09 December 2011

Nobody Wants to Interact with a Television

Perhaps the title is a bit of an overstatement, but I continue to be surprised by the continuing interest in interactive television.

My first exposure to interactive television came in 1990 when I worked for NBC which had an investment in a company called The Interactive Network. I got to play with the box which allowed a viewer to do things like play along with Jeopardy! or guess run or pass on a football game. The technology worked just fine. It just wasn't that compelling an experience. The company ran out of money in 1995, having burned through $130 million in 8 years.

Time Warner created the Full Service Network in 1994, which suffered from the same problems - it was too expensive and not that compelling. They shut it down in 1997 after going through about $100 million -- an even more impressive burn rate.

In 1998, L. J. Davis wrote a very compelling book The Billionaire Shell Game: How Cable Baron John Malone and Assorted Corporate Titans Invented a Future Nobody Wanted. Title says it all, really. It is about interactive television.

However, hope spring eternal. Today, cable industry ad sales joint venture Canoe Ventures announced that interactive TV adds have achieved an interaction rate of 1%. That sounds like promising start. However, this comes eight months after Sky Media, the advertising sales arm of UK pay-TV powerhouse BSkyB announced that it was dropping the sale of interactive TV ads because of lack of advertiser demand. Did they stop too soon? No, they had been selling so-called "red button" ads for NINE YEARS.

Sometimes we have a hankering to look up stats during a sporting event, call up county-by-county results on election night, discuss the red carpet looks at the Oscars and yell out the solution to Wheel of Fortune.

But mostly we don't and if we do, we do it on another platform (computer, telephone, Facebook, video game, couch).

At its core, television is an entertainment medium, not an interactive medium. Etymologists will note that the word "to entertain" has Latin roots based on "to hold", as in "to hold in place". In other words, when we are entertained, we don't want to move and act, we want to be held still.



30 November 2011

HBO Go - new info from VideoSchmooze:NYC

Eric Kessler, co-president of HBO, was the first speaker today at VideoNuze's VideoSchmooze:NYC and he shared a number of interesting facts and stories about the HBO Go service. (For those unfamiliar with it, HBO Go is an app or browser-based service which provides HBO subscribers with access to essentially all current series and movies on the service on an on-demand, Internet-delivered basis. The content offering is about 1600 hours and does not include the linear channel.) According to Kessler, the primary motivation was to extend the subscription term for an HBO subscriber. About 10 million people buy HBO each year. Some last for a few months, some stay on forever. The lower the churn (rate of disconnection), the better HBO's revenue and, since it is largely a fixed cost business, the increased revenue disproportionately drops to the bottom line. He put this in the context of HBO using technology in this manner before -- multiplex feeds (now 7 of them) and on demand (typically 150 hours of content).



  • The app launched on May 1, 2011 and launched on the browser a year earlier.
  • About 55% of viewing is on a computer; 45% is on a mobile device (e.g., tablet, smartphone, iPod touch).
  • Of the mobile device viewing, 55% is on the iPad, 25-30% is on the iPhone and the rest is on Android phones (it is on 22 Android smartphone models, but no Android tablets).
  • 70-72% of viewing on Go is to HBO original programs. On the channels originals are 30% of viewing; they are 43% of viewing on demand.
  • The rest of the viewing (30%) is recent movies -- not library titles.
When the service launched on the browser, it only had 400 hours of content and the concept was that seasons of series would move in and out of the window (e.g., this month The Wire Season 3, Sopranos Season 4, Deadwood Season 1; next month The Wire Season 4...). It was well received, but the consistent feedback was "give us everything" -- expectations for online streaming and home video (set by Netflix) were to be able to get most everything in the catalog. You could start with Season 1 of a well-regarded but little seen show like The Wire at any time. Once HBO made this move, it greatly increased the value perception of Go.

One audience question was "does it cannibalize HBO home video?". Kessler laid out the following facts:
  • 50% of home video is from HBO non-subscribers -- Go shouldn't have an impact on that
  • 20% of home video is from HBO subscribers who want to have the physical disc - Go shouldn't have an impact on that
  • subscriptions are 80% of HBO's business and home video is 20%, if some home video gets cannibalized (and DVD sales are declining systemically anyway), then it looks like the benefit is worth the cost
Kessler had little enthusiasm for separating Go from HBO subscriptions sold by multichannel distributors. "HBO customers watch 14% more television than average. They are the last people who are going to cut the cord." Of the 115-117 million TV households, 102 million are multichannel subscribers. "You don't want to undercut the affiliates for a few hundred thousand subs."

Kessler similarly had little enthusiasm for selling HBO programs to any other streaming provider like Netflix -- "It would be like selling to Showtime. They are our competitors."

HBO looks to be doing a great job of building a service that supports the core multichannel subscription television and also addresses that business's greatest weakness - a lack of direct connection with the consumer for the future time when working through the multichannel distributor might not be the only attractive option.

Interestingly, a panelist in a later session, Marcien Jenckes of Comcast noted that as many people watch Dexter via illegal BitTorrent downloads than on its TV home, Showtime. Showtime does have a video streaming service Showtime Anytime, but it does not appear to be as well regarded as HBO's Go.

Updated 1 December 2011 with additional coverage:
VideoNuze (focus on decision to work solely through multichannel distributors)
Multichannel News (focused on cable industry Go-related spats)
Paid Content (focused on impact on, and appeal to, cord-cutters)

28 November 2011

Cord-Nevers are a Bigger Issue than Cord-Cutters

Steffan Anninger of Credit Suisse, as reported in The Hollywood Reporter, made an interesting and perceptive point about the impact of competition from over-the-top video on the multichannel subscription business. Over-the-top video will likely have a much bigger impact on new subscribers choosing not to sign up than it will on current subscribers dropping the service.


Over-the-top video follows the classic example from The Innovator's Dilemma (hat tip, Lost Remote)-- it is not a good substitute for current multichannel video customers (relatively poor picture quality, no household brand cable networks, poor integration with broadcast signals, clunky channel surfing). It does have a few advantages: very cheap, inherently multiplatform and very open to new programmers. Something in that combination may make it attractive to a niche, "foothold" market from which it can expand out with more refined later versions, typically supported by improving technology. Cable-nevers may be that foothold market.

16 November 2011

Sony's "Assault on Cable TV" - Don't Hold Your Breath

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Sony was in discussions with major cable programmers about a service that it would distribute via the Internet to PlayStation 3 game consoles and other Internet-connected Sony devices. Last week the WSJ had a similar story about Dish Network.
Original PS3 on left, new slim PS3 and controller on right
Sony certainly brings a number of things to the over-the-top party, including one of the most used Netflix streaming devices in the PS3, a movie and television studio and a leading seller of televisions, computers and other electronics -- nearly every possible client device.

