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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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March 23, 2004

RSSTV Emergency Broadcatching System

Posted by Ernest Miller

On Saturday, Andrew Grumet announced the release of RssReader 0.4d (RssReader 0.4d). In Andrew's words, "RssReader is TiVo-resident software that displays the contents of an RSS feed on your television." Of course, who the heck really wants to read RSS feeds on television? Sounds like one of those dotcom-era WebTV-like monstrosities. Instead, Andrew notes that "More interestingly, RssReader can schedule recordings from syndication feeds containing RSSTV extensions. This means you can subscribe your TiVo to a community-evolved ToDo list, such as the feed generated by Program My TiVo!" Absolutely, and something I think has amazing potential (RSS for TV, Music).

However, I also think that there is not only a desire for at least some RssReader functionality on television, but important reasons to make it happen. Indeed, perhaps a grant from Homeland Security to Grumet would be in order.

Imagine an RSS feed that would scroll at the bottom of your television display while you watched any other channel, a news ticker if you will. It would be just like the scrolling feeds on the news and financial networks, but would be overlayed on top of whatever you are currently watching. Most importantly, the content would come from an RSS feed.

Emergency Broadcatching System

When I lived on the East Coast, the television was a major source for breaking emergency local news such as school closings, traffic conditions and weather alerts. Turn on the local morning news after a snow storm and there would be a scroll of the business and school closings and delays. Major accidents on I-95 would initiate traffic tickers and you would also see listings of various counties under blizzard alert or where snow emergencies had been declared.

There are a couple of problems with this system. First, you have to be watching a live, local station. What about those gentle souls who like to start their morning with a relaxing gardening show on Home and Garden TV while they sip a nice cup of herbal tea? Thanks to TiVo, what about those early-risers who want to watch David Letterman's top ten from the night before in the morning just before heading to the home office?

Second, these scrolls are not necessarily the most efficient way of getting information to the audience. The alphabetical listings of businesses and schools seem to get longer and longer every year. Currently, you have to wait like 10 minutes for the darn thing to scroll through the entire listing in New Haven (and Yale never closes anyway). And you know something? I couldn't have cared less about the storm alerts in Windham County; I was in New Haven County, darn it.

Seriously, wouldn't it make a lot more sense to have an RSS feed for such emergency announcements? I want my employer or my school district to let me know when I should come in late or not come at all, and I want to know whether or not I'm watching a live, local news show. As TiVo (and broadcatching) become more popular it becomes less and less likely that people will be watching live broadcasts or the major networks. If you are the state or county government and need to let everyone know that there is a snow emergency or get other information out to citizens, who have dozens or hundreds of television channels to choose from, you can't simply hope that your citizens are watching the local ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS or FOX affiliate. Heck, if for some reason the television broadcast is out (terrorists attack transmitters, for example), you might still be able to get information to people through their televisions.

Cable companies could probably do something like this at government request, but not everyone wants to be constantly bombarded with this information on all channels. Okay, I know my school is closed today and now I just want to watch Spongebob Squarepants in peace. I'm not sure what capability satellite companies would have to do this on non-local channels. In any case, people may want information from sources other than the government and I doubt cable or satellite companies will run tickers for them.

People should be able to subscribe to particular feeds for their specific needs and you should be able to turn feeds on and off. There should also probably be a flag that would could be set to permit interruptions (automatically making the feed visible on the screen) and allow you to turn the feed off after you've got the information (only to reappear if there is an update, for example).

Other RSS Applications

Of course, once this system is in place, there would likely be a number of businesses that could be created to take advantage of such scrolls. Obvious applications include stock tickers and sports scores. Why not keep up with the stocks you follow while watching The Simpsons instead of CNNfn? Watch your favorite basketball game and keep closer tabs on the other teams you are interested in, rather than all the other scores and other sports the station's tickers usually have. News junkies can have news tickers running even while watching other entertainment.

Personalization would be great. Who wouldn't want to wake up in the morning with a personalized ticker that would include local weather and local traffic? In Southern California, wouldn't it be great if you could subscribe to the 5 Freeway/Orange County feed, or the 605 & 10 Freeways Los Angeles County feeds? Watch a national news show, but get a local news ticker? News could be even more specific. For us Copyfight junkies, why not Michael Geist's Internet Law News as an RSS feed you could read while watching Good Morning America? Sure, there wouldn't be a lot of content that could be sent in such a format, but it would alert you to stories you should probably check out later (or sooner, as the case may be).

If your feed is good enough, you might be able to get a minimum of advertising into the feed, or draw people to your website. I think the first news companies that jump on making this happen will make quite the splash. How embarrasing would it be for NBC News to know that that those watching the Today Show are getting a CNN news and weather RSS feed scrolling at the bottom of their screen?

Making RSSTV, RSS + BitTorrent and Broadcatching Real

Of course, once such a system is built out, it would be very natural and easy to add RSSTV ability to the mix. Once you can subscribe to an RSS news ticker feed, how much more difficult would it be to subscribe to "channel" feeds that tell your TiVo to record particular programs?

After that, the next obvious step is RSS + BitTorrent broadcatching. Heck, Homeland Security might want to have such a capability built into a "Emergency Broadcatching System." For example, it might be necessary to quickly disseminate multimedia that the local TiVo stores and records whether or not the television is receiving (or television stations are broadcasting). You never know when such a capability might come in handy.

Of course, once you have broadcatching built into every TiVo, ReplayTV and whatever it is that the Dish Network uses, whole new possibilities open up...

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Broadcatching/Podcasting | File Sharing | RSS | Security | Telecomm


1. John Bartley K7AAY on March 24, 2004 12:58 AM writes...

This idea could have legs.

Funding is available for pilot projects, especially in rural areas of high risk where cable ain't there... such as, oh say, Umatilla County in Oregon, just downwinds of a nerve gas depot... or equivalent locales in Utah and (IIRC) Alabama.

Yes, there's a WiFi cloud over much of Umatilla County (subsidized through DHS, strangely enough), but WiFi presumes significant geekage on the part of the residents. This is *rural* Oregon, folks, and it's chock full of DBS pizza pie dishes.

1. Identify high-risk areas with
a) crappy weather
b) external chem, industrial, bio and/or nuke hazards (could be as simple as a natural gas pipeline or a rail yard; one tanker truck of chlorine would be doubleplus undood for all the downwinders)
c) thin cable penetration and, therefore, excellent DBS adoption rates

2. Get a copy of the successful grant proposals from Umatilla County for their WiFi net

3. Find some locals who like the idea of dish-based early warning to front for you.

4. Hang out on the IAEM-LIST
and the WFHSG list
for emergency managers and radio folks, to get some idea of what went into other successful proposals to DHS.

5. Write a grant proposal to DHS.

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2. Andrew Grumet on March 26, 2004 02:10 PM writes...

Right on, Ernie. Let's give the boxes the ability to harness the full power of the Internet. The Tivo Control Station software provides some this is a non-systematized way, relying on scraping (more: Standardizing on RSS would go a long way to widen the offerings to which you could subscribe your box.

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