Archive for category VOD

Why Doesn’t AMC Want My Money?



AMC Empire
Originally uploaded by imoteph9


Most businesses are thrilled when someone wants to give them money, but for some crazy reason whenever you’re dealing with Hollywoodnomics, logic seems to get turned on it’s head. Case in point: MoviePass

I love the movies, in fact I’d argue that I’ve probably seen more films than 90% of the population. As a moviehound, you would think that I would be one of AMC’s best customer’s, but the truth is that in the last 5 years, I’ve only seen 2 movies in the theater. While there are a lot of reasons why, it essentially boils down to the fact that it’s hard for me to justify paying $9 for a film, when I can watch it at home for free*

Now in reality, my TV isn’t actually free, but psychologically, it feels that way because I “rent” my content through services like Netflix and TiVo. While I’m sure that PPV and Blockbuster would prefer that I take advantage of their services, the simple truth is that the transaction fee involved (no matter how small) has made them persona non grata in my lifestyle.

I’ll be the first to admit that watching a film on my 60″ TV isn’t the same as seeing it in Imax, but when the choice is to pay money vs. seeing something for free*, it makes it a lot harder to accept the premiums that the theaters charge. Four years ago, I noted that consumers were making a transition from a pay per view model to a subscription model and that movie theaters would be wise to endorse the trend.

“Why not offer a monthly subscription fee to your local movie theater chains. Consumers would be happy to spend $30 or $40 per month in order to have the privilege of seeing films the way I did when I worked for the theaters. Instead of collecting $40 per year from me now, theaters could instead bring in $480 each year with an all you can eat model.”

A long time ago, I worked as an AMC projectionist and every Thursday night, I’d stay up to the wee hours of the morning screening the new films before they opened. Because of this experience, I know first hand how powerful a theater subscription model could be, which is why I’m so confused that my former employer wouldn’t recognize the brilliance behind MoviePass. What makes this all you can eat movie experience so special isn’t the access to the big hits that you’re dying to see, it’s being able to see mediocre films in a larger than life environment without having to put your wallet at risk. Yet for some strange reason, AMC isn’t interested in attracting customers to their most empty theaters.

Now I can’t speak for everybody, but in my case, had MoviePass existed back then, AMC would have collected $1,920 in ticket sales. Instead they’ve earned less than $40 from me and that includes popcorn.

Not everybody chooses to rent their content, but when you look at the number of cable, satellite, Hulu, Netflix, etc. subscribers, it becomes clear that a huge segment of society chooses to consume the bulk of their content this way. This is why, when I saw that MoviePass was going to create a subscription theater service, I thought it was a no brainer for the theaters involved.

Instead, AMC decides that they want no part of this? Can someone please help me understand how this makes sense because AMC’s justification that “plans for this program were developed without AMC’s knowledge or input,” or that “it does not integrate well into our programs and could create significant guest experience issues”, rings hollow in my opinion.

AMC could have picked up a brand new customer willing to buy tickets in bulk and instead of nurturing a new source of revenue (while MoviePass assumes the risk of proving an experimental business model), AMC has chosen to ban it because they weren’t consulted first? This seems awfully shortsighted and petty on the part of AMC.

If AMC really believed in the mantra, listen, learn, discuss, decide, execute, measure and … repeat, then they would have at least taken the time to see if MoviePass could bear any fruit. Instead, they’ve jumped straight to an execution (with a promise to repeat if anybody else decides that they want to give them buckets of money without permission.)

I could almost understand this reaction, if AMC had some type of similar program that MoviePass was competing with, but the reality is that AMC has failed dramatically when it comes to the execution of their customer loyalty programs.

For 25 years, AMC ran a program called Summer Movie Camp for kids. The idea was basically a seasonal version of MoviePass, except restricted to handful of old kids movies. Given it’s long run, one would think this was a homerun for the cinema, but I can tell you first hand that AMC did a terrible job of running it. Even on their own website, AMC admits it was a failure.

“Unfortunately, the number of guests has been fewer in recent years, with many shows operating with less than 25 guests in the auditorium. Last year, attendance dropped so significantly that we have made the difficult decision to discontinue the program.”