While many would like to see such a service, it does not look like anyone, including Sony, has found a way to address the three fundamental things that are standing in the way of such an offering:
  1. Some channels do not have the right to transmit their programing (which is often acquired from a third party such as a movie studio) over the "open Internet". "Open" in this case is related to security -- studios are concerned about piracy -- rather than "open platform" the ability to have third party applications and providers running on the network. Something on the open Internet can be reached by anyone with Internet access; something on a close network requires a user to be physically connected to it. I defer the discussion of whether a VPN is closed or open to others.
  2. Sometimes cable/DBS companies actually forbid cable networks from distributing their programming over the Internet, even if such delivery is only to paying subscribers.
  3. One of the other problems is that advertising produced for television/MVPD compensates performers differently than advertising produced for the Internet. The advertisers, not unreasonably, don't want to pay more if a handful of people watch "TV" on the "Internet". One example of this is that MLB Extra Innings on cable contains the local TV commercials; MLB Extra Innings on the Roku box or on your computer does not. No advertising effectively makes the platform much less attractive to all the ad-supported basic cable networks (e.g., ESPN, CNN, USA, Lifetime).
Frequent readers will recognize this list from my post of 5 Nov.

How would we get past these issues? If the FCC declared that an over-the-top video distributor would be regulated as an MVPD, all of these issues would be effectively resolved. Short of that, it will take awhile.


07 November 2011

Comcast, DirecTV No (HBO) Go on Roku

Comcast and DirecTV have decided not to authorize their HBO subscribers to use HBO Go on the Roku platform. They do have deals for HBO Go and they do authorize the app on other platforms (e.g., iPhone, iPad) and it would not cost the distributor or the customer any additional money.
There are two good reasons for this choice: they don't want the competition and don't want the strong programmers to find their own way to the television set, as per my earlier post.
Roku 2 XS with some of the services available on the platform
Below see Rich Greenfield's demo of HBO Go on the Roku box. It does an excellent job of highlighting the difference between HBO Go on the Roku and the lesser experience of HBO on Demand on Time Warner Cable, as seen in the second video.

27 October 2011

Netflix Now 33% of Peak Internet Downstream Traffic

Sandvine, the Internet traffic analysis group, noted in their recent report (.pdf) that Netflix now represents 32.7% of peak Internet downstream traffic in North America. This figure is up from 29.7% in their May report and 20.6% from their report last fall.

Despite all of Netflix's high profile missteps since the spring, no one believes that the video streaming genie is going back into the bottle. If nothing else were driving this trend, there are certainly more iPads and other tablets this fall than last fall and the same is true for Internet-connected game consoles, Blu-Ray players, TVs and Roku boxes.

More interesting the Netflix story is some of the detail in the report.  What Sandvine calls "Real Time Entertainment" represents 60% of peak downstream traffic -- that includes Netflix, but also includes YouTube, Flash Video and real time gaming.  More interesting still is that only 45% of the Real Time Entertainment traffic is going to a computer; 55% is going to a game console, connected TV, tablet or mobile device. Given that a bigger screen requires more data to provide a good looking picture, it isn't mobile devices that are driving this demand for downstream bits.

14 October 2011

Netflix Streaming Performance by ISP

Today Netflix posted an update on its "tech" blog on the average streaming performance for its customers using various ISPs.

For the first time, Netflix broke out Verizon's FiOS internet service from its DSL offering and AT&T's U-Verse internet service from its DSL. Here's the takeways, none of which is a surprise to those familiar with consumer internet service:
  1. Verizon and AT&T's fiber-based services are significantly faster than their DSL services.
  2. Verizon FiOS was the top performer with an average speed slightly above 2,500 kB/sec.
  3. Places 2-7 were held by cable ISPs, with Charter leading the way.
  4. AT&T's U-Verse service scored above all the DSL providers, but behind all but one of the cable modem services (that would be Suddenlink)
  5. Clearwire's mobile broadband service had an average speed materially below that of the poorest performing DSL service (Verizon).
It is my understanding that Netflix is looking at this from the basis of the average streaming customer irrespective of the level of internet service which the subscriber gets. At this point most of these providers are offering several levels of broadband service (e.g., Time Warner Cable in NYC has Basic, Standard, Turbo and Wideband with significant price and performance differences between them), so differences between the cable providers might be more reflective of the mix of internet service levels Netflix subscribers are taking than differences in what each ISP is capable of providing.

Netflix first posted a similar report in January 2011 where they described the methodology employed to come up with these figures.

11 October 2011

HBO Go on Roku - a shot across the bow

In one of the more curious developments in over-the-top, HBO Go, HBO's "TV Everywhere" service, which allows HBO subscribers to view many of the service's programs on their phones and tablets will now be available on TV -- specifically, TVs connected to Roku boxes.
It is not a surprise that the software could be successfully ported to the Roku box. Roku is the most open off all the over-the-top platforms and most over-the-top services are available on it (e.g., Netflix, Amazon Prime and VOD, MLB.TV).

What is surprising is that HBO chose to make it available on Roku. HBO has embraced TV Everywhere, not unwisely, as a means to increase the value of the service to its distributors. Go is not available at all to those without a subscription to HBO via a cable, satellite or telco multichannel TV distributor.

So, if you have to have an HBO "TV subscription" to get Go, why would you need it on the Roku? Isn't it already available on the TV already?

Here's three not-entirely-different use cases that come to mind:
  1. Roku is connected to a TV in your home which does not have a cable box.
  2. Roku is connected to a TV in your vacation home which has Internet access, but not a multichannel subscription.
  3. Roku is connected to a TV in a friend's home which allows you to "share" the subscription.
There may be more (keep the Roku in your suitcase, connect it to a TV when you travel -- if you have access to the inputs on the back of a TV in a hotel).

What is striking to me about this list is that none of these are particularly attractive developments if you are an incumbent multichannel distributor, you know, HBO's primary/only customers.
  1. is creating competition for the sale of an additional set-top box in the home.
  2. creates an alternative to a multichannel subscription in the vacation home and
  3. creates the same alternative for your friend.
What this suggests is that HBO is planning for the day that it can bypass the distributor and establish a direct retail relationship with its customers, like, say, Netflix. A direct relationship would provide HBO with a few obvious benefits.  If HBO retails its service, it has no need to split the retail price with the distributor. If HBO has a direct path to customers, like a broadcaster, it has increased leverage with the distributor in a renewal negotiation. 

More importantly, to my eye is that with a direct customer relationship HBO can get out of being packaged as an "add on" to an increasingly expensive basic cable package. (While it is theoretically possible for a customer to buy the broadcast level of multichannel television service and HBO and skip the expanded basic tier -- requiring a buy through of expanded basic is illegal -- as a practical matter no distributor makes this option particularly easy to buy.) It is a well known fact that each year when basic cable rates go up, many customers "manage" their cable bills by dropping or cutting back on premium services like HBO.

That HBO Go might be the path away from the multichannel distributor is not a new idea. Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of HBO's parent company Time Warner floated this very concept last December. If HBO were primarily interested in supporting distributors' TV Everywhere efforts, it would make it programming available through the distributors' TV Everywhere apps and websites, which, it does not.

To me, that looks like a shot across the bow.

Update (14 October 2011): Colin Dixon of The Diffusion Group makes a good point about another way that  HBO Go on Roku is a shot across the bow of the cable industry. Having your own app is a way of presenting your brand the way that you want it to be seen, instead of being limited by the distributors' hardware limitations and software development.

