On the rising problem of “disappearing content” from online video sites

December 11, 2008

Gotta give some props to Greg Sandoval (pictured at left) at CNET News who did a great piece this week on the seemingly random removal of content from Netflix and iTunes. (see TV has license to kill movies at iTunes, Netflix | Digital Media – CNET News).

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know that “disappearing content” is par for the course. One of my most read posts in the history of this blog is my piece on Why CBS Pulled The Mentalist From CBS.com. I also briefly covered how Sony Pictures apparently pulled certain of its films from Netflix only when viewed through the Xbox 360 (you can still watch them elsewhere). 

I know it’s easy to start throwing snowballs at these guys for not understanding the power of the online channel. I have a few of those snowballs in my arsenal as well. But I have to confess, I consider these stops and starts a good sign.

What? That’s right, this is a good sign. Because if the corporate heavies had their way, none of these movies or TV shows would be available on Netflix, iTunes, CBS.com, the Xbox 360 (you get the picture) in the first place. The fact that they threw too much up there, then realized they didn’t quite have full permission to do so and have had to retrench is a sign that they’re experimenting. Importantly, the fact that they only pulled a few and didn’t just rip the whole thing down is also a good sign. Remember, danger lurks in darkness of media executives’ souls. They’d rather not do the right thing. But the dynamics of the market are forcing them to. Huzzah for us. 

Let them have their fits and starts, let them figure it out as they go along, as long as they keep moving forward.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in.


Apple MacBook won’t let you watch iTunes movies on some displays

November 19, 2008

This one is slowly bubbling to a frenzy. The new aluminum MacBook has turned up the heat on how aggressively it will protect iTunes video content from being output to an external display. In plain English, if you hook your new MacBook up to a display that is not DPDC-compliant, you will get an error message and you will not be able to play the movies you bought on iTunes. For technical details read this excellent summary from Ars Technica, always a reliable source. 

There are many angry posts going around online, including on Apple’s user forums where people are, appropriately, miffed that they can’t watch content they’ve paid for on legitimate devices (notably, projectors and older TVs, anything that requires a conversion from a digital to an analog or non DPDC-compliant digital signal).  My favorite comment on the user forum was from Al Knowles, who said:

Same problem here as well. I guess they want to be sure we HAVE to buy an
Apple TV.
Not gonna happen.
I’ll buy DVD’s at my local retailer before that happens.

Talk about drastic measures! As easy as it would be to flay Apple for this one. I have to point the finger at the people behind this: the movie studios. They are certainly the ones forcing Apple to do this, since Apple has created a very open platform for video that requires downloading entire files in order to view them. Files which the industry fears are then subject to offline manipulation and sharing. This is in contrast to Netflix streaming, which never lets a complete copy of a movie make it onto any device. 

The industry fear is obvious: you’ll rent an HD movie on iTunes, connect it to your DVD recorder instead of your TV and output a permanent copy for your library archive. Or worse, you’ll then make copies for all your friends. So they figured they can just rely on technology to prevent you from connecting to an unapproved device. The rub comes when you find out how many “unapproved” devices are still legitimate — at least from a consumer’s perspective. And in the end, it’s the consumer’s perspective that will determine whether people turn to alternate means to scratch the video itch. And yes, under alternate means I am including piracy.

What about you: bad call for Apple? Is this just the big, bad movie studios? Do you think Apple will have to relent in response to user outcry?


Om Malik tackles web video’s dirty secret: It doesn’t always work

November 19, 2008

Interesting post from Om Malik on GigaOm yesterday pointing out one of the problems with online video that people like me who believe online video is the game changer that VOD and iTunes could never be often gloss over. After trying too hard to find and finally watch a jerky, freezy 60 Minutes interview with Barak Obama, Om rightly says:

There are too many points of failure when it comes to web video. These problems are only going to increase in the near future as more and more of us are going to watch more and more video online.

He’s right, of course. You and I are watching an average of 56 minutes of online video a week. That’s only 3.5% of our total viewing minutes, but it’s rising. The longer you do it, the more likely you are to do it a lot. And once you start watching full-length TV shows online, forget it, you’ll blow right past 56 minutes into 2.5 hours-per-week land. 

People at Akamai have been warning me about this forever. They have their hands on 25% of all the web content in the world. And they see that more online video + more of it at HD (let’s admit, 720p) resolution will take network congestion to new depths. As rhapsodic as I wax about the potential of online video (and I need to confess, in our home we watch at least 10 hours of online video a week between Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and a million viral videos my kids and my wife come across), it is true that it can be spectacularly bad.

Take last night, for example. I recently had been treated to an early preview of some movie trailers at a meeting with Paramount marketing execs. I came home to report to my family on the best of them, including the terribly tasteless but funny Dance Flick. So when the preview finally hit the web, they were eager to check it out. I wasn’t home to witness it, but I was told it was a disaster. The video stuttered and stopped so often that they didn’t come away thinking the movie was nearly as funny as I did, after watching it in large screen glory in a private conference room.

And that’s one of the issues hanging over us: when the video stops and starts, our brains don’t engage the content as fully. The benefits of the medium are lost on us. Advertisers don’t get the intended benefit, content producers suffer from the inability to reach us with their creative output. Oh, yeah, and it’s annoying.

What do you think? Are you generally satisfied with the quality of video you’re watching online? Does it work as well as you think it should?


Netflix finally includes Macs in its streaming plans

October 27, 2008

The word at MacWorld is that the Netflix “instant watching” feature is being upgraded to support Firefox as well as Intel-based Macs. This is something the Netflix blog brought up early on as a goal. The Intel-based part means it’s not exactly Mac-friendly, but Netflix says that three-fourths of their Mac users are based on Intel machines so they’re satisfying the biggest number.

