Monday, November 18, 2013

Why No Local TV On My Smartphone

A reader recently asked me why he is not able to watch local TV stations on his smartphone.  With the state of mobile technology providing apps for everything from real time foreign language translation to solving complex math problems, one would think the simple process of capturing and displaying programming that already is being transmitted over the air would be a simple task for a smartphone.   Well, it is not.

There are two major stumbling blocks to making local TV a reality on your smartphone: the first impediment is technology based; the second, and the more difficult issue to conquer, relates to money and programming rights.

As I have written often, the standard over-the-air digital TV broadcasts are often plagued with reception issues.  Trying to receive these less than robust signals transmitted from your local TV stations using a small hand held device is difficult if not impossible without the addition of a large antenna and some battery eating circuitry.   Both are cumbersome, heavy and just not practical. 

While there are special mobile DTV technologies available, they have been enthusiastically embraced by neither the phone manufacturers nor the broadcasters.  Here in Cincinnati some stations have mobile transmissions but programming is sparse and very few of the local viewers have the equipment to receive them. 

A few Cincinnati stations are now promoting an add-on device called Dyle.  This mini DTV converter, about the size and weight of a can of tuna, connects via a wire to your iPhone or Android.  It might be ok for use at home but carrying around this extra box with a two foot antenna just doesn’t cut it for me.

The technical problems most likely could be solved by using the internet and existing 3G or 4G networks to carry the stations but then the second big impediment, the legal and financial issue, would need to be addressed.

The way local broadcast stations obtain programming from the networks for local broadcast has really not changed in decades.  The local affiliate has rights to broadcast programming from the network within a specific geographic area, i.e., a market.  For non-network programming like Jeopardy or Oprah, stations purchase the rights for the individual market from a syndicator.  Again the rights are only for the specific market which is limited by the physics of the broadcast signal.  Moving from a broadcast to the internet broadens the coverage.  It changes the economic model.  At this writing the local stations would not be permitted to offer most of their programming on line.

Programming that is locally produced, like the local newscasts, could be distributed via live internet streaming but so far very little is.  There have been some.  Recently one of the mayoral debates for Cincinnati was streamed live instead of being broadcast on a TV station.

The bottom line to this whole issue comes down to the fact that the economic model, the copyright laws and the agreements between local stations and the networks are based on technology that was dominant in the last century.  Until and unless these issues get resolved you will be able to watch programming live from half way around the world on your mobile phone but local news and weather will not be available.


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