AMC’s most recent program, also looks like it will be a dud. Not only do consumers now have to pay $12 a year for the privilege of frequent customer membership bonuses, but they only save 10% off for every $100 they spend. This means that you would have to pay to see 33 films in a year before you would actually earn a free one under the program. It’s nice that they want to be so stingy with their best customers, but MoviePass really wouldn’t threaten this.

If MoviePase attracts moviehogs, then it will be uneconomical for them as a business. If they attract consumers like myself, who refuse to pay transaction charges for their entertainment, then it’s complimentary to AMC’s existing program and could greatly expand revenue. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for MoviePass at this point, but with the major theater cartels going hostile against this new innovator, I can only hope that independent theaters will be more interested in collecting hundreds of dollars a year from me instead.

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?

Blockbuster’s Latest Drama Is Political Thriller

Political ThrillerThey say that a good captain will go down with their ship, but what can you say about the guy who climbs on-board after the ship has begun taking on water? Over the last few years, Blockbuster Video has hit iceberg after iceberg and while they’ve avoided capsizing this long, a $300 million looming debt payment may be the final torpedo that sinks the historic brand. Over the last few months, Blockbuster has seen board members flee like rats off of a sinking ship, but at least one shareholder wants to fight to save the company.

Last week, Greg Meyer fired the first shot in a proxy war by submitting paperwork to have his name considered for a position on Blockbuster’s board of directors. To win, he’ll need to take on board of director incumbent, James Crystal. In the proxy filing, Meyer makes a strong case that he is the more qualified candidate for the position.

-In 2001 Meyer started a DVD kiosk business at a time when most thought the idea was crazy. Eventually, DVDXpress was sold to Coinstar and later merged with Redbox. Mr. Crystal on the other hand has spent his career running an insurance company and doesn’t have any DVD industry experience.

-Over the last year, Meyer has put his own money on the line by purchasing over 600,000 Blockbuster shares on the open market, Crystal on the other hand has less than $50,000 worth of Blockbuster’s stock and only because it was given to him for serving on the board of directors.

-While Crystal’s full time job is his insurance business, he also serves on 7 other boards for various insurance companies. Meyer’s only other board position is with a non-profit that uses movies to help reach young kids.

-Perhaps most damaging of all though, is the related transaction between Mr. Crystal and Blockbuster. Last October, Blockbuster made Frank Crystal & Company their exclusive insurance broker for the company. At the same time, Mr. Crystal, who sits on the compensation committee, was helping to award over $1.5 million in bonuses to Blockbuster executives in a year where Blockbuster lost over a half a billion dollars. Given that Blockbuster CEO James Keyes was awarded $400,000 of that bonus, perhaps it isn’t all that surprising to see him come out against Meyer’s nomination.

In a press release, Keyes rejected the idea of adding Meyer to the board and wrote,

“While we have an appreciation for Mr. Gregory Meyer’s investment and interest in the company, those are not sufficient reasons for his candidacy for the board. We are disappointed Mr. Meyer is pursuing a costly and disruptive proxy contest. A proxy contest can only serve as a distraction to the company when attention and resources would be better used in creating value for stakeholders by implementing our strategic plan. We assure all of our constituencies that we remain committed, as always, to doing what is right for our shareholders, debt holders, employees, and customers,”

Distraction or not, it’s understandable that Blockbuster’s shareholders would be disappointed in the current board of directors. Since bringing on Keyes, Blockbuster has seen their stock fall from $4.46 to $0.29 per share. During that time, they’ve seen Netflix and Redbox take market share from them, while they were concentrating on trying to figure out a way to save Circuit City from bankruptcy. Instead of focusing on offering an all you can eat streaming service, Blockbuster spent their operating income on redesigning their stores. Meanwhile, they’ve continued to lose the confidence of both the stock and bond market.

Given that there aren’t many people who’d be willing to run into a burning building in order to save a video store, I reached out to Mr. Meyers to help better understand what he hopes to accomplish with his proxy run. Below is a transcript from our interview.

Davis: I guess the biggest question on my mind is that with Blockbuster clearly hurting pretty bad right now, why you would even want to get involved with the company. You’ve already proven that you can build a DVD business from scratch, what is it about the challenge of turning the company around that appeals to you, instead of using your time and capital to create another new business?

Meyer: When our team was building the DVDXpress business early on, we spent years struggling to make customers aware of the fact that it was possible to rent DVDs from a kiosk and encouraging them to do so. Blockbuster was such a dominant force at the time that we felt like we were constantly swimming upstream against this 900lb gorilla.