10 October 2011

Qwikster, we hardly knew ye

Apparently on second thought, Netflix has abandoned its plan to require its customers to use separate websites for the DVD-by-mail business (the stillborn Qwikster) and the streaming business. In the company's blog post, CEO Reed Hastings noted "for many of our members two websites would make things more difficult, so we are going to keep Netflix as one place to go for streaming and DVDs."

That is much better.

The split had been announced less than a month ago (19 September) and was pretty much universally panned, including in my post that day.

Now that Netflix appears to have learned not to point the gun at itself, we remain to see if they can figure out where they should be pointing it.

30 September 2011

TWCable TV iPad app 2.5

Today Time Warner Cable released a new version of its TWCable TV app for iPad. There are a few new tweaks, but little about which to get excited except for the hearing impaired and the lawyers.

According to its blog post, TWC is providing 3 new features in this version: "basic" search (for shows by title), closed captioning and parental controls to block live viewing of certain channels on the app itself.

Search box in upper right corner of the guide



Closed captioning in the settings menu
and in action

and parental controls


In other words, nothing too dramatic. Closed captioning is interesting because in addition to the benefits to the hearing-impaired iPad users, it was one of the things cited by Viacom in its since-dropped legal action against Time Warner Cable as a difference between a TV set and the iPad app.

For my account, there are no new channels available unlike the last iPad app update which added 15.  There are still 87 channels the only change I noticed was that the app now has the HD feed of Cooking Channel SD feed.  Of the 87 channels, 21 are now SD and 2 of those are 21 are services carried in HD on the system (Bloomberg and Sundance).

  1. A&E HD
  2. ABC Family HD
  3. Africa Channel HD
  4. AMC HD
  5. Animal Planet HD
  6. Bio HD
  7. Bloomberg (still SD)
  8. Boomerang (SD)
  9. Bravo HD
  10. Cartoon Network HD
  11. Chiller (SD)
  12. CNBC HD+
  13. CNBC World (SD)
  14. CNN HD
  15. CNN International (SD)
  16. Cooking Channel HD
  17. C-SPAN HD
  18. C-SPAN2 HD
  19. C-SPAN3 HD
  20. Current TV (SD)
  21. Discovery Channel HD
  22. Discovery Fit & Health (SD)
  23. Disney Channel HD
  24. Disney XD HD
  25. DIY HD
  26. E! HD
  27. ESPN Classic (SD) - this service is not on the WatchESPN app
  28. ESPNews HD
  29. EWTN SD
  30. Food Network HD
  31. Fox Business HD
  32. Fox News HD
  33. FX HD
  34. G4 HD
  35. Galavision HD
  36. Gol TV HD
  37. Golf HD
  38. Gospel Music HD
  39. Great American Country (SD)
  40. GSN (looks like HD)
  41. Hallmark Channel HD
  42. HGTV HD
  43. History HD
  44. History International HD
  45. HLN HD
  46. Home Shopping Network HD
  47. Hub HD
  48. IFC HD
  49. Investigation Discovery HD
  50. Jewelry Television by ACN (SD) -- the weird branding continues
  51. Jewish Life TV (SD)
  52. Lifetime HD
  53. Lifetime Movie Network HD
  54. Lifetime Real Women (SD)
  55. Mav TV HD
  56. Military Channel (SD)
  57. MSNBC HD
  58. Mun2 (SD)
  59. National Geographic HD
  60. National Geographic Wild HD
  61. NY1 News HD
  62. NY1 Noticias for Time Warner (SD) -- odd "for TW" branding continues
  63. Oprah Winfrey Network HD
  64. Ovation (SD) looks like HD
  65. Oxygen HD
  66. Planet Green HD
  67. QVC HD
  68. Reelz Channel HD
  69. Science HD
  70. Shop NBC (SD)
  71. Sleuth (SD)
  72. Smithsonian HD
  73. SoapNet (SD)
  74. Style HD
  75. Sundance (still, oddly SD)
  76. SyFy HD
  77. Tennis Channel HD
  78. TLC HD
  79. Travel Channel HD
  80. TruTV HD
  81. Turner Classic Movies HD
  82. TV Guide HD
  83. TV One HD
  84. Universal HD
  85. USA HD
  86. WE tv HD
  87. Word Network (SD)
This is version 2.5.4474 of the app.

Sayonara, Sezmi

Sezmi announced earlier this week that they are suspending consumer service. This adds another company to the carnage of trying to compete with cable (and DBS) head-on with an incomplete service (see USDTV, Voom and MMDS more generally).

Sezmi started with grand ambitions, but realized few of them. The initial vision was the create a super set-top box that would unite cable networks and Internet video content. The cable networks would be transmitted via unused digital broadcast spectrum (similar to USDTV) and VOD content would be delivered via the Internet. The box itself would have a large-capacity, sophisticated DVR.

The Internet portion of the service is the strategy that TiVo has embraced without huge success and they started with the best DVR in the world.

Sezmi had basically two tiers. After you bought their proprietary hardware (for $149-299 depending on when you bought it), the basic service was $5 per month and got you over-the-air broadcast stations and access to Internet-delivered VOD (some free, most paid). In other words, buy our hardware and then get something that usually costs nothing (free broadcast and the right to buy transactional VOD). That's not a great start on value.

The cable networks that Sezmi offered (via the Select Plus service for $20 additional above the basic package) included Animal Planet, Bravo, Cartoon, CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, MSNBC, MTV, Nickelodeon, Oxygen, TBS, TCM, TLC, TNT, USA and VH1. The smattering of channels did not suggest targeting of any particular audience. As HD became increasingly popular, having only the SD feeds of cable channels became increasingly less attractive. As USDTV found, relying on the broadcast spectrum meant capacity for linear channels was inherently very limited, making the selection of channels even more important.

To a large extent, Sezmi's hand may have been forced by the top programmers who typically bundle their channels together. Few customers think about what they like as "Viacom's channels", "Turner's channels" or "NBC Universal's channels". Lack of focus is a problem for multichannel competitors -- if you are not going to be all things to all people, you better be able to superserve a niche.

The "who is the target" issue was not confined to its cable network selection: the limitation of SD cable networks suggests a low-end TV target, but Sezmi's high-capacity (1TB) DVR was a notably high-end item.

I started to think the Sezmi was going about things the wrong way when they hired Perry Simon as head of content. He was a former NBC programming executive. In other words, he's someone who knows about acquiring individual programs. Sezmi, however, was in the multichannel distribution business. It seemed like an odd fit.

With multichannel distribution at about 90%, there is probably not a lot of the market that is interested in multichannel service that does not already subscribe. A service that is supposed to save money will have a tough time competing with low-cost "introductory" offers from triple-play providers.

For someone looking for an alternative to cable TV, to pick one, the "old Netflix" with a $60 Roku box and a $9.99 per month 1-DVD-plus-streaming subscription and an over-the-air antenna was a less expensive, more flexible and easier-to-understand solution.

Sezmi made other missteps, well documented by Ryan Lawler at GigaOm.  The Los Angeles Times noted in its article on the company's retreat from the consumer business: "What made Sezmi promising was that, like the satellite operators, it had found a way to eliminate the investment in wires. But it's hard to compete with cable if you can't offer a complete alternative, and Sezmi's channel lineup had a lot of missing pieces."

