Talking Back to the TV

TV manufacturers, set-top box makers and smart TV software developers have tried for years to get rid of the old D-pad remote control and on-screen programming grid for search and navigation. They’ve tried motion control, Bluetooth qwerty keyboards, touch pads, and casting from mobile devices. With the exception of casting, most have proved pretty kludgey.

At the International CES underway in Las Vegas this week, voice activation has emerged as the TV interface flavor of the month. Amazon announced that it has licensed its Fire TV interface — complete with its Alexa voice-controlled digital assistant — for use in a trio of low-end 4K TV brands based in China.

Display sizes will range from 43 to 65 inches and device will come with 3GB of RAM, 16GB internal memory for apps, and a remote control with integrated microphone for talking to Alexa.

Not to be outdone, Google announced it will bring Google Assistant to all TVs and set-top boxes running Android TV, including Sony’s Bravia models and Sharp’s Aquos line. Read More »

Copyright Makes Strange Bedfellows

It’s probably fair to say that Donald Trump was not the first choice for president among the majority of those within the media and entertainment industries. Since his election last month, however, their official industry representatives have wasted little time trying to ingratiate themselves with the incoming administration and to press the industries’ policy agenda.

“So much of what you wrote in your platform this summer about intellectual property and private property rights resonated with many of us, including: ‘Intellectual property is a driving force in today’s global economy of constant innovation,'” a consortium of music industry trade associations wrote to Trump this week. “‘It is the wellspring of American economic growth and job creation. With the rise of the digital economy, it has become even more critical that we protect intellectual property rights and preserve freedom of contract rather than create regulatory barriers to creativity, growth, and innovation.’

“As partners, many in the technology and corporate community should be commended for doing their part to help value creators and their content,” the groups added. “Some have developed systems to promote a healthy market for music and deter theft. However, much more needs to be done…[T]here is a massive ‘value grab’ as some of these corporations weaken intellectual property rights for America’s creators by exploiting legal loopholes never intended for them – perversely abusing U.S. law to underpay music creators, thus harming one of America’s economic and job engines.” Read More »

While FCC Dithers, Google Ditches The Box

To hear the pay-TV industry tell it, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s original proposal to “unlock” the set-top box was essentially a sop to Google, a company many in the industry see as having effectively captured the agency, if not the entire Obama administration, and as coveting the incumbent operators’ position in the TV business.

Those suspicions were only strengthened when Google began offering members of Congress demos of a set-top box that fit remarkably with the sort of navigation device envisioned by Wheeler’s proposal, just days after the proposal was unveiled.

fccwheelergettyoffledeAlarmed, cable operators rushed out its own proposal to “ditch” the set-top box altogether and make their services available, essentially as is, via apps that could run on third-party devices — an idea Google opposed because it would leave the cable operators in control of the user interface and the bundling of channels.

The industry’s move was effective, inasmuch as it forced Wheeler to retreat from his original proposal, and come up with a new plan loosely modeled on the industry’s app-based approach. While Google said it could live with the new proposal, the industry still found much not to like, and an all-out lobby blitz again forced Wheeler to postpone a planned vote on the measure. Read More »

The FCC Chairman’s Tactical Retreat On Set-Top Boxes (Updated)

After months of intensive lobbying by pay-TV providers and TV programmers, as well as mounting pressure from congress, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has apparently backed off quite a bit from his original proposal to “unlock the [set-top] box” and is preparing to adopt the broad outlines the industry’s app-based counter-proposal. But that doesn’t mean the struggle for control of the set-top is over.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingIn an ex parte filing with the commission this week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, along with DirecTV-parent AT&T, pushed back forcefully against elements of what appears to be Wheeler’s new plan to bring greater competition to the market for pay-TV-compatible set-top boxes, as mandated by congress more than a decade ago.

