Burning at Both Ends

Anyone who has read this blog in the past (thanks, Mom!) knows that I’m a fan of Netflix as well as the Fox Network show Arrested Development. Today, Netflix announced that it is going to be bringing back Arrested Development in 2012 exclusively to their streaming video service; firmly placing them in the category of a premium cable channel. I’m also a fan of Apple and Amazon, who along with Netflix, are businesses which represent the future of the entertainment industry and media consumption, though in significantly different ways.

Jon Gruber stated the other day that he didn’t think Netflix was capable of creating hardware to support an “end-to-end solution.” I don’t disagree that there’s essentially no chance Netflix will move beyond the app business and into actual hardware1. But I disagree with the notion that Apple and Amazon are providing end-to-end solutions. In fact, what Apple and Amazon are really providing are middle-to-one-end solutions. That is, they take content licensed from a studio and serve it over their systems to their hardware2. Netflix, however, is moving to the other end by creating content to serve on their systems to someone else’s hardware platform via an app. In doing so, they get a wider installed base with no hardware investment (which no one other than Apple has really yet to crack; though the Kindle Fire from Amazon is just a week old).

Netflix has dabbled with being a studio in the past, or at least a financier of independent film. Their folded Red Envelope Entertainment—which backed some really great indie films—was a worthy try, but competed against some of their bread & butter content providers. While that fact hasn’t changed much, the stakes have. When Netflix made the decision to close their Red Envelope Entertainment division, the Apple App Store had just launched and the iPad hadn’t even been announced yet. That landscape has completely changed, with premium network HBO having a really terrific app now that lets subscribers watch their shows on demand. The ability to watch Game of Thrones anytime, anywhere has surely helped HBO’s subscriber numbers and I think this is what Netflix must have it’s eye on.

The price of Netflix’s streaming service puts in the range with HBO and now Netflix has the killer content which will compel fans to sign up if they weren’t already subscribers. Thus they stand a chance to gain subscribers at the expense of premium cable providers like HBO, especially among the growing number of cable-cutters (you don’t need a cable subscription to watch Netflix shows; you do for HBO’s).

So, which is a better business to be in between hardware and content producer? I honestly don’t know, but given the nightmare of content licenses all these tech companies are having to navigate, I have a good feeling that producing premium content might be more as appealing as getting into the hardware game. Though the markets for iPads is essentially the same age as the market for streaming video apps on such devices, the playing field among studios looks a lot more leve than having to taken on a juggernaut like Apple’s iOS devices from scratch.

You’re move, Amazon.

  1. This is the company that is racing to dump physical media, for one thing!
  2. Note that, in the case of Amazon’s print publishing, they are consuming the entire business between author an reader. Now that is as much an end-to-end solution as one could have, short of providing advances to authors.

Amazon UnBox On My TiVo

So, many of you may have heard the news that Amazon opened up their Unbox for TiVo service today. This was way ahead of anything I expected, as I just figured it would be sort of like the vapor-agreement TiVo had with Netflix. However, the service was up and running not very long at all after the initial announcement, just two months ago. Once again, TiVo somehow manages to not only survive, but surprise me and just about everyone else.

I signed up for the account earlier today, which took no more effort than going to a page on Amazon and entering your e-mail and password associated with my TiVo account1. For the next month or so, Amazon is even giving a $15 credit for TiVo users who sign up. That’s pretty enticing for something that is easier to sign up for than most web 2.0 services.

Unbox For TiVo

I was actually somewhat surprised to see just how nice the offerings were at Amazon. Not all of the Unbox store is able to be downloaded to a Tivo (yet), but I imagine that’s not going to take long. It doesn’t appear that any major networks or studios are really holding out just yet. There are movies, which may be purchased or rented, with prices between $8 and $16 to buy and around $4 to rent. I have no idea how long a “rental” lasts on the TiVo, but I’d guess three to four days from the time the download begins.

I saw quite a few shows that I enjoy (although I noted that it seems the iTunes store currently has more offerings, with some of the popular ABC shows being a big hole at Amazon right now). I ended up just downloading an episode of Arrested Development since I have the DVD’s and had even recorded some episodes on the TiVo a while ago (all of Seasons 1 and 2 are available, I chose Episode 4 "Good Grief" from Season 2). I figured this would allow me to be able to make a fair comparison for quality. Purchasing was painless with Amazon’s patented2 One-click purchase. All I had to do was select which TiVo box to send the download to from a pull down menu (it had found both of them by name from my account after I provided my information; yes, we have to Tivo boxes. Don’t judge us.). I selected our “Sunroom” unit so I could watch the show while on the treadmill (seriously, stop judging me. I mean it.). Amazon states that the download begin and appear in the “Now Playing” list on the TiVo unit selected within 15 minutes. Well, it was more like 30-40 minutes. Further, it took another hour or so for it to be available to watch3, and this was only a 22 minute program. I’m assuming that increases to a few hours for a feature film (rental or purchase).

screenshots of Amazon Unbox on my TiVo

Screenshots of the TiVo menus under the "Now Playing" section of the TiVo.

