IceTV's Troubled Ad-Skipping Set-Top Box May Be Its Downfall

The Australian company that fought and won a landmark legal battle against the Nine Network is in financial trouble, after seemingly over-promising on a revolutionary device that would let customers watch catch-up TV without ads.

After its supplier ceased trading, subscription electronic program guide service IceTV has been placed into voluntary administration with cashflow problems — the most recent step in what customers say is a "disaster" launch of the Skippa, a digital TV recorder that attempted to skip ads during free-to-air television programs.

Disclosure: Campbell Simpson worked for IceTV in 2007-2008, in technical support over phone and email.

IceTV was registered as a business in early 2005, and for years its primary offering was the Ice electronic program guide, a subscription service delivered over the internet to a range of supported digital TV recorders. The Ice EPG was (and is) an independently curated electronic program guide for Australia's free-to-air digital TV services, started when digital TV was in its infancy in Australia — and when free-to-air TV didn't even have an EPG.

From 2006 to 2009, IceTV was embroiled in a long and drawn-out legal battle with Nine Entertainment over its guide, but after verdict and appeal and counter-appeal, IceTV won a landmark judgment. After the 2009 verdict IceTV continued to offer its subscription EPG, priced around $99 per year before loyalty discounts, and continued development on new features and support for new digital TV recorders — as well as developing its own device.

The IceTV Skippa

In early April this year, IceTV announced the Skippa, a set-top box it had apparently designed in-house and programmed to automatically skip ads in recordings of free-to-air digital TV. Early previews said the Skippa had potential, saying that AutoSkip was "surprisingly good but not foolproof". Processing a single recording at a time, it scanned recorded files for video and audio cues that signified the start of ad-breaks and effectively cut them out of viewer playback by autonomously skipping them. The AutoSkip feature that gave the Skippa its name seemingly did its job, but it was delivering the initial run of devices proved to be an issue.

The initial shipping of 1000 devices was initially promised in July, but in late July subscribers were told by email that deliveries had slipped to August due to "greater than expected demand". Pre-order customer Michael Fox created a timeline of IceTV's announcements, including the point at which pre-orders slipped to late August and when IceTV added a $39 yearly fee to the AutoSkip feature despite previously promising "no annual fees ever". It later backflipped again, stating the feature would be free to all Skippa pre-order holders for the life of their devices.

In mid-September, IceTV's CEO Heinz Herrmann emailed customers to claim that that mass production of the Skippa box was on schedule, saying it was fulfilling the earliest pre­orders. "About half of the pre­ordered Skippa volume arrives in Sydney by air freight over the weekend, with the remainder not far behind." The small number of customers on Whirlpool that received their Skippa set-top box pre-orders in late September shared their unhappiness at the device's shortcomings including random rebooting, no HDMI-CEC support and software that froze during initial setup.

The consensus was that the Skippa was possibly too expensive for its limited and imperfect feature-set. When some buyers enquired about potential refunds from IceTV, they were told they would have to wait days or weeks for replacement devices or reimbursement.

IceTV In Administration

Yesterday, IceTV customers and Skippa pre-order holders received an email to say that the company had been placed into voluntary administration. In it, administrators TPH Insolvency say that an "urgent assessment" of IceTV finances is underway, and although business apparently continues as normal, the company is intended to be sold to any interested party as soon as possible.

If that doesn't happen, IceTV will likely become insolvent: "If a purchaser is unable to be found within the immediate future it is highly likely that the Company will be unable to continue trading." Unsecured creditors — including IceTV EPG subscribers and Skippa orders — are unable to access refunds for their unworking or as-yet-undelivered devices.

The email stood at odds with an email sent only days earlier, saying that Skippa deliveries were on schedule and that enough devices were on hand to fulfil customers' orders: "We're pleased to confirm that our backlog of Skippa orders has finally been cleared. Australia Post will be sending tracking numbers on Tuesday due to the long weekend in New South Wales. We've had some unexpected delays, both in the factory and with the current strike at Customs. But we have plenty of supply now in our warehouse to fulfill every order." In the letter from TPH, IceTV apparently only has $15,000 in liquid funds in its bank account, with TPH's own fees set at $45,000 plus $580 per hour in administration fees.