Fast forward to today and the tables have turned so that many people say ‘Why would I ever go to Blockbuster?’ I think the pendulum has swung too far and believe there is an enormous amount of intrinsic value within Blockbuster that can be realized with proper guidance and forward-thinking strategic insight. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, everyone knows that Blockbuster means movies, and having such widespread brand awareness is extremely valuable.

Davis: Having served on the front lines of the bond market, what insights does this give you into how the banks and hedge funds might be thinking about Blockbuster’s debt right now? Specifically, what sorts of things do you think that they’d like to see in order to be amenable to restructuring overtures?

Meyer: The perception in the market is that Blockbuster’s subordinated notes will be equitized at the expense of shareholders. I believe there are some intelligent steps that management can take to avoid this outcome, which would obviously be advantageous for shareholders- and I have recently apprised them of one such structure. The Company and its legal and financial advisors need to be thinking about creative solutions to bring the company back to health and not take the easy way out by converting sub debt
to equity unnecessarily. My impression is that the Company and its advisors are looking at this as a zero sum game instead of trying to figure out how to creatively increase the size of the pie for all constituents, which I think is doable. That’s why I think it’s so important to have at least one shareholder advocate on the board.

Davis: You also mentioned in your filing that you’d like to pursue a solution that results in the lowest possible dilution, if any, of shareholders. Given the burden of having to service almost a billion dollars worth of debt, can Blockbuster be competitive in an industry whose competition is cutthroat right now? Can you share any thoughts on your rescue plan for Blockbuster and what it might take to save the company?

Meyer: Blockbuster has some incredibly valuable assets and competitive advantages. In addition to huge brand awareness, the Company has very strong relationships with the Hollywood studios. These studio relationships have become more apparent in the last few months with the Warner, Fox, and Sony supply deals providing Blockbuster with day-and-date availability of new release titles vs. the 28-day delay for other channels. This is a huge advantage relative to Netflix and kiosks competitors, and it’s one that Blockbuster has never had in the past. I think the company has done a reasonable job of communicating this advantage to customers with the recent release of ‘The Blindside’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

The studios are smart- they realize it is in their best interest to have a healthy Blockbuster. Blockbuster spends more money on DVD inventory each year than Netflix and the kiosk operators combined, so they’re a very important source of revenue for the studios. And Blockbuster’s a la carte rental pricing is not viewed to cannibalize sales like some of the other distribution channels. So I view Blockbuster’s relationships with the studios remaining strong over time and think the Company needs to continue to leverage these relationships going forward, particularly as digital delivery replaces physical distribution. Keep in mind that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply in the same way to the digital world as it does to the physical world, so having strong relationships with the studios becomes even more important down the road as the studios have stronger control over who gets their content.

For now, having closed many of its underperforming stores already and amid a significant reduction in overall brick-and-mortar industry capacity, Blockbuster’s physical stores represent a true asset if managed properly that can generate significant cash flow for years to come and act as a bridge to its various future distribution channels rather than an impediment.

Davis: Blockbuster released a press release urging shareholders to reject your advances, saying that they were disappointed that you were pursuing a “costly and disruptive proxy contest” at a time when their efforts should be focused on executing their existing turnaround plan. Do you feel that it’s appropriate for Blockbuster management to publicly respond this way and do you have any concerns that your actions could have any negative consequences by trying to shake up the status quo?

Meyer: The reality is that Blockbuster’s management is making the decision to perpetuate a proxy contest. I find it unconscionable that management would be willing to waste shareholders money to fight a full blown proxy contest to keep a qualified, industry relevant and highly motivated individual off the Board. If James W. Crystal is as valuable as James W. Keyes suggests then I would be happy to serve constructively with him on the board. This does not have to be mutually exclusive. Keep in mind the size of the board has shrunk from 9 to 7 over the past few months due to several departures, so having both of us as directors would actually return the board to a more normal size. But this is a decision that Jim Keyes and the Board has to make as it is out of my hands.

Davis: Beyond the finance side of the equation, is there anything that you feel Blockbuster should be doing to make their product more relevant to consumers?

