Archive for category TV

Probst Tell Survivor Fans: TiVo Doesn’t Help Our Ratings

Over the years, I’ve had more than one love affair with a TV show, but no matter how much I’ve enjoyed epic hits like 24, Alias or Joey Grecco’s Cheaters, none of them have been able to generate the level of excitement that I feel when I watch Survivor. I’m not sure if it’s the Machiavellian nature of the show or simply being able to watch an assortment of characters who are so wacky that they end up making Gilligan Island look like the Love Boat, but I love the show so much, that I even organized a home version of the game with my family over the holidays (I ended up getting voted out 2nd for trying to emulate Russell Hantz’s bulldog strategy)

Because it is the number #1 show on my Season Pass priority list, you would think that I would never miss an episode, but every year, Survivor changes the name of their show just a little bit, so that DVR subscribers have to resubscribe to each new season. I’ve gone as far as sending angry emails to the Tribune company (the supplier of TiVo’s guide data), but to no avail.

While this may or may not be hurting Survivor’s DVR ratings, the fact that the producers of the show haven’t noticed has always baffled me. It would be like me changing my RSS feed every six months, so that only my superfans could easily follow my blog. Unless you like languishing in obscurity, this isn’t a very good strategy for retaining an audience or capturing people’s attention.

Recently, Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, launched a blog to promote the show and other charitable causes that he cares about. On his site, he solicits questions from fans and answers the more common ones. While all tidbits about the show caught my attention, one particular answer jumped out at me. While answering the question of how long will Survivor continue to run, Probst says that the survival of Survivor is dependent upon live viewers because “TiVo doesn’t help our ratings.”

Now Jeff Probst certainly isn’t the first one to appeal to their fans to ditch the DVR, but I think that his pleas are at least a little bit misguided. I’m not sure whether it’s because the producers of the show don’t care about the DVR ratings or the advertisers themselves, but either way I think that there is a lot more value to a DVR viewer then his answer would suggest.

Over the years, I may have fast forwarded my way through more than one commercial break, but I haven’t been able to avoid the product placements that are embedded in the show. I don’t know whether or not the show makes more money from these ads, but I would suspect that they do.

Whether it’s Sears demonstrating the utility of their Craftsmen line of tools or Sprint demonstrating how you can keep in touch with loved ones on their new fancy cell phones, throughout a season there are many times where branding creeps into the show. While some may find this an annoyance, I actually enjoy this type of advertainment and it undoubtedly makes me more willing to spend my money on a brand.

During 2002, 24 introduced several cars during their program and I can tell you with 100% certainty that seeing those cars zip around in that show is what made me seek the out and ultimately buy my Thunderbird. When was the last time anyone could say the same thing about a car commercial?

Furthermore, even though I TiVo the show to watch later, because the program always leaves me wanting more, it drives me to the CBS website where you can view all kinds of clips and interviews that don’t make it to television. Unlike viewers who are tuning into the show online instead of live or on DVR, these clips are additive and include lots of spammy pre-roll ads that I wouldn’t put up with if I didn’t stay excited about the show.

It could be that Survivor is so good that they don’t need to rollover their DVR viewers every season, but by ignoring this opportunity, they are losing the ability to turn their more passive fans into passionate ones. With DVR penetration now exceeding 40% of all viewers, this kind of backwards thinking will ultimately hurt them and the show’s long term chances. So while I can appreciate that a live viewer may be worth more money to the show, I’m going to continue to time shift it, so that advertisers can learn how much more valuable it is to capture my heart for 44 minutes, then it is to hold my attention hostage for 60.

Unable To Raise Money Blockbuster Turns To The Lucrative Used DVD Market


Blockbuster Store Closing
Originally uploaded by Michael Kappel

Poor Blockbuster, even after wiping out their debt via bankruptcy they still can’t seem to figure out the home entertainment market. When he noticed that a nearby Blockbuster was closing down, Dan Rayburn with StreamingMedia.com decided to pop in for some bargains. After a closer look however he noticed that prices for used DVDs were 2 times the cost of a new one at Amazon.

