Posts Tagged ‘vod’

MLB.TV review

June 28, 2010 7 comments

As I mentioned in another post, MLB.TV is a stellar model for video content on connected Internet devices.  Their business model is aggressive, but the product is excellent. 

Having used it for a good part of the 2010 season now, here are some thoughts on the various hardware platforms where it is available.

Note I have only the basic MLB.TV, not the high end version, so I do not have all the DVR functionality or choice of feeds.

Overall the product is very well conceived.  It has options to mask all scores so you can safely enter the app to pick up a game from the beginning without seeing the score or outcome.  You can start at any inning or go to the live point.

There are no ads, when the ad break comes you get a silent pleasant blue card while you wait.  According to an MLB presentation I saw last year at Adobe Max, they are restricted from rebroadcasting local ads into other markets (something not true on the similar DirecTV product or on MLB’s audio only product).  They also said they have not worked out all the details to consider inserting their own ads.  So for now at least, you get a nice ad-free experience in exchange for the $100-120 you paid up front.  (Hear that, Hulu?)

The Web

Rock solid.  Does just what you want it to.  Only one glitch I found while resizing windows the video did not resize when the video did, so about half the image was cut off.  I had to kill the window and reopen it to restore.  No big deal.

The iPod Touch

Video performance is an issue for me.  It crashes and stutters frequently.  Image quality is poor, possibly due to the limted processing power.   It could be related to the bandwidth available, however in the same location I didn’t have as much trouble with…

The iPad

Better.  The video performance is better than the Touch.  It still crashes occasionally and for the most part I find myself going back to audio only.  Also the app itself isn’t as good as the Touch app, it feels cluttered to me, not as intuitive, and it lacks a standings section for some reason. 

I am still skeptical of the iPad as a video device.  I rarely take it out of the house where I have a much better video device known as A Television Set (with a number of connected devices attached).  When I do rarely take it to the office, I prefer to listen to the radio versions of ball games so I can keep my eyes on my work (Hear that, Boss?).  I know some people are bullish on video on the iPad, and I don’t deny it can work for some, it just so far has not worked for me, and least for long form video.

The Roku Box

Simple.  If the Roku has a fault, it’s that it’s too simple, but it passes the Mom Test.  Just about anyone can use this thing, it just works.

I recently moved my Roku into my home office where I have a small TV next to my computer.  Since my main TV has an Xbox and a PS/3, the Roku has become a bit redundant, so it’s now demoted to auxillary room status. 

At one point this last weekend I had the White Sox on mute on the small TV via Roku, and the iPad running the audio of the Tigers game while I worked at my PC.  This was better than juggling windows on the PC itself. 


Slick.  This is my favorite place to use MLB.TV.  The interface is responsive, the streams start fast and video quality adjustments happen seamlessly (without a pause like the Roku).

The only negatives are slight and can be blamed on the PS/3:  it was not easy to find the app in the first place to install it, and I’d prefer to use the center “select” button on my PS/3 media remote rather than the “X” button, but I’m guessing that’s a design requirement to be consistent with other apps on that device.

If I could only choose one device however, ironically it would be the one that generally performs the worst for video, the iPod Touch, because it’s always with me.  I mostly use it for audio only, because most of my eastern teams’ games are on while I’m still at work here on the west coast.

For home viewing of video, the one I’d keep would be the PS/3.


How many times can I pay Major League Baseball?

June 10, 2010 2 comments

Four.  Four times is the answer.

Let me back up.  MLB.TV is a great product.  Major League Baseball is by far ahead of the other sports leagues in terms of non-traditional distribution, and their business model is also setting the new standard, which is: you pay for stuff.

The age of “The Internet = Free” is ending, as I wrote about in There’s a Charge for That? and Will Google TV Destroy TV?

How I came to pay MLB four times for the same thing serves as a fine example of how this new world works.

It all started in 1976 when my dad took me to see Mark Fidrych pitch for the Detroit Tigers.  Ok, that’s going back a little too far. 

I grew up in and around Detroit and Chicago and have a split loyalty between the Tigers and the White Sox.  (screw the Cubs)  Now living in Los Angeles, I signed up for the MLB audio only service “Gameday” a couple years ago so I could stream radio broadcasts of my teams.

Gameday was $15 for the season and AUTO-RENEWED every year. 

