Apple TV vs. Roku vs. SlingBox

April 16, 2009

NOTE: This post is nearly four years old but continues to get traffic, enjoy the read, though I shut down comments years ago because of spam, sorry. In the meantime, please check out my book, Digital Disruption, published Feb 2013 at forr.com/DDbook.

Original post:

This is now the third post I’ve written where I’ve confessed that some unscheduled downtime for health reasons proved to be a marvelous excuse to lay on the couch and watch a lot of TV shows and movies. In my case, I can also claim it’s research because I have to try out all the gadgets in my video setup, which keep changing thanks to upgrades. So in my most recent (and hopefully final) hiatus, I spent some quality time with the Apple TV (hacked to include Boxee), the Roku (recently enhanced with Amazon Unbox capability), and the SlingBox + SlingCatcher combination. Some thoughts:

  • Apple TV still doesn’t float my boat. I did an extensive post on this some weeks back lamenting the fact that this box doesn’t do more than it does because despite repeated attempts to give it a break, I still only find it handy for two things: 1) watching movie previews (which I’m a sucker for, especially anticipating the summer releases), and 2) watching Hulu thanks to Boxee. Now that Boxee has added Pandora streaming — brilliant move, guys — it’s even that much more interesting to me. I personally believe this “hobby” — as Jobs and others at Apple keep calling this product — is headed for the trash pile unless it finds a way to stream ad-supported video and then builds an iPhone-like app store to allow 3rd party development for the box.
  • Roku + Unbox doesn’t do much for me. I’ve written extensively about Roku’s sucker punch, its $99 Netflix box that is so easy to use that it is flying off of Roku’s shelves. And I was genuinely interested in the Amazon Unbox upgrade that happened a few weeks back because I wanted to see how well it was integrated into the experience. The integration is smooth and elegant. However, I found myself questioning the value of the addition. At my fingertips I have 3 ways to get movies on demand: my cable system, Apple TV, and my Roku + Amazon. And they all have similar problems — it’s hard to navigate that many movies effectively unless you’re looking for an obvious choice like the Dark Knight. Though I will admit I used the Roku the most of the three boxes, 99% of it was spent trawling through our queue of 150 Netflix Watch Instantly titles. The fruit: I strongly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a haunting and poignant true tale of a man who suffered a massive stroke that left him with only the use of one eye. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest Netflix Watch Instantly option. While there, do everything you can to avoid Sphere, yet another Sharon Stone movie you don’t need to see.
  • SlingBox + SlingCatcher. The SlingCatcher is a loaner from the people at Sling. I’ve used a demo before and was fully aware of its features, but there is something to be said for having it in your home for an extended visit. Here’s what I learned: 1) the people at Sling can do more with video quality over limited bandwidth than anyone I’ve dealt with. I’ve always been impressed with the SlingPlayer’s ability to give me great quality video over wireless connections at home or on the road. But the SlingCatcher has to do one more thing, it has to be able to sling portions of your computer screen to the SlingCatcher. I fully expected the quality of this experience to be subpar. Uh-huh. It’s remarkable. Take a standard size Hulu window, tell your SlingCatcher you want to sling the video to your TV screen and boom, in a few seconds you’re watching full-screen web video from your computer on your TV with no wires attached. Genius. It’s also relatively impractical, however, so as much as I was thrilled to do it, I haven’t done it spontaneously.

By spontaneous, I mean, when I say to myself, “Hmm, I want to watch some video,” the three responses my brain offers are: the PC, the DVR, and the Roku Box, in that order (the DVR follows the PC because with six children, the competition for the DVR is pretty intense). The others don’t come into it unless I’m trying to test something or my first three options are occupied. Lately, I’ve started supplementing that list with some DVR cheating via SlingBox (no need for SlingCatcher), where I can use my PC to snoop in on the DVR while the kids play the Wii or watch a Blues Clues DVD.

I pay close attention to that spontaneous response because it’s the beginning of a habit that will eventually form.

My habits will form differently than yours (you probably don’t have six wonderful children to shape your environment as I do), so it’s not important what my habits are or even what yours are, but what they are in aggregate. To that end, I will keep surveying our fellow citizens to see what habits are emerging. In the meantime, what early habits and preferences are emerging in your life?