Many Mac people will be angry about this, to be sure. Netflix doesn’t seem to be apologizing, though, and is instead likely to position this as yet another in a log line of devices Netflix intends to support: LG Blu-ray players, Samsung Blu-ray players, the Roku/Netflix box, the Xbox 360, and now, the Mac.

Angry Mac fans aside, this is further evidence that the Netflix people know what they’re doing.

Device by device, Netflix is making its modest little service relatively ubiquitous. Unlike iTunes or MovieLink or anyone else, Netflix is shooting to become the base option in video devices intended for the living room. Very smart move.


Samsung adds Netflix to latest Blu-ray players

October 23, 2008

We’re witnessing the one dramatic change in the world of physical media. Now Samsung has joined LG in making Blu-ray players that also stream Netflix movies and TV shows. This Netflix strategy is the little engine that could:

  • People first said it was weak because the content was so second-string. Netflix has recently fixed that by adding Starz and some Disney movies. 
  • Some complained that a dedicated $99 box from Roku (though priced to sell), wasn’t enough to move the market. However the LG Netflix/Blu-ray player showed that there was real depth to the strategy.
  • The deal with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 to put Netflix content in the game console proved there’s a true multi-platform play there.
  • Now Samsung’s entry shows that this is going to become a big deal across multiple players in the CE and computing world.

Lessee, Netflix 4, everybody else, 1.

With Steve Jobs again this week referring to the Apple TV as a “hobby” in order to downplay previous expectations, this leaves Netflix clearly in the driver’s seat when it comes to over-the-top delivery to the TV. Maybe not in volume yet, but it will.

The biggest issue here is what this means for cable. Netflix has set its sights not on Blockbuster or even on iTunes, but on Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner. The Netflix solution pulls content automatically from your DVD rental queue, provides an easier-to-use interface than VOD, and now has as much good content as a typical VOD system, this makes cable cord-cutting that much more possible.

This Netflix move could prove to be the most important wildcard of 2008. Now if only there wasn’t a recession hanging over these Blu-ray players

Are you Netflixing your TV? Will you? Do tell.


Cutting the cable cord, Part 2

October 13, 2008

This topic keeps coming up. I wrote about it recently and have been hearing more and more from people who do it about how they pull it off. The most common solutions are, in order:

  • Hulu + ABC.com + CBS.com. That covers most of what people watch on TV.
  • Netflix (especially if you have a Roku box, Xbox 360, or directly connect the PC to the TV)
  • iTunes (as one guy said to me, “I spend $10 a month there to get the few things I can’t get elsewhere, still way cheaper than cable”)

And now the newest member on the list, as I wrote recently, the SlingCatcher. (Brent Harrison of SmokeJumping blog agrees here.) By the way, I was surprised the press didn’t really pick that aspect of the SlingCatcher up.

We’ll see if Sling can sell enough in a down economy to have its promised impact.

What about you, what are you doing to cut the cord? If you’re not, why not?


SlingCatcher – the first true cable-killer

October 9, 2008

If you follow the video space, you have been waiting for Sling Media’s SlingCatcher for more than a year now. First announced at CES of 2007, it was hard to tell whether the SlingCatcher was going to be more Apple TV or more SlingBox. It was reannounced at CES of 2008, and now it has finally arrived.

My verdict: This baby was worth the wait.

Sling CEO Blake Krikorian came by the office to demo the box a few weeks back. I was surprised he made the trip out to Boston just to demo the unit. Until I saw the demo. That’s when I realized why: in this case, seeing really is believing.

The SlingCatcher looks like the rest of the Sling family

No, it’s not the Darth Vaderesque unit itself that impresses. It’s the fact that this is the first over-the-top (OTT) set top box that can compete directly with cable. As I’ve recently written, the whole OTT set top category is very challenged. If you have a DVR and a DVD player, you have the killer combination that gives you access to and control over most of what you want to watch. Why get a box like this?

The SlingCatcher answers that question. As I wrote in my OTT ranking report, the number one thing that these boxes need to do to stand a chance is call CBS.com, ABC.com, and Hulu.com and set up deals for content distribution (sorry, CW, I, uh, didn’t have room to include you). With those deals in place, any OTT box would jump light years ahead of the pack and provide the first serious threat to cable at a time when people are already starting to consider cutting the cable cord.

The SlingCatcher does one better: If you have a computer in your home, you can use the SlingProjector software to sling anything from your computer to your TV without Sling having to cut a deal. And as you know, you can find just about everything you like, ad-supported, on your computer these days — prime time shows, classic episodes, even more and more movies (see recent Netflix-Starz deal). For everything else — by which I mean HBO — there’s iTunes, which, guess what, you can also sling to the TV.

For the increasing number of people who watch video on their laptops at home, this is a content boon that is not only rich, but elegant. The SlingProjector software can automatically identify the video image on your screen, so you don’t have to worry about PC menus or the taskbar showing up on your TV. Want to zoom in on just a portion of the screen? Go ahead. Want to play an online game on the big screen? You’re not limited to slinging just video.

Yeah, it’s that innovative. and yeah, this is going to change the game. At $299 (look for it on Amazon), the Catcher is not for everyone, even though it’s cheaper than putting an extra PC in the living room. But the real point is that this SlingCatcher system is ripe to be plucked from the box and embedded in TVs, DVD players, and even game consoles (Wii, anyone?). I expect the phone to be ringing at Sling once Samsung, Philips, and LG figure that out.