“Apparently Blockbuster doesn’t know what movies rent OR sell for these days. I don’t like seeing a company go under, it puts a lot of people out of jobs, but in this case, as a consumer, one can’t help but be happy to see Blockbuster closing down. Any company that treats consumers as if they are idiots and thinks they don’t already know of other options in the market for getting movies cheaper and in better quality, does not deserve to stay in business.”

Harsh words, but he hits the nail right on the hammer. I get the sense that Blockbuster’s creditors never really took the problems at the company all that seriously. Nevermind having to be crazy to loan them money to begin with, the way they’ve chosen to negotiate is nearly schizophrenic. Even before they went into bankruptcy there were all kinds of mixed signals. Now they can’t seem to figure out whether they want to save the company or just liquidate it for the pocket change that is left. My guess is that they thought they could turn this thing around by raising prices and injecting a little bit of cash, but now that consumers have walked away and are clearly not interested in paying these prices, they are bleeding cash in a bad way.

Fast forward to today and their creditors seem like they are having second thoughts about throwing good money after bad. With each delay, it’s looking increasingly likely that Blockbuster’s bankruptcy will end up getting a sequel (or at least a chapter 11 written.) Blockbuster may try to put what’s left of their company on the auction block, but unless they can prove that they can stop losing money, there’s no way that they’ll get anywhere close to the $300 million they’ll need to survive. My advice for the savvy bargain shoppers . . . hold off on your DVD purchases for six more months so you can take advantage of their real liquidation sale.

FCC’s “Handcuffs” On Comcast Will Allow Internet Rates To Rise At More Than Twice The Average Rate Of Inflation


Screenshot showing Comcast’s current prices in the bay area as of 1/19/2011

I’ve got to hand it to Comcast, it may have taken them a year to get their merger approved, but the “handcuffs” that the transaction will impose may as well have been handed to them on a silver platter. Frankly, I’m less concerned with the monopoly that this will give them on content and more concerned with the monopoly they already have on my internet access, but irregardless of what I think about the merger, the one thing that’s abundantly clear is that the FCC is certainly no friend to the consumer.

Most of the conditions around the Comcast merger seem to deal with content, but the one piece that actually “sounds” like it could help consumers is the requirement that Comcast provide $49.95 stand alone internet access to their customers for the next three years.

On the surface, I like the idea of a price cap, but when you do the math, it’s clear that the FCC has left plenty of room for profits in Comcast’s future.

Because Comcast currently offers stand alone internet access at $40.95 per month (or at they do in the SF bay area), it means that their prices can go up by $9 over the next three years, before they’ll have to worry about hitting the cap. This means that they get to increase rates by 21% to comply with the program.

Ouch, I’m sure that it will be painful to comply with this condition :roll: When you also consider that the price cap is only for 3 years (despite all the other conditions being for 7 years), it means that Comcast could effectively increase rates by 7.3% each year. With the historical rate of inflation around 3.25%, it’s clear that consumers are getting bamboozled on this one.

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.

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?

TiVo Awarded Patent For Closed Captions On A DVR

The Hash Tag Patent

TiVo doesn’t know whether or not their injunction against Dish’s DVR will hold up yet, but that hasn’t stopped them from adding to their patent portfolio in the meantime. In a remarkable filing with the USPTO, TiVo appears to have now won an important patent for displaying closed caption information to DVR customers.

In addition to covering this important feature, TiVo’s latest addition to their portfolio, also appears to encompass enhanced TV services, including a “clip and sling” type technology, that could eventually allow TiVo users to automatically remove commercials from time shifted programs.

