Archive for category DRM

The Compuservation of Television

Gossip Dirt

The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same. Over the last ten years, the internet has redefined nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s how we communicate with old friends, how we get our news or how we do our shopping, I could give you countless examples of how this technology has changed the way we interact with the world.

Thinking back to when dial up was first getting started, it’s not too hard to imagine an entirely different future. You see, when internet service providers first got into the business, they didn’t want to provide unrestricted access to their subscribers. Instead, they wanted to create a massive intranet where they could charge businesses fees to reach their customers.

In this bold new world that they envisioned, people wouldn’t be buying search terms on Yahoo!, they’d buy keywords on AOL. Instead of being able to use any email provider you wanted, they would only allow you to log into Compuserve accounts. This balkanization of the internet almost succeeded and for a time, Compuserve actually ran one of the top airline ticketing services, but eventually consumers saw the forest for the trees and instead of paying $19.99 a month for a stripped down version of the world wide web, they insisted on unfiltered access to the internet.

Once a few consumers started to move, the rest of the industry followed and as a result we now have third party sites like Facebook, YouTube and blogs, that have been able to build an audience on the free and open web.

With online video still coming of age, it’s interesting to see how the same Compuservation is occurring again, except this time it’s around the television. NewTeeVee has a provocative post out where they argue that the smart television providers are becoming the new gatekeepers for content. This is better than having the cable companies control your television, but it’s is still a watered down version of what you deserve.

I don’t care whether we’re talking about TiVo, Boxee, Roku, AppleTV or any of the latest digital video solutions, all of them have placed restrictions (albeit sometimes unwillingly) over how much their customers can do with their hardware.

Some of these restrictions are because of frightened content owners. For example, customers who rent their TiVo from a cable company aren’t allowed to access Netflix because of agreements Netflix made with the studios. Some of these restrictions are because of plain old fashioned greed. Hulu has already had more than their fair share of conflicts from disabling access to their videos on devices that are designed to sit next to your TV and would love to charge hardware companies for access. Some of these restrictions are self imposed. There’s nothing stopping Apple from offering flash on their iPad, except for their own selfish desire to control 100% of their media eco-system.

Whatever the reason, no matter how you slice it, these “internet” enabled devices have all failed to actually bring the internet to your TV. Looking over the headlines from CES, it’s clear that tablets and “smart TVs” were all the rage in Las Vegas this year and while it’s neat to see content companies start warming up to these devices, if consumers are forced to continue at big media’s pace, it will take another 10 years before you’ll be able to access even 90% of the content that’s out there today.

Because of these restrictions, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to endorse these options as adequate solutions. Over the years, I’ve managed to sample and collect a large number of different media streaming devices, but by far, the most powerful digital media device that I’ve ever used was the cheapest laptop that I could buy from Walmart. Maybe I’m crazy and other people don’t actually want access to the internet on their TV, but from the very first moment that I plugged it into my television, it was just as liberating as the first time I used TiVo to free my TV.

Since almost all new laptops include an HDMI port, getting it connected to the big screen was as easy as plugging it into an HDMI cable. Not only will this setup let you access sites like Hulu without big media interfering, but I can also do PC related tasks on a big screen environment. For example, over the holidays I was able to connect to Skype and do a video chat with the entire family on the big screen. I’ve always been a fan of comic books, but the comic book experience is very different when you’re looking at the action at 40+ inches. Do you ever play video games like Axis and Allies? Being able to see the entire war map actually changes your strategy compared to when you have to view troop movements region by region.

The point that I’m trying to make is no matter how progressive and advanced these technology companies are, no matter how many “apps” developers create, until the CE industry and the content industry abandon their gateway plans, you’ll never get to experience everything that the world wide web is capable of.

Instead of navigating this minefield of short sighted media companies and a CE industry that has lost sight of who their real customers are, take my advice and buy an HDMI enabled laptop before you buy the latest and greatest half baked technology product. A cheap laptop won’t necessarily make it easy to record your broadcast television, but if you’re only going to own one media device for your TV, an HDMI enabled laptop will beat the pants off of any digital device on the market today.

It’s Time For Netflix To Say Goodnight To Silverlight

In 2006, Netflix scored a grand slam when they announced a $1 million prize for anyone who could improve their recommendation engine by at least 10%. It took 3 years for a team of scientists to actually accomplish this feat, but the prize was ultimately worth far more than a million dollars in publicity and to Netflix’s bottom line. Better recommendations not only led to happier subscribers (less churn), but they also made it easier for Netflix to sell the niche content that they spend less money on. Recognizing the benefit that they received from the contest, Netflix was quick to announce a sequel, but ultimately had to suspend their plans over privacy concerns.

While a contest to replace Silverlight likely wouldn’t garner as much attention, I believe that the financial benefit to replacing this outdated codec, would be just as significant.

Some will argue that I’m being tough on poor old Softie and that Silverlight represents some of the best video compression out there, but consider my logic for a moment. From the way I see it, Silverlight has two basic flaw. It’s buggy as all get out and it’s a bandwidth thief.

The screenshot posted above is a real life example that I encountered of Silverlight in action. All codecs are prone to errors of course, but look at all the hoops Netflix makes their customers jump through just to support a buggy piece of software. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to restart my browser after a Silverlightning strike, I’d probably have .35 cents by now. Seriously, I have less trouble with Real Network’s codec and that’s saying a lot. Instead of putting up with these kinds of errors, Netflix should be actively searching for a more reliable alternative.