Meyer: Yes, I think the value proposition to customers can be significantly improved. Look at the smart things that smaller brick-and-mortar video competitors like Family Video (rental) and MovieStop (retail) are doing. These companies have been growing rapidly over the past several years as they’ve figured out how to remain relevant with consumers despite growing competition from Netflix and the kiosk operators. These companies offer a variety of real services to their customers. As one small example, both of these chains offer a ‘Notification Service’ by which they will call or email their customers when a movie or game becomes available for rental or sale, either new or used. This builds goodwill and drives customer traffic. Sometimes a lot of small improvements at the margin add up to a much better experience.

Additionally, these chains have figured out intelligent pricing structures that appeal to the widest possible audience in a manner that still generates profits for the retailer. There is a lot that can be done with pricing to improve both customer satisfaction and profitability.

And of course there are many innovative steps the company can take to serve customers digitally, some of which they’ve started to take with Blockbuster On Demand. The combination of near ubiquitous brand awareness and strong studio relationships has the potential to make Blockbuster a dominant player in digital delivery going forward, but this path needs to be navigated intelligently to ensure success.

Davis: Finally, Carl Ichan previously spent a lot of time and money trying to win board seats and concessions from Blockbuster management. While he ultimately won, his actions haven’t seemed to help the company all that much. Even if you were to win a seat, do you think that you’d have enough influence to create the kind of change that Blockbuster needs in order to save their business?

Meyer: All I can ask for is the opportunity to have my informed opinions heard at the board level and hope that the other directors would act in a rational and objective manner in the best interests of the shareholders.

Since I’m not a Blockbuster shareholder, my vote won’t count in this contest, but I am interested in what other shareholders think, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Will you be voting for Meyer? For Crystal or do you plan to kick all the bums out? While fighting a proxy war can be a distraction and could potentially interfere with Blockbuster’s efforts to restructure their debt, it can also bring hope to a weary shareholder base at a time when things seem hopeless. I don’t think that Meyer can turn the company around single handedly, but as Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe once wrote, “in all things it’s better to hope than to despair.”

Update – In an open letter to shareholders, Meyer calls out James Keyes for perpetuating the proxy contest and reveals that he encouraged Blockbuster to adopt DVD kiosk technology over five years ago. At that time he also pointed out that Blockbuster could have saved $140 million per year by cutting their store hours by three hours per day.

TiVo Granted Patent For The Season Pass

TiVo Season Pass ManagerThe US patent office must have gotten their hard drives unpaused, because hot on the heels of winning a patent related to closed captions on a DVR, TiVo has been awarded another patent at the heart of the DVR experience. With the application having been filed in October of 1999, it took the USPTO over ten years to review and approve their request, but on February 16th, TiVo was given the legal exclusive on season pass technology.

For those of you unfamiliar with how a DVR works, part of their magic is the ability to let you record shows in the future without having to worry about when it’s on. Back in the ole VCR days, you’d typically have to manually tell your gadget what time and channel you wanted it to record, but with TiVo (and other DVRs) they keep track of this information automagically and records your programs whenever it’s scheduled to be on. Because the TV studios tend to schedule all of their good programming at the same time (I’m looking at you Thursday night), there are sometimes conflicts between what you’d like to record and the number of TV tuners available to do it.

To resolve these issues, TiVo created a season pass manager that allows you to prioritize which shows get recorded and which ones don’t. This helps to make sure that I always get to watch Survivor and CSI, even if it means that I sometimes have to skip Community.

From patent 7,665,111,

“The invention correlates an input schedule that tracks the free and occupied time slots for each input source with a space schedule that tracks all currently recorded programs and the programs that have been scheduled to be recorded in the future, to schedule new programs to record and resolve recording conflicts. A program is recorded if at all times between when the recording would be initiated and when it expires, sufficient space is available to hold it. Programs scheduled for recording based on inferred preferences automatically lose all conflict decisions. All scheduling conflicts are resolved as early as possible. Schedule conflicts resulting from the recording of aggregate objects are resolved using the preference weighting of the programs involved. A background scheduler attempts to schedule each preferred program in turn until the list of preferred programs is exhausted or no further opportunity to record is available. A preferred program is scheduled if and only if there are no conflicts with other scheduled programs “

Without the ability to do this, the DVR would be as hard to program as the blinking clock on the front of your VCR. Recognizing how crucial this feature was to the DVR experience, TiVo moved aggressively to patent the feature, before they even rolled out their technology to the public.

