineup of standard definition cable television channels in 2016, but not if you live in three Berkshire towns over the New York-Massachusetts border where Charter Communications will finally introduce HD television and internet service starting next week.

Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale all suffer from the pervasive lack of broadband common across western Massachusetts. But these communities, along with Charter’s cable system in nearby Chatham, N.Y., are benefiting from regulator-mandated upgrades as a condition of approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter Communications has almost no presence in New York, except for 14,000 customers in Plattsburgh and the seriously antiquated system in Chatham that isn’t too far from the dilapidated systems serving the Berkshires on the Massachusetts side of the border. Like in Chatham, customers in the Berkshires pay for service similar to what cable customers received in the 1980s – no video on demand, no internet access, and a capacity-strained system that lacks enough bandwidth to offer HD channels.

The upgrades will cost about $6,000 per customer — numbering 2,500 in Chatham and another 800 in the three towns in Massachusetts. Charter is paying the bill. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make things easier for the cable operator, because it will extend fiber connections between the Charter systems and existing Time Warner Cable infrastructure nearby.

In Massachusetts, Charter’s upgrades require customers to install new set-top boxes in time for the switchover on Aug. 2. A week later, on Aug. 9, internet access will be available at the two speeds Charter traditionally offers — 60 and 100Mbps.

Most customers care a lot less about improved cable television and are more concerned about getting broadband. Western Massachusetts’ broadband problems have affected property values and kept businesses from relocating or expanding in the area. Few areas in the northeast have languished with inadequate internet access more than Massachusetts communities west of Springfield.

The large consortium of 44 communities working under WiredWest have spent years working towards community-owned fiber to the home service in the western half of the state, but the project ran into political interference at the state government level. Lanesborough had been part of the WiredWest collaborative effort, reports iBerkshires. With Charter’s upgrade, the community may decide to drop out of the project, even though it would likely deliver superior broadband service over what Charter will offer.

Comcast Still Telling Funny Stories to Wall Street About Usage Caps/Usage-Based Billing

xfinityOn a morning conference call with Wall Street analysts, Comcast continues to misrepresent its vision of broadband usage caps and usage-based billing, claiming customer preferences echoed through Comcast’s performance in the marketplace will tell the company what is “best for consumers,” and guide Comcast how to realize the most value for shareholders.

Wall Street is very interested in usage caps and usage-based billing because cable operators can protect video revenue threatened by cord-cutting and boost revenue earned from customers who exceed their allowance.

Vijay Jayant, and analyst at Evercore ISI, quickly zeroed in on the potential loss of anticipated revenue from Comcast’s recent decision to boost its data cap from 300GB to 1TB, something Jiyant characterized as a “hurdle” for future usage-related charges.

“Well we have one terabyte. We moved it up from 300 gigabyte to one terabyte in 14% of our markets where we have usage-based pricing,” responded Neil Smit, Comcast Cable’s president and CEO. “We think we’re going to continue to adjust and look at it as the market evolves and as usage evolves. We have different pricing models, some based on speed, some based on usage, and we’re going to be flexible and kind of let the market tell us which way is best for consumers and how we add the most value. We continue to add speeds. We’ve upped speeds 17 times in 15 years. We’ve built out the fastest Wi-Fi. So we’re going to continue to invest in the network to stay ahead of things.”

Smit’s response was incomplete, however.

Smit

Smit

Comcast’s usage and speed-based pricing models are hardly “flexible” and do not co-exist in the same markets. Customers are compelled to obey Comcast’s usage cap, face overlimit fees up to $200 a month, or pay an additional $50 a month to buy back their old unlimited use service. In Comcast markets without usage caps, the cable company only sells speed-based internet tiers with no enforced caps.

Comcast has consciously avoided allowing customers to choose between speed-based or usage-based tiers, because years of experience among other cable operators quickly proved customers intensely dislike usage caps of any kind. In fact, the largest percentage of complaints filed with the FCC about Comcast are about its compulsory usage cap trial and the fees associated with it.

One reason for that hostility may be that Comcast’s broadband prices do not drop as a result of the introduction of usage caps in a service area. The customer effectively receives a lower value broadband product as a result of its arbitrary usage limit, and the potential exposure to overlimit fees or a very expensive “insurance” plan to avoid the cap altogether. Earlier trials offered some customers a small discount if they kept usage under 5GB a month, a difficult prospect for most and in any case not much of a revenue threat for Comcast.