Given Netflix’s runaway success, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the big telco companies are running scared. While usage based pricing hasn’t hit the US yet, the Canadian telcos were very quick to raise rates the minute Netflix invaded their territory. When you consider how many internet service providers also sell video, it’s clear that Netflix will need a way to undercut these tactics, especially if they plan on expanding internationally. Currently, an SD movie over Silverlight clocks in at approximately 2 Gigs, while an HD movie will cost the user 3Gbs towards their cap. If Netflix could reduce the size of a movie file by 50% – 75%, without sacrificing quality, they could end the usage based meter for their customers, while also undermining a critical future component to their latest competitors’ business model.

Getting Hollywood to sign off on an outsourced video codec could be a potential problem for Netflix, but even if they were able to gradually ween their customers away from Silverlight by delivering independent films with the new technology, the benefit could still be substantial. Given how little they pay for traffic, they probably wouldn’t save $1 million on their bandwidth bill, but being able to stop telcos from nickle and diming Netflix’s members would be priceless and would help to future proof their business.

Has The DMCA Created A Legal Bermuda Triangle For Downloads?

For the last several years, the entertainment industry has been doing their darndest to put The Pirate Bay out of business. Whether it’s been suing TPB’s users, going after TPB’s hosting providers or trying to make the site’s founders criminally liable for the behavior of their customers, it’s clear that TPB doesn’t have many friends in Hollywood. More recently, we’ve seen a legal settlement industry spring up where mass lawsuits are threatened against consumers for allegedly participating in P2P activities. Whether or not the entertainment industry has been successful in these endeavours is open to interpretation, but in their zeal to put an end to filesharing, they may have created an even more dangerous monster.

One could argue that it all started with YouTube, but over the past few years we’ve seen a shift in consumer behavior away from P2P and towards streaming and downloading services. To see proof of this trend, all one has to do is compare the traffic of TPB with the streaming/downloading search engine FilesTube.

According to Compete.com, over the last year FilesTube.com has been able to consistently attract 50% more visitors than TPB. Not too shaby of a feat considering that Filestube.com didn’t even exist 3 years ago.

Given their animosity towards TPB, one would think that entertainment executives would be celebrating the cultural decline of TPB with a round of cold beers and high fives, but the reality is that instead of curbing piracy, they’re merely redirecting that illicit traffic towards safe harbors where consumers don’t appear to be at risk. In the immortal words of Princess Leia, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”

By continuing to squeeze P2P users with countless numbers of lawsuits, the entertainment industry may have been able to establish a precedent that uploading content to the internet is a copyright violation, but what’s less clear is whether or not simply downloading that same content is actually illegal?

According to the Copyright.Gov FAQ website, “Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. ” [Emphasis added by me]

Setting aside the ethical question of whether or not it’s moral to download grey area content, it is clear that US Copyright law places some restrictions on infringing downloads vs. legitimate ones. From the same FAQ page,

Whether or not a particular work is being made available under the authority of the copyright owner is a question of fact. But since any original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium (including a computer file) is protected by federal copyright law upon creation, in the absence of clear information to the contrary, most works may be assumed to be protected by federal copyright law.” [Emphasis added by me]

Now I’m not a legal beagle, but I believe that this means that consumers can’t be prosecuted for downloading a movie, if the service they are using claims to be offering content with the blessing of the legal copyright owner. For example when I’m streaming (making a cached copy) of old episodes of Battlestar Galactica from Netflix, I’m not actually breaking the law because I have a reasonable belief that Netflix has licensed this movie for their subscribers.

Since many streaming sites are largely controlled by the company that is paying for the bandwidth, it would be relatively easy for the studios to hold these companies accountable if they did stray off of the straight and narrow path. Where the legal waters become more murky though is when service providers (streaming companies) allow others to upload content instead of taking charge of this themselves.

With YouTube receiving 35 hours of content per second, it would be impossible for them to screen every second of footage that is uploaded to their site. Because of this the DMCA offers YouTube a safe harbor as long as they respond to DMCA takedown requests and don’t encourage piracy. To date we’ve seen several lawsuits that have tried to challenge this exemption, but so far they’ve all been a bust for the entertainment industry.

So on one side of this digital triangle you have consumers who are exempt from legal liability as long as the service provider requires uploaders to claim ownership of everything that they upload, on the other side of the triangle you have the service providers who are exempt from liability as long as they respond to DMCA request and don’t uploading anything themselves and on the final side of the triangle you have the content owners themselves who must choose between trying to police an endless stream of piracy or to quietly embrace the millions of consumers who are now streaming their television instead of paying for cable.

In a perfect world, only the actual copyright owners would be uploading their content to these digital locker services, but because sites like Megavideo.com pay users based upon the number of plays their videos get, there is an economic incentive for rouge operatives to cheat the system by claiming content as their own. To Megavideo’s credit, they have a history of refusing to pay copyright violators, but from a practical standpoint there are many who’ve been able to collect royalties on other people’s content.

Also to Megavideo’s credit, the entertainment industry has a long history of embracing “piracy” while staying in the closet about this. For example, when Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, some of the clips they sued over were uploaded by Viacom employee’s themselves. It would hardly seem fair to hold either YouTube or consumers who watched those clips liable for copyright infringement when Viacom was creating a honeypot to tempt web surfers with.