That was fine for 2008 and 2009, but as spring of 2010 began and I was surrounding myself with media devices like the iPod Touch, PS/3, Roku, and iPad, pure professional curiousity dictated I experience the audio service, now renamed “At Bat”, on all my various devices and probably upgrade to the video service (MLB.TV) that added live streaming video.

My 2010 At Bat had already auto-renwed, so there’s the first $15.

When I went to download the At Bat iPod Touch app I found the free version did not work with the audio package I already paid for.  To get At Bat audio on the iPod Touch, I had to buy the premium app for $15.   So that’s two times I’ve paid for the audio.

“They are two separate products,” someone from MLB told me.

And of course, if you try going to the web version on your iPhone browser, it redirects you to a page advertising the app.  Nice try buddy.  (and the web version requires Flash, which wouldn’t have worked on an Apple device anyway… are you getting the picture?)

[more below the graphic]

This directly reverses the models that have been more common to this point of digital rights and subscriptions existing “in the cloud” allowing a single paid product to be enjoyed on any device.  This is how Netflix and Amazon do it.  You subcribe or purchase once and any device you log in to gives you access to the rights that exist everywhere.

But this is the new new media of 2010.

Then I find the same deal is in place for the iPad version of the At Bat app.  Unlike many other apps where buying one gets it on both the Pod and the Pad, not so.  A third payment of $15 gets me the iPad version.

Finally, I decide I want to “upgrade” my account to include the video.  Thankfully, this upgrade does apply to all devices, no need to purchase three separate video subscriptions. 

However, there is no “upgrade” path from my initial web only audio “At Bat” to the full “MLB.TV” which includes video AND AUDIO.  I was only able to purchase it at the full price of $100.

Had I not had my original Gameday account on auto-rewew, I would have gained web access to the audio feeds by virutue of my MLB.TV purchase.  However I was unable to apply that $15 against the new $100 purchase (I called MLB twice to try, and the very nice people on the phone told me versions of “hmmm, good question… maybe… let me ask…  I’ll put in a ticket…  It should offer you that option when you purchase…  you can cancel your audio and REQUEST a refund, but I can’t guarantee you’ll get it…”)

None of that came to pass, so finally I broke down.  My time was worth more than the $15 I stood to recover and I figured I’d get to be indignant about it in a future blog post, so I went ahead and bought the $100 package, my fourth purchase of the right to stream audio from MLB this season.

Annoying as it is, these guys know what they’re doing.

Despite all that, I still ended up missing the controversial Galarraga Perfect Game because I had to go to the dentist.

Go Tigers!

Will Google TV Destroy TV?

May 28, 2010 11 comments

(Note: I work for the Walt Disney Company, but I do not work for ABC or Hulu. My comments are mine, not my company’s, and I am not citing inside information in this post.)

If you don’t follow these things, Google TV is a recently announced effort from Google, Sony and others to enter the already active and increasingly chaotic world of Internet connected TV.

Yahoo, Roku, Vudu, Apple, Netflix, and others are already doing it. Google is new to the party, but a big name attracting attention. (and a new Apple TV is now rumored)

The basic idea of the connected TV is to take the kind of video watching you do on your computer and move it to the biggest and best picture, sound and seating you have in the house. The original video device. The almighty television.

You could get all the breadth, randomness, and consumer friendly economics of Internet video without the neck and back strain of “leaning forward” over a keyboard and mouse.

But does this matter? Will it change the world? The hype from Google and the others would say yes.

This is all fine for the oddball viral video and niche specialty content that doesn’t already exist on traditional television or DVD, but what would really change the industry would be getting high value network or studio products like you find on Hulu. You could cancel your cable bill and watch far fewer advertisements. Sounds great right? But…

You cannot meddle with the primal forces of nature!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

There is no free lunch. TV is expensive to make. Especially if it’s good TV. A show like Lost with visual effects, big sets, and well paid union writers, directors, and actors needs a budget. A big budget.

Where does that money come from? There’s a complicated answer to this and a simple answer. The simple answer is the money comes from you.

Just like when taxes are raised on corporations, ultimately they’ll raise prices on products and get that money from consumers. The money is in the people, and if the people stop paying, there is no other source.

