The Growth of Always-On Streaming Channels

Dom Corriveau

Dom Corriveau

Red 50's retro text with tube television including text "Always on TV: The new trend in streaming and I like it."

Update Sept. 2, 2019 - This blog was updated with information about STIRR and Sinclair Broadcasting Group

The changes happening all over streaming media is fascinating, even for someone like me who barely watches TV. A while back I wrote about my decision to disable and remove my Plex server simply to switch to Kodi and supplement with other free services. That list of free services continues to grow and even more intriguing, they’re adding always-on channels. This trend is one I whole-heartedly support.

On Thursday Plex announced a partnership with Warner Media to include free, ad-supported content on the Plex platform. Add this to the list including Tubi, IMDB TV and Roku Channel offerings that include free TV and movies, in the browser and set-top boxes.

An aside about Plex. I appreciate their plans to become THE interface for finding, watching and enjoying content. Including podcasts and now free, ad-supported content is a great move. However, it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want it running on my LAN. I don’t know what their intentions are, especially partnering with a major provider of content. Ripping your own DVD’s and Blu-Rays are already a legal gray area, let alone the many Plex users that might have acquired their personal library through even shadier channels. I’m sure Plex is well aware of what movies/TV shows I have in my personal library. Do I trust them not to share that info or to be pressured into revealing more than they should? My answer right now is “mabye?” which isn’t good enough to continue to use the service.

My favorite addition to these streaming services and one I’ve been using a lot from the Roku Channel (in the browser no less) is the always-on, traditional channel. Other places do this, including my new favorite paid streaming service Shudder. These channels behave just like regular OTA or cable channels. You just turn it on and something is playing. Its on a schedule, you jump in the middle of a show or movie and that’s just okay.

The problem with cable wasn’t on-demand. The problem is the cost that includes a lot of excess. People still enjoy the random, ephemeral nature of cable. You just put on a channel, willing to watch whatever is on and you never know when its going to play again. This is how I fell in love with USA Up All Night as a teen.

People have wanted this from Netflix or other major paid streaming providers. I think Netflix has tried to fill this, at least a little with their design. But the loud, obnoxious trailer of whatever thing they’re trying to push you to watch doesn’t go far enough. Its just an ad and that’s how people treat it. If I went to Netflix and saw an ad for Stranger Things, like I have for the last 2 years, I’ll never watch it. But, if I went to a Netflix channel and caught a random episode of the show I’d probably give it a shot. There’s no investment, but the discovery is so much fun.

What’s exciting about the Roku Channel is that they have several channels, from movies to news. Just a week ago or so they announced more kids channels, that are both free or including paid content, curated like a regular TV channel. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as YouTube struggles to fix problems on its platform to stop inappropriate content in their kids app.

The most hilarious part of all of this? Its tech “innovating”... er, “reinventing” the antenna/cable system. The only real improvement is that its easier, working on just about any device instead of the 150 lb. tube TV in the living room that we grew up with. We all know what’s going to happen next. Someone is going to reinvent the cable package by making an app that is a “guide-like interface to all your streaming services, with always-on channels made from each.” Wait, that actually sounds like a good idea.

Since I’m such an avid Kodi user, I am obligated to inform you there is a way to make your own always-on channels with your own library. I made a short video about this once upon a time and will be revisiting this weekend. Using a plugin called PseudoTV plus a little elbow grease you can create your own channels while also integrating your OTA antenna if you have one configured for your network.

STIRR - A full, always-on and free cable replacement

Update: Sept. 2, 2019

Over the long holiday weekend I added PseudoTV to my primary Kodi box and fiddled around with the settings. To stream live TV from my antenna I’m using a Raspberry Pi plus TVHeadEnd then watching via Kodi. This setup allows for the live TV to come into PseudoTV and then, when combined with my local library, I have a quality cable replacement at a total cost of zero dollars per month.

I used this setup several times, browsing the channels and finding random stuff to watch. After finishing a re-watch of Darkman I switched over to one of the live TV channels called Charge to finish watching Rocky III then stuck around for the greatest sports movie of all time in Rocky IV for their Labor Day Rocky marathon. During one of the commercial breaks we saw an ad for the network and how you can watch the channel streaming in the browser or on a mobile app.

This immediately piqued my interest. What a cool combination. If you happen to live in an area that gets great OTA reception (whaddup Phoenix) then you can watch for free from your antenna. But if you get less-than-stellar signal or happen to live in an area that’s outside of reach, then you can stream, for free, from the website. Looking it up, Charge and several other channels are all part of a cable-like “skinny” bundle of channels from the Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

There’s a great write up on Techcrunch about the service when it launched back in the beginning of 2019. If we put the objectionable ethics of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group aside (of which there are many) this service is fantastic. Using the STIRR website or app you get a cable-like experience with a guide and everything. It actually feels very similar to Pluto TV, which after seeing it I was convinced they had to be partners in the service. STIRR plus any of the companion apps (Charge, Comet TV, etc.) are all ad-supported and free to use. With apps for mobile devices plus Roku and Apple TV’s, this service fills a niche that I’m well acquainted with.

Cutting the cord requires some technical know-how that many people don’t have, even in 2019. Signing up and managing several services can be overwhelming, particularly ones that also require specific hardware to view. Services like STIRR, Pluto TV and the Roku Channel offer easy options for people to transition to cord cutting.

This is in addition to people who are financially left out of the cord-cutting migration. As more content gets put behind a paywall and OTA digital signals reach shorter distances, having free, ad-supported content helps low income households still feel like they’re connected to the outside world. In my testing of STIRR, it didn’t even require the app on mobile. Simply going to the website in Chrome or Safari worked just fine on any mobile device I tried.

Now if only a less terrible company made a similar service.

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