In the ten years since then, TiVo’s season pass technology hasn’t really changed all that much. Most of their DVRs now come with two tuners instead of one, but the basic experience has remained the same.

Two improvements, that I’d like to see them make to their season pass manager would be faster processing times for when you want to rearrange your priorities or delete season passes and some kind of a menu that can identify future conflicts even after you’ve already scheduled your program list.

If TiVo introduces a DVR with faster microchips at their March 2nd press event, the long delay after reorganizing your season pass should take care of itself, but making their conflict resolution program a bit more robust would need some kind of a software upgrade.

While TiVo is good at pointing out conflict issues when you first schedule a program, they rely solely on your prioritization list when considering future conflicts. This may ensure that the programs you care about most get recorded, but it can make it difficult to know when you’ve missed an episode because of a scheduling change. In the past this hasn’t been much of an issue because the consumer’s only option would be to wait for a rerun, but with sites like Hulu and Netflix now streaming the repeats, it would be nice to be able to view some kind of a report of what you missed that week, so that you could watch any missed programs online.

While pretty much every single DVR currently uses this embodiment of the season pass manager, TiVo’s latest patent isn’t without a workaround. Because it was invented during a time when cloud computing was an expensive pipe dream, TiVo only patented the client side application of this technology. In other words, as long as the conflict resolution is done remotely on a server, competitors like Microsoft and cable companies could avoid infringement. Of course, this could potentially be a lot more expensive than licensing the patent from TiVo to begin with, but given the current trend towards remote DVR services, the USPTO’s long application process may have made TiVo’s invention obsolete, before they’ll have much of a chance to enforce it.

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.

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.

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.

How To Save Blockbuster

SuperBlockbuster

Ten years ago, Blockbuster video was on top of the world. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was the golden age for the video store. After years of reminders to be kind and rewind, consumers were adopting DVD players en masse and needed a source for their entertainment needs. For better or worse that source was Blockbuster.

With the internet buzz hitting a fevered pitch, Blockbuster was already hard at work creating a digital strategy. Given their dominate position in the video store industry, they even flirted with the idea of buying a small internet start up named Netflix for a mere $50 million.

With the entertainment world seemingly in the palm of their hand, Blockbuster was positioned to make the jump to digital better than anyone, but over the last decade they’ve made a series of blunders that now threatens to bankrupt them today.

Yet, in looking at their rise and fall, it’s easy to make the quick assumption that their problems were a result of technological innovation, but the truth of the matter is that they have no one but themselves to blame for the weak position that they find themselves in today.

Of all their missteps, the biggest blunder was assuming $1 billion in debt, so that Viacom could collect an obscene dividend payment when they sold the company to a naive public. That debt now hangs over them like an albatross across their their neck and has caused them to lose pace with their unencumbered competitors.

With revenues in steep decline, it will only get harder and harder for Blockbuster to continue to meet their obligations under this debt. Without the firepower to compete on a level playing field, their situation will only get worse

With the precariousness of their position becoming increasingly clear, Blockbuster has done everything from paying a high price to refinance their debt to hiring a bankruptcy specialist to help salvage what is left of their business.

Yet, despite the clear and present danger of their situation, Blockbuster has continued to keep their head buried in the sand. Over the years, I’ve offered my fair share of suggestions criticism for how they could improve their business model, but we’re now at a point where a tourniquet won’t save them, they must do massive surgery and Stat!

In an effort to try and preserve a dying part of the entertainment industry, I present to you, my plan to save Blockbuster.

With the future looking pretty bleak for just about any video store, how can a company like Blockbuster save themselves? By sacrificing their media business in exchange for an opportunity to reinvent their retail business.

What I’m proposing would be tricky and the devil really would be in the details, but with the right execution, Blockbuster could shed their legacy of debt, future proof their business and position themselves to take market share, instead of losing it.

Essentially what they’d need to do is create a “good Blockbuster” and a “bad Blockbuster” to isolate their problems.

On one side you would have their DVD by mail program, their DVD kiosks and their digital business. On the other side, you would have Blockbuster’s traditional video store business that so many are quick to write off.

Together, the two businesses are slowly strangling Blockbuster, but split apart, they could free them from the impact of years of stagnation and ineptitude on their part. What I’m proposing is that they spin off their good assets and use that money to pay off their debt.