Comcast-marchIf Comcast was seriously interested in what its customers think about its usage cap trial, it need only review the FCC’s complaint database. According to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Wall Street Journal, nearly 8,000 complaints received by the FCC in the second half of 2015 were about data caps, and most of those were directed at Comcast.

Comcast’s claim it will let the marketplace decide only delivers a distorted view about usage caps, because many Comcast customers have only one other competitive choice, and there is a significant chance that provider caps customer’s broadband usage as well. AT&T, for example, caps its customers at a level even stingier than Comcast. Those caps have not been enforced with overlimit fees on customer bills (except for AT&T’s DSL customers), although AT&T suggests it is getting serious about collecting future overlimit fees. If Comcast gains new customers leaving AT&T to avoid smaller caps, Comcast executives seem to believe they can claim consumers have ’embraced’ Comcast’s usage billing. But we know that is about as credible as an election in North Korea.

Time Warner Cable has been one of the few honest players about usage billing, giving customers the option of keeping unlimited or switching to a capped plan for a discount. More than 99% of customers have chosen to stay with unlimited and only a few thousand have chosen to limit their usage for a small discount. An honest market test from Comcast would extend a similar option to customers. Keep unlimited or voluntarily limit usage for a small discount. Given this kind of test, we expect the overwhelming majority of customers would keep unlimited at all costs. Doing so would hurt shareholder value, however.

The only value Comcast is concerned with is how much more money they can charge customers for broadband service. In America’s broadband duopoly, where speed-based broadband pricing is already outrageously high, usage caps and usage billing are nothing more than a greedy cash grab. When money is at stake, reputation comes in a distant second at Comcast, as the company continues to prove its poor reputation with American consumers is well-deserved.

Verizon Sues New York Over Tax Refund Regulators Want Spent on Network Improvements

Phillip Dampier July 27, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Verizon No Comments

verizon repairVerizon Communications is taking the New York Public Service Commission to court over the regulator’s ruling that $8 million in property tax refunds rebated to the phone company through a tax certiorari proceeding should be spent on improving Verizon’s service quality in the state.

Verizon wants to pocket the refunds of $1 million from New York City, $2 million from Oyster Bay, and $5 million from Hempstead for the benefit of the company and its investors, but regulators are insisting Verizon use the money to boost “capital expenditures to address purported service quality and network reliability concerns about its New York network.”

The PSC has been monitoring Verizon’s landline performance in the state since at least 2010 under its Verizon Service Quality Improvement Plan proceeding. Local officials and customers have filed complaints with the PSC about extremely long repair times, service outages, unreliable service, and sub-par line quality for several years, especially in downstate areas around New York City that have not yet been upgraded to Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service.

Regulators want those issues resolved, particularly after Verizon made it clear it has suspended its FiOS expansion outside of New York City. Customers with long-standing service issues are often offered a controversial wireless landline replacement called Voice Link, that has earned mixed reviews, instead of a permanent repair of their existing service.

ny pscVerizon calls the regulator’s demands arbitrary and unwarranted confiscation of its property.

“The commission did something it had never done before — it allowed Verizon to retain the refunds as it had in the past but this time also imposed a spending mandate which required Verizon to use the funds for a particular purpose,” the company claimed.

Verizon used the company’s long and successful track record convincing New York regulators that Verizon’s wireline networks have faced hard times as it bled landline customers, so it deserved regulatory and rate relief. Because the PSC recognized Verizon’s marketplace challenges when it “found that a lightened regulatory approach for traditional incumbent telephone carriers was warranted and necessary in order to level the playing field and enable them to remain viable providers in the future,” it is unwarranted to suddenly now demand the company spend its tax refund on network improvements, Verizon argued in its lawsuit.

In the past, Verizon added, the PSC allowed the phone company to keep its tax refund money for itself, even as it reduced spending on its infrastructure. The company claimed that to be “a proper regulatory response to the financial stress Verizon claims it is and will be under as it continues its transition to an increasingly competitive market.”