Quality in the Unbox

I didn’t have a lot of expectations for the quality of the video to be honest. However, I was glad to see I had underestimated the quality somewhat. It was at least as good as the “high” quality recording setting on the TiVo itself. Of course, we only have standard definition TiVos on our SD television sets. All the same, I don’t think it is going to disappoint the average Series 2 Tivo owner.

Now, you are not able to transfer the show to another TiVo or to a TiVo Desktop server on your network. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to get the video file off of there, but the effort such a thing would require wouldn’t be at all worth it. There doesn’t appear to be any time limit or expiration date on purchases programs or movies, though. Again, I’m not sure how the rental option works.

Screenshot of Unbox Video

G.O.B. performing magic is magic to me. While this screen photo is pretty bad, the actual quality of the picture is really good; standard definition with no noticeable artifacts or compression issues.

Some Potential in the Unbox

I’m going to say it: this is the first true implementation of consumer-friendly IPTV. It for sure isn’t the first or even the most ideal method of having content brought via the internet to your television. However, provided one has both a networked TiVo and an Amazon account, it is remarkably easy to use (in typical TiVo fashion). Short of setting up a secure home network, which isn’t always the easiest thing in the world, virtually anyone could be watching downloaded content from the comfort of their living room in no time. TiVo and Amazon beat Apple to the market on this one and only time will tell if they can gain and keep some of the market share as a result.

Is this the Netflix or the iTMS killer? Probably not. Amazon, while known for having possibly the largest media catalog on the planet, may not yet have access or agreements in place to provide all that media to the consumer int his fashion. As we have seen time and time again, that is proving to be the killer step in the race to provide content in this market. Certainly, TiVo and Amazon have put together an fairly impressive offering here, though. If they could have a set monthly fee for rentals and open up more of Amazon’s vast catalog, I imagine Angela and I would easily choose this over Netflix (sorry, as much as I love Netflix, their agreement with TiVo for this exact same service fizzled). I have no doubt that the Apple TV will easily rival TiVo in quality of interface and ease of use. The prices for the content to buy are the same between Amazon and iTMS right now, but Apple has yet to do any sort of rental services. Is IPTV rental, or what we once called pay-per-view and Comcast now calls On-Demand, something consumers really want? If it is seen as paying an monthly fee to have limitless access to a nearly bottomless library of video entertainment, the quite possibly it is.

I had essentially no expectations of the Amazon Unbox for TiVo service and so I was honestly pleased to see just how easy it is to use and the level of quality it has. There are no doubt DRM demons waiting to spoil my fun here. Further, in a market where content is everything, getting media owners to allow them to use this is going to be the real race. Whoever ends up on top, having both Amazon and Apple in our living rooms is going to help consumers in the end.

  1. Of course, I already have our TiVo’s connected to the home network which has a broadband connection. It would certainly take someone with a brand new TiVo more than the 30 seconds it took me.
  2. World’s lamest patent? Probably.
  3. Unlike transfers between TiVo units over a home network, you cannot begin watching a Unbox download until it is entirely finished. Frankly, I’d say this is a wise thing since internet download speeds can be wonky on a file this large and it is very frustrating to have a video pause for some network lag.

Monarch of the Banana Stand

Arrested Development - Season One

Arrested Development: Season One on DVD or at Netflix.

Well, no sooner did I get my first disc of Arrested Development from Netflix than Fox announced they planned to cancel the series. I suppose it’s been hanging by a thin thread all along anyhow, but I feel a little disappointed after I figured out what so many people had already said: it is really a great show.

After watching the first six episodes, I can’t help but think of it as a sort of Americanized version of another one of my favorite series, the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen (which, in turn, seemed a bit like a Scottish Northern Exporsure). Monarch is the story of a unwilling second son who comes to save his boyhood home and family estate upon returning as a grown man. He comes to terms with his eccentric family, proves to be a savvy business man and community leader, and even finds love (in the character of Lexy, played by the remarkably hot Dawn Steele).

Arrested development is the somewhat similar story of unwilling second son who steps in to run the family business after Dad is taken away to jail and they lose everything. Jason Bateman plays a wonderful heavy named Michael Bluthe in a cast of completely absurd American aristocrats. It seems that even well-meaning Michael can’t save this family from their own ineptitude. Sure, some of the jokes are a little crude, but there’s something of a charming innocence about it that comes from the character’s complete cluelessness about just how bad their situation is. That, and the fact that Ron Howard (executive producer) narrates the show (Lil’ Oppie Cunningham can add instant innocence to anything).

I do find the show somewhat poorly edited, though. The jumps in plot lines seem really confusing, albeit forgivable since it’s the humor your in for, not intricate drama. Watching some of the deleted scenes really made me realize this, as in when I finally figured out why Michael actually wanted to find the records for the company jet in the first place. I guess the editors just assumed we really wouldn’t care, since it’s not as thought Michael was ever going to get them anyway. I just chalk it up to more of the show’s quirkiness.

Sadly, the show’s quirkiness and charm couldn’t save it from getting the ax at Fox. I suppose it is all about the ratings, but shows like Arrested Development, Firefly, and Monarch of the Glen all make me wish that studios would just create direct to DVD production of hastily canceled series.

Calling Mark Cuban… I see a business plan, here.

Update: Well, apparently LostRemote has some very interesting ideas, although they still might need some guy like Cuban to put up some cash (via The Long Tail).