The complicated answer is that it comes from you in many ways. Part of your cable bill makes its way back to the networks. The time you take watching advertising (unless you’re skipping, more on that later) is value extracted from you and sent back to the network. And the season box sets you buy or rent on DVD count as well.

As more and more people figure out how to get their shows without paying these costs, the available pool of money to make the shows will shrink. The networks must react to this, it simply doesn’t work to just shrug it off and continue on like it isn’t happening.

One reaction to this may be to lower the cost of production. This can mean moving away from expensive shows like Kings, Law and Order, or CSI and towards lower cost product like The Apprentice or Jersey Shore. Another way to lower costs is to pay less for talent by using unknowns or bargaining down the unions.

Another reaction is to simply block content from running on these devices. This is what Hulu did with Boxee, the PS/3, and others and the assumption is they will do the same with Google TV, if they can. (If they can’t, I’d expect a lawsuit, or simply for shows to be pulled from Hulu)

Those are negative reactions. They reduce the value of what is circulating in the system. What I’d like to see is to keep expanding access, but make a few critical adjustments to ensure people get paid. You may not like it, but compare it to the above alternatives…

A place to start is to charge for content. Either as a subscription like Hulu-plus, or pay per view, which you are already seeing on the web. There era of “the internet is free” may be over, and this is what will come to your TV set.

If you still want it “free”, then another option is to raise the value of advertising.

The least creative way to do this is to make ads unskippable. This is unfortunate if you’ve grown accustomed to skipping, but it’s inevitable. You’ve seen this on the web. Get ready for it on your TV.

A better reaction is to make ads better. Make them something you actually want to watch, will watch more than once, and will send to your friends. You probably do this now already, just not from your TV. Not yet.

However the most effective solution may be to make ads more relevant to you. Enter Google TV.

The reason you skip ads is because they don’t mean anything to you. But what if every ad you saw were precisely targeted to you and your family? So much so it may even creep you out a little. (that will be a fine line to navigate)

In the future, advertising may address you by name, reference where you work, where you drove today, what products are in low supply in your fridge, what you were discussing by email or on Facebook that day, and so on.

Going further, interactive commercials could directly drive commerce, allowing you to explore deeper into the product, have more information emailed to you, or make an impulse purchase on the spot.

Relevant and responsive advertising is something Google knows a bit about, and they want to build a platform to bring this expertise from the web to your living room, but they won’t be able to do it alone. They need the networks to play along, which means they need to show them the money. Your money.

What do you think? What are you willing to trade (time, personal information, cash) in exchange for high quality entertainment?

How much do you want another way to get movies and TV shows to your TV?

The Future of All Media was written in 1993. Kinda.

May 22, 2010 9 comments

In 1993 Time Magazine published a landmark cover story called “The Info Highway” and got nearly every prediction about the coming information age right.  Except they got it all wrong, at least in one crucial aspect: they missed the Internet. 

The article, written by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, is fascinating in its prescience and serves as a platinum example for anyone trying to predict the future. 

(To his credit, Elmer-Dewitt did end the article with the note that they could have it all wrong and still be surprised, and his follow up work over the next several years tracked the surprises and road bumps that were to come.) 

[update:  This article was republished on The Producers Guild.  Then Philip Elmer-Dewitt, or PED as I now know him, was ever so cool enough to write his own review of my review on his blog at CNN.  Thanks PED!]

For those of you too young to remember, the early nineties weren’t like today.  We had a down economy, a war in Iraq started by a Bush, a young Democratic President following a Bush, and Jay Leno had just taken over The Tonight Show.  Ok that was too easy, but really the Cold War had just ended and we didn’t know what was going to follow it.  Things were in transition.  There was a sense of newness in the air. 

I had been promised in the late eighties (yes, personally promised) that someday something called “ISDN” would allow us to balance our checkbooks on our TV screens.  That was nice, I thought, but is that the best application anyone can come up with?  Actually “Cool!!” was what I thought, but in hindsight… is that the best application anyone can come up with? 

The phrase “Interactive Television” started getting thrown around, though no one knew what it meant.  The big ideas back then were stories where the audience made decisions for the character (which is contrary to the idea that plot comes from character) or to let the viewer buy the sunglasses off someone’s face or order a pizza during a commercial for a pizza (which is contrary to the idea that I just want to sit and watch TV in peace!).  These are still the ideas being thrown around today. 