Earlier this year, the commission began to take a more formal look at the mounting service complaints it was receiving from Verizon customers and found troubling evidence Verizon might not be taking its copper landline network as seriously as it once did, especially in areas where FiOS upgrades have not been scheduled.

“…[T]here may be an unwillingness on the part of Verizon to compete to retain and adequately serve its regulated wireline customer base, and warrants further investigation into Verizon’s service quality processes and programs,” minutes from a March commission meeting state.

Netflix on Your Comcast Set-Top Box Will Count Against Your Usage Allowance

Comcast-LogoLater this year, Comcast customers will be able to watch Netflix content with the cable company’s X1 set-top box.

At the time the deal was first announced, there was no word whether Comcast would apply its usage caps on Netflix usage, but Ars Technica reports Comcast will, in fact, count Netflix content you watch with an X1 against your monthly internet usage allowance.

“All data that flows over the public internet (which includes Netflix) counts toward a customer’s monthly data usage,” a Comcast spokesperson said.

Comcast has been gradually imposing its 1TB cap in an increasing number of service areas, where customers face paying an extra $50 a month for an unlimited plan or up to $200 a month in overlimit penalties for exceeding that allowance.

As of now, only Comcast’s own Stream TV is exempt from Comcast’s usage caps. Comcast claims its streaming service doesn’t qualify for its usage caps because it uses Comcast’s own internal network, not the public internet, to reach customers.

 

GCI’s Stingy Caps About to Get a Boost

gciBroadband life in Alaska is usually a choice (if you live in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, or another significantly sized city) between usage-capped cable operator GCI or slow-speed DSL (if you can get it) from Alaska’s two telephone companies – ACS, where unlimited service is still available, or MTA, where a 10Mbps Internet plan starts at $50 and offers up to 50GB of usage a month.

GCI has traditionally been the fastest option, but the company’s usage caps and high prices have brought scores of complaints from customers over the years. A basic 10/1Mbps internet plan costs $59.99 a month and only includes 40GB of usage. Many Alaskans who want faster access with a more reasonable allowance have to spend $84.99 a month for 50/3Mbps access to get a 150GB usage allowance or $134.99 for 100/5Mbps service with 300GB of included usage.

Late last week, GCI announced it was boosting the usage allowance for just one of its plans, the premium-priced, limited availability 1,000/50Mbps plan ($174.99), which until recently included a 750GB usage allowance. The new usage allowance is 1TB (1,000GB).

“In today’s connected society, people are demanding more and more access to data at incredibly fast speeds,” said Paul Landes, GCI’s senior vice president/general manager of consumer services. “GCI is proud to have a product that keeps our customers connected in ways people in Boston and LA can’t even receive. Even better, we are able to provide these upgrades at no additional cost to our loyal customers.”

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state's largest cable company.

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state’s largest cable company.

Gigabit customers like Stop the Cap! reader Dave Langhorn certainly hoped so.

“This is long overdue,” said Langhorn. “For $175 a month, there shouldn’t be any data caps, considering unlimited gigabit plans in the lower-48 often sell for $70-80 a month, which is less than half what we pay and still get capped.”

Our reader Michael Horton is incensed that GCI managed a usage allowance boost for its most premium internet plan, while leaving everyone else with the same old service.

“We shouldn’t be allowing any ISPs to restrict usage on their networks,” said Horton. “You should be paying for the speed that you use and nothing more.”

Horton considers data caps anachronistic at a time when the digital economy is moving towards online distribution of products and services like movies, games, software, and other digital products. Even Windows 10 has been more often installed from a download than from physical media.

GCI has promised to address at least one of Horton’s concerns, stating they are planning speed boosts and allowance upgrades for all of their internet plans at an unspecified time later this year.

GCI says the allowance boost comes in response to customer requests from surveys and “listening sessions.”

Horton and Langhorn both believe that those voices would be heard much louder if GCI had more significant competition.

“ACS is the only alternative if you want unreliable speed,” Horton writes.”They don’t have bandwidth caps, but you will be unable to use their service efficiently if you are a gamer or watch Netflix a lot.”

 

Wurl Network’s New IP-Streaming Cable TV Networks Blur Net Neutrality/Usage Caps

wurlVideo programmers that want to avoid the problem of usage allowances that can deter internet video streaming have a new way to make an end run around Net Neutrality, distributing their content “cap-free” through “virtual cable channels” that are distributed over broadband, but appear like traditional cable TV channels on a set-top box.