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DVRs threaten the 10pm primetime hour

April 16, 2009
Note: Sorry that posts have been so sparse the past two months. In the few posts I’ve offered during this time you’ll see I keep saying I’ve just gotten over a sickness and will be back to work on the blog. Alas, my never-ending cold turned out to be double-pneumonia so I dropped out for a few weeks to kill it once and for all. I really am back this time! I will do a few posts to catch up on things that happened while I was out, starting with this one.

Last week TiVo shared an analysis of its Stop||Watch ratings service that reveals a likely long-term impact of DVR use. They found that when people have a DVR, the majority of the primetime viewing they do is timeshifted in some way, whether started late to skip commercials or recorded for later viewing. No surprise there. But here’s the interesting tidbit: because people still want to watch the 11pm news in time to go to bed, if someone doesn’t start watching the 8pm and 9pm shows until 9pm, it means the 10pm show is just dumb out of luck. Even if it gets recorded, it is less likely to actually be viewed. 

Is the 10pm hour dead? (Note for Central and Mountain time people, for you, we’re talking about the 9pm hour. In fact, given that C/M shows run on an hour-earlier schedule, one wonders if this same effect is as true in those time zones. Since the urge to go to bed presumably doesn’t strike an hour earlier, maybe these people are more comfortable watching the 9pm show at 10pm in time to catch the evening news at 10:45, still making it to bed shortly after 11pm.)

The most disturbing thing about this whole analysis is it suggests that NBC Universal head Zucker has a crystal ball.

He’s the guy who cut the budget for 10pm programming as well as authorized increased reality programming (say, Deal or No Deal) which is cheaper to produce than ER, which recently had its farewell episode after an amazingly long but dwindling run. He’s also the force behind The Jay Leno Show, the 10pm primetime talkshow that hopes to cheaply fill the slot that — according to TiVo — fewer and fewer people will be watching. So is the Leno effort just a way to cut costs or is it also strategic? This is the hard part to swallow. Gulp. It may actually be a smart move. Yeah, it probably won’t be a ratings killer every night. That’s why NBC is happy it will be cheap to produce. However, once in a while, say, when a ship captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates is booked, the show will become current events, the kind of thing people will want to watch live, joining the few things in the pantheon of TV that are true DVR-busters like sports and news. 

It may turn out that the 10pm hour will become the new Today Show — a cheap way to fill time that periodically strikes it big. And that’s just the first long-term trend in TV that the DVR will force. A bigger question is hanging out there in the balance that remains to be answered, namely, in the future, how will we know which shows we should watch?

Sounds like a silly question, but I’m serious: today you rely on the networks to do all the filtering for you. If the idea is a good one, they’ll invest heavily in it, attract the right talent, promote it heavily, and schedule it in a winning spot. You probably don’t consciously think through all of that, but they certainly do. And we are the beneficiaries of all that sweat and effort. But in a world where we watch hours of TV shows on our PCs and can DVR all of the content coming off the air, how relevant is programming and scheduling? In an all on-demand world, there’s no scheduling at all, leaving you no way to know which shows are worth your time.

What do you think? How will the market signal to us which shows are hot and which are not?

One obvious answer is word of mouth, but what will that look like? One additional trend that will increase under these conditions: the rise of star producers like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. In the old days, you didn’t need to know that Aaron Spelling created your favorite TV shows. That was clout Spelling used behind the scenes. But in the future, more producers will have to take their pitch directly to their fans in the audience, something Whedon has already said he wants to do, as soon as he can figure out a way to fund it.

We’re just at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we not only watch TV, but how we decide what we should watch in the first place. Your suggestions on how this will evolve are more than welcome.


Blockbuster $99 set top box finally available

November 25, 2008

After a brief announcement a few weeks ago that was light on details, Blockbuster today announced it would sell what is calls the MediaPoint, a $99 video-on-demand set top box.

As you can see from the graphic, the slim box is made by 2Wire, a company that typically provides products and platforms like broadband home gateways to help TV service providers deliver media experiences to the home. 

The attractive pricing is required, of course, as the Netflix Player by Roku came in at $99 earlier this year and has made a splash, reaching what I estimate to be nearly 100,000 unit sales (not yet, but probably by year-end). 