19 September 2011

Old Neflix = New Netflix + Qwikster?

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has had a bad few months and he probably made his situation worse today.

A short time ago, the company enjoyed great growth, great word of mouth and, not surprisingly, a frothy stock price. Then he made the decision to upset the apple cart -- separating the streaming and DVD-by-mail businesses, effectively raising the price dramatically (60%) for the most popular combination package.

I've covered the motivation for the changes in this earlier post and another commentator did a nice job on the same subject. Irrespective of the motivation, the changes were not well received.

Today's news, delivered by Hastings via email to Netflix subscribers and blog post, is an explanation/apology -- not for raising the prices, but for communicating poorly.  And the "solution" Netflix is providing is to split the DVD-by-mail business off into its own brand and website: Qwikster.

Uh, that's not a solution, that's a bigger problem.

As a subscriber to both -- which I think should be a good thing for N+Q and behavior it should reward -- this reduces the functionality of the services. Now I have to search in two places for the content that I want.  I have to log into two sites to check my queues.  It is a significant step backwards for user friendliness with no offsetting consumer benefit.

So why do it?  I do agree that this will make it easier to talk about the two parts of the company. If the company is going to spin-off the Qwikster business, the new brand name and division makes sense.

However, I'm not sure the spin-off makes as much sense.

The great thing about the DVD-by-mail business is that there is a natural marketplace constraint on the cost of content. Netflix, er, Qwikster, always has the option to buy DVDs at retail prices and is then not subject to the studio's request for a 28-day holdback.  This option sets a floor for "how bad a deal" Qwikster can get in any content negotiation.  That's not that bad a floor -- to the extent a studio raises retail prices on DVDs, it impacts its sales -- it has a natural equilibrium.  With the 28-day holdback, Qwikster always has something with which to negotiate for a more favorable price per DVD (it could even offer a longer holdback to get a better price). Note that for newer titles Netflix usually does not provide a retail DVD version of the movie (with the DVD extras), but a vanilla disc with only the movie itself, another concession the studios can only earn at the bargaining table.  The DVD-by-mail business also has wonderful barriers to entry -- it is expensive to run warehouses and process all this mail. It is true that the physical disc sales business is probably mature, but that's been true for a long time.  Negotiating for content is always easier when you are a bigger customer. The risk of a shutdown of the postal service is probably manageable.

The streaming business was an easy win for Netflix in the short term, but I'm not sure that is the case in the long term. It appears that Netflix thought, perhaps naively, that they could pass along the postage savings to the studio and make everyone happy. However, anyone who has dealt with the studios knows that they are rarely happy for long. Streaming Netflix has to negotiate for all content with no floor.  This means that it is likely there will be content interruptions as the parties try to sort out appropriate pricing. There are small barriers to entry into the streaming business -- a competitor only need to create a website and an app to run on Roku or an Internet-connected TV or Blu-Ray player. Several companies already have this infrastructure (e.g., Amazon, Apple/iTunes, Walmart/Vudu, Sony/Crackle, BestBuy/Cinema Now, Dish/Blockbuster). While Netflix has scale advantages on all of its competitors now and for the immediate future, none of the studios have any interest in providing Netflix sustainable competitive advantages in this arena. A spin-off also breaks a bigger customer into two smaller customers which is not usually advantageous in a negotiation. The over-the-top streaming business also has the looming threat of user bandwidth caps becoming widespread in the US (the way they are already in Canada). If you are a studio, you want the streaming business to have several viable options for consumers, all of which compete fiercely with each other for market share and make do on slim margins.

Streaming may be the future, but that barreling towards that future might be premature.

My former colleague Will Richmond did a fine job summarizing this several days ago:  "It's still a mystery to me why the company felt compelled to split its services and hike prices so quickly given the clear benefits of the DVD plus streaming value proposition that nobody else could offer. Even more puzzling was that the price increase offered zero new value as an offset. For 2 years, no company has epitomized the potential disruption of the video industry more than Netflix. Now the tide has turned and Netflix must confront its own challenges."

Today, Netflix added a few more challenges for itself to confront.

16 September 2011

One Simple Way to Improve Roku, Apple TV and Over-the-Top in General

When I first got my Roku box I felt some of the giddy sense of possibility I remembered from my first use of the World Wide Web back in the 1990s. Here was an entirely open, easy to use platform that could bring any kind of content to my television. I thought that this box could have a real impact on the television business.
That's not to say that the Roku doesn't have drawbacks. The setup is not hard, nor is adding channels, but the process is a bit arcane. The video quality fluctuates, at least over my wifi and cable modem.

However, the biggest user experience clunkiness relative to a multichannel video subscription is that it is difficult to switch between programs both within the Roku environment (e.g., between Netlfix and MLB.TV) and between the Roku environment and cable.

Channel surfing is the way many people watch ad-supported television, particularly live television.

If I'm watching a baseball game from MLB.TV and it is in commercial, I'd like to catch a few minutes of one of the things in my Netflix queue. Last night it took me 10 button pushes to get there and another 8 button pushes to get back. (The problem would be worse if I had not moved MLB and Netflix to be right next to each other on the channel lineup -- tip: use the * button to do that).  The reason it took so many clicks was partially a function of how far down the list my baseball game and Netflix show were, but I can't control that.  Oh and each time a new app or program loads, that takes some refresh time.  In short, it isn't a very good experience.

For all its well-deserved user-friendliness, the not-open, but otherwise similar Apple TV, is no better in facilitating, er..., stream surfing.
A bookmarking system would seem like an easy way to solve this. Perhaps this functionality needs to sit in the operating system level -- I don't know, I'm not a software developer. I do know that consumers would find it valuable.

The second problem, switching between the Roku environment and cable (or DBS or over-the-air) is a thornier one. If the geniuses who developed Google TV used an IR blaster as the way to solve the problem, that's not a good sign. IR blasters are notoriously finicky (Nilay Patel: "It's really simple: any product that requires IR blaster control of a cable box is doomed to fail.") We are awaiting a better solution.

In the event that cable and broadcast programming is available over-the-top (e.g., Bamboom, ivi or maybe even via TV Everywhere), maybe the second problem doesn't have to be solved, but the first one deserves some immediate attention.

From a different perspective, a cable set-top box that brings in over-the-top apps would seem to have an enormous head start at solving both problems and creating the best user experience.

02 September 2011

Starz Walks Away From Netflix

Yesterday Starz and Netflix issued dueling press releases/statements about the end of their affiliation relationship.  The story was first, and most comprehensively, reported in the Los Angeles Times's Company Town blog.

Some are confused about how Starz could walk away from a reported $300 million annual rights fee, up from $30 million annually in its 3-year deal which expires in February 2012.

According to the LA Times story, the dealbreaker was the Starz wanted Netflix to charge extra for subscribers to have access to the Starz content.  This extra price tier content more closely tracks the cable model where Starz is an add-on to basic.  Also, It is not an unusual clause in studio "output agreements" that channels that air movies sold in the "premium window" (which is after theatrical and VOD, but before broadcast and basic cable) cannot be carried on the basic tier.  The theory is that broader exposure will diminish their value for later windows.  However, clearly Starz's movies had been part of Netflix's "basic" offering all along. That position however might no longer have been sustainable as the service grew.

