Posts Tagged ‘TiVo’

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…)

Google TV: Oops! Never Mind…

In a story reported by the New York Times, Google has asked TV manufacturing partners Toshiba, Sharp, and LG to hold off on introducing any new Google TV products at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show.

The official reason is that Google needs more time to refine the software. The real reason may be the lackluster reception that Google TV has gotten so far from consumers. The first sets to launch with Google TV were Sony Bravia TVs, back in October.

If any readers walked the aisles of Best Buy recently, you probably noticed the Google TV kiosk that featured an incredibly complex remote control – one that outdid Rubik’s Cube in complexity. The Sony Google TV remote featured two mouse disks and dozens of tiny alphanumeric keys, and was a sure turn-off for those viewers used to one-button navigation to Netflix and YouTube.

It's just like a smart phone keyboard...only vastly more complex...

In fact, the question now is whether there is any real interest in using a video engine as part of a NeTV – or if consumers are happy with icons or apps that take them directly to Hulu, Netflix, or other content sources.

To make matters worse, major TV networks including CBS, NBC, and ABC are blocking their online programming from Google TV, as is Hulu. Given that the top-rated TV shows are carried by these “old school” networks – as is the current #1 time-shifted show, The Office – that’s not good news for early adopters.

Logitech’s Google TV set-top box has also met with indifference and disdain. According to the Times story, 38% of reviewers on Amazon.com gave the Logitech Google TV receiver three stars or less, and 19% gave it just a solitary star. Not good!

Does this mean consumers don’t like the idea of NeTVs? Not at all. What they DO seem to prefer is a limited number of directed channel apps for the most popular content providers, and not another Web TV-approach to merging computer and TV viewing…something that is akin to mixing oil and water.

Don’t bet against Google, though. They’ll eventually figure out what consumers want and don’t want. The question is; can they compete against the amazingly user-friendly TiVo interface and the ‘directed apps’ approach of companies like Samsung (also a Google TV partner)?

And is Google TV destined for success, or will it go the way of Web TV? (Challenge: Do any readers even know what happened to Web TV? It’s still around, although under a vastly different name…)

Hmmm…A New Blu-Ray Player. Why Not?

The Blu-ray format has struggled for several years to gain the wide acceptance accorded to its lower-resolution sibling. Even though the latest market figures show Blu-ray player penetration at nearly 20% of U.S. households, packaged media rental and sales continue to decline (they’re down about 7% Y-Y), and Blu-ray disc sales and rentals are not sufficient to make up the difference.

There’s no question that the format war with HD DVD was a major setback. (China is now using a version of HD DVD as its de facto blue laser DVD format.) But the biggest problem Blu-ray had was bad timing – the world is slowly moving away from packaged media to digital downloads and streaming.

The high cost of players and discs didn’t help, either, and in fact may have hastened the move towards digital file capture. In a conversation with a Disney executive a few years ago (right after Warner Brothers pulled the plug on HD DVD), he stated that the easiest way to make sure Blu-ray caught on was to stop pressing red laser DVDs and stop manufacturing red laser DVD players.

Time marches on. Blu-ray prices have plummeted for both the players and discs. In fact, you can buy the four-disc Toy Story 3 set from Amazon.com for $24.99 right now, and wind up with the main feature in the BD format, a BD extras disc, a red laser DVD, and a digital copy. That’s an amazingly low price on a supposedly ‘hot’ new BD release.

So, why did I decide to buy a new player? For starters, they are dirt cheap right now, and getting cheaper by the day. I paid $180 for my Panasonic DMP-DB85  through B&H Video, a price that was matched by Amazon.com. And that included free shipping via UPS Ground, which usually means overnight for me for anything coming from B&H.

Secondly, I wanted a player that would work with the CEC interface on my Panasonic TH-42PZ80U plasma. One-touch control of the player and TV is just easier for family members than fussing with a bunch of remotes.

Third, our family subscribes to Netflix, so I was interested in adding streaming to my bag of media tricks. Granted, my TiVo HD can also stream, but I don’t want to tie it up if I’m recording shows to one or both of the internal DVRs.

Fourth, Consumer Reports gave the DMP-BD85 its second-highest ranking in a recent review of Blu-ray players. Yes, I subscribe to CR, and they do a bang-up job of product testing – particularly TVs and accessories.