The digital revolution was just beginning to appear on the distant horizon.  The “dot com” era had not yet begun.  The “home computer” trend of the eighties had been a bust. Cable TV was still delivered using a box that showed the channel number in red LED lights on the front of the actual box, not on screen, let alone showing the name of the channel, the show you were watching, or what was coming up later.  

An assortment of video tapes (wikipedia)

I remember wondering why I couldn’t just pause TV like it was a video tape. (Remember video tape?) When I saw the quality of the first offline Avid systems, I had my answer:  Even high end digital video systems at that time were not capable of playing back video with anything approaching acceptable quality. 

We didn’t have words like bitrate or streaming, but I knew instinctively that it was just a matter of time until TV would be delivered in ways that would bring about radical time shifting with serious effects on scheduling, advertising, audience measurement and the very basics of broadcasting norms.  

I would try to explain to my friends and family, and they would just cock their head sideways and say “interwhat what what?” 

When I picked up the April 12, 1993 issue of Time it was a revelation.  “YES!” I thought, “This is what I’m talking about!  When do I get this?  I want this.” 

Not only did I want it as a consumer, I wanted to make a career out of it.  It was the distillation for me of a turning point in history, a vision for my own future as a professional in “the new media.”  An inspiration. 

Now it’s seventeen years later and many of the predictions have come forcefully true, while others radically not, at least not yet, so let’s take a step back and have some fun. 


Following are quoted excerpts from the 1993 article with my notes and updates. 


“Coming Soon to Your TV Screen” 

It didn’t come to the TV Screen, it came to the computer first.  Some parts of it did end up on TV eventually in the form of video on demand systems from cable companies, and more may still, but the interplay between the ten foot experience and the two foot is still not settled.  WebTV, BD-Live, Yahoo Widgets, the Roku, Xbox Live, the Wii-Browser… all are (or were) platforms to provide interactive online services on a TV screen, but do people want them?  (DVRs don’t count.) 

Plus the first wave of a whole generation of kids are now exiting college where they had free wifi in the dorms and laptops and smart phones with them everywhere they went.  This is where they watch “TV”.  These kids will be the adults who may never buy a traditional television set in their lives.  (and are very morally relaxed regarding piracy, but that’s another topic) 

Speaking of WebTV, the recent announcement of Google TV is bringing more focus onto the TV as an interactive medium, but no one’s got it right yet.  People don’t want browsers on the TV, they want content. 


“Imagine a medium that combines the switching and routing capabilities of phones with the video and information offerings of the most advanced cable systems and data banks.” 

Phone + Video + Information 

What is being described here is nothing less than the “Triple Play” bundle offered by the big players in the space today.  

What they miss here, and the biggest miss of the article is the assumption that it would be the “switching and routing” of the contemporary systems, even those deemed the “most advanced” that would provide the interactivity.  The packet based switching of the Internet Protocol (IP) was not even a contender.  More on that later. 


“Instead of settling for whatever happens to be on at a particular time, you could select any item from an encyclopedic menu of offerings and have it routed directly to your television or computer screen.” 

Spot on. They even do include the computer screen and not just the TV. 

Seems simple now, but this was profound in 1993.  Actually it’s still not so simple now. 


“A movie?  Airline listings?  Tomorrow’s newspaper or yesterdays’ episode of Northern Exposure?  How about a new magazine or a book?  A stroll through the L.L. Bean catalog?  A teleconference with your boss?  A video phone call with your lover?” 

Netflix.  Expedia.  Hulu.  The Kindle.  Skype.  Sexting.  

It’s not just airline listings, but price comparisons, bidding, e-ticketing and paperless boarding passes.  It’s not just the LL Bean Catalog, but meta catalogs, affiliate programs, Groupons, Ebay, digital goods, Pay Pal, virtual currencies.  Ecommerce on a massive scale with unprecedented consumer access to information. 

Who cares about tomorrow’s newspaper or magazines?  News is now a constantly updating and rolling cycle of information.  New brands emerged like Slate or TMZ that have no print counterpart.  

But again other than cable provided VOD and the emerging “over the top” market, very little of this occurs on the TV.  For now. 


“Already the major cable operators and telephone companies are competing – and collaborating – to bring this communicopia to your neighborhood.” 