Some will argue that content owners would never do this, but there are many reasons why someone would choose to embrace piracy and the popularity that it can bring a film. Whether you’re trying to jumpstart a struggling TV series or you’re trying to increase licensing opportunities, just because someone doesn’t pay to view a video doesn’t necessarily mean that the creator won’t benefit from that attention.

One of the things I’ve noticed when browsing through the FileTube.com search results is that often times studios will be unrelentingly aggressive about filing DMCA takedown requests the minute infringing files are uploaded while other files will remain online for over a year without even being “noticed.” While it would be tough to argue that 100% of these files are being monetized by the original copyright holders, I do believe that many copyright holders have chosen to secretly monetize their content in this way, but aren’t able to publicly disclose this because of how it might impact their negotiations with more traditional video distributors.

While the uploaders who falsely claim ownership of copyrighted material certainly put themselves at legal risk, with most of the uploading activity occurring outside of US borders, it’s unlikely that many infringers will find themselves being dragged into US court.

Some will cry foul over this latest trend, but I do find it fascinating how alternative business models can thrive when copyright issues aren’t strangling internet startups.

For example, one of the unique ways that Megavideo is able to sell memberships for their service is by letting consumers watch a certain amount of video each day for free before being interrupted with a time out. By running their business this way, they are able to use each and every video as an advertisement for their paid service. Since you may be 80% of the way through a movie when the time limit hits, a consumer is given the opportunity to ask themselves whether or not the content is really worth paying for to see right away or if it is a piece of garbage that you don’t care about finishing anyway.

Can you imagine if you were able to go to a movie theater and didn’t have to pay for your ticket until you had already watched 80% of the film? It would probably hurt ticket sales for a lot of the big budget flops, but the really well made movies would be incredibly successful because they’d be able to convert a larger percentage of those free eyeballs into paying customers.

Whether or not content owners are embracing this business model may be unclear, but by aggressively pursuing P2P users, the entertainment industry has made it clear that downloading without uploading is a much safer alternative for consumers then participating in the P2P movement. As technology marches forward, we’ll find out whether or not this Bermudian Copyright triangle gets sorted out, but in the meantime the efforts to prosecute P2P users, only seems to be driving consumers from a clunky bandwidth intensive technological solution to offshore providers who are offering a more elegant experience.

It’s probably worth pointing out that the MPAA has claimed that movie streaming is still considered a form of theft, but instead of backing up their position by citing the appropriate copyright laws, they instead try to equate digital streaming with physical theft.

The problem with this position is that companies like Sony (one of the MPAA founding partners) is apparently offering a shoplifters paradise in the form of all you can stream free movies on their Crackle.com website. Other MPAA partners like 20th Century Fox have not only made their movies available online at their official sites, but have also licensed their content to a number of different distributors like Comcast’s Fancast.com. Since it would be impossible for the end consumer to know the contractual details of every one of these down stream relationships, it would hardly seem fair to hold the consumer liable if someone uploaded a clip that actually infringed.

While I’m entirely open to exploring other opinions that downloading (without uploading) is still a copyright violation, I’ve yet to see any legal evidence indicating that this is actually the case. What do you think, when you hit play on a Simpson’s clip on YouTube have you actually committed a crime?

Forget Net Neutrality, What About Media Neutrality?

Media NeutralityOver the past five years, there’s been a lot of debate around the topic of net neutrality and while there have been a few examples where internet providers have tried to favor their own services over the competition, by and large this has turned out to be little more than a boogey man. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it’s important to keep the playing field level, but I also believe that there are bigger issues where consumers are being harmed.

While many media companies would like to see the first sale doctrine done away with, ever since the supreme court established the doctrine in 1908, consumers have enjoyed tremendous benefits from it. The concept, which was later codified into law in 1976, allows businesses and individuals to resell goods that they’ve legally purchased. Without it, companies like Ebay, Craigslist and Blockbuster Video wouldn’t even be possible.

Having the right to resell goods benefits consumers in two major ways. First, it reduces the risks that consumers have to take when making purchases. This ultimately makes things cheaper for all of us, because companies are forced to compete with their own products and consumers have a way of recouping part of their initial expense.

When I first purchased my TiVo series 3 for example, I spent over $800 on the product. While this may seem like an insane amount to spend for television, I was able to justify the cost in part, because I sold my original TiVo on eBay for $200 and knew that one day I would be able to resell my Series 3 (currently worth approximately $400 on Ebay) to recover part of my expense. As a result, I’ve been able to enjoy a premium DVR experience for about 1/3rd what it would have cost me to rent an inferior DVR from my cable company.

The second benefit to the consumer is that by having a robust resell market, it allows more businesses/middlemen to participate. This ultimately increases demand, stimulates innovation, and drives down prices. Redbox for example is able to rent you a DVDs at 1/20th of the cost or what it would cost you to buy the actual DVD thanks in large part to the first sale doctrine. Because Redbox knows that they can get more than 20 people to share the same product, it enables consumers to save money, the media companies to sell more DVDs and for Redbox to still earn a tidy profit in the process.

While the first sale doctrine has been a huge benefit for consumers over the last 100 years, these benefits are rapidly being eroded as media moves digital. Because the first sale doctrine was based on physical goods, it hasn’t aged very well in the digital realm. As a result, consumers have been forced to endure awkward DRM implementations, limited availability of digital content and higher prices for media services.