The new plan, as described in general terms in a series of ex parte filings in recent weeks, will apparently require multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to develop apps that can run on third-party devices but that replicate all of the features of MVPDs’ own services, including making all the operator’s linear and on-demand content available on similar terms.  It will also require MVPDs to make their content searchable by third-party, universal-search applications. Read More »

The More Things They Change, The More Digital Platforms Become The Same

YouTube is working on a plan to be more like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. According to a report by VentureBeat, the video platform has been developing a new feature internally called Backstage that will allow users to post photos, links, text posts and other non-video content alongside their videos. The new content will resemble a Facebook Timeline, presented as a feed scrolling in reverse-chronological order on the user’s channel home page, but also appearing in subscribers’ feeds and notifications.

Backstage, or whatever it ends up being called, is expected to be rolled out later this year on select YouTube accounts.

The move to make using YouTube more like using Facebook seems only fair at this point given that Facebook has lately become more like YouTube. The social network has, with considerable success, moved aggressively to turn itself into a major platform for hosting and sharing user-created videos — once the near exclusive facebook_videoterrain of YouTube.

Facebook has also lately taken steps to become more like Twitter, launching Facebook Live to rival Periscope, while Twitter has tried to become more like YouTube by making video a bigger part of its offering.

A similar convergence is underway in the music streaming area. Pandora is reportedly in the final stages of negotiations with the record companies to launch an on-demand tier to its service, which would make it more like Spotify and Apple Music. Spotify, meanwhile, is acting more YouTube and even Netflix, adding original video to its mix of content.

It’s getting to where you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard.

More to the point, it’s getting harder for digital platforms and services to differentiate themselves from each other. Music streaming services, which already share substantially the same catalog of content and now increasingly share the same business model, are trying, through the increasing use of  individual artist exclusives. Others have sought to make human vs. machine curation a point of differentiation. Read More »

Verizon Completes It’s Web 1.0 Roll-up, But May Not Stop There

With its $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo this week, coming a year and two months after its $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL, Verizon now owns the two dominant players in the web ecosystem — circa 1999. But at least it got them cheap.

Yahoo once had a market cap of $125 billion; AOL’s reached $224 billion in the immediate wake of its January 2000 acquisition of Time Warner — roughly the same as Verizon’s market cap today. So, scooping up both for less  $10 billion could be considered a steal.

YAHOO_headquartersThe question is, why bother? Neither AOL nor Yahoo is exactly dominant in its market today. In Yahoo’s case, it isn’t even clear what that market is. Even in announcing the sale to employees, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer could barely articulate a coherent description of what it is Verizon was buying, let alone why.

At best, Verizon is getting, in AOL and Yahoo, a disconnected assortment of online media properties and a pair of online advertising businesses built around display, rather than search, social, or mobile — the dominant modes of digital advertising today. While Verizon’s distribution reach in mobile may be able to breathe some new life into some of those media assets it has a long, long way to go before it could seriously challenge Facebook and Google, the dominant players it today’s digital media distribution and advertising ecosystem, if that’s really its goal. Read More »

Vizio Gives Its New TVs A Mobile Heartbeat

For people who still want to watch TV programming on a big-screen TV, cutting the cord means accepting a series of kludges. You can use the built-in apps on your smart TV to stream Netflix, Hulu and other popular over-the-top channels, but you’re still stuck navigating through menus and login screens using a point-and-click remote that’s often less functional than an ancient cable remote navigating a grid-style program guide.

You could buy a new Apple TV device with it’s sleek-looking, touch-based remote, but you’ll still be scrolling through menus and fumbling through on-screen, point-and-click keyboards. You can use a Chromecast dongle, and do your navigating on a mobile device, but Chromecast basically just turns the TV into a dumb display. Your mobile device isn’t really talking directly to the TV — the dongle is simply discovering your tablet or google_chromecast_2_hdmi_port_thumbsmartphone inputs by virtue of being on the same network and then fetching the content requested itself — which introduces latency between command and response. And if you need to answer your mobile phone in the middle of a show it can interrupt your cast.

But the biggest problems with most connected TV streaming platforms, whether embedded in the TV itself or implemented in a set-top box, are that their operating systems are generally static and the apps you use are no one’s priority.