This morning, Fierce Cable noted Wurl’s IP-based streaming cable television network platform was here, offering cable operators new cable channels that are actually delivered over the customer’s internet connection. The Alt Channel, Streaming News Network, The Sports Feed and Popcornflix will appear on set-top boxes and onscreen guides like traditional linear cable channels, starting in August. Wurl claims at least 51, mostly small and independent cable operators, have already signed up for the service, which could quickly expand to 10-12 channels in the future. But Multichannel News has confirmed only one partner so far — Fidelity Communications, a small cable operator serving parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

What makes these channels very different from the other networks on the lineup is that they are delivered over the customer’s internet connection directly into a cable set-top box, and will generally be exempt from any usage allowances or caps providers impose on broadband usage. Wurl acts as a distributor, obtaining content from “popular online studios” that “until now has only been available on computers and mobile devices.” Wurl’s partners can get their content exposed on traditional cable TV to a potentially greater audience, who can watch while not worrying about using up their monthly internet usage allowance.

wurl_channels_brackets_large

The first series of bracketed channels are Wurl-TV broadband based channels, while the second are traditional linear cable networks delivered by RF or QAM. Both integrate seamlessly into the cable set-top box’s on-screen program guide.

Wurl’s unicast approach relies on its own content delivery network to provide one internet stream for each set-top box accessing its programming, which also allows for support of on-demand programming. But every cable customer watching a Wurl channel is effectively streaming video over their internet connection. Cable operators usually blame internet video for consuming most of their available internet bandwidth, necessitating the “need” for usage allowances/caps or usage based billing to manage and pay for bandwidth “fairly.” netneutralityYet Wurl’s networks consume just as much bandwidth as traditional online video. But because Wurl is partnering with cable operators, that content is not subject to the usage caps Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video customers have to contend with.

Wurl claims its approach is so cable-operator friendly, “there’s no reason to say no,” said Sean Doherty, Wurl’s CEO and co-founder.

Cable operators are offered Wurl channels for free, with no affiliate fees or upfront costs, and no significant technology costs since the channels are distributed direct to the set-top box over broadband, not RF or QAM. A video player is embedded into the virtual cable channel, which allows viewers to pause, rewind, and fast forward programming.

In the future, cable systems are expected to gradually transition to IP-delivery of all of their video content, turning the cable TV line in your home into one giant broadband connection, across which television, internet access, and phone service are delivered.

But cable operators are still making distinctions between services that are gradually becoming different in name only. If a customer watches a Wurl channel over the internet on their desktop, that would count against their usage allowance. But if they watch over a cable-TV set-top box, it won’t, despite the fact the journey the channel takes to reach the viewer is exactly the same. That gives certain content providers an advantage others lack, representing a classic end run around Net Neutrality.

To be fair, that is not a distinction Wurl has made in any of its marketing material, but the fact preferred content can be managed this way is just one more reason the FCC should ban usage caps and usage-based billing on consumer internet accounts. Wurl’s own marketing material tells operators the cost and impact of its video streaming on the cable operator’s existing infrastructure is next to zero… because Wurl’s content comes across broadband platforms already so robust, they can easily accommodate the potential of thousands of viewers all watching Wurl channels without any issues. That reality undermines the cable industry’s own questionable arguments about the need for data caps or usage billing.

VCRs Officially Dead; Last Manufacturer of VHS Recorders Calls It Quits

Phillip Dampier July 21, 2016 Consumer News, History 2 Comments
How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic?

How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic? And more importantly, Be Kind, Rewind! (Image: Wikipedia)

The days of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) are coming to a quiet end as the last known manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous device announced it will stop making new machines at the end of July.

The VCR had its place in about 90 percent of U.S. homes just ten years ago. Although introduced to the consumer market in the late 1960s, the VCR remained a toy of the wealthy through much of the 1970s. It would take 10 years after that — the 1980s — for VCRs to become easily affordable and in enough homes to inspire a multi-billion dollar video rental industry with household names like Blockbuster. CNN even considered the VCR one of the most important cultural icons in its series The Eighties.