“The final bottleneck — the “last mile” of wiring that takes information from the digital highway to the home — has been broken, and a blue-chip corporate lineup has launched pilot projects that could be rolled out to most of the country within the next six or seven years.” 

“Driving this explosive merger of video, telephones and computers are some rather simple technological advances: 

—    The ability to translate all audio and video communications into digital information. 

—    New methods of storing this digitized data and compressing them so they can travel through existing phone and cable lines. 

—    Fiber-optic wiring that provides a virtually limitless transmission pipeline.* 

—    New switching techniques and other breakthroughs that make it possible to bring all this to neighborhoods without necessarily rewiring every home.” 

We all thought it would be the cable companies or the phone companies making it all happen, but the Internet appeared from out of nowhere and surprised the industry.  It would be a few years before cable and telephone would become Internet service providers and get themselves back into the position they wanted to be in. 

Ironically, the traditional “switching” systems of cable TV are themselves being replaced in some markets with technology that while not open to the general Internet, uses the IP system of packet switching.  Fios from Verizon is such a system, although pulling that fiber into “the last mile” was recently halted due to its expense and limited adoption.  For now. 

*Note how fiber-optic is described as “virtually limitless.”  How many times have new technologies carried the promise of being infinite or free, only to find their limit later when the demand rose to fill the supposedly inexhaustible supply?  Keep this in mind as gigabytes turn to terabytes.  Someday I’ll be complaining I don’t have enough yottabytes to store the latest holographic virtual world in the grain of sand sized device floating under my eyelid. 


“Now the only questions are whether the public wants it and how much it is willing to pay.” 

Yes we want it, but what will we pay?  As Hulu plans a premium service and Apple pushes the “there’s an app for that” model on the iPad hoping to put the “internet=free” genie back in the bottle (See There’s a charge for that?) this is still one of the great unanswered questions at the heart of the business of entertainment. 

The downstream effects have caused strikes among the creative unions, brought about the (low cost) reality TV phenomenon, and created new relationships between content companies and technology vendors to enable things like video players that don’t let you skip advertising, the HDCP standard, and Selective Output Control (the ability to disable all but the piracy stopping HDMI outputs from a device, which was just approved by the FCC). 


“Next spring Hughes Communications will introduce DirecTv, a satellite system that delivers 150 channels of television through a $700 rooftop dish the size of a large pizza pie.” 

“But to focus on the number of channels in a TV system is to miss the point of where the revolution is headed. When the information highway comes to town, channels and nightly schedules will begin to fade away and could eventually disappear.  In this postchannel world, more and more of what one wants to see will be delivered on demand by a local supplier (either a cable system, a phone company or a joint venture)…”  

This was one of the most exciting things I had ever read, “A postchannel world.” This has partly happened, but not to the fully radical extent I think it still will.  

Radical time shifting will eventually mean shows will not be limited to weekly release schedules or thirty minute time slots.  (see DVRs Still Suck

And of course DirecTV now offers hundreds of channels, and the dishes are free. 

Note the assumption that again it’s the phone company, cable company or a joint venture that will be driving (not a third party like Netflix or Amazon).  

Also how the phone and cable company are referred to as a “local supplier.”  These are now national suppliers, there are no more local phone or cable providers. 

Finally “channel” is just yesterday’s word for “brand.”  You know what you’re going to get from HBO vs. Disney vs. Spike, but you don’t need a channel to access those brands.  You only need the appropriate economic relationship with some distribution entity, and perhaps a widget or app carrying that brand.  (in the short to medium term, this will likely require a contract with a cable or satellite provider even if delivered via a custom app, the “TV Everywhere” concept) 


“As new ways of packaging and delivering these shows emerge, skirmishes over copyrights and program ownership are likely to become increasingly bitter and complex.”

Disclaimer: I do work for Disney, but no proprietary knowledge is necessary to cite the very public conflict between Disney and Starz over Disney’s product being sold on iTunes, then Starz’s subsequent licensing of content to Netflix for instant streaming without having explicitly cleared such use with Disney.  There was speculation that Disney would eliminate that loophole in its renegotiated contract with Starz, but as if this writing that has not happened. 