As the top media conglomerates have sought to seize more and more control over the distribution of their products, they’ve shifted from a world where you have the ability to “own” your media, to one where you only have the option to “license” your content.

For a lot of consumers, this distinction may not seem important, but it has profound implications on the future of digital entertainment. Since firms aren’t allowed to buy products at a wholesale price and rent them to multiple consumers, they’ve been forced to negotiate agreements one by one. This is a costly and time intensive process that has limited how quickly media can migrate online. It has also given the media conglomerates monopolistic control over prices. Instead of being forced to compete in an open environment, they are able to take their ball and go home, when they haven’t liked the terms and conditions that innovators offer them.

The result of this transition from ownership to licensing has increased costs for consumers even beyond the price of media. Take for example, the various hardware devices that we’ve seen released over the last five years. If you want to watch digital copies of old movies and TV shows, you can do it through Netflix, but only if it’s on a device that has a business relationship with them. When Sony decided to release a digital copy of Cloudy with a chance of meatballs at the same time the movie was in the theaters, consumers could only participate on select Sony TVs.

If you prefer to watch new releases from Apple’s iTunes store, you’ll need to buy an AppleTV to easily watch that content on your TV. If you want to watch a DivX file that you purchased from CinemaNow, you’ll need to illegally hack your AppleTV or purchase a DivX certified device instead. It’s fantastic that consumers have the ability to record HD cable TV through TiVo, but if you subscribe to AT&T or Dish Networks, you’ll need additional (proprietary) hardware to decode their signals.

While many of these businesses have come a long way towards opening up their systems and fulfilling the digital dream, they’ve all been limited by what content holders allow. As a result, consumers must face a digital minefield where DRM and file formats are used to limit what you can do with the content that you’ve paid for.

As we continue to move forward into the digital world, I think it’s important that consumers shouldn’t have to abandon the first sale protections that have served us so well over the last century. What I propose is a new set of rules that would allow media companies to control their prices, but would also give consumers (and businesses) a way to move past some of these restrictions.

While the DMCA has been a mixed blessing for tech companies and consumers, it is in desperate need of an update (and one that isn’t written by the lobbyists.) For example, currently, it’s illegal for consumers (or businesses) to circumvent DRM, even if consumers are being harmed by the DRM. This has led to situations where people who have purchased media, later lost access to those rights because a provider went out of business. Situations, where companies are unable to offer lifetime licenses in the cloud, because of exclusivity clauses in contracts with pay TV channels.

What I purpose is that if media companies want DMCA protection for their content, it should come with strings attached. In crafting new rules for a modern first sale doctrine, I would require content owners to set a wholesale price that all businesses would be allowed to buy content at. They could still require minimum purchases sizes and would have complete control over what they wanted to charge for that content, but they shouldn’t be allowed to sell a license at one price to one company and then exploit another company for political reasons.

What this would do is create a level playing field for all of the digital retailers. If UMG wants to charge $50 for a download, they would have the right to do this, but they couldn’t favor one vendor over another and they couldn’t punish innovators for being successful or passing on value to the consumer. This would also bring welcome competition to the pay TV market because media companies wouldn’t be able to play MSO’s off of each other.

For example, I’d love to be able to see every NFL game each season, but I can’t unless I’m willing to subscribe to DirecTV for service. Instead of making consumers fight and choose over exclusive content, everyone should be given fair access to that content. If cable companies don’t want to pay the price of admission, they would be less competitive with consumers. The end result would be more demand for NFL content by consumers and more competition for their dollars. If we allow media companies to continue with exclusive content in the digital realm, it will only makes it more expensive for everyone.

I also think that if the media wants to continue to have DMCA restrictions on their DRM, that they shouldn’t be allowed to use that DRM to discriminate between hardware partners. It’s great that I’ve got the ability to record HDTV on my TiVo, but since cablecards don’t work with satellite or U-verse, it essentially gives Comcast a monopoly on pay television for TiVo households.

As a result, Comcast is able to provide abusive cablecard support without having to worry about competition. If they knew that they had to actually compete for the $50 – $200 a month that they charge, it would encourage them to provide better service and to continue to innovate, (even if consumers decide not to use Comcast’s equipment.) Instead we’ve seen cable companies limit the ability for consumers to take their programs on the go and prevent consumers from accessing VOD services on DVRs that aren’t rented from them, all without having to worry about repercussions.

The same is true for digital downloads. If Apple wants to use DRM to help protect their content partners, they should be allowed to, but not at the expense of consumers. If other hardware manufacturers want to build support for iTunes’ product they should be allowed to license the DRM (at cost) from Apple. This would prevent Apple from offering exclusive downloads that lock consumers into their own hardware ecosystem. The end result would be more devices that could play Apple content and more competition among set top box manufacturers. This competition would cause prices to drop and would encourage Apple and others to be innovative with the features and services that they offer to their customers.

While some may be content to let the media industry continue to grow inside of these walled gardens, I’d like to see a world where someone can legally purchase media and play it on any device that they want to. By creating new laws to help better regulate the abuses of our current licensing system, consumers, businesses and the online video industry as a whole, would be allowed to flourish across many different platforms. Instead of being forced to buy the same content over and over and over again, consumers would be allowed to license their media under fair and reasonable conditions.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Subscribe To HBO

HBO NY OfficeHBO may stand for Home Box Office, but it may as well be Hates Being Online given their objections to internet video. According to Time Warner, HBO has over 40 million subscribers and while this lucrative revenue stream allows them to produce some of the most compelling content on television, it also gives them an extraordinary amount of influence on the entertainment industry. Not only is the company owned by one of the major studios, but because of the billions that they take in each year, they’ve been able to outbid small nimble start-ups for access to content. Instead of using this power for good though, they’ve chosen to fight against consumer’s interests by restricting your ability to watch digital content that you’ve legally purchased.