Starz probably had some issues with cable operators about its presence on the Netflix platform. Cable operators are never enthusiastic about additional competition. Time Warner Cable said that it would not carry Epix, a competing pay service, after Epix did a deal with Netflix. While I do not know of any cable operator that has dropped Starz because of its availability on Netflix, it would not be surprising if they did not market Starz as heavily as HBO or Showtime. Since premium channels often sell for $10-15 or more via cable, Netflix's $7.99 streaming offer became a less expensive way to get the content. Unlike HBO or Showtime, that have high profile original programs that become watercooler discussion items, Starz's originals do not have the same profile. In fact, Starz withholds its originals for 90 days from Netflix, playing this card in an attempt to mollify the cable guys. It is unclear how much value that card holds, however.

One of the oddest decisions in the Netflix-Starz relationship is that all of the content was branded as Starz.  Since Netflix subscribers search movies by genre and title first, labeling movies as "Starz Play" was always odd. It is hard to see how it supported sampling, you could only sample it if you were already buying a service that included it!  Having Netflix have the Starz brand on the movies I believe undermines the value of the service to cable operators. So why does Starz do it? It may be a requirement of their studio deals. Starz has the right to show the movies on its Starz channels and can provide VOD access to customers who get the channels. Starz probably does not have the right to sublicense them or include them in a differently-branded environment. This is probably why you can watch only one of the seventeen Starz channels live via the Netflix website; the movies are acquired for the channels, Starz can only sell them to distributors in a package.

Netflix has done a great job establishing its own brand. Netflix is the programmer, aggregating stuff from lots of sources. While some have compared Netflix to Comcast or another MVPD, it isn't, as my former colleague Bruce Leichtman noted. It is a programmer. It acquires individual programs, not packaged, branded channels. Cable operators do this rarely places ("Free Movies on Demand").  A cable operator who drops a popular channel loses the content and the brand; there is no easy substitute for Nickelodeon, MTV or ESPN (and the dropped channel will be carried by competing multichannel distributors). Netflix losing Starz is more like MTV canceling a show -- that happens all the time, it is rarely news. Programs always change within a brand. (The only brands that rarely survive such a change are regional sports networks that lose their primary pro or college games, like Detroit's ProAm Sports System. Netflix does not appear to be one of those.)

What happens? A cynic would note that Starz issued the press release and Netflix did not and wonder if this is a negotiating ploy by Starz, six months before the expiration of the agreement.  There is plenty of time for the parties to reach an agreement, particularly if the extra cost tier issue is not truly a deal breaker. Starz's press release is certainly a way to put pressure on Netflix. If Starz really intends to walk away, it could have done so quietly at the expiration of the deal.

30 August 2011

In Praise of the DVR's Incredible User-Friendliness

Compared to many new technologies, it is astounding how user-friendly the generic, cable box DVR is.  Other TV or online technologies could learn from its lessons.

The DVR has one truly great user-friendly feature - the list of recorded shows.  The beauty of this feature is a direct result of the DVR's limitations.  There are a limited number of shows (because hard drive space is limited) and the shows are all relevant to the user (because he or she chose to record them).  This list is easy to navigate (because it is short) and highly personalized.

The list of recorded shows will be easy to navigate from any phone capable of playing video.  The phone's small screen is up to the task of navigating through this simple list.  This becomes a simple and valuable implementation of TV Everywhere once the DVR storage moves to "the cloud".

The contrast with cable VOD and the current, early TV Everywhere offerings could not be more striking.

23 August 2011

NFL Sunday Ticket without DirecTV

DirecTV, which has exclusive rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, will be selling the subscription package to any non-DirecTV subscriber for the first time this fall.  In an interview with Multichannel News, Alex Kaplan, DirecTV's Senior Director of Product Management, said that "It's our attempt to open up the universe a bit to people that can't get DirecTV -- students, people who live in big apartment buildings and people who live in New York City -- and it's a new revenue stream for us."

NFL Sunday Ticket via the PlayStation 3 will be cost $339.95 for the season; the package sells for $334.95 on DirecTV.

Letting Others Get Your Crown Jewel - Is that Smart?

It is a widely held belief that the main purpose of Sunday Ticket exclusivity for DirecTV was to attract customers to its platform (instead of cable, Dish or telco video services.  It is well known that NFL Sunday Ticket is, if not a loss leader, does not generate a whole lot of margin for DirecTV.

Making Sunday Ticket available to non-subs, is, at least, a little odd.  It is hard to imagine Cablevision providing News 12 over-the-top to Verizon customers.

Cable operators have long coveted access to Sunday Ticket (no one likes to be the platform WITHOUT a top quality programming service). It seems that if the package is available to cable customers over-the-top, by definition it is no longer is as much of competitive differentiator for DirecTV.

DirecTV's Kaplan says the target is residents in cities like New York, where tall buildings prevent a clear signal for satellites, and video-game playing college students. “There are real revenue opportunities here from non-DirecTV customers, and while they won’t sign up for DirecTV right away, ultimately these people could move to the suburbs, and we’ll have a relationship with them that could lead to a conversion to DirecTV,” said Kaplan.

That sounds fine, if the PS3 is more penetrated in New York City or college campuses, but I think most of the PS3s are probably in the suburbs.

Why PS3?  What About Other Platforms?  We Are in an Experimenting Age

The NFL has argued that Sunday Ticket has a minimal cannibalizing effect on the viewership on the nationally telecast games because its availability is limited to DirecTV. That's important because the vast majority of NFL television revenue is from Fox, ABC/ESPN and NBC, not DirecTV.

However, if the goal was experimentation, the PS3 is an odd choice.  The PS3 accounts for more streaming hours for Netflix than any of its other platforms -- 30% of the total, according to an analysis by Sandvine; this choice was the not obvious toe-in-the-water play, that say, Roku, would have been.

Eagle-eyed observers will note that DirecTV has offered Sunday Ticket via broadband already with Sunday Ticket To Go, a $50 add-on for DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers that has been offered since 2008.  STTG is available on iOS, BlackBerry, Android, other consoles, etc.

DirecTV did make Sunday Ticket To Go available to DirecTV non-subscribers in 2009 (in Manhattan) and 2010 (everywhere), but this offer was only available to people who could not subscribe to DirecTV service.  In fact, a prospective customer would have to first sign up for DirecTV, then be rejected by a DirecTV installer.

DirecTV's Kaplan's other interesting comment in the interview is that "We're not going to let it [NFL Sunday Ticket subscriptions on PlayStation] go to an unlimited number.  We're trying to figure out what is the market for this at that price point."  Confusingly, in a later interview with Bloomberg, he added “If this test is successful, we have the opportunity to distribute ‘Sunday Ticket’ through various different devices, and we’re certainly open to relationships with other consoles and Internet-connected devices.”

Perhaps DirecTV thinks that they have already picked off all of the viable satellite television customers who really valued Sunday Ticket. It could be that the real test is less about the incremental revenue the broadband offering will bring, but whether the existing DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers will churn out at any greater rate if Sunday Ticket is available over-the-top.

