Posts Tagged ‘TiVo’

Everything Old Is New Again: Goodbye To The VCR

This past summer, the Funai Corporation of Japan decided to stop manufacturing videocassette recorders (VCRs) after several decades, citing their inability to source parts as the reason.

What’s that you say? You didn’t even know anyone was STILL making VCRs in 2016?

A reporter for the Washington Post was referred to me by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) for some pithy quotes about the demise of the VCR, which had its debut in the United States 40 years ago this past summer. Yes, the ½” videocassette format has been around for some time, with the most popular iteration being the VHS format developed by Japan Victor Corporation, better known as JVC.

Sony also had a ½” videocassette format for home use called Betamax, and in many ways, it was a better way to record and watch TVs shows along with movies. But Sony’s insistence at keeping Betamax a proprietary format (a la Apple with Mac OS and iOS) eventually doomed it.

In contrast, JVC licensed VHS to a long list of companies: Panasonic. Hitachi, Philips. RCA. Zenith. GE. Sharp. You name the CE company; they probably sold a VHS VCR at some point. And that had a lot to do with the success of the format, which soon migrated to consumer camcorders. There was even a short-lived digital version (D-VHS) for recording HD programs and playing back movies in HD, starting in the late 1990s. Blu-ray soon killed that off, though.

When you think about it, the VCR was really at the top (or bottom) of a family tree that leads directly to today’s streaming, on-demand video services. And here’s why – the VCR created the concept of time-shifting; recording a TV program so you could watch when you wanted to, not when CBS, ABC, or NBC said you could.

VCRs also gave us the ability to skip through commercials, pause, and rewind to watch a clip over and over again. Or the entire show, for that matter. After Hollywood lost the famous Sony vs. Universal Studios Supreme Court decision in early 1984 – which ruled that making recordings of TV shows for home viewing was considered “fair use” under copyright statutes – the floodgates opened.

Not long after, studios started making movies available on VHS and Betamax cassettes for sale. Enterprising individuals, noting the $90 and $100 price tags for movies on cassette, opened small video rental clubs. For having your credit card on file, you could rent a movie for $5 or $6, making sure to rewind it (or paying an extra fee) and returning it for another movie.

Hollywood studios weren’t happy with this turn of events until smarter heads realized the additional revenue stream could add millions to the bottom line. And so companies like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came into existence, happily raking in the cash as stacks of rental cassettes walked out the door every night.

The introduction of the DVD format almost 20 years ago (yes, it HAS been that long!) posed an immediate threat to the VHS format. (Betamax had long since folded its tent and left town.) Now, you didn’t need to rewind anything, and there was no annoying, blinking “12:00” indicator staring at you the entire time.

Bet of all, you could now jump through chapters of a movie by looking at I-frames. Fast forward, pause, and reverse were still available, but in theory, an optical disc would long outlast a VHS tape. It didn’t take long before video rental stores started replacing VHS tapes with DVDs, and by 2005, it was almost impossible to find a movie on VHS.

That was the first year that DVD sales began to decline, although rentals held their own for a few more years. Looming on the horizon were two new HD optical disc formats – HD DVD and Blu-ray – and Hollywood was giddy anticipating wheelbarrows of cash coming in. (True fact: The first Austin Powers movie was largely ignored at the box office and made most of its money through DVD rentals and purchases.)

But there was a fly in the ointment. About 7 years earlier, a company called TiVo unveiled something called the digital video recorder, or DVR. This gadget would let you record analog broadcast and cable TV programs to a hard drive – no tape or disc needed. TiVo sold a subscription program guide service, which is where they made most of their money. I had one of the first Philips-made TiVo units (14-hour capacity) and bought a lifetime subscription for $99 back in 1999, using a dial-up connection to refresh the program guide.

So now we could record a TV program, skip the commercials; fast-forward, pause and rewind, and simply delete the file when we were done. “Did you TiVo Letterman last night?” soon became water cooler talk. Along the way, we had obviated the need for any kind of recording media – tape or disc – in favor of solid-state storage.

A year after DVD sales started their decline, I bought one of TiVo’s first HD DVRs. It accepted CableCARDs, so it would work with Comcast. And it had dual DVRs (Wow!) so I could record two programs at once. It was big and noisy, but it served me well for 9 years.