Look at the all out war, let alone skirmish, between the cable operators and the networks over affiliate fees.  This is the biggest driver behind why the Internet cannot really offer “free” video to your TV.  As more and more people use it, it is moving from being a niche loophole for those who could figure it out to a legitimate distribution point that has to carry its weight like the rest and stop giving it away. 


“The same switches used to send a TV show to your home can also be used to send a video from your home to any other — paving the way for video phones that will be as ubiquitous and easy to use as TV…”   

Skype and iChat have shown demand for personal two-way video, but for some reason the classic “video phone” never took off.  LG and Panasonic are now offering Skype on TV sets with cameras attached, so we’ll wait and see how that goes. 

I love the assumption that a video phone in your TV would be as easy to use as TV.  No interactive service in a TV is anything like using TV.  TV is easy to use because you just sit there. 


“The same system will allow anybody with a camcorder to distribute videos to the world — a development that could open the floodgates to a wave of new filmmaking talent or a deluge of truly awful home movies.” 

“Mitch Kapor [of the] Electronic Frontier Foundation, wants the superhighway to do for video what computer bulletin boards did for print — make it easy for everyone to publish ideas to an audience eager to respond in kind. He envisions a nation of leisure-time video broadcasters, each posting his creations on a huge nationwide video bulletin board.” 

This is astonishingly right, more than ten years before YouTube, here’s YouTube.  Score one for Mitch Kapor. 

The term they used to use was “video dial tone”.   The idea was that through your cable box you could plug in your camcorder and “upload” (though we didn’t have that word at the time).  Of course, the cable companies did not make this happen, this kind of innovation needed the real disruptive power of the Internet.   However the mobile phone providers did later enter this fray with phones that became camcorders and can upload directly to YouTube and others. 

Video Dial Tone, meet Android.  (do phones even have dial tones anymore?) 


It’s easy to imagine families exchanging video Christmas cards. Or high school students shopping for a college by exploring each campus [by] interactive video. Or elementary schools making videos of the school play available to every parent who missed it. 

Now we just take these things for granted. 


“In the era of interactive TV, the lines between advertisements, entertainment and services may grow fuzzy.” 

“This is the vision that has the best minds from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley scrambling for position at the starting gate.  

The lines between content and advertising were already blurring with product placement and sponsored content that goes back to the golden age of TV.  (see Commercial Creep: The Merging of Commercials into Original Programming

Advertising online has obviously become a major industry, but the really interesting stuff will come when ads on TV can be targeted directly, or consumers can choose the ads they want to watch (and cannot skip them, if that genie will fit back in that bottle). 

Google seems to want to lead in this space, but the advertising community hasn’t fully woken up to the idea that the current model is strictly 20th century.  This will be fun. 


“Meanwhile, TV Guide is racing against InSight, TV Answer and Discovery Communications to design electronic navigators that will tell viewers what’s on TV and where to find it.” 

Replace “electronic navigators” with portals, search, and recommendations. 

Replace “TV Guide, InSight, TV Answer and Discovery” with YouTube, Yahoo, Tivo, StumbleUpon, and again Google. 

This has still not been solved and the process of “discovering” content as a consumer has evolved along with everything else.  

One of the most critical developments is the growth of social networking as a means to promote and find content through the people you know and trust.  A.K.A. Viral Video. 


“The Government is the dark horse in the race to the information highway. It got into the business almost by accident: thanks to [Al] Gore’s lobbying during the 1980s, it funded the fiber-optic links that form the backbone of Internet, the sprawling computer grid that is for students, scientists and the Pentagon what Prodigy and CompuServe are for ordinary computer users.” 

This and the one that follows is the only reference to what we know as “The Internet” in the article.  They refer to it simply as “Internet” and all but dismiss it as a non-profit Prodigy and Compuserve used by a few elites outside the mainstream.  Prodi-what and Compu-who? 


“Internet has grown into the world’s largest computer bulletin board and data bank, home to 10 million to 15 million networkers who use it for many of the purposes the information highway might serve: sending and receiving mail, sharing gossip and research results, searching for information in hard-to-reach libraries, playing games with opponents in other cities, even exchanging digitized sounds, photographs and movie clips.” 

“Digitzed sounds”?  You mean music?  Hello Music Industry, Napster calling on the Video Phone. 

Mail, gossip, research, games against remote opponents, photos, movie clips.  Yes all of the above.  And then some.  