Blockbuster is obligated to do the same. But they’ve gone one step further than Netflix in that you don’t actually buy the box.  You pre-pay 25 movie rentals and they give you the box for “free.” This counters the claim by any Netflix fans that the $99 box doesn’t come with free content like the Netflix box appears to. 

We spoke to Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster back in October and he indicated the box wouldn’t be out in time for the holidays, but apparently he changed his mind. You would, too, if you had to endure announcement after announcement about how Netflix content was available through more and more devices, including PCs, Macs, LG Blu-ray players, Samsung Blu-ray players, the Xbox 360, TiVo, the Roku player, and eventually, your mother’s toenail clipper.

Some quick analysis: this is a good move, it is the right time, and the solution is deftly simple. In fact, I don’t know what would stop people from buying this box and placing it right next to the Neflix/Roku box. From one you get classic movies and TV shows, hours of fun for the whole family (including my kids who watch it nearly daily). From the other you get first-run titles, 25 of which you have pre-paid. Remember: if you wanted to rent 25 DVDs at Blockbuster, you would pay the same amount. This saves you the regular trips to the local store.

Some reporters are making a big deal out of how this competes with Blockbuster’s retail locations. I disagree. Anything that brings you closer to a brand is good news for that brand. It might change the way retail appeals to you — they might sell more products, including Blu-ray players and gaming systems — but it doesn’t mean the store goes away.

One last note: The one risk in Blockbuster’s approach is that it’s device-specific, whereas one of the geniuses of the Netflix strategy is that it’s multiplatform. Can BBuster do a deal with the Sony PS3? That device also has a hard drive, so maybe. But Blockbuster direct to the Net-connected TV would require a streaming model, which this isn’t. So some settling of business models is likely to occur as they contemplate streaming, portable video player integration, and adding HD content. All in all, this is a good move for Blockbuster, as long as it is just the first of many advances.


YouTube joins the online TV game late

October 11, 2008

As widely reported yesterday, Google is now going to add full-length TV shows to YouTube. It’s about time. Finally, we can all watch what we really want: MacGyver. See the pilot episode below. Actually, this episode has been online for a month already, and has amassed a whopping 1,023 views. Let’s give MacGyver the Rodney Dangerfield award for Least Respect For An Online TV Debut.

(Note about above video window: this is the pilot episode of MacGyver. But YouTube embedding doesn’t seem to work for full-length episodes so you may get a message saying the video is no longer available, even though it is. Hmmm, YouTube is playing a little catch-up to Hulu.com.)

This is one of those full-circle moments. Remember when the press erroneously labeled Hulu.com (before it was even called Hulu.com) a YouTube killer? This article I dug up from Reuters from March 2007 stopped short of saying “killer” but definitely pitched them as rivals. I went on record in that article disputing that idea:

“It’s not actually going to take away from YouTube because it’s as much about the social experience as the video. So YouTube is going to be fine,” said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research.

I stand by that statement. Clearly, at 5 billion videos a month, YouTube is doing just fine, responsible for 44% of all videos streamed in the US (according to that NYT article above, but probably closer to 25% of minutes, given the short nature of its clips).

But with the tremendous growth of Hulu.com, ABC.com, and the rest, it’s no surprise YouTube would finally give in and put full episodes on; in higher quality than normal YouTube fare; and with ads before, during, and after (what good are those? as Michael Eisner said on stage last week, “Those aren’t commercials, those are credits”). 

The question I got Friday from a major news outlet was: Can YouTube dominate the online TV space? It’s a valid question but the answer is this: No. 

Certainly not as long as CBS and its properties are the primary TV content featured. It’s not a knock — CBS content can rock — but CBS content is everywhere. You can see it on Joost, you can even come across it on IMDB when searching for “MacGyver” (which I’m sure you do nearly daily).  Oh, yeah, and on CBS.com.

The answer is still no even once other network content shows up there — which I’m sure it will eventually, remember Hulu.com offered itself to YouTube from the beginning, an offer which Google CEO Eric Schmidt smugly declined.

There’s little reason for people already on YouTube to interrupt the site’s social, clip-focused experience to watch a full-length episode. And if you hit the Web knowing you want a particular TV show, you’re as likely to go to its home page as you are to go to YouTube.

