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David Zax

A View from David Zax

NimbleTV Streams Cable to Devices

It’s the Aereo of cable. Are lawsuits on the way?

  • April 24, 2012

Last month I went hands on with Aereo, a service that launched in New York and that brings television to your devices (for $12 a month). TV stations haven’t been happy about Aereo, and have lobbed a number of lawsuits at it. This week, reports the New York Times, a similar startup begins a limited trial, again in New York–only this time, it has its sights on a bigger prize: cable.

The startup is called NimbleTV, and it’s pretty exciting. “Finally, your live TV from any country, anywhere you go, with unlimited recording,” says its website. The company hasn’t commented yet on what its service will cost, but the Times said it would be “probably around $20.”

The idea isn’t new–and indeed, the cable companies themselves have been pushing it, albeit slowly, for years. The industry has dubbed this concept–their content on all your devices–“TV Everywhere.” (An announcement of the concept, from Time-Warner and Comcast, came back in 2009.) The only problem? It hasn’t happened yet. “We’ve all heard about TV Everywhere for a long time. One of the questions that’s bothered me is, why is it not here yet?” Anand Subramanian, NimbleTV’s CEO, has said. For now, NimbleTV’s test phase is limited, both geographically (in New York) and in terms of the channels offered, 26 of them.

Is NimbleTV courting lawsuits, like Aereo? Subramanian says he hopes not; some of his investors privately told the Times they thought it an inevitability. Subramanian says he bent over backward when designing the product to avoid legal issues. We’ll see.

Is NimbleTV the white knight consumers have been looking for, the one to finally disrupt cable and bring it to viewers on their own terms? Many onlookers think not. Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic, for instance, thinks NimbleTV won’t “appease the masses,” who want “[t]he ability to watch all the shows they want online, whenever they want, without paying for ones they don’t want on their TV.”

NimbleTV shouldn’t be written off just yet, though. Tim Carmody of Wired has ably argued that our real problem with cable is “not the idea of cable,” or its pricing, but that it is “cable as it actually exists,” namely, “bad service, local and regional monopolies, crummy interfaces, waiting in line for hours to return a stupid set-top box before we can leave town and move somewhere else to do the same dance all over again.”

The way cable companies are set up, consumers often have limited or no choice between providers. This is one reason why the Free Press argued that even the “TV Everywhere” concept, if implemented by cable companies, could be detrimental consumers, if it preserved the regional monopolies or oligopolies that reign in many of our cities. One of the most fascinating elements of NimbleTV is that it doesn’t care where you live; it decouples your physical location from its service. (Indeed, the service appears to be aimed in large part at international travelers or other modern nomads.) That could betoken an era in which consumers could finally comparison shop between providers in a way they weren’t able to before. That alone would be a major disruption, and one that makes NimbleTV a startup worth watching.

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