According to patent 7,661,121, TiVo now owns the right to use existing closed caption and Enhanced Television (ETV) signaling data to create an interactive experience for their customers. ETV data is metadata that content owners have started to embed into their programming. It’s been used by Cablelabs and is part of the fundamental architecture behind big cable’s sinking “Canoe” DVR advertising venture. While I would suspect that the cable companies also have patents related to how ETV data can be used, it will undoubtedly be another series of rapids that the long delayed project will have to maneuver through.

While the abstract for TiVo’s latest patent is a little vague, if you delve into the details, you start to understand why TiVo would try to seize this particular piece of intellectual property. Essentially, the patent allows TiVo to sync closed caption information (and metadata) from broadcast programs recorded on a DVR and then display that data in an interactive format. This data can be as simple as a menu or closed captioned text or can be as advanced as digital video and sound effects.

From the patent,

“A multimedia device may use closed-caption data patterns to recognize and synchronize to multimedia content streams. The types of data patterns available in closed-caption data are numerous. For instance, distinct data patterns may exist within the actual closed-caption text, the closed-caption control data, as well as well as any other event defined by the closed-caption data. By recognizing distinct patterns within the closed-caption data, a DVR may identify events within the multimedia content stream. One way of recognizing patterns within closed-caption data is by computing hash values representing closed-caption text and identifying patterns of hash value sequences. Thus, according to one embodiment, at a multimedia device, such as a DVR or server, the closed-caption data is parsed and hash values are generated corresponding to the closed-caption data. The hash values are then compiled into hash value sequences associated with particular video programs or segments, and further combined with metadata defining command and control information for processing at multimedia devices. These hash sequences and metadata are provided to multimedia devices such as DVRs in the form of hash value sequence data. The multimedia devices use the hash value sequence data for recognizing and synchronizing to closed-caption data. A matching algorithm is used by the multimedia device to sequentially compare generated hash values from the closed caption data with multiple hash sequences that the multimedia device has stored locally. According to one embodiment, the matching algorithm is implemented through a state machine that processes the generated hash values and reports whether or not a match has occurred with a hash sequence identified by the hash value sequence data. ”

While the patent was only awarded on February 9th, TiVo actually implemented part of this technology years ago. Not only do they already offer a number of different ways to view closed caption data, but if you’ve ever watched a commercial on TiVo from one of their corporate partners, you’ve probably noticed a thumbs up icon that lets you easily subscribe to a show or order more product information.

While TiVo’s current implementation of this technology is admittedly pretty limited, the patent hints that there may be more powerful features going forward.

“”A user can mark off sections of a multimedia program or place points of interest relating to content within the multimedia program. For example, a user may want to mark the best plays of a recording of a football game. Once the user marks the plays, he can send the resulting hash sequences to a friend’s DVR.” [Bold added by me]

One of the reasons why Dish was never able to launch their clip and sling technology was because the content owners threw a hissy fit and threatened to sue the bejesus out them, if they made it easy for consumers to share content. While I don’t know the technical details behind what Sling was trying to accomplish, my sense of the project was that they wanted to let users edit other people’s content and then redistribute digital copies of those clips. The genius behind TiVo’s method is that their method wouldn’t allow anyone to “share content” that wasn’t entirely owned by the customer or TiVo.

“DVR users can distribute their own sets of points of interest for programs to other users. Users can further attach metadata to each point of interest that may cause the DVR to display text to the viewer, e.g., “Isn’t this a great action scene?” The user may also attach metadata to a point of interest that tells the DVR to skip x seconds into the program from that point of interest or display x seconds of the program before skipping to the next point of interest. This allows users to create their own condensed versions of a program that they can distribute to their friends, family, classmates, students, interest group, etc.”

While TiVo uses the example of a clipping highlights from a football game in their patent filing, I’m much more interested in how TiVo customers could potentially use this technology to remove commercials from YOUR programs. If both you and I have already recorded a particular show, there is no copyright violation because we’re both recording content that we already own. By allowing their users to create hash tag data, TiVo would technically own that data and would have the right to distributed that hash tag data to other DVRs without having to worry about content owners accusing them of stealing.