Along the way, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Dish Network, Verizon, and DirecTV came out with their own DVRs, some of which could record 4 or more shows at once. Now, you could record movies in high definition and watch them at your pleasure on your brand-new big-screen plasma or LCD TV.

And that brings us to the present day. Hollywood Video is long gone, and Blockbuster is bankrupt; its assets bought by Dish Network. The Blu-ray format, having vanquished HD DVD, isn’t the cash cow that Hollywood anticipated as more and more video and movies are watched via ever-faster streaming connections. DVD players – once selling for $1,000 – can be found for $19.99. And Blu-ray players with WiFi are widely available for about $50 – $70.

Netflix has now evolved into a streaming media monster, as has Amazon. YouTube, a pioneer in streaming shared videos, now offers a “red” premium tier, free of commercials. HBO and Showtime, along with ABC and CBS, have started subscription streaming services that can be purchased without a cable or satellite subscription. Episodic TV series are being produced for streaming channels and they’re not scrimping on production values.

So we’ve come full circle. My Comcast Xfinity set-top box is a DVR, but it streams channels from a cloud server, not from an internal hard drive. My contacts at Comcast tell me we’re not far from the day when there won’t be any set-top (or sidecar) receivers at all – your smart Ultra HDTV with WiFi will do all the heavy lifting. (After all, smart TVs are basically computers with big display screens these days.)

Today, you can go quite happily through life without having to wind a tape or load a disc in order to watch HDTV.  And that’s exactly the way things were forty years ago. Weird, right? Except you now have hundreds of channels to choose from; all of which can be streamed on-demand depending on the service you subscribe to.

Time-shifting. Commercial skipping. DVDs. Blu-ray. DVRs. Chapter searches. Video streaming. All of these grew directly out of that first VHS VCR that was sold 40 years ago.

And all you need to watch it is a smart TV and a remote. Everything old is indeed new again…

 

 

 

 

Stuffing Your Brain With Video

A recent poll conducted by the Harris organization revealed that 81% of respondents engage in “binge viewing” on a regular basis – that is, watching two or more episodes of a TV program in a single sitting.

The survey, conducted in mid-March on behalf of Comcast, included over 2,000 adults nationwide and 200 viewers in each of the top ten media markets. Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. had the highest number of binge viewers among respondents (88%), according to a story on the Home Media web site.

Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston also placed well above 80%, with half of the Los Angeles respondents saying they “binge view” at least once a week. Typically, a viewer decides to check out a new series via pay TV on-demand or streaming from Netflix or Hulu, and settles down in a comfortable chair with food and drink.

I’ve engaged in binging in the past. After CBS began running older episodes of Dexter on late-night TV during the writer’s guild strike a few years back, I got hooked on the show and downloaded Season 2 in SD to my TiVo HD DVR. I followed that with a download of Season 3 in HD, and then began watching on a regular basis via Showtime.

My wife and I would knock off two or three episodes at a time, for that was as long as we could remain seated comfortably. (Dexter episodes, like other premium channel series, usually run about 50 – 52 minutes each without commercials.)

Binge viewing is actually nothing new. The major broadcast TV networks used to run miniseries programming on a regular basis, playing out all episodes of a program during the course of a week. Roots started it all back in 1977, but the difference then was the absence of DVRs – you couldn’t skip the commercials. Miniseries programming ran its course in the 1980s and was largely gone by the end of the 1990s.

To binge view, you need a Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon Prime account, and an Internet streaming connection (Roku, Apple TV, etc.) or a DVR connected to your pay TV service. And in recent years, we’ve seen DVRs become increasingly powerful: TiVo’s Roamio Plus system has six channels of recording and you can add TiVo Mini satellite terminals to record and watch in different rooms – each Mini takes over one of the DVRs and uses Wi-Fi to stream the program.

Many of us wonder (and rightly so) why we’d want to record six programs at once in the first place. With my circa-2006 TiVo, I can record two shows at once and if need be, use my TV’s antenna to watch a third. But there have been a few times when a third DVR would have been really handy.

Apparently, I’m a piker. Verizon just announced it will roll out a set-top box with the ability to record 12 shows at once, offering enough storage capacity for 200 hours of HD programming. (A good rule of thumb for determining DVR capacity is about 8 – 9 GB per hour for HD programs, so I’m guessing the solid state/hard drives used in the Verizon box, manufactured by Arris, have a maximum capacity of 2 terabytes.)