Customers are understandably unhappy. An early commenter on IceTV's forum: "I knew this was a fucking scam." Another: "I should have cancelled months ago, they seemed to be trying to bump more sales without suggesting [pre-orders] never reached 1000". The Skippa itself was described by one commenter as "a second rate unit at best, with a fuck-tonne of problems". Some are initiating charge-backs through Paypal and their credit card companies.

In a statement to the SMH, IceTV company director Colin O'Brien said the matter was larger than just IceTV: "The company providing the Skippa box ceased trading at midnight on September 30... as the director I reached an impasse with our supplier where I had no choice but to put the company into administration. Everyone at IceTV is gutted, [and] the staff have agreed to work for another week to try to find a solution."

Despite the September 30 halt for Skippa provider UEC, the IceTV email on October 2 showed the company still confident of customers receiving devices. TPH Insolvency's Amanda Lott also told SMH that the Skippa's manufacturer changed its payment terms with IceTV after ceasing trading, and the new proposal was untenable, forcing IceTV into administration without the operating cashflow to survive and meet its changed obligations to the supplier. The Skippa set-top boxes already in Australia are, at the moment, not scheduled for delivery to customers.

What Next For IceTV

Customers are also speculating that IceTV has been unable to sell the initial 1000-unit order of Skippa set-top boxes, leaving them with a significant financial obligation to supplier Altech UEC, the Australian company organising Chinese production of the PVR — itself now having ceased trading.

As it stands, no new Skippas are reaching customers, and no refunds are being processed. Dozens of pre-order holders on Whirlpool and the IceTV website are utterly shocked and disappointed — a stark change for a company that until now enjoyed strong support from the enthusiast community and maintained a friendly, we're-all-in-it-together atmosphere in its forums.

A meeting of creditors is scheduled for October 16. A second meeting on the future of IceTV will be made at a second meeting of creditors, some time before 2 November. For now, the supply of IceTV's primary service — the electronic program guide delivered over the internet to thousands of subscribers, who use it on their personal video recorders and set-top boxes — continues as normal.

Update:

TPH Insolvency says that the IceTV business continues to exist in its normal state for the time being, apart from the hold of shipping on Skippa boxes. With 10 staff and approximately 16,500 customers, IceTV has a long list of unsecured creditors to pay if it moves into insolvency. "The first steps are to keep the service going whilst we seek expressions of interest in the business. The service will continue as normal for the moment however that is subject to the prospects of finding a buyer in the immediate future.

"All orders for Skippa boxes have currently been put on hold given the uncertain future of the company. There is a hold on all supplies on new boxes and new subscribers. At this stage customers who have an outstanding order for the supply of a Skippa Box and suppliers are being considered as unsecured creditors. All creditors will be treated in accordance with the priorities legislated in the Corporations Act.

"We have not had an opportunity to investigate the basis for the company’s financial position or any specific aspect of it. We will be reporting more fully to creditors on this aspect once we have done our statutory review. The report will be released in approximately 5 weeks."

Gizmodo has contacted IceTV's CEO Heinz Herrmann, for comment. [IceTV]


Comments

    Ice TV was doomed the minute OTA broadcasts started to include the EPG. At that point they should have just cut their losses and ceased operating in that space. Instead, they have pushed on and died a slow, ugly, painful death.

    Just my 2c worth (I used to subscribe to IceTV guide before the OTA EPG).

      I and most ICE TV users would disagree. The free OTA EPG, and the specific Freeview one still had a lot if limitations, or no real control in recordings. No benefit of EPG and recording control from an app or computer. Skippa, well that is a different story.

        Well I respectfully disagree. My htpc has been using the OTA EPG for years now and I have zero issues recording anything. I honestly don't know what you're talking about.

        I think the limitations you are describing are more related to limitations of your device, not the EPG. I migrated away from MCE to mediaportal/kodi when windows 10 came out and it can schedule recordings (and watch the recordings) from basically anywhere.

        I have even recently purchased an Android 5 tv box (bit like Apple TV), which allows access to the recordings/tuner via Kodi on a little plugin applicance.

          Limitations partly the device, I am more referring to PVRs instead of HTPCs which always allow more control but scare most people. A couple of things that have caught out most using the standard EPG is repeats not being flagged at all by most stations, so you end up recording repeats you when you don;t want them. The other is wording of special events, usually sporting events that prevent a program form being recorded. AFL was a classic, many people would have a series recorders set for the AFL and them miss the Grand Final because they worded it differently. I know even Tivo had this problem too.
          The advantage of ICE, and what you;re paying for is to have people actually curate the data, flag things correctly, so every repeat is a marked as such, and realise that an oddly named event is actually part of a series they add it to it.

