The Small Screen Revolution (Part 1)

4/22/2013 2:47:07 PM

The internet, mobile apps place-shifting boxes are changing how and where we watch TV. Wot Sat enjoys TV ‘on the go’

Maybe it’s a ‘generational thing’, but the traditional idea of the family gathering together in the living room at the same time to share in the experience of watching TV, seems to be fading in many households as computers, smartphones and the internet prove ever-more compelling distractions.

Recognizing this shift in how we choose to consume TV and indeed, when and where, broadcasters and service providers are increasingly making programmers and channels available for streaming or downloading on-demand. Increasingly, we’re also seeing the development of software applications and a few set top boxes (or often a combination of the two), which enable remote viewing on computers and mobile devices around the home via a local area network and/or in many cases, via the internet too.

Some such solutions only require a web browser to operate, but for mobile users, apps can usually be obtained from online stores/marketplaces and are often free. Invariably supporting touch and in some cases gesture-based control methods, typically these cater to Apple’s ubiquitous handhelds foremost the iPad but also the iPhone or iPod Touch, though the majority are at their most effective when viewed on the iPad’s larger screen. Support is also growing for devices that use Google’s increasingly popular Android operating system, though very few currently support emerging Windows Mobile-equipped handhelds.

Description: Sky Go offers TV and films on demand for mobiles

Sky Go offers TV and films on demand for mobiles

The UK’s four main broadcasters have TV’s ‘players’ which are accessible via the web or come as free-to-download mobile apps, though usage is restricted to the UK only. The BBC iPlayer app is available for Apple, Android and Blackberry mobiles, ITV Player and Channel 4’s 4oD for Apple and Android, while Channel 5’s Demand 5 currently only supports Apple handhelds. BBC iPlayer is presently the only service which allows shows to be downloaded on to mobile devices (again limited to Apple handhelds only) and watched while offline.

With the exception of Channel 4’s Film4, all provide access to catch-up TV from all channels from the previous month which is displayed with relevant programmer information and search and sorting functionality including by channel and A-Z.

Live streaming

As expected from commercial broadcasters, streamed content from ITV Player, Demand 5 and 4oD Player is accompanied by advertising. Both the web and app versions of iPlayer can be used to stream live TV and radio channels and include a fully browse-able 7-dau EPG. Channels can be watched live via the browser versions of 4oD and ITV Player, but only ITV offers a similar service to the BBC for mobile users, enabling ITV1 and ITV2 to be streamed. Shows which fall outside of the 30-day catch-up TV ‘window’ can be streamed on demand using 4oD though the mobile app offers a limited amount of content compared to its browser counterpart. ITV Player’s browser version also has a rental service where ad-free episodes can be rented at a typical 49p each or a series for around $4.55.

For both BBC iPlayer and ITV Player, downloaded programmers can be kept for a maximum of 30 days (or 90 days for series rentals from ITV) and played as often as you like for up to 7 days after first play. Channel 4 recently announced its intention to update its 4oD player later in the year to enable live streaming of E4, More4, 4Music and Film4 for mobiles. It also plans to introduce an offline download service for mobiles and a pause and play feature giving users the ability to pause a programmer on one device and resume watching on another/

Eurosport and ESPN may not enjoy the same audience figures, but both channels also offer online players and mobile apps. They both require a subscription, which extends across both the web and app versions. Eurosport Player includes an EPG and delivers line streams of its British Eurosport and British Eurosport 2 channels plus selected sporting highlights. Free apps are available for Apple and Android handhelds. A monthly subscription crowd pass costs $7.55 or you can sign up for a minimum 12 month annual pass and pay $4.55/month ($2.99/ month for the first year).

Description: Sling Media’s Slingbox was the first ‘place-shifter’

Sling Media’s Slingbox was the first ‘place-shifter’

ESPN Player includes US sporting events for streaming live or on-demand. Payment options vary depending on the event – a subscription to the channel’s college sporting events coverage for example costs $149.99 annually, $26.99/ month or $13.55 per day, while access to live and on-demand coverage of the recent American Le Mans events coverage could be streamed for a one-off $4.55 payment per weekend, or $8.99 for the whole season. The channel has recently launched its first app, initially for the iPad only. You can view what’s coming up in the week ahead and also use the app to post about what you watch on Facebook and Twitter.

TV collectors

For those that like to have everything ‘in one place’ TVCatchup is a popular (and free) ‘third party’ streaming TV PC application. Available via the web or in app form for Apple and Android devices, it’s essentially an ‘aggregator’ for free online catch-up TV players though it comes with its own EPG and claims to optimize streaming quality for handhelds (streaming via WiFi or 3G is supported).

Service providers such as Sky and Virgin Media, meanwhile, have also been busy making the most of the potentially lucrative TV content at their disposal by producing web and app-based services which provide added value for connected subscribers such as the ability to stream live TV channels and watch/rent shows on demand (see Sky vs Virgin Media).

Free services providers Freesat and YouView are also readying ‘second screen’ mobile apps, though the latter stops short of letting you steam TV channels in favor of being able to browse the EPG and remotely schedule recordings. Freesat’s forthcoming Free Time app looks likely to follow suit.

On the hardware side of things, a number of manufacturers (see ‘Thinking outside the box’) have produced hardware which provides a means of distributing a TV signal or recorded program to PCs and mobile via a home network and/or the internet. Some come with built-in satellite or terrestrial TV tuners, while many are able to distribute video and audio form an external source such as a TV receiver or DVD player.

Description: VLC Media Player is a popular TV streamer

VLC Media Player is a popular TV streamer

Not to be outdone, Samsung has produced a mobile app that enables remote streaming of what’s being received on a Samsung TV tuner wirelessly to a mobile device over a home network. ‘Smart View’ is a free download for Apple and Android handhelds and compatible with most recently produced Samsung TVs which support networking functionality.

Finally, for those Wot Sat readers that like things a little more ‘DIY’, a number of Linux-based satellite receivers can be modified to enable remote TV streaming. One example is the ‘VLC’ plug-in for the Dreambox range of receivers which, when used with the VideoLan PC application, allows what’s being received on the box to be streamed and even recorded remotely on a networked computer.

Description: Virgin’s TV Anywhere app includes touch/ gesture-based controls

Virgin’s TV Anywhere app includes touch/ gesture-based controls

Whatever your requirements and wherever you are, network/internet access permitting, it seems there’s no excuse for missing out of your favorite TV show these days. But as more and more programming is made available on demand, we wonder whether the days of the linear TV channels are becoming numbered?

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