“Purposes the information highway might serve?”  Actually it was and became the highway.  It’s as if the cowpaths and dirt roads rose up and surrounded the concrete and steel construction project that never took hold.


“If they watch a lot of news, documentaries and special- interest programming, those offerings will expand. If video on demand is a huge money-maker, that is what will grow. If video bulletin boards — or teleconferencing, or interactive Yellow Pages, or electronic town meetings — are hot, those services too will thrive and spread.” 

All of the above have succeeded to varying degrees.  Full screen on-the-TV-set video on demand is the only one not fully provided by the Internet and still dominated by the traditional TV providers.   Will “over the top” products change this, or will the triple play providers overtake the open standards and close the net?  Either way, the consumer will still have to pay something.


“Arrays of computer disks can hold hundreds of movies, a weeks’s worth of TV programming, and a library of information.” 

Try tens of thousands of movies, years worth of TV, and all the world’s libraries’ information. 


“A converter box in the home will decode the words, sounds, pictures, or movies and send them to your TV,  computer, printer, picture telephone, hand-held tele-computer or some as yet unimagined device.” 

Replace “converter box” with modem/router. 

“Decode and send” with download. 

“Hand-held tele-computer” with smart phone.  (“hand-held tele-computer”?  Priceless) 

“As yet unimagined device” with the iPad


“Get [news] directly from the wire services and the network feeds.” 

Wire services and networks as the only source of news?  Wow, missed that one.  Blogga please! 


“Current films.  For a price you can order Hollywood’s newest releases.” 

Films currently in theaters, not so fast other than a few exceptions for indie experiments and of course pirating.  However the windows are shortening and now some VOD is expected to start immediately after the theatrical release and well before the physical disk release.  (as long as the “analog hole” is plugged using selective output control) 


“Computer companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun want to build the huge file servers that will act as video and information libraries.”  

“Such software companies as Microsoft and Apple want to build the operating systems that will serve as the data highway’s traffic cops, controlling the flow of information to and from each viewer’s screen. “ 

File servers and operating systems have become commodities. Small fish. What Microsoft, Apple and others want to control is the economic relationship. 


“The government is more likely to play a critical role in cutting through the thicket of state and federal regulations that have grown up over the years to keep the local telephone and cable-TV monopolies out of each other’s business. “

The communications act of 1996 is a topic for an entire series of articles, but the quick version is that in the 1996 act the “triple play” of television (cable and satellite), telephone, and a loosely defined “other” category were all set up with very different regulations.  Today companies under these various designations compete against each other but under different rules so while the monopolies may be much less secure than they once were, the regulation has still not kept up with the technology or the market. 

Then there’s the Net Neutrality debate that pits the democratic freedom of what we now think of as the Internet against the simple fact that it is a privately owned and controlled network, not all that unlike the “switched network” originally assumed to be the Info Highway’s foundation. 


“The telephone companies, with their switching networks already in place, want to build the superhighway and control what travels over it.  The cable-TV companies, with their coaxial systems, think they should own the right-of-way.” 

Cable companies have become ISPs, and though the Internet began as a government funded system, it’s the primarily Telco companies that ultimately own the crucial pieces.  

It may just be that in three years, when I write the “twenty years later” version of this article, we will in fact see the telcos and cable companies taking over the position they were expected to after all. 


“Just as likely, it could veer off in surprising directions and take us places we’ve never imagined.” 

Yep.  And it continues to.

DVRs still suck

May 5, 2010 5 comments

DVRs seem to have revolutionized television in the last decade. Ten years ago when they first appeared, Tivo and Replay TV were shocking devices that offered the utopian promises of skipping ads and having everything your way.

But I’m here to tell you it’s an illusion. The DVR is nothing but a VCR in a fancy tuxedo. It’s a 20th century concept on its last legs. The real revolution has yet to come.


The VCR was a revolution too, actually a much more significant one. The VCR created the home video industry in the eighties. Prior to that you saw movies in theaters and caught shows when they aired and that was usually it. There would be the occasional release or revival at a local theater, and one round of reruns on TV, then you’d move on.

The VCR created two opportunities that didn’t previously exist: libraries and timeshifting.

The library concept has moved from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray without changing significantly other than the occasinal upgrade cycle creating new revenue surges (less so with Blu-ray).