08 August 2011

Tangible Evidence of "Cord Shaving"

The title of this post is provocative, but it is not as provocative as the content that inspired it.

For many years, cable executives and some industry analysts have downplayed the impact of cord-cutting on the multichannel subscription television business. The arguments have some merits. Multichannel penetration continues to rise each quarter. Broadcast has been free competition for cable television forever. The most popular online video is YouTube, which, while a wonderful service, is not a substitute for a television subscription, except in the sense that people watch television and people watch YouTube. Netflix, even in its DVD-by-mail incarnation, got a lot closer to being a substitute. The programming (movies and TV series) was the sort of thing that people watched on TV. It did offer a large amount of choice -- one of the primary virtues of a multichannel subscription versus broadcast television. It was an all-you-can-eat subscription that offered a lot of value for heavy users (or multiple person households). Netflix was seen as a good service for "cord shavers" who might drop premium channels like HBO and Showtime and get their movie fix from the company with the red envelopes.

For those waiting for the multichannel television business to be roiled the way that the music business was, the first big cracks were admitted last week. The dirty little secret is porn.  Porn on cable was a wonderful business.  The retail prices were high, the marketing costs were low (consumers who want it seek it out) and the wholesale costs were modest (there are lots of companies that make porn and the cable companies easily pit them against each other; also there are few barriers to entry in the porn business and it requires little capital, so new suppliers are always entering the market).

Multichannel distributors never talked much about porn in their earnings calls before.  The subject was considered...in poor taste.

Time Warner Cable and DirecTV were forced to admit that the reason for the declines in their VOD business were large declines in the sale of porn.

It is no wonder that porn is the canary in the coal mine. Anonymity is a plus for consumers (no need to explain the VOD purchase on the cable bill is a plus in many households). Short form content is often a good substitute for long form content in this genre (most long form content could be considered a compilation of scenes -- the unit of payment for the performers). A relatively small amount of the porn market is branded (Playboy, which doesn't consider what it provides as porn, is the strongest brand name in "adult video"). Also, there is a tremendous supply of free content on the Internet.

What is the next genre to be cord shaved? Many categories of news seem to share these characteristics:  weather information, sports highlights, entertainment news are some of the more obvious examples.  These sorts of services (The Weather Channel, ESPNews, E!) do have the advantage of being bundled on the basic tier, rather than being a separate purchase, for consumers. These channels are also bundled with other channels for sale to the distributor. Therefore they are not easy to drop, even if their value to the bundle is declining. But it sure looks like their value to the bundle is, in fact, declining.

29 July 2011

Netflix price increase - an experiment?

I have been surprised in reading all of the coverage of Netflix's new pricing scheme, that nothing I read  has pointed out a possible reason for the new structure -- to create two distinct products, one DVD-by-mail and one streaming.  This is one way, perhaps the only real way, for the company to really understand how consumers value the two offerings.

When Netflix launched streaming in 2007, it was positioned as added-value for the mail-based subscription offering.  This brought a number of benefits.  First, it created broad exposure to the service (because every Netflix subscriber has to have access to an Internet connection to manage one's queue, if nothing else).  Second, because the streaming offering was meagre at first, it wasn't a product that could really stand on its own anyway.  Third, when it was launched it only worked on Internet Explorer on Windows PCs -- Macs, Roku, Xbox, Playstation, connected Blu-Rays and TVs, iPhone and ubiquity came later (and added tremendously to the value). Finally, Netflix probably had no idea how popular the streaming option would be.

Watch Instantly became much more attractive with its deal with Starz in 2008, which brought Watch Instantly premium-window movies -- much higher profile content than its streaming offering had offered up to that point (and arguably the best streaming stuff on the service today).  The explosive growth of the service's subscriber base since 2007 certainly suggests that streaming has had a lot of value (end 2Q07 sub count was 6.7 million; end 2Q11 paid sub count was 23.3 million - yowzah!)

Now, by creating two different subscriptions, Netflix will get some real data on how its customers value the different offerings.   Right now, Netflix has extensive data in how they use the services (time spent watching streams, DVDs ordered per month, platforms used for watching those streams), but, as many people know, there is no test for how people really value a service than actually paying cash for it.

To the extent that Netflix wants to add live television channels (like, say Epix or Starz or Disney Channel, for starters -- ad -supported services will be trickier because advertising has different rights issues), they would prefer to have a subscriber count that does not include people who only use and value the mail-based service.

That said, an effective 60% increase for those, like myself, on the one-DVD-unlimited plan sure seems like a big, big jump.  But that is a discussion on which many others have already commented.

25 July 2011

TWCable iPad App revised - what's new in 2.0

On 7 July 2011, Time Warner Cable released its second version of its popular and within-the-industry controversial iPad app.  The app take some major steps forward adding significant functionality, but seems very much like a work-in-progress rather that a polished piece of software.


The first noticeable change in the 2.0 TWCable TV iPad app is that its splash screen is now purple, unlike the avocado shade of 1.0 (my review here).  Branding people will note that TWC's web site is blue with a white logo, some of its trucks are painted with a lime-colored logo on a white field and this app has a white logo on a purple background.

The second change is the semi-persistent navigation below offers 4 choices:  Live TV, Guide, DVR and Settings.  Previously, the only function was Live TV.


Starting with the most mundane, Settings has 3 choices:  Favorites (your list of your favorite channels -- which starts out empty), Devices (which set top box do you want to control via the iPad) and Sign Out.




The Guide button adds new functionality -- the ability to use the iPad app as a remote control for a set top box.  The guide is the familiar scrolling electronic programming guide (EPG) from digital cable.  It launches on channel 1.  It is not the guide for the channels on the app.  When a channel is touched, the user is given the choice of "Watch Now" or "Add to Favorites".  The guide does not require that you look at all 1000 or so channels on the system, it gives a choice of 3 views:  All Channels, Favorites (more on this later) or just the HD channels.  One missing choice, that would seem to be an easy addition would be the list of the channels to which the users subscribes; this would also be much more useful than "All Channels".


DVR also adds new functionality -- the list of Scheduled Recordings on the connected cable box, but not what has already been recorded (and, there is no way to play those recordings via the iPad).  This functionality is provided on TWC's website.

Live TV works much as it did in 1.0, except that users have lost the "Last Five Channels Viewed" navigation option from the previous version.  That's a step backward -- it was one of the innovative navigation features (i.e., something other than a scrolling guide and channel up/channel down).  The Favorites list does not apply to Live TV viewed via the app, only to the set top box guide.

There is significant latency in switching channels.  The app also seems buggy, it crashed twice on me in a short period of time.

There are 15 new channels on the app:  Africa, Cooking, Discovery Health & Fit, DIY, ESPN Classic, Gol, Gospel Music, Great American Country, Jewish Life, Mav, Shop NBC, Smithsonian, Tennis, Universal and Word.  Seven of these are SD, the other eight are HD.  Live sports events have been beefed up with Gol and Tennis, previously only Golf was in that category (ESPNews and ESPN Classic don't show live events).