With consumers clearly wanting to access content online, one would think that HBO would be the first in line to embrace this trend, but because of their status quo, they’ve chosen to fight progress instead of helping to usher in the digital age.

Over the last two years, a group of digital and traditional media companies have formed an impressive collective known as the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE). This diverse group of firms includes firms ranging in diversity from Sony to DivX. While each company has their own agenda, the goal of the group is to try and create a media framework that allows consumers to purchase downloadable media and to play it on a wide range of consumer electronic devices.

While I do think that there are some problems with their proposed implementation, I’m also pragmatic enough to see this consortium as our best chance of furthering the internet video revolution. To date, media companies have fought digitization tooth and nail, but this co-op between Hollywood and the Silicon Valley could create an environment where more new release content is made available to the public.

Anyone whose used Netflix’s Watch Instantly program knows that there is a ton of content from the 1980′s, but very few titles from the last decade. One of the biggest reasons for this, is that companies like HBO have used their vast financial resources to outbid them and other digital players for these films. With studios scared to death of upsetting deep pocket partners like HBO, it’s created an environment where consumers must either pirate recent content, set an appointment to see TV or stick to watching it on a disc.

While, HBO has made some of their content available through Comcast’s TV anywhere initiative, it’s only includes their weakest titles and you must be a cable subscriber to get access to the content. Contrast this to Showtime’s digital experiments and it’s clear that HBO is standing in the way of progress.

Like Netflix’s Watch Instantly platform, DECE has proposed a system where consumers can store their media content in the cloud and then stream it whenever (and more importantly wherever) they want to view the film. Yet, according to the industry trade publication, The Wrap (via Inside Redbox), HBO isn’t a fan of this system and is actively trying to block it’s implementation. Since they insist on legal language in their contracts that prevent consumers from accessing digital content while it’s playing on their channel, it’s possible that you could purchase a film and then be blocked from seeing it while it’s playing on HBO.

Imagine paying a steep premium to see a recently released film and then being told that you can’t watch it on certain dates, just because HBO is afraid that you might not subscribe to their channel. Clearly, this isn’t in the interests of consumers and yet HBO is using their financial resources to try and create this very scenario.

“Paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year for output deals with Warner, Fox and Universal, HBO currently restricts these studios from distributing their films digitally during its exclusive pay-TV window. Typically, that window starts six months after a film debuts on DVD and extends for 18 months. It already has presented itself as a challenge for established download sellers including iTunes and Netflix.”

HBO is free to run their business anyway that they like, but I believe that policies that are downright hostile to consumers should not go unpunished. Because of this, I’m asking HBO subscribers to call your cable company and cancel the channel. I know that this may mean giving up some great content, but if HBO starts to feel the sting from a consumer backlash, perhaps they’ll rethink their position and start to embrace the digital revolution. Currently, only 3% of the entertainment industry’s revenue come from online, but if just 3% of HBO’s subscribers were to cancel service, it would have a profound effect on the company’s profitability.

For too long, consumers have been abused by these exclusivity agreements and if you sit back and allow them to walk all over you, then you’re only part of the problem. Instead of rewarding an outdated analog business model, we need to be demanding that studios and their partners join the 21st century and make their content available online.

The Invasion of The Internet TV

LG TVOver the last decade, internet video has come a long way, but it’s been a bit of a clunky experience. Competing standards, DRM turf wars and fear of giving the consumer anything and everything for a song has held the industry back. You may be able to get your digital video to your television, but there’s been plenty of roadblocks to deal with. Luckily, consumers have had options and have been able force the content industry into the digital realm, even if it did take a bit of kicking and screaming.

Over the next decade, it’s clear that things will improve, but I also worry that we’ll repeat some of the same mistakes. As the industry moves past early adopters and into the mainstream, it will have a profound change on the entertainment industry.

One of the biggest drivers of that mainstream adoption will be the rise of the internet television. A year ago, it was hard to find them outside of tech events, but television manufacturers have started to embrace the concept and now there’s at least a high end market for internet enabled TV sets. The New York Times, has a good article on this trend as well as some appropriate criticism,

“we’re still a long way from being able to order any movie we want to watch whenever we want to watch it. Film studios are loath to release what they perceive will be blockbuster DVDs for digital distribution, for example, until months after release, and there are many more held back by copyright issues and concerns about piracy. And even the movies you can rent digitally from Blockbuster or Amazon are often subject to the dreaded 24-hour window, which means if you don’t finish watching on the same day you started viewing it, you’ll have to pay an additional charge. Still, the option of streaming a movie from anywhere — Netflix, Amazon or whoever — is a major leap forward. It frees viewers from the yoke of the one-store-only approach taken by cable companies and products like Apple TV.”

While I agree that consumers are foolish to enter into one-store arrangements like AppleTV, I also don’t feel like any of the TV manufacturers have differentiated themselves with what they are offering. Whether you’re talking Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony, Mitsubishi, Sharp or Vizio all of them seem to be going after a small handful of Hollywood partners.