Like most new technology, the arrival of the VCR threatened everything, according to enterainment industry executives. Years of litigation dragged out issues like the right for consumers to make recordings of over-the-air stations to capture their favorite shows. Ad-skipping, courtesy of the fast-forward button, would “ruin” free television. Viewers might even build video libraries of shows and share them with friends and neighbors! At one time, some major companies in Hollywood even favored the imposition of a tax on blank videocassettes that would cover their losses from home recording. Copyright questions were finally settled in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled home taping on a not-for-profit basis was perfectly legal. Hollywood survived despite this.

vcr_toshibaConsumers had a choice between two incompatible standards – the Sony Betamax, which promised superior video quality or JVC’s VHS format, a standard that allowed for longer recordings and was supported by just about every electronics manufacturer other than Sony. Some consumers owned both, but most settled for one or the other, and the VHS tape had a decisive advantage – extended recording time and near universal accessibility. It would eventually dominate in sales. More than 30 years later, recordings made on Betamax and VHS machines are still viewable, and turn up on video websites, often showcasing television as it used to look like in the 1970s and 1980s.

The VCR became so popular, it was a significant part of our lives. Pornography on videotape became a major issue during the Reagan Administration. But an even more pervasive problem was the flashing 12:00 time on your grandparent’s unconfigured VCR and the piece of black electrical tape used to conceal it. Videocassette clubs became as common as the record clubs that were around decades earlier. Parents used the VCR as an electronic babysitter to entertain children. Movie rental night was also the best way to watch your second, third, or fourth choice movie, as popular titles were cleared off shelves early in the evening. Rental fees, late fees, and “be kind, rewind” fees were also issues. But the worst nightmare of all was the horror of discovering a hopelessly unwound and tangled videocassette inside the machine, or worse, your child’s lunch.

What the VCR was invented for.

What the VCR was invented for: time-shifting

First generation VCRs were replaced with Hi-Fi and even SuperVHS models, which improved recording quality. Consumers bought second and third units for their bedrooms. Blank videocassettes were everywhere, often available hanging on a rack next to the checkout line.

The VCR was technology America took for granted… until the arrival of DVDs in 1995, just a decade after the VCR really got popular. There was simply no comparison. The DVD blew away videocassette video quality and offered easy accessibility, compact storage, and a longer lifespan. Just five years after the DVD showed up, it outsold all videotape formats combined. The pay television industry completed the hatchet job on the VCR with the introduction of the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) (Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, in Canada). The DVR was designed around the fact most consumers used VCRs to time-shift television programming, not build a personal library of recordings. With a DVR, a customer could quickly record their favorite shows and store them digitally, erasing unwanted shows with the push of a button.

The DVR still shows years of life, but the DVD’s days are likely numbered as cloud storage and on-demand video streaming make the need to collect and organize a library of shows and movies obsolete. Why buy it if you can stream it?

Manufacturers and retailers have noticed the shifting trends and the VCRs that were originally for sale in the 1980s were largely replaced by DVD players in the 1990s. Today, even DVD players are slowly being replaced in favor of devices like Roku or portable tablets.

Until this month, at least one manufacturer – Funai of Japan – still had a small niche market keeping VCRs in homes where owners spent decades amassing vast video libraries of movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, Chinese manufacturers of the parts needed to build a VCR have increasingly lost interest. So has Funai.

“We are the last manufacturer” of VCRs “in all of the world” — 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, down from millions decades earlier, said Funai, which sold them under brand names like Sanyo, among others. This last holdout made VHS machines. Sony threw in the towel on making Betamax VCRs back in 2002. It stopped manufacturing blank tapes this year.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

At some point in the next 10-20 years, the videocassette could represent one of the largest orphaned recording formats around. As little as 20 years from now, as your kids and grandchildren unearth strange plastic boxes from the attic or basement, they will wonder what they are and how to play them. Preservationists are concerned about the inevitable – discovering playable videocassettes have outlived the players required to watch them.

It isn’t the first time. Wire recordings still turn up in some attics. To the uninformed, they are nothing more than a spool of ordinary wire, except someone recorded sound on them sometime in the first half of the 20th Century. Even more common, open reel or reel-to-reel tapes wound on large plastic spools. This was the audiophile’s choice during much of the vinyl era, where the alternative was the obnoxiously awful 8-track tape or the hissy audio cassette.

