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.