Disney’s Split UI Personality

Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger this week said he is “very excited” about the user interface Hulu has designed for its planned virtual-pay-TV service launching next year.

“We’ve seen the interface because we’re partners [in Hulu]” Iger said Wednesday at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “It’s a great interface, a tremendous user experience, and we’re in discussions with them about our channels and about prices.”

hulu_nocbs-1He also used the opportunity to take a swipe at traditional pay-TV operators for the lack of innovation in their UIs over the years.

“I’ve been frustrated over the years by the UI” of cable and satellite TV services Iger said. “Maybe because I’m getting older I don’t have the patience anymore, but we’re all getting more and more spoiled by what technology makes possible,” in terms of surfacing, discovering and accessing content.

According to Iger, consumers raised on digital platforms today simply won’t tolerate any glitches or difficulty in access the content they want when they want it, and the traditional pay-TV industry simply hasn’t kept up with the times. Read More »

What UI Voodoo Will Hulu Do In Linear Debut?

One of the more interesting subplots to Hulu’s apparently pending rollout of an over-the-top bundle of linear channels will be what it does with the user interface.

As I’ve noted here previously, the traditional programming grid that still drives navigation on most pay-TV systems today is at the core of the current tussle over Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to “unlock” the set-top box to allow third-party devices and applications to interoperate with pay-TV services. And apart from pay-TV operators themselves, the loudest objections to Wheeler’s proposal have come from programmers, who fear those third parties will not honor the agreements networks have with operators concerning their position within the traditional pay-TV UI.

“ArmHulu_homepage’s length agreements between MVPDs and programmers provide the necessary licenses to transmit the content, and in exchange the MVPDs agree to a range of license terms, including security requirements, advertising rules, [electronic programming guide] channel placement obligations, and tier placement requirements,” the Motion Picture Association of America wrote in comments submitted to the FCC. “These terms are material to the grant of the copyright license, and to copyright holders’ ability to direct the exploitation of their works in a manner that enables them to continue to invest in the high-quality programming that viewers expect. ..The only terms the proposal would explicitly recognize are copy, output, and streaming limitations. Extensively negotiated terms on matters including “service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replac[ing] or alter[ing] advertising, or improperly manipulat[ing] content,” are all left unaddressed by the FCC’s proposal.” Read More »

The Box And The Bundle

One of the most striking aspects of the current debate over the FCC’s proposal to “unlock” the set-top box is how shabby the public arguments are on all sides.

Chairman Tom Wheeler, who cooked up the idea, hangs his case for requiring pay-TV providers to disaggregate essential programming, navigation and entitlement elements of their service for the convenience of third-party device makers and developers on the alleged cost to consumers of renting a set-top box from their provider every month, which the proposal pegs at $231 a year (a figure others dispute). Allowing consumers to bring their own device will save them money, according to Wheeler. The White House made a similar argument in endorsing the proposal.

settop _box_openSet-top box fees are surely excessive, like the cost of pay-TV service itself. But they’re also arbitrary, just like a lot of other line items on the average cable bill. Broadcast fee? Regional sports fee? How are those calculated? The idea that requiring operators to eliminate one line item on a monthly bill full of arbitrary fees and prices will translate into meaningful cost savings to consumers seems far-fetched.

For that matter, the idea that letting consumers buy their own set-top box would necessarily result in significant savings also seems far-fetched. A TiVO Roamio goes for $600, plus $10 a month for the guide. Read More »

The Impoverishment Of Live TV

Live programming, particularly live sports, is widely seen as the last major thread still holding together the pay-TV bundle. Apart from news, nearly all other types of programming are just as enjoyable viewed on demand or time-shifted, perhaps even more enjoyable given the prospect for commercial-avoidance.

Live events, however, especially sports, are more valuable and enjoyable when viewed in real time, providing an incentive for consumers to coachellacontinue to pay their cable or satellite bill, particularly so as more live sports programming moves off free broadcast channels to pay-TV channels.

Live sports are also increasingly available over-the-top, of course. But for the most part those streams are simply retransmissions of existing linear broadcasts targeted at fans who can’t watch the games on their native broadcast platforms either because the games are not available in the viewer’s home market or because the viewer doesn’t have access to a big screen TV at game time. Issues with Given the option, most people would still choose to watch most sporting events on their native broadcast platforms.

Recent developments in the world of live streaming hint at how that could start to change, however. Read More »

We’re All Netflix, Now

On April 10th Showtime will make all 13 episodes of its new Steven Soderbergh series “The Girlfriend Experience” available on its VOD platform in a single, binge-ready dump. So too will Starz, with all six episodes of the new Andrew Dice Clay comedy “Dice,” as the pay-TV networks increasingly ape the strategy pioneered by Netflix.