If a radio broadcaster lived in your home, you might still find a few Fidelipac cartridges that slightly resemble 8-track tapes. These were commonly used to store continuous loop/always ready to go commercials and jingles. RCA developed its own version of the “Stereo Tape” in 1958 that came and went faster than the DuMont television network. In 1962, Muntz tried a Stereo Pak 4-track tape that went over like a yellow jacket swarm at a summer picnic. In 1966, the two track PlayTape format showed up and the only place you were likely to ever encounter it was inside certain Volkswagen automobiles. In 1977, someone had the brilliant idea of taking reel-to-reel size tape and loading it into a giant cassette-like shell. The Elcaset was born with a gigantic price tag. Unfortunately for the inventors, most consumers thought regular cassettes sounded good enough.

From the 1970s on, videotape was where it was at, and early formats were likely wound on spools or inserted into cartridges with strange-sounding names like U-matic. TV station personnel knew about these formats, but most consumers didn’t.

Making audio sound better in the 1980s brought three more attempts to recreate the portable cassette-like experience in a digital format. In 1988, Digital Audio Tape (DAT and R-DAT) arrived. It promised CD audio quality recordings. The record industry promised to destroy it at all costs because it could make perfect digital copies, great for bootlegging and pirating. It never emerged from niche status. The same was true for Sony’s bizarre MiniDisk, introduced in 1991. A sort of recordable CD-like disk placed inside a computer disk-style cartridge, it won some market share in Japan, but was never more than a curiosity in North America. If record companies didn’t release albums on these formats, they tended to tie quickly. Helping it along to the grave was copy protection technology, which irritated some users. In the end, the MiniDisk was deemed irrelevant after MP3 players arrived.

Philips of the Netherlands and Sony of Japan made one last effort before the MP3 rage with their 1992 introduction of the Digital Compact Cassette. Its main selling point was that players were backwards compatible and could also play ordinary cassettes (the things most consumers were starting to shove into drawers and shoe boxes the moment digital audio formats like MP3 took off). Too little, too late, and although Philips had a small loyal following for their players in Holland, you now have a better chance of finding blank digital cassettes stuffed into the back of drawers than you will ever have encountering a player to play them on.

Sony PlayStation Vue Adds 9 New CBS Local Stations to Lineup

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Sony PlayStation Vue has added live streams of CBS stations in nine new markets, expanding the reach of CBS-affiliated stations on the cable TV online alternative.

Effective immediately, subscribers can watch these CBS affiliates if you are located within the local coverage area (thanks to Cord Cutters News):

  • lineup playstationCalifornia: KFMB San Diego
  • Florida: WPEC West Palm Beach
  • Michigan: WWMT Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo
  • North Carolina: WBTV Charlotte
  • Ohio: WKRC Cincinnati, WOIO Cleveland
  • Pennsylvania: WHP Harrisburg
  • Texas: KEYE Austin
  • Utah: KUTV Salt Lake City

PlayStation Vue isn’t just for game consoles, available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Google Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV/Stick, and also available on the PlayStation Vue mobile app (iOS/Android). A seven-day free trial is available to U.S. viewers.

The service appears to be a more direct competitor to traditional cable television, offering a substantial number of traditional cable networks and an increasing number of local over the air stations:

PlayStation Vue Packages:

  • Access: 55+ channels, including an assortment of cable, movie and sports channels for $29.99 per month ($39.99 if local stations are provided)
  • Core: 70+ channels and regional sports networks for $34.99 per month ($44.99 if local stations are provided)
  • Elite: 100+ channels, including all channels noted above plus Epix Hits and two other entertainment channels for $44.99 per month ($54.99 if local stations are provided)

Showtime is available a-la-carte. In smaller cities without live local station streaming, the service offers on-demand access to selected network shows.

CenturyLink: Usage-Based Billing That Makes No Sense, But Will Earn Dollars

followthemoneyCenturyLink will begin a usage-based billing trial in Yakima, Wa., starting July 26 that will combine usage caps with an overlimit fee on customers that exceed their monthly usage allowance. The trial in Washington state may soon be a fact of life for most CenturyLink customers across the country, unless customers rebel.