TV makers are not really OS companies, and their streaming platforms show it. The UIs are primitive, and the OS functionality is limited by the computing horsepower — often not very much — built in at the time of manufacture. Since people generally don’t replace their TVs very often — certainly compared with how often they upgrade their phones — OS upgrades are limited to firmware updates, which don’t happen very often. Read More »

FCC Goes Searching For A New Set-Top Box

At a press conference following the Federal Communications Commission’s 3-2 vote Thursday to launch a formal rulemaking proceeding aimed at unlocking the set-top box FCC chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized, as he has since announcing the proposal last month, that nothing in the proposed new rules alter existing licensing or content-protection agreements  between networks and pay-TV providers or disrupt existing advertising models.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingOn the contrary, he said, “the rules will require that the sanctity of the content is passed through” unaltered to any new device or app used by consumers to access pay-TV content. That includes, he went on to clarify, the network’s channel position, the content recording rules and the unadorned, original ad load.

“Nobody’s going to be replacing ads, or doing any kind of split screen, with ads on one side, or putting a frame around the content and putting ads around it; none of that,” he said. “The sanctity of the content will be preserved.”

In fact, it’s not clear from his comments what, exactly, Wheeler hopes or expects anyone to be doing with the newly open standards for set-top boxes, assuming the rules ever gets that far through the likely gantlet of lawsuits and foot-dragging  (the formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the commissioners voted on has not yet been published by the FCC). He took pains at Thursday’s hearing to make it sound as if nothing much would change about set-top boxes at all under the new rules apart from the manufacturer’s name plate, going so far as to put up a pair of identical slides purporting to show before and after schematic drawings of how consumers would access pay-TV content. Read More »

Red Zone: Why Apple Music Should Fear YouTube Red

The most notable feature of YouTube Red is what’s missing. There is no more Music Key, the long-awaited YouTube subscription music service that has been in beta for much of the past year but never gained much traction. Nor will there be any more dedicated subscription channels, where users could get ad-free access to a single creator’s channel.

Instead, for 10 bucks a month, you’ll get ad-free access to virtually everything on the YouTube platform, including YouTube Gaming and Apple_Music_iPhoneYouTube Kids. There’s also a YouTube Music app for those who simply want to use the service for listening to music.

YouTube Red subscribers will also automatically be subscribed to Google Play Music, Google’s subscription streaming and cloud storage service that up to now had cost $10 a month on a standalone basis.

In effect, Google is now making all of its music and video content services available on both a free, ad-supported basis, and an ad-free subscription basis. (Those who are complaining that YouTube is being mean by hiding the videos of creators who have not yet signed up for the subscription program are missing the point. The point is to have two identical services with two distinct monetization strategies, and letting the consumer decide which to use.) Read More »

For Amazon, Live OTT Comes With A Twitch

At his Streaming Media blog, Frost & Sullivan analyst Dan Rayburn adds a new wrinkle to the ongoing debate over why Amazon kicked Apple TV and Chromecast products out of its online store. According to Rayburn’s sources, Amazon has been chatting up content owners about offering a live, over-the-top video service of some kind.

Rayburn speculates that such a plan could help explain why Amazon recently acquired the cloud-based live streaming platform provider Elemental Technologies at an unusually high valuation:

cable_TV_not1Insiders say Elemental is on a run rate to do close to $100M in 2016. So if the rumors of Amazon valuing Elemental at $500M are correct, Elemental is getting about 5x projected 2016 revenue, a rather high valuation, unless Amazon is also placing value on them for other reasons, like the ability to power their own live OTT service.

I’ll add another data point in support of the notion: Twitch, which Amazon acquired last year for close to $1 billion. As noted in a post here last week, Twitch is rolling out a new set of tools to help its broadcasters linear-ize their channels, by mixing live and on-demand content and creating playlists that turn the channel into a 24/7 experience. Read More »

Amazon Opens Fire On Apple TV And Chromecast

Amazon this week has left little doubt as to the scale of its ambitions in over-the-top video. Just days after Amazon-owned Twitch announced plans to roll out new tools for uploading on-demand content to the platform to better compete with YouTube, the e-commerce giant declared war on Apple and Google for supremacy on the set-top.