Finally, the image quality from the Panasonic DMP-BD65 is very good, rivaling the OPPO upscaling player it replaced. Plus, the Panasonic remote is a lot easier to use than the older-style OPPO remotes. Readers who have older OPPOs know exactly what I mean.

I don’t play that many DVDs any more, but this unit should suffice as my media hub for a while. The DMP-BD85 comes with a USB 2.0 plug-in 802.11n adapter and isn’t too difficult to configure, although the on-screen menu could use some massaging. I had everything up and running in 5 minutes, even on a secure network.

Are we getting closer to the day that conventional DVD players become extinct? Well, Wal-Mart announced they’ll have a $65 Magnavox Blu-ray player available on Black Friday. And you can buy Panasonic 65-series players for about $100 now at BJ’s Wholesale Club.

So, yes – we are getting closer to that day when Blu-ray is the only optical disc format for packaged media. Only question is, will it happen before the American consumer makes a wholesale move to digital streaming and downloads?

TiVo’s Got A New Box Up Its Sleeve

Last night, TiVo held a coming-out party for the TiVo Premiere, the latest in a series of DVRs that can receive and record content from cable, terrestrial, and broadband TV.

The event, held atop Rockefeller Center, featured CEO Tom Rogers bantering with 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) while Rogers listed the new functions and menu designs. The “premiere” of Premiere wasn’t a very well-kept secret – some Best Buy employees leaked specs and pricing information in late February.

Tom Rogers gives us the skinny on TiVo’s Premiere. Ironically, Rogers used to be an NBC executive!

What was significant about the event was the announcement that cable overbuilder and MSO RCN will offer Premiere as an option to its customers. TiVo’s DVR, although a great product in design and execution, has long suffered from a lack of content delivery partners.

At one time, the company had a partnership with DirecTV, but that went by the wayside. Partnering with RCN, even though the latter is a small player in the world of cable TV, will help drive acceptance and sales considerably.

The Premiere – which actually comes in two flavors – is a slimmer, sleeker version of the current Series 3 and HD DVRs, both of which will be discontinued. The basic Premiere offers 45 hours of recording for $300, while the XL version triples that capacity to 150 hours for a couple hundred extra dollars.

TiVo’s Premiere DVR is even thinner than the TiVo HD.

As configured, Premiere offers a ‘triple play’ of terrestrial, cable, and broadband video recording and playback. (Sorry, no DirecTV or Dish support!) There is a single M-style CableCARD slot which allows bi-directionality for video on demand (VOD) services. But Premiere isn’t ready to replace tru2way yet…not that the latter bi-directional cable platform has been setting the world on fire exactly.

Wireless connectivity is based on 802.11n protocols, and you can link Premiere with older Series 3 and HD units to share recorded shows and files on the same home media network. TiVo has also added broadband content sites Pandora and FrameChannel (over 1,000 widgets and counting) to existing Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, and Amazon services. (Sorry, still no connections to Hulu!).

For the first time that I know of, Adobe’s Flash player has been incorporated into a set-top box (hey, who puts these things on top of TV sets anymore?). Premiere makes extensive use of Flash in its menus and video preview windows.

There are also new Search parameters that take you more quickly to a given actor’s resume, lets you search by such arcane topics as “Oscar-nominated movies,” and in general lets you REALLY drill down to find out everything you want about a particular TV show or movie, and the people who directed and acted in it.

Premiere’s new mernus make extensive use of Flash.

TiVo also showed its latest remote controls that incorporate a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Those readers who have suffered with the directional arrows and Select button to type in keywords for program searches should be deliriously happy with that development!

Here’s the new QWERTY remote. Hooray!

I’ve had TiVo service since 1999, and just retired my first Series 1 Philips DVR, which had enough capacity to record a whopping 14 hours of standard-definition TV. (It still works, even with the dial-up phone connection for program guide info!) I also have a pair of Humax Series 2 combo DVD/DVR boxes sitting in hibernation, now that Comcast has gone all-digital.

So I’m looking forward to test-driving a Premiere and seeing how it compares to my workhorse TiVo HD, which records both digital cable and terrestrial HD signals and has downloaded several TV shows in HD from Amazon’s Unbox service. Look for a review later this spring when TiVo starts shipping.

Best Buy will be the exclusive brick-and-mortar retail outlet for Premiere, and it will also be available from Amazon. The Wireless-N adapter will start shipping in May.

Don’t ask this guy to program your Tivo, though…