Memory is cheap. You can pick up 32 GB micro flash cards for about $16 these days and a quick check online shows 256 GB flash drives selling for less that $200 at Amazon. So that 2 TB drive doesn’t add an awful lot to the cost of the new Verizon set-top box. Until Verizon’s announcement, Cablevision customers had bragging rights for the “monster truck” of DVRs, with the ability to record ten channels at once.

Even so, you can pile up programs in a hurry this way, creating a formidable list of time-shifted programs that you may never get to. (We don’t always watch everything we record.) A study conducted by Motorola Mobility (now owned by Arris) one year ago revealed that at least 41% of the programs we record are never watched – yet we continue to schedule recordings and pile up TV shows in our DVRs and complain about not having enough recording space.

All of this begs the question: Why not just stream the programs when you want, and skip the recording process altogether? For binge viewing, this approach seems to make more sense, particularly since you can access a video stream from any platform – TV, phone, computer, or tablet.

The devil in the details is bandwidth. We never seem to have enough of it, and it is costly to expand. During my booth visits at the NAB Show next week, I’ll be paying particular attention to demonstrations of the new HEVC H.265 codec. H.265 promises to slices bit rates by half for any video content, meaning it should be possible to stream 1080p video at data rates in the range of 3 – 4 megabits per second (Mb/s), with 720p streams requiring as little as 1 – 2 Mb/s.

If H.265 really takes off (it’s already supported in some 2014 models of televisions), the balance could be tipped back towards streaming from cloud storage and away from DVRs – that is, if there is a way to retain the commercial-skipping feature that viewers love so much and which you can’t use with most Internet streams.

Perhaps the future model is an online cloud with a monthly subscription that lets you watch shows when you want, anywhere you want, commercial-free. (Oh wait, we’ve got that already – it’s called Netflix…)

Attention, All Cord-Cutters!

At the September 14 Pepcom table-top show (dubbed the ‘Parisian Holiday Spectacular’ show, as so many gadgets were being pushed for gift-wrapping under the tree), Channel Master showed something that ought to bring a smile to every cord-cutter’s face: A dual DVR for digital terrestrial television.

 

Not only that, this same product also supports Vudu streaming and Vudu apps, in case you’re jonesing for a movie and don’t want to mess with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. It’s called Channel Master TV, and it will start shipping in mid-October. (Yes, I’ve already asked for a review unit. C’est si bon!)

 

You can find out all of the details about this new product by clicking here (the dedicated Channel Master TV Web site still was not up and running at the time I wrote this), or you can read on.

It's smaller than a TiVo Premiere. Dig those three WiFi antennas!

Channel Master’s big selling point for this dual-DVR box is that there are NO monthly subscription fees required. Well, that’s not exactly true: If you are content to rely on the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data transmitted by each station – correctly or not – then you don’t need additional program guide data.

 

But if you want to program recordings more than 14 days out, you’ll want to add CM’s optional enhanced program guide service, for which no firm price was stated at the event. Both basic PSIP and day/time scheduling can be used to record DTV programs.

 

And you’ll have plenty of space to record. The CM TV box comes with a 320 GB hard disk drive, which ought to be sufficient for up to 35 hours of HDTV programs and about 150 hours of SD programs. Like TiVo’s HD and Premier DVRs, you can watch one program while recording another, or playback a program while recording two others.

Mira esto! Una telenovela de WXTV-HD!

Vudu movies are generally pay-as-you-go, so there’s no monthly subscription fee. And the supported apps include Pandora, MTV News, Discovery, Twitter, Facebook, AP, and The New York Times, among others.

 

From a technical perspective, CM TV interfaces to your existing HDTV either through an HDMI connection or component video outputs. You can set the video output of the box to 1080p/30, 1080p/24, 1080i/30, or 720p/60. (Sorry, no support for 1080p/60 yet. I did ask…)

 

There’s also a discrete optical digital audio (Dolby AC-3, Dolby 5.1) connection for a separate AV receiver, along with wireless (802.11n) and wired Ethernet connectivity for Vudu access and Vudu Apps, a USB port for viewing photos and videos from a flash drive, and an eSATA connection for an external expansion hard drive.