They don’t have much choice. Bingeing is how Americans watch TV now. According to Deloitte’s latest Digital Democracy survey, 70 percent of viewers admit to binge-watching, defined as viewing three or more episodes in a single sitting, and one in three say they binge at least once a week. The average number watched during a single binge, fact, is an astonishing five episodes, which in the case of a drama series could easily eat up four or five hours. Millennials in the survey average six episodes per sitting.

We binge-watch so much TV in fact that we’re making ourselves anxious, depressed and lonely, according to a separate study by researchers at the University of Toledo. Yet our appetite is only growing. According to Deloitte, all age groups in its study binged more in 2015 than they did in 2014.

The seemingly irresistible trend, however, poses a dilemma for traditional linear networks. Making new series or seasons available for bingeing risks undercutting primetime ratings. Read More »

AT&T Prepares To Flex Its OTT Muscles

AT&T announced this week that it plans to take DirecTV over-the-top later this year through a multi-tiered streaming service that will be available to wireline and wireless broadband subscribers regardless of provider.

The top tier, to be called DirecTV Now, will feature “on-demand and live programming from many networks, plus premium add-on options,” which sounds more or less like Dish Network’s Sling TV OTT service. A mid-level tier, called DirecTV Mobile, will offer a stripped down video lineup and a “mobile-first experience.” A third, ad-supported free tier, called DirecTV Preview, will offer a “millennial focused” grab bag of digital-native content along the lines of Verizon’s Go90 service.

cable_TV_not1The announcement itself was no big surprise. AT&T obviously didn’t spend $48 billion to acquire DirecTV just to be in the satellite TV business — a business with little if any organic growth left in it — and extending DirecTV’s business onto broadband and wireless platforms is an obvious strategy. What is a bit surprising is the timing of the announcement.

As of now, AT&T has no programming lineups to announce for any of the tiers, no pricing information and no exact start date. And according to a Wall Street Journal report, negotiations with the networks to secure streaming rights have just begun. 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 »

Unbundling The Set-Top Box

Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smiling. Nearly six years after the late Apple CEO complained that real innovation in the TV industry could only happen if you first “tear up” the traditional pay-TV set-top box, the FCC is taking the first steps toward doing just that.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler this week announced that the commission will vote next month on whether to proceed with a formal rulemaking to “unlock the set-top box,” if not quite tear it up, by requiring cable, satellite and telco pay-TV providers to make elements of their service available to third-party device makers and software developers.

“Today, 99 percent of pay-TV customers lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telco providers,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed published Push_button_cable_boxWednesday. “Pay-TV subscribers spend an average of $231 a year to rent these boxes, because there are few meaningful alternatives. If you’ve ever signed up for a $99-a-month bundle for cable, phone and Internet and then wondered why your bill is significantly higher, this is a big reason…This week, I am sharing a proposal with my colleagues to tear down the barriers that currently prevent innovators from developing new ways for consumers to access and enjoy their favorite shows and movies on their terms. The new rules would create a framework for providing device manufacturers, software developers and others the information they need to introduce innovative new technologies, while at the same time maintaining strong security, copyright and consumer protections.” Read More »

FCC Hitting Pause On Pay-TV Overhaul?

For much of the past year, the Federal Communications Commission has been conducting a pair of proceedings that together, depending on their outcomes, could go a long way toward remaking the pay-TV business as we’ve known it. But at an oversight hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler seemed to turn down the heat under both of them.

Receiving the most attention at the hearing was the recently completed report by the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing(DSTAC), in particular a controversial proposal in it to require pay-TV operators to disaggregate their services into discreet components that would allow third-party set-top box makers to design their own user interfaces that could leverage elements of pay-TV services to create new user experiences (see our previous discussions of the debate here, here and here).

Republican members of the committee were sharply critical of the proposal and accused the FCC of exceeding Congress’s mandate for DSTAC in allowing the committee to consider non-security elements of pay-TV interoperability. Some members all but endorsed a competing proposal, put forth by pay-TV service providers, to adopt an app-based approach to interoperability under which service providers would, in effect, virtualize their existing STBs, complete with proprietary UIs, into apps that could be downloaded and run on third-party devices. Read More »

Cutting The Cord From Both Ends

Depending on whom you believe and when you start counting, cord-cutting is either slowing down or it’s accelerating.

According to a new survey by TDG, the percentage of adult broadband users who are “moderately” or “highly likely ” to cancel their pay TV service in the next six months has dropped by 20 points since last year.

“Cord cutting proclivities have held steady for several years, with approximately 7% of [adult broadband users]  pay-TV subscribers moderately or highly likely to cancel their service in the six months following the survey,” TDG director of research Michael Greeson said in a statement. “In early cable_TV_not12015, however, the number declined to 5.7%. This is the first time in five years we’ve seen significant change in these metrics.”