In the past, Blockbuster tried to launch an aggressive initiative to boost their DVD by mail program, but by doing so, they only ended up cannibalizing their in store customers. As a result, they’ve all but abandoned the program and have allowed their future to slip away.

If an independent Blockbuster.com doesn’t have to worry about that cannibalization, they could focus on going head to head against Netflix. They could create a subscription program for their kiosks that could offer value that Redbox couldn’t match. They could be price competitive without having to worry about their legacy stores. The result would be a smaller Blockbuster with less meaningful revenue, but it would represent profitable revenue instead of losses.

Neither Netflix nor Redbox would be able to offer DVD exchanges at the kiosk level and through the mail, but Blockbuster could capitalize on both strengths. Yes, the company would be a mere sapling in the larger entertainment industry, but Netflix was once a sapling and they’ve been able to grow into a very large oak.

From the video store side of the equation, Blockbuster could focus on what they do best, maximize cash flow while transitioning their stores into a new business. Whether that means turning their stores into modern day Starbucks or a replacement for the now defunct Circuit City, there are still plenty of opportunities for smart and nimble retailers.

To date, Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes has made this transition a priority for the company, but when they are forced to forgo tens of millions in capital expenditures, just so that they can service their debt, it limits how quickly they can make this jump. As a result, they continue to face pressure to close stores instead of turning them into cash flow producing machines.

Given all of the negative media attention, it may be hard to believe, but Blockbuster still does a ton of business. For the first 9 months of 2009, Blockbuster brought in over $1.9 BILLION in revenue. By comparison, Netflix brought in $1.22 billion during the same period. Yet, when you look at the differences in market capitalization, Netflix is over 20 times more valuable than Blockbuster.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Blockbuster would have turned a profit of $38.4 million during that 9 month period, had they been able to ignore their debt. Instead, that $38.4 million profit turned into a loss of $131.6 million for the company. Now you don’t need to have a Phd in math to know that losing over $100+ million per year starts to get expensive fast and perhaps even more damaging than the loss of the cash is the effect that these interest payments are having on their competitive ability.

Instead of being able to invest in their future, they’ve been forced to make cut backs. Instead of retrofitting their stores, they’ve been closing them instead. Instead of stepping up the marketing, they’ve been forced to dial back. The result is that more revenue shifts to Redbox and Netflix and their cost to acquire customers has plummeted. If this trend continues, you don’t need Dr. Doom to tell you that it will be curtains for Blockbuster. They must stop the bleeding and they must stop it now.

Now I know what you are thinking, if Blockbuster is a penny stock today, how are they going to come up with $1.6 billion to pay off their long and short term debt. Part of it comes from the assets that they are holding today. With $980 million in current assets, they should be able to keep a good chunk of their leverage in check. The remaining $620 million worth of debt would be paid off by spinning off their new media divisions.

According to the most recent data, Blockbuster currently has 1.6 million online subscribers. As of last September, they had deployed 1,000 kiosks, but were anticipating that they would have over 10,000 deployed by the end of 2010. While Blockbuster doesn’t break down their digital revenues, I think that it’s reasonable to suggest that this division would be worth anywhere between $25 – $75 million based on their market position and intellectual assets.

If you look at Netflix’s current valuation, it works out to be approximately $255 per subscriber. Assuming that you discount Blockbuster subscribers by 30%, it would value Blockbuster’s DVD by mail business at $285 million.

In February of 09′ Coinstar completed their purchase of Redbox at a valuation of approximately $350 million. At the time, Redbox had 12,500 kiosks suggesting a value of approximately $28,000 per kiosk. Assuming that Blockbuster can get to 10,000 kiosks, even at a 50% discount to what Coinstar paid at the bottom of the market, one could assume that this stake would be worth approximately $140 million without Blockbuster’s legacy stores or debt.

What these numbers suggest is that if Blockbuster were to do a spinoff, it’s easily conceivable that they could raise at least $500 million in the offering. Assuming that they start to market their DVD by mail and get it up to 2.5 million subscribers, it would value their new media business at approximately $660 million.

If they did the spin off in the form of a convertible bond, I believe that this number goes even higher, because bond investors could be given the option to return to their current position, if the spin off flopped.