Timeshifting has similarly had a number of phases. The first VCRs had clunky analog dials, just like the TVs at the time, that could only be on one channel at a time and a single timer unaware of days or dates, just time, like an alarm clock. Then the equipment got a little smarter and you could program the time and channel and the magic device would do it all at the appointed time. Amazing!

The interface for all this was often inscrutable blinking lights on the box itself, only later did it move to an interface you saw on the TV screen so you didn’t have to hunch over the device poking at buttons.

VCR-plus came along and let you enter in a few numbers (found in your printed TV Guide, remember those?) to make it a little easier.

But up until the DVR you still had the limits of recording one thing at a time, you had to cue up the tape yourself and make sure there was enough time left. You also couldn’t record while watching another recorded show let alone watch the beginning of a show while the end was still recording.

The DVR changed that. Now you can pick shows by their name, not obscure codes or complex date and time selections. You have access to metadata about the show that includes actors names or key words so you can find things more easily, the system can make recommendations, and you can watch while you are recording. Incredible! Right?

Not really, it’s just the same timeshifting concept evolved to its next logical point. It’s just a fancy VCR.

You still, even with a DVR, have these quaint analog artifacts:

  • Shows start and end at inexact times, so your recording may begin partway into an advertisement before the show starts, or you may cut off the end (particularly with live events)
  • The schedule may have changed and instead of the latest episode of FlashForward you actually get a press conference from the White House.
  • You can still only record a limited number of things at the same time, on most systems it’s two, some go to four, so it’s possible some things will not be available to you at a particular time.
  • You still have to manage the media on which it is recorded. Your system can still fill to capacity, particularly if you are a collector.

You are still setting a timer on a recording device and waiting for the linear broadcast to deliver the content. This is an inherently analog system.

It’s like trying to acquire baseballs by standing in the outfield and waiting for one to be hit to you, then running to catch it. Why not just go to the store and get a baseball off the shelf?

The 20th century model was broadcasts happen when they happen according to the holy “scheduling grid” and for the last thirty years we’ve just rigged up increasing advanced clocks and timers to capture them. The 21st century model is on-demand, and your library is where ever you are. The show starts exactly at the top without any slip in timing or partial cutoff.

Now you probably have this already in some form, but it’s not the primary method for most. Eventually, I believe, it will be not only the primary way, but the only way.

I’ll give it twenty years, say 2030, when there will be an act of congress to make it official. There will be coupons handed out to the remaining stragglers still running the old hardware (just like we saw with the DTV cutover) and a date will be set when the old broadcasts can simply be shut off.

Once there is 100% compliance, we can finally do away with the onerous and outmoded concept of the “time slot.”

No longer will you describe a show as being “on Friday night at 8pm” or “up against American Idol” or “following your late local news.” We’ll no longer call it “timeshifting” because there won’t be an assumed original time to shift from.

There will be packaging of shows surely, so having a “good lead in” will still be a way to introduce new shows to existing audiences, but there will be an infinite number of ways to package or target those audiences. Packaging will also be performed by third parties, recommending and selling bundles of content from different suppliers.

A show will not be limited to a thirty or sixty minute format, but can be as long as the producers need to tell the story they’re telling. This week it’s thirty, but next week it’s twenty three, the week after that it’s forty two.

Shows won’t have to be weekly. A series may be released in ten minute episodes daily, or spaced out every thirty days, or an episode can be held for a few days while the editing is completed.

Multi-hour story arcs (we currently call them “seasons”) can be consumed in whatever portions the viewer decides, and released in whatever packaging the producer wishes.

No more requirement to program exactly twenty four hours on each of the channels a programmer owns. No need to fill time with junk, and no limit on the amount of time available when deciding what to green light. Some networks (by this time really brands more than channels) will offer a hundred new hours of programming in a day, while others offer only a few new hours per week.

Television may adopt a scheduling practice that borrows some from the music and movie businesses where work is scheduled for release based on its nature, not the tyranny of a calendar.

This is already happening to some extent on the web, and some networks are more flexible with hiatuses or mini-seasons, but this won’t be fully realized until the concept of linear programming based on a calendar grid is history.

So the DVR, as cool as it is, is little more than the latest, most advanced kludge we have to manage a totally outdated system that is on its way out.

Set your timers.