Already at a speed disadvantage with its cable competitors, CenturyLink will likely alienate customers with a new 300GB usage cap on DSL customers who can manage speeds up to 7Mbps, and 600GB for those lucky enough to exceed 7Mbps. Customers will be given a browser-injected warning when they reach 65% and 85% of their allowance. If a customer exceeds it, they will have overlimit fees forgiven twice before the usual de facto industry overlimit penalty rate of $10 for 50 additional gigabytes will be added to their bill, not to exceed $50 in penalties for any billing cycle.

DSL Reports received word from readers in Yakima they had the unlucky privilege of serving as CenturyLink’s first test market for hard caps and overlimit fees, and was the first to bring the story to the rest of the country.

CenturyLink hasn’t wanted to draw much attention to the usage-based billing change, quietly adjusting their “excessive usage policy FAQ” that takes effect on July 26. But it has begun directly notifying customers who will be enrolled in the compulsory trial.

“Data usage limits encourage reasonable use of your CenturyLink High Speed Internet service so that all customers can receive the optimal internet experience they have purchased with their service plan,” states the FAQ.

But counterintuitively, CenturyLink will exempt those likely to consume even more of CenturyLink’s resources than its low-speed DSL service allows by keeping unlimited use policies in place for their commercial customers and those subscribed to gigabit speed broadband.

CenturyLink’s justification for usage caps with customers seems to suggest that “excessive usage” will create a degraded experience for other customers. But CenturyLink’s chief financial officer Stewart Ewing shines a light on a more plausible explanation for CenturyLink to slap the caps on — because their competitors already are.

“Regarding the metered data plans; we are considering that for second half of the year,” Ewing told investors on a conference call. “We think it is important and our competition is using the metered plans today and we think that exploring those starts and trials later this year is our expectation.”

CenturyLink's overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

CenturyLink’s new overlimit penalties (Image courtesy: DSL Reports)

In fact, CenturyLink has never acknowledged any capacity issues with their broadband network, and has claimed ongoing upgrades have kept up with customer usage demands. Until now. On the west coast, CenturyLink’s competitors are primarily Comcast (Pacific Northwest) and Cox Communications (California, Nevada, Arizona). Both cable operators are testing usage caps. In many CenturyLink markets further east, Comcast is also a common competitor, with Time Warner Cable/Charter present in the Carolinas. But in many of the rural markets CenturyLink serves, there is no significant cable competitor at all.

Usage Cap Man is back.

Usage Cap Man is back, protecting high profits and preserving the opportunity of charging more for less service.

As Karl Bode from DSL Reports points out, for years CenturyLink has already been collecting a sneaky surcharge from customers labeled an “internet cost recovery fee,” supposedly defraying broadband usage and expansion costs. But in the absence of significant competition, there is no reason CenturyLink cannot charge even more, and also enjoy protection from cord-cutting. Customers who use their CenturyLink DSL service to watch shows online will face the deterrent of a usage cap. Customers subscribed to CenturyLink’s Prism TV will be able to access many of those shows on-demand without making a dent in their usage allowance.

For years, American consumers have listened to cable and phone companies promote a “robust and competitive broadband marketplace,” providing the best internet service money can buy. But in reality, there is increasing evidence of a duopoly marketplace that offers plenty of opportunities to raise prices, cap usage, and deliver a substandard internet experience.

As Stop the Cap! has argued since 2008, the only true innovations many phone and cable companies are practicing these days are clever ways to raise prices, protect their markets, and cut costs. Consumers who have experienced broadband service in parts of Asia and Europe understand the difference between giving customers a truly cutting-edge experience and one that requires customers to cut other household expenses to afford increasingly expensive internet access.

We recommend CenturyLink customers share their dislike of CenturyLink’s style of “innovation” in the form of a complaint against usage caps and usage-based billing with the FCC. It takes just a few minutes, and adding your voice to tens of thousands of Americans that have already asked the FCC to ban usage caps and usage pricing will keep this issue on the front burner. It will help strengthen our case that providers must stop treating internet usage as a limited resource that has to be rationed to customers. Wall Street believes the FCC has given a green light to usage caps and usage pricing, and the risk of attracting regulator attention by imposing higher broadband prices on consumers is pretty low. We need to change that thinking so analysts warn providers against being too greedy, out of fear the FCC will impose a regulatory crackdown.

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