In terms of new programming ground, the app now contains HD-only services (Smithsonian and Universal), the previous version did not.  The other broad categories of what is not carried continue to be:
  • any broadcast channels
  • any premium channels (e.g., HBO, Showtime, Starz)
  • anything from Viacom (e.g., Nick, MTV, Comedy, Spike)
Channel list in the order they appear in the app is below (which is slightly changed from before).  By my count there are 83 channels.  For those scoring at home, 22 are SD (at least 3 of which are carried in HD on the system - Bloomberg, Cooking and Sundance).  Time Warner Cable is claiming that there are more than 100.  The reason for the discrepancy might be that some of the channels are not available on my system and that I do not subscribe to some of the channels (although I get most everything TWC offers in Northern Manhattan).  I have confirmed that TWC only provides access to services which the subscriber receives on TV. The new additions are in italics:
  1. A&E HD
  2. ABC Family HD
  3. Africa Channel HD
  4. AMC HD
  5. Animal Planet HD
  6. Bio HD
  7. Bloomberg (still SD)
  8. Boomerang (SD)
  9. Bravo HD
  10. Cartoon Network HD
  11. Chiller (SD)
  12. CNBC HD+
  13. CNBC World (SD)
  14. CNN HD
  15. CNN International (SD)
  16. Cooking Channel (SD)
  17. C-SPAN HD
  18. C-SPAN2 HD
  19. C-SPAN3 HD
  20. Current TV (SD)
  21. Discovery Channel HD
  22. Discovery Fit & Health (SD)
  23. Disney Channel HD
  24. Disney XD HD
  25. DIY HD
  26. E! HD
  27. ESPN Classic (SD) - this service is not on the WatchESPN app
  28. ESPNews HD
  29. EWTN SD
  30. Food Network HD
  31. Fox Business HD
  32. Fox News HD
  33. FX HD
  34. G4 HD
  35. Galavision HD
  36. Gol TV HD
  37. Golf HD
  38. Gospel Music HD
  39. Great American Country (SD)
  40. GSN (looks like HD)
  41. Hallmark Channel HD
  42. HGTV HD
  43. History HD
  44. History International HD
  45. HLN HD
  46. Home Shopping Network HD
  47. Hub HD
  48. IFC HD
  49. Investigation Discovery HD
  50. Jewelry Television by ACN (SD) -- the weird branding continues
  51. Jewish Life TV (SD)
  52. Lifetime HD
  53. Lifetime Movie Network HD
  54. Lifetime Real Women (SD)
  55. Mav TV HD
  56. Military Channel (SD)
  57. MSNBC HD
  58. Mun2 (SD)
  59. National Geographic HD
  60. National Geographic Wild HD
  61. NY1 News HD
  62. NY1 Noticias for Time Warner (SD) -- odd "for TW" branding continues
  63. Oprah Winfrey Network HD
  64. Ovation (SD)
  65. Oxygen HD
  66. Planet Green HD
  67. QVC HD
  68. Reelz Channel HD
  69. Science HD
  70. Shop NBC (SD)
  71. Sleuth (SD)
  72. Smithsonian HD
  73. SoapNet (SD)
  74. Style HD
  75. Sundance (still, oddly SD)
  76. SyFy HD
  77. Tennis Channel HD
  78. TLC HD
  79. Travel Channel HD
  80. TruTV HD
  81. Turner Classic Movies HD
  82. TV Guide HD
  83. TV One HD
  84. Universal HD
  85. USA HD
  86. WE tv HD
  87. Word Network (SD)
No longer on the app -- Wedding Central, which was shut down on July 1, 2011.  This review is of the Version described in the iPad Settings section as "Developer Build", for reasons that are unclear to me.  It is Version 2.0.0 in iTunes.

21 June 2011

Netflix on Cable, how could that work?

I was intrigued by a comment about Netflix at the recent Cable Show by Melinda Witmer, Time Warner Cable's Chief Programming Officer:  “Consumers are getting it on every device that’s coming on an IP basis today but not the set top. They look like a programmer to me and it makes me sense that we’d be doing business with them in the home on our equipment, too.”  The intriguing part of this is not that it makes sense, but that it is completely counter to the conventional wisdom that Netflix and cable companies are inherently competitors.

Netflix on cable offers the Netflix the following advantages:
  • Availability on another device is always good.
  • Integration with the mainstream of TV watching probably increases usage of the service similar to how carriage on a more convenient channel increases a channel's viewership.
  • A relationship with the cable operator represents a way of addressing ISP bandwidth caps (e.g., excluding Netflix usage from such caps) and network traffic imbalances (that negotiation gets rolled into the affiliation negotiation).
  • A Netflix app on the cable set-top box might improve the technical quality of Netflix service by storing some of the most requested content (or the starting minutes of a lot of content) at the headend rather than outside the headend (with a CDN).  Presumably this could save Netflix something on its content delivery costs as well.
Netflix on cable offers the cable operator the following advantages:
  • Netflix adds to the functionality of the cable service.  Looking at it the other way, if Netflix is not on the set-top box, the subscriber has a reason to turn on another device (game console, PC, Apple TV, Roku, connected Blu-Ray, etc.) and, once there, will see more value on that device and spend more time using it.
  • Netflix is a popular services and is already being bought by many cable customers.  Offering it is a way to repatriate some of those revenues.
Netflix on a direct streaming basis costs a consumer $7.99 (plus applicable taxes). Presumably the cable operator would like to make some margin on the sale of Netflix. Cable customers could pay extra to get Netflix via the set-top box as it simplifies the home entertainment system by eliminating the need for another box to be connected to the TV (although relatively little of Netflix distribution to the TV is likely via a dedicated box like Roku -- game consoles are probably the biggest one and no one buys a game console primarily to get Netflix). Cable television has always been a premium product and its price reflects that.  After all, about 10% of cable customers buy only the basic broadcast level of service and the primary competitive service to that is free over-the-air television. Cable operators often sell their services for different prices than other providers in the marketplace (e.g., HBO's price on Comcast often has little similarity to its price on Verizon or DirecTV), although few services are available directly from the wholesaler (MLB.TV is such an example as it is a broadband delivered version of the Major League Baseball Extra Innings package sold by multichannel providers).  [Added:  In fact, that might be the biggest issue for a distributor; HBO might, not unreasonably, expect the same rights as Netflix, to be able sell direct to consumers.]

If Netflix expected 70% of retail revenue and it wanted the same $7.99 wholesale than it would get from a direct customer, then the retail price would have to be $11.41. 70-30 is the typical split for content providers in Apple's iTunes store and is a common split in Internet content-distribution relationships. If the retail price would stay at $7.99 and Netflix were to get a 70% split, that would make the wholesale take $5.59.

All things considered, both Netflix and the cable operator could benefit from the arrangement, so perhaps they would split the difference between these scenarios -- that would put the retail price at $9.70 and the wholesale rate at $6.79 -- rounding puts Netflix at $10 retail and $7 wholesale. For those who remember premium television pricing history, that sounds very conventional (and I mean that as a compliment). 

02 June 2011

TWCable iPad App Review

I recently got an iPad, primarily to better understand the multichannel TV and over-the-top video apps that have generated so much discussion in the video business.