In a memo to Amazon Marketplace merchants, first reported by BloombergBusiness, Amazon said it would stop selling the Apple TV set-top box and Google’s Chromecast streaming dongle, both of which compete with Amazon’s own Fire TV STB and Fire Stick dongle. No new listings for Apple TV and Chromecast will be Amazon_Fire_TVaccepted the memo said, and listings for existing inventories would be removed as of Oct. 29th.

According to the memo, the items are being removed because they are not fully compatible with  Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service.

“Over the last three years, Prime Video has become an important part of Prime,” the memo said. “It’s important that the streaming media players we sell interact well with Prime Video in order to avoid customer confusion.”

Translation: We can’t get our fully enabled Prime Video app onto iOS devices or supported by Chromecast because we refuse to fork over the 30 percent cut of in-app purchases demanded by Apple and Google. Read More »

Live Sports Could Force Adoption of New Streaming Protocols

This post originally appeared in M&E Daily.

For the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Akamai delivered 7 Terabits per second of streaming video, an eight-fold increase over the 2010 Olympics. That was on top of Akamai’s normal daily volume at the time of around 20 Tbs.

For the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Akamai’s Media Products Division senior VP and GM Bill Wheaton told the 2nd Screen Sports Summit in New York last week, server_rackthe CDN expects to deliver 7 Tbs in the U.S. alone. Worldwide volume, Wheaton estimated, could reach 25 to 30 Tbs., on top of Akamai’s normal daily load of 32 to 34 Tbs.

By 2020, if current projections hold, the Olympics could generate 1,000 times today’s level of demand for video, Wheaton said, or roughly 25,000 Tbs of data. Other global sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup could generate similar levels of demand, as consumers around the world increasingly turn to the internet, particularly with mobile devices, for watching live sports.

As demand increases, so too do consumers’ expectations of quality.

“With television, it doesn’t buffer, it starts quickly, it’s always on, it always works. That doesn’t happen today on the internet,” Wheaton said But expectations are changing. “People are paying real money for this, they expect it to work.” he said. Read More »

With New Features For Chromecast, Google Ups The Ante In The Living Room

Google fanboys seem underwhelmed by this year’s I/O developers conference, which ends today, judging the ho-hum reactions from bloggers and tweeters: No new Nexus phones or tablets, no new wearables, nothing on the next iteration of Google Glass. But there was plenty of intriguing live, linear and  OTT news if you knew what to listen for.

Google revealed, for the first time, that consumers have purchased 17 million Chromecast devices since the $35 streaming stick was introduced two years ago. And those devices are getting used. A lot. Chromecast users cumulatively have hit the “cast” button 1.5 billion times in the U.S. alone, and they have increased their YouTube viewing time by 45 percent. Active users now watch 66 percent more content than they did at launch, as more content sites become Chromecast-enabled.

Chromecast_game_managerGoogle also unveiled a host of new capabilities coming to Chromecast, including Netflix-like autoplay and queing. Developers will now be able to buffer a second video while the first video is playing, enabling the second video to start playing automatically when the first is done. Unlike Netflix, Chromecast will also allow users to rearrange the clips in their queues and even add their own.

Google will also make available new game-manager APIs, simplifying the process of developing multiplayer games that leverage multiple Chromecast-enabled devices. The APIs will make it easier for developers to create common game elements such as a shared game “board” or playing surface on the TV.

Remote display APIs will allow game developers to “cast” elements of a game to the TV, such as a driver’s view of a racetrack, while keeping the steering wheel and other controls local, on a mobile device. Read More »

Apple’s Non-Disruptive 4K Strategy

For all the disruptive innovation Apple has unleashed on the markets for devices and software it has not been particularly disruptive to the content markets it has entered. Often just the opposite.

By the time Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store the record business was already reeling from the impact of Napster and its progeny. Rather than disrupt the business, Apple’s entry created a new market for paid downloads. The record companies later came to rue the terms of Apple_TV_portsthe deals they made initially with Apple, the iTunes store helped restore legitimate commerce to digital music platforms and on balance has been a net positive for the incumbent rights owners.

Apple is now trying to do the same thing in music streaming, relaunching a paid-only Beats Music service as the record companies try to marginalize free streaming platforms. Read More »