 

Technically speaking, CM TV will also receive ‘in the clear’ digital cable broadcasts, but you won’t receive any program guide data as cable systems use a different implementation of PSIP.

Scanning for active DTV channels can take a while, as all of the PSIP information is read and stored.

And the price for all of this wonderfulness? Why, just $399. That is a substantial premium over the latest TiVo boxes, but then again, you won’t be paying $12.99 a month for program guide information. (Mark my words, the price on this box will drop below $300 by December. There’s a big psychological difference between $299 and $399 to the average consumer.)

 

So if you’ve been seriously thinking about dumping your digital cable channel package and relying on broadband video and free, over-the-air HDTV, your days of waiting are over. Now you have the missing piece of the puzzle – a dual DVR with a nice electronic program guide GUI (and it is VERY nice and user-friendly.)

 

Watch your local brick-and-mortar store for the first shipments in mid-October. You can also buy the box directly from Channel Master, and I suspect it will also be available from major Web outlets like Amazon.

Made For Each Other

Today at the annual CEDIA Expo trade show in Indianapolis, Antennas Direct and TiVo announced a special promotion that bundles the former’s ClearStream 2 UHF figure-8 antenna with the latter’s TiVo Premiere. Individually, the two items would sell for about $200. But the package will retail for just $99 at Best Buy through October 2.

The press release quoted Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct, as saying, “Most consumers are still unaware that HDTV is free, and that TiVo DVRs contain a DTV tuner, allowing that free HDTV broadcast to be viewed and recorded. When paired with a digital antenna, TiVo is the multichannel provider of the 21st century, integrating broadband and over-the-air digital content at a fraction of the cost of cable.”

 

You have to wonder who is getting the better of this deal. It’s possible that TiVo has a pile of unsold Premieres sitting in their warehouse, and figures that this could be a way to clear out some of that stock. After all, TiVo makes its money off the per-month subscriber fees, although it’s hard to imagine someone who wants to cut costs agreeing to pay $9.95 per month to get program guide information and a dual DVR. (TiVo still offers a lifetime subscription for $299, which you’d hit in about 30 months at the current rate.)

 

Best Buy can’t be making a lot of money on the deal, either – not at $100 for that much hardware. That is, unless they are also offering some sort of antenna installation add-on package? As for Antennas Direct, there is a tremendous mark-up on antennas, so they can still make some nice pocket change on this package if they move enough product.

 

The interesting thing about this promotion is that it only runs through October 2nd. If I were in charge, I’d run it through the rest of the year, or at least as long as the NFL season lasts. We all know that football is a big driver of big screen TV purchases, and the possibility of being able to record two games at once is a strong incentive to pick up a TiVo.

 

If you live in an area where you can pick up more than one TV market, you could have a choice of several games to record – an even bigger incentive. I’m able to watch both New York City and Philadelphia HDTV broadcasts of CBS games, and if it wasn’t for the unfortunate co-channel assignment of infomercial TV channel WMCN to UHF 44 in south Jersey, I’d be able to get both Fox channels, too.

 

Given the current mental state of the FCC, free over-the-air HDTV needs all the promotion it can get. The press release claims that more than 46 million households use antennas to watch TV, an increase of about 10% from a year ago. That number needs to be a lot higher for true critical mass, but it’s a start. And my hat’s off to Antennas Direct, Best Buy, and TiVo for promoting something of real value to today’s financially-stressed consumers.

 

Who Wins In The New Media Landscape?

The past few weeks have been mostly a blur for me, what with trips to and presentations at the annual Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat the week of February 14, plus presentations to the Delaware Valley chapter of SCTE last Wednesday (my annual CES recap) and the New York City chapter of SMPTE last Thursday (plasma and OLEDs as candidates for reference monitor technologies).

Through it all, I’ve been staying on top of a blizzard of news stories and press releases pertaining to media distribution (over the top, or OTT), the continued decline in packaged media sales and rentals, a new streaming service from Redbox (presumably with Amazon) and a new 3D channel from Comcast.

If you’re not tracking this brave new world of media distribution and consumption on a daily basis, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changes. At the Tech Retreat, we had an interesting breakfast roundtable discussion on 3D in the home, and whether it was a flop, partially successful, or had any real future.

