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Aereo’s Achilles’ Heel: Delivering Real-Time TV

If you want recorded content – you’re all set. But seamlessly watching live TV is a work in progress.
August 16, 2013

Aereo, the New York City-based startup, is disruptive to conventional cable TV: its technology picks up live over-the-air TV broadcasts from your own personal tiny antenna in Aereo’s data center, and sends those broadcasts to your home over the Internet. Because every customer gets their own antenna (albeit, one in a data center), Aereo has successfully beat back court challenges (see “Aereo’s on a Roll”) that claim it illicitly rebroadcasts shows.  

After subscribing to Aereo, I note the service has an occasional weakness: actually delivering live TV seamlessly.

With Aereo, you can scroll a menu of current TV offerings, and click to watch a live show. But once the show ends, it doesn’t just go on to the next show, the way it worked back in the old days of tubes and rabbit ears. Instead, you have to go back to the menu, select the next show, and hit “watch.” Why? Because the system is deliberately engineered to let you request and then record specific shows—not leave the telly on in the background. “We’re working on continuous viewing now,” says Christopher Mckay, director of customer care. “It’s definitely a DVR technology.”

A cynic might conclude Aereo is trying to push customers to upgrade to the higher-capacity, extra-charge cloud DVR storage service. (Basic service, costing $8 a month, includes 20 hours of DVR storage. It’s available so far in New York, Boston, and Atlanta—with 20 more urban markets planned.) But Aereo says it must be able to serve the many people who want to record cherry-picked shows, not “watch TV.” But if Aereo is a DVR service, there are other ways to watch pre-recorded shows—like, say Netflix—and the whole argument for putting antennae in datacenters starts to come, at least a little, into question.

There’s a second but related issue: buffering. At my house, a typical American household with relatively slow basic Internet service, sometimes a show on Aereo freezes up. This is because my Roku device, the gizmo that’s picking up the Wi-Fi signal and delivering the show to my TV, is demanding service that my 15 megabit Internet download connection (further slowed, considerably, by my Wi-Fi router down in the kitchen) can’t quite keep up with.

This buffering issue doesn’t arise with pre-recorded shows or movies on Netflix, because an initial long-ish buffering step makes sure there’s enough content on the Roku to carry me through. But live TV is, well, live.

This happened at the very tail end of Under The Dome last week. After the image froze for quite a few seconds, one of my two sons went back into the menu, to hit “watch” again on the show to get the thing started again. But in the minute that had elapsed, the show had actually ended. So we never got to see it. I was quick to blame the technology. They were quick to blame me: for failing to properly site the Wi-Fi router and being too cheap to get a faster Internet plan. (Any time it’s Technology vs. Dad, the same winner comes up every time.)

In response, Aereo tells me it has a new feature, a Roku setting called “slow-start,” which delays the live-TV by 15 seconds to allow adequate buffering to take place. But I wonder whether slow-start might throw off some current or future interactive live TV feature, or be annoying to sports bettors or people voting for a contestant on a reality show. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ll learn who won the election, or the big game, 15 seconds later than my cheering neighbors.

Speaking of sports: like other DVR technologies, Aereo records shows based on rigid time-segments from the TV guide, not by the actual length of a game, which may extend into the next time-segment. So you need to set it to record the Sunday game and also 60 Minutes or you may miss something. That’s a problem common to all DVRs. But what if you are watching the game live? Then, well, at 7 p.m. the “show” will end. You’d better be quick to press “watch 60 Minutes,” or might miss the final Hail Mary.

Despite all this, I like Aereo. I like that the cable companies are getting a run for their money. The whole industry needs disruption. It’s not quite going to please the geezers looking for something that’s exactly like “watching television.”   Then again, the term “watching television” is already almost as obsolete as “renting a video,” a term I uttered by accident a couple of years ago, unfortunately within hearing range of my sons.

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