This would make it easy for me (or more likely someone else since I time shift everything ;) ) to easily tag all the commercials in a program and TiVo would then know to auto-skip past the content (commercials) when it saw the tags. TiVo could also use this as a way for live subscribers to tag the end of football and basketball games, so that they wouldn’t get cut off if the game went to overtime.

Another interesting embodiment of this patent would be the combination of live information with time shifted programming. Whenever I watch something a few months old, I always see commercials for upcoming TV shows or movies that are way past their expiration date. Instead of advertisers wasting their money on DVR subscribers, they could use sponsored hash tags to replace an old ad with something more current. Alternatively, if you were time shifting the news, TiVo could use your internet connection to create a live scrolling ticker that could update you on any new developments in the story.

Other potential uses that appear to be covered by the patent would include shows that have choose your own adventure type storylines. Upset about Chuck and Sarah not hooking up? the producers could give fans an alternate storyline to explore and allow viewers to vote on how they want to see the story move forward or TiVo could use this patent to create Blind Date type pop-ups around recorded television. While I tend to prefer my TV clutter free, for events like the state of the union, I can see why people would be interested in having fun facts pop up, addressing the issues that are being discussed.

While we haven’t seen any of these implementations take place today, the mere fact that TiVo was thinking about these options when they filed the patent would seem to suggest that they’ve been quietly innovating behind the scenes. This new patent award won’t necessarily help them in their case against Verizon or AT&T, but it could offer the telcos yet another reason to settle their dispute with TiVo, instead of being forced to place limits on the future of TV.

Battle Of The Media Players

Battle Of The Media Players

See larger view of chart here

While old school media types like to insist that content is king, when it comes to viewing said content, the format and media player can make a big difference in the quality of the user experience. With new options seeming to crop up everyday, I wanted to take a look at a few of the most popular media players (and video destinations) to determine which one is the best for consumers. While individual results may vary, here is the criteria I used to evaluate each one.

Format Support
With so many different formats out there, it’s important that your top media player has robust support. Since consumers shouldn’t have to scour the web to add additional functionality, I did not include any plugins that consumers could use to add greater support. Of all the players listed, the VLC clearly won this category. Whether you’re trying to watch Quicktime movies or play a VOB file, if VLC can’t handle the codec, you probably shouldn’t be trying to play it to begin with. The clear loser in this category was the Netflix Media player. While I have no complaints about the quality of their stream, the DRM restrictions and the requirement for downloading the Silverlight plugin, makes their web player pretty limited.

Ability to Stream Online
When digital movies first came out, you used to have to wait a couple hours for your file to download. With the introduction of streaming support, consumers no longer have to wait more than a few seconds in order to get access to that content. While most video players are able to support this functionality, I felt that Netflix was the clear winner for this category. Not only do their video streams take into account your bandwidth to reduce buffering issues, but they also seem to have the highest video quality when streaming content. The clear loser in this category was the VLC player. While technically, there are ways to use it to stream torrent files while downloading, for the most part the VLC player is designed strictly for offline media.

Ability to Play Offline
A lot of people don’t think that this feature is very important, but as someone who commutes an hour per day by train, being able to view my videos offline is just as important as being able to stream them. Once again, the VLC Player takes top honors due to their ability to handle high definition files and the robustness of their offline support. While Amazon, Netflix and YouTube don’t allow you to easily save files on your laptop, because they offer hardware support, they get a free pass on this one. Hulu on the other hand, ranks at the bottom of this list because they don’t allow consumers to watch a movie unless it’s on an internet connected computer screen.

Auto-Dimmer
In order to create a more cinematic experience, a few media companies have started to incorporate dimmer technology into their players. While Hulu does allow users to black out distractions manually, they don’t do it automatically. DivX on the other hand, will slowly darken the screen outside of your video, to help better focus on what your watching. This really is neat technology and something that I hope will catch on. Since none of the other media players include this functionality, it’s a tie for last place on this one.