I’m not saying YouTube won’t stream millions of TV shows. It will. I’d guess at least 25 million in the month of December, roughly half of what NBC.com or a similar site streams in an average month. But it won’t dominate. So put it this way: YouTube won’t be a Hulu.com killer…

Add your thoughts: will you watch full-length episodes on YouTube? (Other than MacGyver, of course, which we know you’ve already watched there).


Panel of online TV heavyweights tells it like it is

October 8, 2008

Last night I had a chance to be the peanut butter and jelly in an impressive online video sandwich. I was spread between Michael Eisner on the one side and a panel of online TV heavyweights on the other. I’ll end the metaphor there before it gets out of hand, but it was a power-packed event, sponsored by Veoh Networks, where I presented the results of a study commissioned by Veoh and performed by Forrester Consulting about online video viewers.  

The panel, moderated by Veoh CEO Steve Mitgang, really packed a punch, with Albert Cheng of ABC, arguably the father of online TV viewing, Amanda Richman, SVP of digital at MediaVest, Greg Clayman (you have to follow the link, trust me), EVP of digital distribution at MTV Networks, Tom Morgan, CSO at Move Networks, and Patrick Keane, CMO of CBS Interactive. 

Pardon the lousy Blackberry photo quality

Pardon the lousy Blackberry photo quality

One highlight came early on when the topic of whether online video was cannibalistic of broadcast content or not. This is a question I get a lot, so it was great to hear them all answer with variations on the same theme:
Albert
TV viewing has never been higher. That’s what you would expect from it, you have a much bigger distribution pipe that used to be constrained and now it’s not. Viewing should go up. 
Greg
We went live with full episodes of South Park recently. Since then, South Park ratings have never been higher. 
Tom
Two hours before a show airs, we see a spike of people catching up on prior episodes. For two hours after the show, another spike where people who missed the show that night and didn’t DVR it can watch it to keep up. These are the shoulders of a show if you will, and they are increasing the audience.
I’ll be writing and speaking about this topic for a while to come, because I agree completely…for now. The day will come when habits move away from appointment viewing and everything becomes on-demand, just as Eisner said earlier in the evening.

Michael Eisner is a funny man

October 7, 2008

On the train home to Boston from an exciting and successful event sponsored by Veoh Networks.
I’ll have more to say tomorrow about the great content we debuted there, but for now let me say how much fun I had listening to Michael Eisner (yes, the former CEO of disney) whose on-stage interview by Brian Steinberg of Advertising Age kicked off the event. He was witty and insightful, a nice combination.

Pardon the lousy quality of my Blackberry shot

Pardon the lousy quality of my Blackberry shot

Some of his most choice comments:

 

On the future of online video and “quality”:

You have to define what quality is. Quality starts with the script.

On the dilemma of whether advertisers will follow the lead of innovative content:

Advertisers always say they want the last big thing. But they really don’t. They say till death do us part, but they’re looking at the person across the street for the next thing.

On online video ad formats:

I don’t get the controversy — 30-second preroll is annoying as hell. Fifteen seconds I can handle.

On the future of on-demand content:

All broadcast and cable will be on demand, except for sports and the final episode of something great. Appointment viewing may still be the biggest business for another 2-3 decades, but on-demand is where it goes.

And for my favorite comment of the day, on the ability of Sarah Palin to generate online video views:

I would hire her today. That wink goes a long way.


Fancast campaign offers new program “grid”

October 6, 2008

I love this take on the old programming grid. You know, the kind you used to look up in your newspaper each morning to see what was on that night? (Flashback: me, in my parents’ room, looking for the E section of the newspaper so I could see if the episode of Three’s Company on that night was new or a rerun.) 

Fancast’s take on it highlights all the reasons why online video is so successful. Instead of 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, and so on on the left side, the row headers read: “Mad Early,” “Whenever I Want,” even “During Work,” (not that anyone would condone such a thing, I’m sure). Not only is the campaign (via email and the Sunday New York Times) witty, but it’s practical — you can filter shows by meaningful categories or click on a show to read more or launch the player. I obviously chose Gilligan’s Island, and was rewarded with a picture of Mary Ann, who I pick over Ginger any day. Wow, that’s effective targeting, Fancast!

This is the kind of consumer-friendly energy that cable MSOs like Comcast (which owns Fancast) aren’t traditionally expected to manifest. But given the likelihood of cable cord-cutting in the coming years (see my post on that), it’s wise for Comcast to start building these consumer connections now.