Don’t get me wrong, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster and Sony all have great content, but in such a tightly controlled eco-system, the consumer doesn’t really have very many options. If you don’t like a restrictive 24 hour window, then you just have to deal with it. There’s also a lot of content that isn’t available on these new services. Whether we’re talking new releases or material that is more appropriate for adult audiences, consumers can’t access it, without some kind of alternative device.

Limiting your audience makes sense if Hollywood is the one buying your televisions, but is a poor strategy to employ when you want consumers to buy your TV sets. At one point I had hoped that DivX would partner with one of the TV makers to give consumers more flexibility, but so far they have struck out when it comes to the connected television. I don’t know why the internet TV has been such a tough nut for DivX to crack, but I suspect that it has something to do with why they have been so hell bent on partnering with Hollywood. The sad part is that in order to win over these studio partners, DivX has already started to ignore their consumers.

Take for example, DivX’s recent acquisition of AnySource Media. Ideally, this software will accelerate DivX’s plans to the TV, but even if they are successful it doesn’t necessary mean that consumers will win. In an article for NewTeeVee, DivX CEO Kevin Hell said that “content partners of the new entity will not be required to offer video in the DivX format, and the platform will support a wide variety of codecs.”

If DivX is truly committed to being “a digital media company that enables consumers to enjoy a high-quality video experience across any kind of device”, then how could they even consider creating a device that doesn’t support the eco-system that their fans have built their entertainment system around? Making such a sacrifice may be seen as necessary, in order to get their piece of the connected television, but it would be self-destructive to their brand and only highlight the sacrifices that they seem willing to make just to be another me too provider of digital content.

Instead of partnering with Hollywood, DivX should be arming consumers so that they have the tools to force content owners to accept a digital revolution. How many TV sets could DivX sell, if they provided support for MegaVideo alone? With over 1% of all internet traffic, they get more hits then Amazon.com, let alone Amazon Video or what if DivX’s software supported free streams from any of the adult websites that regularly appear in the Alexa top 100 listings? People may not want to admit it, but the adult film industry is almost as large of the regular film industry. Samsung may not want to splash a XXX logo on the front of their TVs, but if DivX;) could offer this functionality, I guarantee you that there would be demand for it.

Getting down and dirty with copyright thieves and alternative content providers may not be DivX’s grand ambition, but I’d rather see them comprise their morals in this regard, then to see them knife their own customers and still not end up on any connected televisions. The development of the internet TV is an exciting chapter in the transition to digital, I just hope that consumers don’t get trampled on in the rush to fight over the same old content.

Should Digital Movies Be Required To Offer Subtitles?

Normally, I tend to think that most regulations are bad. In a free market, businesses should be allowed to operate with a wide degree of latitude. At the same time there is a pragmatic part of me that understands there can be exceptions to this. Everyone should have the right to free speech, but that doesn’t make it right to run cigarette ads on Saturday morning cartoons or to claim that you’re a Doctor when you only bought your degree from an internet spammer.

For the most part, the television world has been forced to accept reasonable restrictions in exchange for the public bandwidth they use to deliver their content. In the internet world though, the content rules are more like the old west because consumers are opting into the service by paying for it. As long as you have the quickest draw, your behavior doesn’t matter as much and so far companies like Netflix have been more concerned about digital market share, then doing what’s right.

Maybe this is because internet audiences are still small compared to television or it could be that it takes time for rules and standards to develop and emerging markets don’t tend to care about these things. Whatever the reason though, there are parts of the television experience that aren’t making the jump to the internet.

Specifically, I’m talking about closed caption data. For years, television studios have been legally required to provide this information, so that people who are hard of hearing can also enjoy the content. While there are some technical issues associated with adding this kind of data to a movie file, technology is at a point where it could easily support this. The Matroska container for example, is able to include optional sub-title information along with video and audio data. Alternatively, because online delivery can microstream to people, files with the embedded sub-titles could made available to viewers who opted into them. This would involve keeping multiple copies of the same movies though and so far the digital movie industry hasn’t wanted to bear this cost.

While I’m loathe to suggest new regulations on a burgeoning industry, I also feel like we have a responsibility to consider the needs of everyone. It costs companies extra money to include wheel chair ramps at their physical locations, but we pay for that as a society because we want to treat everyone as equally as we can. As the traditional line between telecommunications and entertainment becomes blurred, it’s important that we don’t leave behind those less fortunate in life. Having a law that requires subtitles in order to qualify for DRM legal protections wouldn’t be popular with the entertainment industry, but it would fill a void that the market isn’t interested in addressing. Personally, I don’t know whether or not I’d actually support a legal mandate for firms like Netflix, Amazon and Apple to require this data, but I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the issue.

Update – Interestingly enough, I found out that the FTC is actually hosting a hearing (not sure if there was a pun intended) on this topic on Friday Nov. 6. It sounds like the entertainment industry’s position may not be represented, but they will have several prominent members of the deaf community weigh in on the topic. The event will run from 9am – 1pm EST and will be broadcast on the web at the FTC’s website.

Over 40 Million P2P Customers Served

Video Moving Online

Anyone who has paid attention to digital distribution knows that P2P is a popular way for people to download content, but how popular it is may surprise more than just angry content owners. Last June, Futuresource Consulting released the results of an in depth survey called “Living With Digital: Consumer Insights into Entertainment Consumption” which examined legitimate and illegitimate video usage in the UK, France, Germany and the USA and came up with some pretty interesting data.

