Jonathan Takiff: Eliminate TV ads with the Dish Hopper

Posted: February 08, 2013

WHAT DO the Walkman and iPod, the iPad tablet and now the new, second- generation Dish Hopper satellite receiver/recorder have in common?

All are disruptive technologies that screw with the system, threaten the status quo. With its cunningly effective commercial-skip feature called Autohop, the Dish Hopper is a land mine waiting to explode, threatening the future of advertiser-supported network TV.

No wonder broadcasters are trying their best (and worst) to bring down the Hopper, not even charmed by its cute kangaroo mascot.

"What's the big deal?" you might be asking. "Digital video recorders with fast-scan features have long been available from cable and satellite providers."

Normally those boxes demand advance planning to make "time-shift" recordings and require "hands-on, eyeballs-on" to plow quickly through the commercials.

Not so with the Hopper. It's a DVR for the technically averse and easily distracted. Just give it the OK, once, and this smart box will automatically record all prime-time programming carried on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, and keep it available for the following eight days, until the next round of episodes are recorded.

But what's really driving the networks nuts is the Hopper's user-selectable option to "Autohop" past the commercials in almost all of those Big 4 network, "Prime Time Anytime" recorded shows - a magic trick available just a few hours after the shows initially air.

Amusingly, Autohop wasn't available, though, during Hopper playback of last weekend's SuperBowl - wherein the commercials are often as appealing as the game.

New and improved

Hopper tech has almost totally persuaded this tube-tied tester to abandon "appointment TV." Autohop gives me an 18-minute instant rebate on every hour of broadcast TV viewing, saving me from those relentlessly repeating car commercials and most breathless local news updates that there will be weather tomorrow.

But wait, there's more, lots more in the just-shipping, second generation of this spectacular satellite-TV server, a product distinguished as Hopper with Sling.

This new Dish sweetens the deal with "TV Anywhere" features to take along and enjoy your Dish subscription content on mobile devices, too, in a much more satisfying fashion than other satellite and cable services currently provide.

Bad Moon(ves) Rising

CBS is just one of the aggrieved parties struggling to tie down the Hopper with injunctions and lawsuits. But since last month's International Consumer Electronics Show, the "Tiffany Network" has become the highest-profile and most-tarnished of attack dogs.

During CES, CBS Corp. chief executive Leslie Moonves put out an edict to a sister company, the tech-news website CNET, stipulating the latter could not award a planned "Best of Show" prize to Hopper with Sling.

Rival website The Verge first spilled the beans about the ban, making both CBS and CNET look journalistically suspect. Seasoned CNET writer Greg Sandoval then quit in protest and joined The Verge. Then late last week, the powers at CES - often championing the cause of unbridled tech innovation - announced that CNET's contract to run the official "Best of CES awards" event would not be renewed.

"Dish couldn't buy this kind of favorable publicity for the Hopper," related a seasoned public-relations exec. All of a sudden, news organizations that normally snub Dish had to sit up and pay attention. "And for CBS and CNET, this mess has become a textbook study in damage control gone awry."

Beta testing

Truth is, it's been our God- and Supreme Court-given right to fast-forward through TV commercials since the famous "Betamax" case of the late 1970s. Hollywood studios (led by MCA/Univeral) then sued Betamax VCR maker Sony, challenging the legality of home videotape recorders, which could capture and manipulate copyrighted content. The court sided with Sony and the rights of consumers to mangle movies and TV shows as we saw fit.

Later, makers of hard-disk-based video recorders (starting with TiVo, then cable and satellite service providers) used the Betamax case as precedent to introduce the 30- and 60-second skip feature, sometimes working in both forward and reverse directions. While pitched initially as a great tool to re-run a game play or funny bit, the enhancement is mostly used for skipping commercials.

And of course, today's cable and satellite tuners/recorders also have zippy, fast-forward/rewind mechanisms. In use, however, commercials remain visible, and it's far too easy to overshoot the goal.

With Hopper, Autohop commercial skipping is done automatically and with about 94 percent surgical precision. Here and there, a couple of seconds of a commercial do slip through, but th-th-that's all, folks. And Autohop is usually disabled at the tail end of shows, when the preview of the next episode is craftily interwoven with promotions, thus impossible to isolate.

Dish's legal leg to stand on is that the Autohop functionality, like Prime Time Anytime, is an "opt-in" feature that must be activated by each consumer user. Also, the commercials are never actually edited out of the recording, just rendered temporarily invisible.

The almost-prize-winning new Hopper also builds in Sling - a technology for remotely calling home on an Internet-connected tablet, PC or smart phone - to your satellite box. You can then rouse this TV receiver to turn-on, tune-in and instantly send back (with some drop-outs) a show to your distantly located mobile device. And we're not just talking select channels, as other pay services provide in their "TV Everywhere" offerings. Hopper with Sling delivers any live channel you pay for and every recording you've stored on the receiver - though the quality can be herky-jerky or blurry without high-speed broadband service at both ends.

Hopper Transfers, also found on the new box, is yet another "opt-in" feature, a bit more complicated to execute. The idea with Hopper Transfers is to pre-load your mobile device with Dish-recorded content before you leave home. The Hopper receiver and show-catching iPad (or soon, Android tablet) must be paired on the same Wi-Fi home network for the wireless transfers to happen (slowly). I did get this magic trick going, shifting a reasonably clean, sharp and stable copy of the Sherlock Holmes-in-America TV show "Elementary" to my iPad for zero added cost. But the mysteries of the process were unraveled only after a false start or three and a fair amount of sleuthing with an equally novice Dish Hopper support person. Oh, and you can skip through commercials on a Hopper Transfer, too - but only one at a time.


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