          Check out HD Homerun, it sounds like something that may interest you - https://www.silicondust.com/. Integrates into Kodi, if you have a Nexus Player or Nvidia Shield then they will have Android 6.0 soon and that includes mpeg 2 hardware decoding. The NP has 6.0 available now, Google just need to push it.

            Yeah I've seen them. My quad tuner htpc will be used until it dies. Can't justify replacing it until that happens. Also can do lots more other stuff with a keyboard/mouse on htpc.

            Looks cool though if starting from scratch.

            Last edited 08/10/15 3:13 pm

          I have been an ICETV subscriber for 5 years or more - the benits over the originally non existant EPG, and current anemic EPG are:

          1. Details! Each show has more detail accessible, actors, previous screenings, blurb and Rotten Tomatoes links etc
          2. Online programming, smart phone app, click on you show to record where ever you are etc
          3. Recording by phrase, I can set Ice TV to record anything with 'truck' or "V8" in the title, or simply record all "movies" etc, then sift through a delete what I don't want etc
          4. If a broadcast time changes, so does the recording.
          5. If a series is cancelled, or moved to a new time slot, or returns 6 months alter it picks up recording right where it left off.

          That's just to name a few, what really is its downfall (for me) is Netflix and similar, I don't watch FTA any more. Its all online streaming.

            All of which can be done on a htpc. But I take the point that PVR boxes often don't.

      Except that the free OTA EPG is frequently wrong. When programs run overtime, it's not updated in real time for example, like the Fetch TV EPG is.

      I have considered icetv subscription before, but $100 a year is a lot to pay, so I never subscribed. What a shame about those who ordered set top boxes (i had also considered buying this, but went for fetch TV instead) and those 10 staff who probably aren't getting paid at the moment.

    I'd rather record the whole program than trust anything that "intelligently" skips ads, because it's bound to fail at the exact moment you don't want it to. When recording on Foxtel I generally record the next program as well because things love to run overtime and you can miss out on the last 2-5 mins of an episode.

    Mix that with having another device humping my TV area.... AND paying over $500 for it.... was destined to fail in my eyes, shonky idea at best.

      It does/did record the entire program, plus any padding you set. The auto skip software was activated after the recording to scan and set skip points at the ads. This process takes as long as the recording is.

        Ok so it records an hour long program and keeps it at an hour.
        It then runs through and identifies 'ads' and sets bookmarks
        When you play the file it will go off of the bookmarks
        If the bookmark is off then you can manually RW or FF?

        If so, then that's kinda cool.... def not $500 worth of cool, lol. You can get any old recorder for much much cheaper.

          Something like that, although you could at any time chose to skip or FF & RW as per normal PVR or take over control and disable it's skipping feature. 100% not worth $500, but you weren't paying $500 for this feature alone, you were buying a PVR. It was supposed to be a good (early specs were great) PVR with a unique feature.

            Yeah that makes sense.

            I guess for me personally, I hate the idea of another dedicated unit (especially at $500).

            A few options I would do in order
            - Cheap ebay ones from $80-150
            - Samsung PVRs are in the $300 realm
            - I don't own a great Amp, but I might explore the option of decent/expensive amp with PVR capabilities
            - Already have xbox one hooked up, would look for a PVR option there (if it exists)
            - Already have PC hooked up, would look fro a PVR option there

            I get that every household has different configurations of devices, but I'm still baffled as to why these guys think that people would pay $500+ for a device which is already being sold by bigger, reputable* brand names for cheaper. It just seems like it was destined to fail.

            *Reputable doesn't mean quality, it means you can walk back into HN or JB and demand a replacement/refund with minimal hassle.

              PVR capabilities have been confirmed for Xbox One.

              I think they'll come in with the November system update. At present you can pause/rewind 5 minutes of live TV, as it's caching the feed on the HDD.

              I got one of the XB TV tuners as it was relatively inexpensive - but currently have it unplugged, in favor of a second external HDD as I just wasn't using it enough. It was better/easier to navigate than most STB's or built in digital tuners I've used - but I have a TV for TV and a TV for gaming, as I often do a bit of both simultaneously. I'll have a look at it again when the update hits.