According to their survey’s, 8% of consumers in these countries have admitted to using p2p in order to get content.

With these countries representing approximately 500 million of the 6+ billion global population, it would mean that approximately 40 million people are participating in illegal downloading in just these four countries alone.

In France, where the p2p movement initially got started, as many as 25% of the population admits to downloading illegal content. What is so amazing about this statistic is that it stands in stark contrast to the draconian rules that the French government has tried to impose on their citizens. How elected officials think they can get away with making behavior a crime that one out of four is engaging in, I’ll never understand, but there does seem to be strong political support for banning downloaders from the net.

If you’re a content owner not all hope is lost. Some are taking advantage of this huge audience by encouraging them to share their films with friends, while others are finding that if they put their content online at a reasonable price, plenty of consumers don’t have a problem with paying for it. In fact, according to Futuresource’s report, 48 – 65% of residents in the respective countries mentioned that they watch TV sometimes or a lot on their PC or laptop. This would suggest that as many as 200 -300 million people in these countries are consuming legal internet content.

With more and more people turning to their computer as a television, the popularity of P2P will have a profound effect on video. Already we’ve seen content starting to become more bite sized for the web and smart producers turning towards alternative distribution systems to get their films out there. Competing in a world where you don’t control the entire chain of distribution may be scary for the big studios, but for small independent films, this rabid 8% could be your biggest source of marketing for your film.

Rhapsody And The Art Of The Up-Sell

RealPhoto by Thomas Hawk

One of my very first jobs was working behind a concession counter for a big multi-plex cinema. It isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to learn a life skill, but early on I learned an important lesson in business, the art of the up-sell.

You see, movie theaters make very little from the box office receipts, so the concessions counter is the lifeblood of the industry. The setup is pretty much the same at every theater, but most people don’t tend to think about it. Because the actual cost of the popcorn and soda is so low, the theaters reap big profits from selling captive customers overpriced snacks and beverages.

One of the problems that theaters face, is that there are a ton of people who tend to order small sizes. It could be that they are trying to save money or that they don’t need oversized portions, but because the containers cost the theater more than the actual popcorn or soda, going from a small to a larger size, tends to be pure profit for the theater.

To help “encourage” movie goers to pay the max, theaters will price their small popcorns at ridiculously expensive levels and then have a minor jump in price from small to medium and medium to large. If you were to price the popcorn by ounce, a small would cost four times as much as a large, but because of the high cost at the small level, it makes it easier to convince consumers to pay a little bit extra for a lot more food.

When I sold concessions, the sales pitch would typically go “hey did you know you can get a large for only 50 cents extra?” That was all it took and at least 75% of the customers would go big.

In thinking about why my theater was so effective at up-selling, two things jump out at me. The first has to do with the way the pricing was set. Consumers got tremendously more value at the higher levels, then the lower ones. It might be tough convincing someone to spend $5 on a bucket of popcorn to begin with, but once they made that purchase, an extra 10% for 200% more, seems small. Secondly though, they had an actual human explain this value to the customer. Concession employees were expected to upsell or suggestive sell on every single transaction. It could be subtle, but management made sure that every employee was at least presenting more options to the customers.

What made me take this trip down memory lane is a recent experience with Real’s Rhapsody music service. Before the internet, napster, and digitization, I used to collect music with a passion. Records, Tapes, CDs, it didn’t matter. I would scour local garage sales and thrift stores looking for bargains, (not to mention all of the BMG and Columbia House memberships.)

When the internet first started to take off, my collecting habits intensified. I’d surf Ebay for favorite artists. I didn’t care about the singles or the greatest hits, I was after the rare B-sides that were released internationally. There is something amazing about listening to an artist’s entire discography in order, but back then, it took a lot of money to buy every single song that an artist produced.

Once MP3′s took off, I abandoned physical playback and spent many late nights digitizing my music. As time has gone on though, I’ve realized what a hassle it is trying to maintain a large digital library. Computers have a way of freaking out once you go over a certain limit, there are countless hard drive failures involving added expenses and I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I’ve spent dealing with buffer overrun errors while backing up my music. The bottom line is that if you’re trying to collect a couple hundred thousand Mp3′s, it’s not only cheaper to rent then it is to buy, it’s cheaper just to store it.

Because I had such a large music collection, I never gave Rhapsody a chance, but as one hard drive failure after another has taken large chunks out of my music library, I’ve found myself turning to the internet for specific artists or songs that I’m now missing.

Over the last year, I’ve signed up for Rhapsody three different times to listen to music that’s disappeared over time. Thanks to their free trial offers, I’ve been able to hear a lot of great music, but never kept my membership for longer than a month.

What surprised me so much about the experience was how much I enjoyed it. Not only can I get the latest top hits for a fraction of what I used to spend, but I also get access to the expensive b-sides that were never in wide circulation. The first time I logged onto the service, I was estactic after discovering an entire album’s worth of material from my favorite artist.

Given how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of the service, one would think that it would be a no brainer for me to spend a modest amount of money for access to more music then you can even think about, but when it came down to becoming a paying member, Real Networks lost me on the up-sell.

You see, as a streaming internet music service, Rhapsody really is an amazing product, but its lack of a robust download solution, means that if you want to take your music on the go, customers have limited options. Since Real realizes that not every consumer wants downloadable functionality, they price their service in two tiers.