Disable Screen Saver
Few things are more annoying than being totally immersed in a film and then BAM, all of a sudden your viewing experience is interrupted by your screensaver popping up. While users can always disable this themselves, it’s easy to forget to do this and cumbersome for media companies to expect them to. DivX, Windows Media Player, Amazon and VLC all take top honors for ensuring a seamless experience. Netflix finishes in a close second place, in part because I’ve noticed that their software will sometimes cause the media toolbar to pop-up when the screensaver tries to activate. At the bottom of this list is Hulu, who actually has the gall to request that their users disable their screensavers themselves, instead of helping to automate this experience.

High Definition Support
While a lot of people advertise high definition support, not all HD is created equally. As broadband pipes continue to get fatter, the ability to support larger and/or more advance compression algorithms is becoming a critical differentiator between various media players. The top honors in this category goes to VLC and DivX for supporting the MKV/H.264 format. The worst player is Real Media who may have pioneered video on the web during dial-up days, but hasn’t aged very well.

One Click Full Screen
While all of the media players reviewed allow for full screen support, some players make it easier for consumers to jump in and out of this experience. Making someone hunt around for a tiny button to maximize their video, just isn’t as friendly as letting them double click on their screen and instantly be able to see the full picture. Amazon, CinemaNow, DivX and Windows Media all make it easy for you to do this. Quicktime on the other hand, actually makes consumers pay money in order to get this functionality . . .

Hardware Support
Consumers used to have to burn their movies to DVD if they wanted to play it on the big screen, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of connected devices that will allow you to easily transfer content to your television. The winner in this category is clearly Netflix. Not only have their pioneered this particular field, but they’ve been able to strike agreements with a wide range of consumer electronic companies. Whether you own a DVR or a video game console, they’ve set the gold standard for watching internet video beyond the monitor. The worst offender is Hulu. Not only are they limited to the web, but they’ve actually fought attempts by innovators like Boxee, to bring their content to the TV set. While their studio owners may have good reasons for trying to keep consumers from cutting the cord, such an anti-consumer stance will only hurt them in the long run.

Subscription, Pay-Per-View or Free Content
With so many different services offering different forms of content, it’s made life pretty difficult for the modern digital consumer. If you want to view new releases, you have to visit Apple, CinemaNow or Amazon. If you want content that doesn’t charge you to experiment, then a subscription to Netflix is the best way to go. If you’re looking for free content, then you should consider Hulu or VLC. While no one seems to have figured out a perfect way to consolidate all three features at once, CinemaNow has done the best job of offering consumers flexibility when it comes to how you want to pay for content. While they don’t offer much in the way of free or ad supported content, they do allow you to rent, purchase or subscribe to various digital packages.

While it’s hard to say that any one media player is THE best, my recommendation for consumers would be a combination of Netflix and the VLC player. Both provide an excellent user experience, as well as high definition support and while your options may be limited on Netflix, they’ve done a good job of integrating their video streams beyond the computer and into a larger hardware eco-system.

How To Replace A Burned Out Lamp In A Sony Wega TV

Lamp Goes Dim

I’m a big fan of internet video, but nothing can replace the big screen high definition experience and while I knew it would happen sooner or later, I still wasn’t fully prepared when my big screen Sony Wega gave a loud pop and ceased to display the magic flickering lights that I’ve fallen in love with.

My first response was one of panic. I knew that it was possible that I might have a burned out bulb, but given some of the issues that other Wega owners have had, I also knew that it might be more serious. After the panic subsided, I started making a few calls to see what it would cost me to bring in a pro. After getting a few quotes, I was shocked at how expensive it can be, just to have a repairman troubleshoot your big screen. While I’ll admit to being tempted to use this as an excuse to make the jump from a rear projector to a flat screen, I also wasn’t ready to give up on my TV just yet.