              You get what you pay for. The big thing, regardless of issues form cheap ebay ones, or poorly speced major brands ones is that the ICE TV service, not the auto skip, is a major feature that will dictate to thousands of us if we would buy it. IE, if it is not ICE TV compatible, it is not even worth considered buying. Freeview is restrictive, no skipping possible, only fast forward, and that is not acceptable.

      I use the fetch tv box for all FTA recordings. It's far more reliable than the foxtel box (and i'm on satellite in SA anyway so my foxtel FTA offering is restricted to ABC/SBS).

        Got a Fetch last week when I cancelled my Skippa...have been very happy with Fetch...has its own EPG which works great, WAY better than FTA EPG

    I truly hope a miracle is pulled from someone's ass and the company survives. All the best to the staff affected by this. Heinz, you can [removed -- Cam] for taking the company into this position. Odd comment really as it was him who got it to be a company I greatly respected.

    Best of luck to all of those that paid and have no hardware. I still have over 5 years on my ICE sub, good luck to me in being able to use it should I decide to actually watch locally broadcast TV again.

    Campbell, I did still have a little more bitch in me.

      Heinz Herrmann was only the last CEO in a line up going back 10+ years. All the goodwill the company had was generated by his predecessors. He worked hard at undoing that. Great job too!

    I reckon the easiest way would be to have a connected device, and bunch of employees in a cheap country with fast internet.

    Stream the channels over to them and have them set points for when commercials start and finish.

    There is only a dozen or so FTA channels to monitor which is all they can target really as Foxtel requires proprietor hardware.

    Then when you record something the box contacts the cloud and says "hey I just/am recording this, let me know what minutes/seconds the ads are". As long the time on the device is synced to the servers, then I can't see any technical limitations.

    The expensive bit would be paying the people to sit in front of a screen all day clicking when they see the ads start and stop. But as I said that could be resolved with labour from a second world country.

    This would make the box actually do what it says on the tin, and $500 for a PVR with a few TB of storage and an ad skipping feature that actually worked 100% of the time, is not really a big ask.

    Last edited 08/10/15 11:53 am

      Yeah I thought about that as well.

      You'd need to balance staff cost with subscription fees and hope that it all balances, economy of scale etc etc.

      Imagine a couple of dudes chilling back in Bali just watching TV for $10 a day haha, so funny.

        Making people watch all the free-to-air Australian television would see you charged with human rights offences.

          Well that's true, I certainly wouldn't take the job. Perhaps they could hire whoever currently watches day time TV. They do the same thing anyway but get paid for it!

      If you had an ad-skip service targeting foxtel they would sue you into non-existence.

      Plus if that new venture was successful, Channel 10 would fold and go bankrupt, since a good slice of revenue at the moment is with the company that sells ads to foxtel. That's why foxtel have bought up on 10 shares.

    Pity, i love my Beyonwiz with ICETV. I have no interest in teh Skippa, but i hope the ICE-TV service is resumed soon

      the article says it's business as usual for the EPG service and it should be working right now.

    Almost bought one of these but the Beyonwiz T4 came out, so I cancelled and bought the T4 instead. Unfortunately, I have about two years worth of IceTV subscriptions, so I hope they sort this shit out because the Free to air EPG sucks balls.

    Best outcome in my opinion will be someone buys the EPG and associated software assets (apps, etc) on the cheap and starts again. Skippa is dead and anyone with an existing subscription will lose it I reckon.

    I stopped using Ice a few years ago after some appalling customer service and actually found my Toppy became more stable. I've learned to live with the limitations on the FTA EPG (plenty of padding) and Intelligent Record actually works ok.

    Pretty sad day for all the people impacted, both at Ice and customers who will be out of pocket.

    Any other dvrs out there that you can record from remotely ( iPhone app etc ) and record transfer from there onto ext hard drive ( then into computer, onto iPad using HD PRO, VLC, type apps ?

    I was lucky to have received mine. I was in the first shipment. The thing is full of bugs. It runs really hot. So hot I can't touch it and that's in standby mode. The three tuners are chewing up all my signal, so I can't watch TV (although my TiVo still gets a signal). It was a waste of money. Luckily, I got in early while they were still cheap, so my losses aren't as bad as others.

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