The first is the standard all you can eat streaming music of just about any song or artist you can think of (we’re talking stuff not even on Bit Torrent.) For $2 more though, you can download songs to “approved devices” and rock out using a portable device that doesn’t need to be connected to the net.

As an internet streaming service, I would have been happy to pay their monthly fee for all of the music that they provide, but by offering a download “upgrade”, it makes me keenly aware of a significant limitation to the service. As is, I can listen to Pandora via the internet now, so a streaming only service makes me second guess how much value Rhapsody really has. I wouldn’t even mind paying the $2 more per month just for streaming access, but don’t see enough value in the $2 upgrade to justify signing up for the downloading tier.

Part of this is because I’m not able to download a DRM free MP3. Even if you download your music, you still have to “refresh” your approved device once a month or your songs get disabled. You’re also limited in the number of devices you can play your Real files on.

As much as I prefer downloading over streaming, it simply isn’t worth an extra $24 per year for a weaksauce version of the real thing. Having to connect my cell phone to the net once a month is obnoxious and I’m not particularly fond of downloading music that I can’t play on all the electronic gadgets that I own.

If they eliminated the download tier, I’d probably be a customer right now, but by making me choose, they’ve persuaded me not to sign up for either package.

Not everyone purchased an up-sell when I sold concessions, but during my entire time behind the counter, I never had a single customer walk away without at least buying the small popcorn that they originally asked for. When it comes to Rhapsody though, the different pricing tiers have cost them at least one customer who would have paid, if he didn’t have to choose between streaming only or weaksauce downloading.

I don’t know if Real does consumer surveys, but I bet that I’m not the only one to agonize over this distinction. Instead of using the price difference to highlight their weaknesses, Real would be better off by either raising the price $2 on everyone and then including their downloading solutions with the service or eliminate the downloading tier entirely and focus on being an amazing and comprehensive streaming service only. By trying to straddle between streaming and downloading, they are only confusing customers and highlighting the limitations to their service.

Netflix Closes Silo (again) – Forces Jinni To Disable Ratings Feature

Netflix SiloI love Netflix, but more than once their data policies have forced me to reconsider whether or not I should have a membership with them. You see, I believe that when you rate a movie, the data should belong to you. After all, you were the one that spent the time to input the rating and it’s personal to your tastes. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that once you get past 100 ratings, you can’t even find two rating profiles that are identical.

Netflix on the other hand, seems to feel that they own your ratings data and have guarded it closely. This wouldn’t be so important, if Netflix was the only movie site out there, but because they refuse to implement many web 2.0 features, there are many other movie sites that consumers may prefer.

Because I have memberships with about a dozen of these sites, it has created an awkward and cumbersome situation where I’m forced to to maintain a dozen different sets of ratings, instead of being able to sync them all together.

Since even small differences in how you rate a movie can have a big impact on the recommendations that you receive, whoever is able to get a consumer to input the most ratings is given a powerful moat around their subscribers.

For a long time, Netflix kept their silo closed, but about nine months ago, they opened up their API to outside developers. At the time, I saw this as a watershed event because it marked a change in philosophy from one of control to one allowing for innovation, inside or outside of Netflix’s site.

If you go their developer site, you’ll see that they still encourage people to use ratings data to create cool apps.

“The Netflix API allows developers full access to our catalog of movies and actors, and–when properly authorized–subscriber data, such as queues, ratings, rental history, and reviews.”

Regrettably, after opening up this data to outside developers, Netflix has apparently changed their tune and is now trying to take away this feature from their customers. From an email I received from Jinni.com,

“Hi Davis Freeberg,

Since March, we’ve offered an option to connect your Netflix account with Jinni. Until now, an optional feature has been importing ratings, so Jinni can quickly learn about your taste and recommend only movies you haven’t seen.

Unfortunately, Netflix has demanded that we remove the import ratings feature. If you already imported your ratings, they will stay on Jinni.

We, and many other developers and users, have been asking Netflix to open the ratings data for a while, to give you the choice to import your Netflix ratings as you wish. We’re working with Netflix now to initiate adding an import ratings option to their API – as your ratings actually belong to you.

As always, feel free to get in touch with questions. And stay tuned for new features and improvements that we’re working on now toward our public beta opening!” (Note: Bold added by me)

In the long run, I believe that this will hurt the company. I can understand Netflix’s desire to protect their competitive moat, but as a subscriber this upsets me to no end. Instead of letting me choose the most innovative movie site, they are making it more difficult for other sites to work with their data. This may not seem like a big deal to most, but preventing customers from accessing content in their preferred format, tends to create dissatisfaction. I feel that it also raises questions of anti-trust abuse when you consider Netflix’s market position and the grip that they are maintaining on their subscriber data.

Instead of using their rating silos to stop competition, I’d rather see Netflix forced to compete fairly by creating the best product out there.

I’m not sure that I’ll cancel my account, but taking this kind of a hostile stance against a competitor makes it hard for me to continue to recommend the service to others. I hope that Netflix reconsiders their stance on this issue and allow consumers to take full advantage of the openness of the web.

Update – Netflix responds on their developer forum“The API Terms of Service don’t allow an application to capture a subscriber’s user name and password, which is required to scrape user data from the site. While we do expose ratings via the API, we do recognized that there isn’t a good way to grab a subscriber’s full rating history. We’re working on the technical and legal details to allow developers to access this info without running afoul of our terms of service nor enabling a unsatisfactory user experience.”