That discussion also turned to the relative scarcity of 3D movies, which in turn brought up a comment from one of the participants (Ethan Schur of TDVision) as to why more studios didn’t remaster more of their older 3D movie titles into the Blu-ray format.

The reply, as worded by participant Wade Hannibal of NBC Universal, is that the cost to do those remasters probably wouldn’t be justified by Blu-ray disc sales, let alone rentals. Similar comments were offered after we watched a beautiful restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove on Thursday evening. Kudos to everyone involved, but how would Sony Pictures possibly recover its investment, instead of charging it off as goodwill against taxable income?

The fact is; Hollywood does not like streaming at all. At least, not the way Netflix practices it. The revenue stream isn’t substantial enough to replace the lost income from DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals. But with Netflix now boasting in excess of 20 million subscribers (second only to Comcast) and Blockbuster in Chapter 11 – and possible Chapter 7 bankruptcy – the studios are rapidly losing all of the high-value outlets they once had for selling movies and TV shows.

Along with Jerry Pierce, I moderated a panel discussion at HPA on over-the-top (OTT) video. Panel participants included Dan Holden of Comcast, Jeff Cove of Panasonic, and Dani Grindlinger of TiVo, and the discussions were lively. Is OTT video a real threat to traditional pay TV channel subscriptions? Comcast’s Q4 2010 financial results, released during the conference, would seem to indicate ‘no’ as they only lost about 135,000 subscribers during that time period.

TiVo has made some nice gains with Charter Communications, who will offer their Premiere series of DVRs to customers for traditional pay TV service. But TiVo also supports Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet video channels that could compete with Charter’s bread-and-butter services. Is this tantamount to letting the fox into the chicken coop and hoping he’ll stay honest?

Panasonic, who was among the leaders in pushing 3D last year, now has a Viera tablet PC and their TVs offer a wide range of connected (OTT) services, including Netflix (who else?), Pandora, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, MLB.com and NHL.com. But they’ve also opted for a proprietary ‘apps’ platform, which means that app developers have yet another proprietary format to deal with.

The one company missing from our discussion was (of course) Netflix. Their business lately can best be described as “a house on fire,” and with their stock price in the mid-$200s per share, they don’t need to explain themselves to anyone.

But there will be pushback against the big red N. And that will come with higher rights fees in future licensing agreements from the likes of Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, et al not to mention major TV networks. It’s been pretty much conceded that packaged media (for better or worse) is on the way out, and that digital downloads and streaming are what the marketplace wants.

So the big question is how to make any money from it. Believe me, studios are very concerned about future revenue streams, which is why some of them are also discussing a shorter exclusivity window with movie theaters before popular movie titles would be available on pay-per-view (probably for $29.95 or $39.95), a proposal that is being roundly criticized by the North American Theater Owners (NATO) group.

The so-called 28-day reserve period that protects Blockbuster against Netflix and Redbox may also have to go out the window. The latest news from ‘the Block” is that it may shed as many as 600 stores, and that even a move to a streaming model isn’t going to save their chestnuts as studios sue to get millions of dollars back in unsold DVDs and Blu-rays.

However all of this turns out, there will be casualties. Blockbuster looks to be cooked and I don’t see anyone else looking to get into the brick-and-mortar DVD rental/sale model. What DVD/BD sales there are will be handled by the likes of Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and even my local Acme market (which had a 3’ x 3’ bin full of $9 DVDs in the candy aisle last week, including recent titles like Kick-Ass).

Netflix will likely pass Comcast in total subscribers by June of this year; maybe sooner (they added 3 million subscribers in Q4 of 2010). Redbox should have its movie streaming service up and running by then, and they may soon be joined by none other than YouTube. What kinds of deals will Hollywood ink with these companies?

One of the great ironies of all this is that Blu-ray player sales are picking up speed as their prices continue to drop. But anecdotal evidence so far is that consumers are buying BD players mostly for Netflix streaming – it’s cheaper than buying a new TV to gain Internet connectivity, and you can always play the occasional DVD or Blu-ray disc if you need to. (And I know where you can find some really good deals on cheap Blu-ray discs, over by the detergent, paper towels, napkins, and household items aisle…)