According to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, however, U.S. pay-TV providers lost 357,000 subscribers in the third quarter of 2015,. That was more than twice their losses in the same quarter last year, although it was down substantially from the 605,000 they lost in the second quarter of this year.

Take your pick. Read More »

The Studios Look For An Island In The Set-Top Storm

The Motion Picture Association of America really, really doesn’t want the FCC to tear up the set-top box. So much so that its filing with the commission last week regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) contained a thinly veiled threat of litigation should the FCC mandate disaggregation of pay-TV services into parts that can be reassembled at will, and on constitutional grounds no less.

“Mandating such a regime…could violate content owners’: 1) contracts with distributors regarding how their content may be presented, monetized, and accessed; 2)

Wallpaper: Sunrise of the Sea

exclusive rights under section 106 of the Copyright Act to determine how their content is copied, distributed, and publicly performed; 3) First Amendment right against compelled speech; and 4) Fifth Amendment right against taking of property without due compensation,” the MPAA warned. “If third-parties wish to offer a subset of content, services, features, and functions rather than all the choices distributors offer customers in the way that they offer them, the appropriate course is through individualized negotiation, not regulatory fiat.”

What has the Hollywood trade group so exercised is a proposal by one faction within DSTAC, included in the final report, to require cable and satellite providers to unbundle their video feeds from other elements of their services, including the user interface, interactive features and billing, so those feeds can be incorporated into the UI of a third-party device and integrated with other video services. Only then, proponents of unbundling argue, can consumer electronics makers create devices that can compete fully with or replace set-top boxes provided by pay-TV operators. 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 »

Apple TV Phones It In

Apple didn’t exactly “tear up the set-top box” to create the new Apple TV, as Steve Jobs once insisted was essential to any viable go-to-market strategy for any new entrant to the TV space. What it came up with instead is precisely what Jobs claimed no one would buy: another box, with another remote to clutter up the set-top and the coffee table.

Worse, as other commentators have noted, many if not most of the features and functionalities of Apple’s new set-top are already available on other devices from other manufacturers, generally at a lower price.

So, the new Apple TV is DOA? I wouldn’t write the obituary just yet.

The key is to think about Apple TV not as a standalone device but as an extension of Apple’s ecosystem, particularly the App Store, to the living room. As was first reported by 9to5Mac, the new Apple TV shares many internal components with the latest generation of iPhones, and runs a full iOS core optimized for a 50-inch Ooyala-q2-2015-mobile-video-trendsscreen. The Apple TV’s new touch and gesture-powered remote is clearly designed to echo and evoke the iPhone’s familiar touch-driven UI. From a hardware and OS perspective, the new Apple TV is essentially an iPhone for the TV, capable of doing most of what an iPhone can do short of making phone calls.

While that may seem incidental, it will allow developers to create tightly integrated mobile and set-top experiences to a degree that hasn’t really been possible up to now on other TV apps platforms. With 44 percent of video plays now occurring on mobile devices, according to Ooyala’s latest Global Video Index report, tying mobile and set-top video together in a single, seamless platform is obviously critical, for content owners and marketers, as well as for consumers. At the same time, the integration will allow Apple to tap the creativity of millions of developers already familiar with creating rich experiences in iOS to populate the new Apple TV App Store. Read More »

Will The FCC Finally ‘Tear Up The Set-Top Box’?

The FCC kicked off the second phase of a process this week that could, eventually, change how pay-TV service is delivered to the home and by whom. On Monday, the commission issued a formal notice seeking comments on a set of proposals developed by the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) for how to enable third-party retail set-top boxes to better interoperate with pay-TV services. DSTAC submitted its proposals last week and the FCC posted six-page summary of its report on Friday [note: the FCC’s IT system will be inaccessible  until Sept. 8 due to an upgrade, so links temporarily may not work].

The first phase of the process began in January, when the FCC convened DSTAC at the direction of Congress. As spelled out in the Satellite Television Extension and Locset-top_box_openalism Act Reauthorization law (STELAR) passed last December, DSTAC’s mandate was to “identify, report, and recommend performance objectives, technical capabilities, and technical standards of a not unduly burdensome, uniform, and technology- and platform-neutral software-based downloadable security system designed to promote the competitive availability of [pay-TV] navigation devices in furtherance of section 629 of the Communications Act of 1934.”

It did not go well. From the beginning there was disagreement within both the committee and the FCC as to the proper scope of the mission and the committee soon devolved into two opposing and roughly equal camps, with pay-TV providers and equipment makers on one side, and CE makers and technology companies, along with consumer advocates, in the other. In broad strokes, the first camp wanted to focus the discussion narrowly on the technical aspects of downloadable security, while the latter camp sought to focus the discussion more broadly on the goal of “promot[ing] the competitive availability of navigation devices” including security and non-security elements of pay-TV service. Read More »