One of the biggest public disputes has been over the iPad app from Time Warner Cable, artlessly called TWCable TV.  Discovery, Fox and Viacom sued over the inclusion of their channels in the app.  While Discovery and Fox appear to have settled their issues with TWC, the Viacom services are still missing from the app.  The app works only in your home and only if you subscribe to both cable TV and broadband service from TWC.

The app is simple, good-looking and intuitive.  It is a fine start.

The app launches with a splash screen of a TWC logo on an avocado green background.  I have never seen that color associated with the company previously.  Much like the app's name, one wonders if the  branding people approved it.  [Addition:  I have since seen this green -- or a more lime-ish tint -- on TWC trucks, but the website graphics are blue, the color I had always associated with the company.]

It feels new.  This is not the clunky navigation from the set-top box ported to a new platform. It does feel like an iPad app.  It is a limited functionality app.  You can only watch live TV and only of the handful of channels that they have provided.  When you leave the app and return, it returns you to the last viewed channel, just like a regular TV

Sign up is via the TWC username and email that you need for programming your DVR from their website (which, by the way, doesn't work that well) and other account management functions.  Blessedly, this only needs to be done once.

The app only works in landscape orientation.  The guide is a translucent list of channels that appears on the left side and starts when you launch the app.  If you tap on on the screen on the right side, it goes away and the channel you are watching expands to fill the iPad's width (preserving the aspect ratio).

The guide fits eight channels at a time and displays the channel logo (small, not always that clear), the title of current show, one line of description about the episode and the start time and title of the next show.  When the guide comes up, a a translucent bar at the top also comes up that provides 2 buttons.  On the right is "Channel History" which which shows and provides one-click-access to the last four channels that you have viewed.  This is an interesting interface choice that adds some functionality to the ubiquitous "last channel" buttons on TV remotes.  On the left is the "Log Out" button, although I can't understand why anyone would ever do so in normal use.



The guide and top bar will disappear on their own after a short while.  To bring back the guide, tap on the screen.  There is significant latency switching between channels.  This is not a dream device for ADD channel surfers.  The video generally worked well.  I had some experiences of waiting for it to reload/buffer video when I was not switching channels.

There is no way to reorder the channel lineup or bookmark favorite channels.

The channels carried are a mix of services, with a decided preference for HD versions, which is a little odd given the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio.  The full list of the 73 channels carried is below; by my count 16 are SD channels.  The app originally launched with 32 channels.  It is unclear to me if the app's channel lineup can be revised on the fly or if TWC has to issue an updated version of the app whenever it wants to make a change.
What isn't carried:

  • any broadcast channels (not even thinly-viewed digital multiplex feeds like ABC's Living Well)
  • any premium channels
  • anything from Viacom (e.g., Nick, MTV, Comedy, Spike)
  • any of the HD-only services (e.g., Smithsonian, MGM, HD Theatre)
Given how sports-driven most subscription television marketing is and how crucial sports is seen for most early adopter video innovations, there is little sports programming in the app.  Golf Channel is the only full-time sports service in the lineup.  None of the New York regional sports networks are available.  The ESPNs are not, except ESPNews; they are available on the WatchESPN app.  Versus, MLB, NBA, NHL, Tennis, Big Ten, Gol, Speed, Fox Soccer...none of them are available.  Nor are TNT and TBS which have significant slates of sports.  In contrast, women-targeted services are very well represented:  3 Lifetime services, E!, HGTV, Food, Oxygen, WE, Style and Wedding Central.

My television subscription includes all of the 73 channels listed below.  It is unclear to me if TWC blocks out the digital tier or HD channels for customers who do not subscribe to them. Conversely, I wonder if some of the foreign language services that I do not see on the app are available to other customers who do subscribe to them.

There is no access to the recorded content on your DVR.  There is no closed captioning or SAP.  There is no-access to any on demand content.  The only "switch" in the settings panel is "Remember password".  This is version 1.0.2008 of the software.

In short, if you have an iPad the app is well worth downloading and looks like it will add some value to a cable subscription.  I'm not sure that I will end up using it that much given its limited functionality and the presence of more-fully-featured actual TVs in my household.

In terms of the business dispute, TWC is taking the position that because the app only works in the home, the iPad is essentially operating as another television and its rights to carry channels on it are covered by its rights in its regular affiliation agreements.  There is certainly a lot of support for the programmer's side of the argument that this is not another television (for starters, no must-carry broadcast channels are carried) and that these rights have to be negotiated separately.

The list of channels carried.  The name is how it appears in the top bar when selected (except for the comments in parentheses or after the dashes).  The numbers do not appear on the guide, that's just a function of this list.
  1. A&E HD
  2. ABC Family HD
  3. AMC HD
  4. Animal Planet HD
  5. Bio HD
  6. Bloomberg TV (oddly only in SD, however the Bloomberg HD feed just launched on this system)
  7. Boomerang (SD)
  8. Bravo HD
  9. CNBC HD+
  10. CNBC World (SD)
  11. CNN HD
  12. CNN International (SD)
  13. C-SPAN HD
  14. C-SPAN2 HD
  15. C-SPAN3 HD
  16. Cartoon Network HD
  17. Chiller (SD)
  18. CurrentTV (SD)
  19. Discovery Channel HD
  20. Disney Channel HD
  21. Disney XD HD
  22. E! HD
  23. ESPNews HD (not ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU all of which are on the WatchESPN app, which does not have ESPNews HD).
  24. Eternal Word Television Network (SD, although the HD feed is carried on the system)
  25. FX HD
  26. Food Network HD
  27. Fox Business HD
  28. Fox News HD
  29. G4 HD
  30. GSN (looks like HD)
  31. Galavision HD
  32. Golf Channel HD
  33. HGTV HD
  34. HLN HD
  35. Hub HD
  36. Hallmark Channel HD
  37. History HD
  38. History International HD
  39. Home Shopping Network HD
  40. IFC HD
  41. Investigation Discovery HD
  42. Jewelry Television by ACN (SD) -- weird to see such a lengthy name for an obscure channel
  43. Lifetime HD (which launched the same day as Bloomberg HD)
  44. Lifetime Movie Network HD
  45. Lifetime Real Women (SD)
  46. MSNBC HD
  47. Military Channel (SD)
  48. Mun2 (SD)
  49. NY1 News HD
  50. NY1 Noticias for Time Warner (SD) -- odd branding in the "for Time Warner"
  51. National Geographic HD
  52. National Geographic Wild HD
  53. Oprah Winfrey Network HD
  54. Ovation TV (SD)
  55. Oxygen HD
  56. Planet Green HD
  57. QVC HD
  58. Reelz Channel HD
  59. Science Channel HD
  60. Sleuth (SD)
  61. SoapNet (SD)
  62. Style HD
  63. Sundance Channel (SD, although the HD feed is carried on the system -- a particularly odd choice for a movie service)
  64. SyFy HD
  65. TLC HD
  66. TV Guide Network HD
  67. TV One HD
  68. Travel Channel HD
  69. Turner Classic Movies HD
  70. USA HD
  71. WE tv HD
  72. Wedding Central HD
  73. truTV HD