While this sort of transaction would create a new competitor for Blockbuster Video, by getting rid of their debt, it would enable their stores to become profitable once again, which in turn would make it easier for Mr. Keyes to raise money for the marketing and store improvements that Blockbuster so desperately needs.

While I believe that this rescue plan could make Blockbuster competitive again, I don’t believe that their current management is willing to sell off their future, even if it means saving themselves. Despite all evidence of a dying industry, Keyes continues to insist that the video store is the cornerstone of what they do and has consistently defined Blockbuster’s competitive advantage as being able to offer entertainment across multiple channels. While it’s easy to point to Netflix and Redbox as the source of Blockbuster’s kryptonite, I believe that it is their own unwillingness to let go of the past that is preventing them from being a video superhero of the future. Only time will tell how indestructible they really are, but if they continue down the same path, they’ll end up as a mere footnote in the history of the entertainment industry.

Coming Soon To A Store Near You

Hollywood DivXI know that I’ve been critical of DivX’s efforts to woo Hollywood in the past, but I’ve also got to give them credit for a win when I see one and I think they knocked it out of the park when it comes to Paramount.

Recently, Paramount announced that they were going to be distributing content on USB sticks. At the time, they didn’t say what format it would be in and even on DivX’s conference call there was no mention of this realization of their strategic vision, but Electric Pig is reporting that the Paramount movies will in fact be encoded in DivX.

With only 20,000 memory sticks for sale and at a price of approximately $33 US, Paramount is still clearly in the testing phase, but the fact that they choose DivX demonstrates the clear advantage that DivX has over all of their other digital competitors. They have the only real solution for brick and mortar retailers.

If Paramount tried to do this with a proprietary solution, it wouldn’t work because it wouldn’t give them a way to get that movie to the television. They could try to do it with Apple, but Apple doesn’t have the same reach to the TV, especially in Europe where this is being launched.

To date, most of my thoughts on DivX’s courtship of Hollywood have centered on the futility of trying to win enough support, so that online retailers could adopt their technology for digital distribution. If you can’t get a Disney or UMG to license DivX’s format, it makes it tough for someone like Netflix or Blockbuster to use their codec even with the other 80% of the content owners on board.

The beauty of the USB distribution strategy is that they won’t need 100% industry support in order to move their plans forward. Shelf space is limited as is, all they need is for a single studio to want to take advantage of this and there will be more than enough titles to tempt you with while you are waiting in line at the cash register.

Now I know what many of you are thinking, movies on USB are pretty lame. When Paramount made their announcement, there were more than a few commenters who zinged them for being out of touch with current trends. While there’s no doubt that the world will go digital, I also realize that the major studios aren’t going to abandon the retail partners that deliver the majority of their profits each and every year. It may end up becoming super easy to buy movies straight from your home, but if you have millions of consumers visiting a store each day, you can bet that the studios will want to reach those customers where they are hanging out. The shelf space is too valuable to be abandoned.

DivX on USB also opens up new business models for the studios. Instead of selling three DVDs, they could package all the Godfather films on one stick to justify a higher price tag or they could offer an entire season of television on an 8GB stick instead. If a retailer can sell something for twice the price, they will take smaller margins from the studios for the larger transaction. With the studios under pressure to develop new revenue streams, this will be too tempting for them not to exploit.

There’s no doubt that DVD is moving to Blu-Ray, but DivX memory sticks allow their Hollywood partners to reach consumers who may not have upgraded to high def just yet. With the industry in a state of flux, being able to sell a device that can be read by any computer and over 200 million devices gives DivX broad reach when it comes to the world of disconnected playback.

Paramount may be approaching this market cautiously, but I think people have greatly underestimated the size and the impact that USB films will have. It may not be cutting edge technology, but there are too many powerful companies who need it to succeed for it to fail. At the birth of this industry, it’s encouraging to see Paramount actively supporting their partnership with DivX, instead of just taking a licensing payment and then ignoring what their technology can offer.

USB movies won’t necessarily solve DivX problems with their shifting business model, but it does underscore the significance of the platform that DivX has built. As much as DivX is threatened by the obsolescence of the DVD, they can also benefit from the format shift. So far, they haven’t done a very good job of managing this transition, but this deal proves that even an old dog can learn new tricks. If retailers start asking for DivX as a weapon against Blockbuster and Netflix, other studios might also understand the benefits of using open and popular technology to make more money.