So with gritty determination, I started wading through the murky waters of the internet, in search of a potential diagnosis. The more research I did, the more apparent it was, that I had in fact exhausted the lovelight inside my television. Luckily, it turns out that this sort of repair is pretty easy for the home gamer to fix, so after finding a generic replacement lamp online, I eagerly waited the opportunity to try my hand at television repair.

Once my lamp arrived there were a few complications, but as long as you know how to use a screwdriver, most people should be able to fix their own Sony Wega, if your lamp goes dark. One complication that I did run into was the difference between replacing a lamp on a Sony Wega compared to other big screen TVs. Most rear projectors require you to replace the lamp from the back of the set, but Sony has flipped it around and requires you to go in from the front.

To help extend the life of your own big screen experience, I present this step by step guide to replacing a burned out lamp in a Sony Wega TV.

The first step is to unplug your TV to make sure that you don’t electrocute yourself. I’m not sure if the Wega retains an electrical charge after your unplug it, but since a lot of home electronics can still give you a shock, I waited 15 minutes before proceeding. The next step is to start taking apart your TV, so you can get into the guts. If you look at the front of the TV, you’ll notice that there is a grey plastic strip right below the screen.

SonyWega

The strip looks like it’s part of the screen, but it actually comes off and if you look at the back of your TV, you’ll see a black knob on both ends of the TV holding this strip attached. While the knobs are big enough that you can unscrew them with just your fingers, a large flat head screwdriver may come in handy when doing this step.

Sony Wega Rear
Click here for large photo

Once you’ve unscrewed these knobs, you can go ahead and pop off the front panel. When you try to pry it off, it may feel like it’s still screwed in, but it’s actually being held in place with two magnets. You don’t want to use so much force that you’ll break the bezel, but you will want to get it a good pull to get it to snap off.

Wega Minus Front Panel

Behind the bezel, right dab smack in middle of the TV, you’ll see two panels that protect the lamp and the guts that power the on/off switch. You’ll need to unscrew the panel protecting the on/off switch first, because the panel protecting the lamp is buried beneath. Once you take out all five screws, you’ll be able to swing both panels open and should see a black box that contains your lamp. This is located directly behind the flimsy plastic shell that is somehow designed to protect you from radiation.

Wega Bulb

When I opened mine, I needed a Torx 10 screwdriver to take the lamp out. Since my replacement lamp included regular screws, I decided to put those in to make future replacements easier. Once you’ve unscrewed the lamp, all you’ll need to do is slide it out and slide the replacement lamp back in.

After you’ve replaced the plastic covers, pop the front panel back into place, tighten the knobs on the back of the TV, and you should be ready to watch some high definition big screen TV again.

While the entire experience was a little intimidating at first, I was really surprise at how easy of a repair this really was. While there was some risk that the replacement lamp wouldn’t have solved my problem, I figured that it wouldn’t kill me to have a spare on hand anyway. Since the cheapest repair technician was asking three times the cost of the lamp, just to diagnose my problem, I felt that this was a cost effective way to deal with the problem.

If you tend to get frustrated by electronic gizmos and gadgets, it may worth calling in a pro, but if you can figure out how to hook up a DVD player to your TV, you should have the skill set to make this kind of repair.

Cut The Cable and Free Your TV

HDTVoA couple of months back, I received my monthly bill from Comcast and almost had a heart attack. Over the course of one month, my bill went up over 50% and while I’ll admit to loving TV more than your average bear, after years of fee increases, it became hard to justify paying over $50 a month for the small handful of channels that I actually watch.

When I called Comcast to inquire about the increase, they told me that instead of extending their “promo” deals like they have in the past, they would rather lose my business than extend my discounted rate. After much hand wringing, I finally decided to cut the cord and figured I could always go back.

Sure enough, less than one week after discontinuing my cable TV service, Comcast had a change of heart and sent out a 12 month promo offer bundled with internet. While the deal looked tempting, I didn’t want to keep trying to play musical chairs when it came to how much I paid for television and I didn’t particularly appreciate Comcast’s policy of screwing existing customers until you actually quit. At first, I tried going cold turkey and figured I’d have withdrawals, but much to my surprise, I found that I didn’t really miss cable TV all that much.

Thanks to sites like Netflix, Megavideo, Amazon and Hulu, it was easy to stay up to date via the laptop and with less distractions, I found that I was actually accomplishing a lot more in my life.

Over the holidays, it became clear that cable TV simply wasn’t offering a very good value for what they were providing. In the past, there’s been talk of allowing consumers to subscribe to channels a la carte, but Comcast has consistently resisted offering this to consumers. As much as my laptop provided a reasonable solution for finding content though, I still felt like I was missing out on the high definition experience that I had grown to love, so after the holidays were over, I purchased an Audiovox HDTVo antenna to see what kind of free OTA signals I could get.

In the past, I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews on HD antenna’s, so I half expected that I’d be taking the product back, but despite a few difficulties in getting it set up, I couldn’t be more pleased with the reception that I’m getting.

When I was a kid, we had a giant antenna mounted on top of our house. Not only was it ugly, but every time a storm blew in, we’d lose all reception. On the good days, we were lucky to get three channels and even then it was intermittent with static. While the price for OTA signals hasn’t changed any, technology sure has.

Not only did my Audiovox antenna allow me to pick up signals that were over 50 miles away from my house, but they provided the signals with incredible clarity. No static, no glitches, just pure high definition goodness. When you throw in the ability to time shift my programs with my TiVo, it creates a remarkable user experience.

In comparing my season passes from cable to post-cable, I found out that there are approximately 15 programs that I’m missing out on. Of those programs, 10 of them are available through Hulu or Netflix. While I do miss some of the Laker games that are broadcast on ESPN and some of the original programing on USA and TBS, with over 45 programs being recording each week, there is more than enough high quality content to keep me busy. If you throw in Netflix’s watch instantly integration via the TiVo, there are another 250 movies or shows that I’ve got waiting in my queue.

While my overall impression of the AudioVox HDTVo antenna was positive, there were a few drawbacks. While the antenna is fairly small, it does look a little obnoxious sitting on my roof. Because of the location of the broadcast towers, in order to capture the signals I could only install it on one side of my house. This makes it hard to camouflage from the neighbors and could present problems to those who live next to tall trees or buildings.

Another difficulty that I had was that the installation instructions were very poorly written. They referred you to web addresses that didn’t exist, didn’t provide the names of each part, but referenced the parts like you were supposed to already know what they were and when I first hooked it up to my TV, I couldn’t get any signals because by five year old HDTV did not include an HD receiver inside of it. Luckily, My HDTiVo did and was able to translate the signals perfectly. I also thought that the name HDTVo was a little bit deceptive and made it seem like this was a product designed specifically for TiVo. While I’m not sure that it would amount to a trademark violation, I do think that the way they’ve chosen to market the antenna could lead to a bit of confusion on the part of consumers.

Despite my frustration setting it up though, the final experience exceeded my expectations and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the product to anyone who are looking for a way to save money on their television. At $65, it takes about 5 weeks before it becomes cheaper than paying Comcast for lackluster service and when you consider that you can save over $600 in the first year that you use it, the savings can add up pretty quick.

That $600 could be spent on two movies a night from Redbox or a Blockbuster rental every other day and I’d still end up ahead. While antennas in the past may have been a disappointment, the new generation of digital antennas make it easy to cut the cord and make it awfully hard to justify the expense of pay television. I don’t expect that we’ll see everybody cancel their cable bill, but if enough people begin to take advantage of this type of equipment, hopefully we’ll see some of the cable companies begin to rethink their fee increases.

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.