DirecTV CEO Sees iPad App as Winning Strategy

Michael White took over the reigns of DirecTV the beginning of this year as the new president and CEO. During a recent three-day retreat with senior executives, White outlined the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and shared his vision for future growth, especially in regards to possible expansion in Latin America and reaching out to customers who use mobile devices. Investor’s Business Daily reports that DirecTV “is the world’s largest pay TV services provider with more than 28 million subscribers in the U.S. and Latin America.”

White emphasized that DirecTV is in excellent shape, but that an effective strategic plan would help steer the company into the future. His immediate focus is on recent deals with AT&T and Verizon that allow DirecTV to sell broadband services over fiber networks, the next phase of DirecTV’s recently launched free iPad application, and expanding the number of customers in Latin America (currently at 9 million).

“I was convinced that Latin America was still the best growth opportunity, and we should really expand more aggressively in Latin America,” White said. “In the U.S., we had a terrific core business, but we needed to address the ‘anytime, anywhere’ TV evolution and we needed some other revenue growth opportunities to help drive the top line while we were wrestling with higher programming costs.”

DirecTV’s first iPad app has some interesting features, yet is somewhat limited in its functionality for those truly on-the-go. It can serve as a remote control to change channels, browse channels without interrupting what’s on TV at the time, record to a DVR, and create a home screen with access to favorite channels. Users can use the app outside the home to schedule programs, but cannot currently use it to view programming. This may be the biggest obstacle for mobile device enthusiasts. White explains that phase two will enable users to import DVR content that has already been recorded to the iPad for remote viewing.

White says that DirecTV’s strategy to increase market share in Latin America involves a segmented approach by focusing on the quality of HD and DVR offerings — in addition to offering lower-priced packages, specifically targeting the middle-class who have so far been reluctant to take the plunge with paid services.

UPDATE: Time Warner Cable Drops Channels from iPad App, Sues Viacom

We recently reported that Time Warner Cable had drawn significant controversy over its free live-streaming app that provides subscribers access to streaming television content via their iPad (only in their homes). AP reports that Time Warner Cable has bowed to the subsequent pressure from Fox Cable Networks, Viacom and Discovery — and will drop 12 cable channels from the app (20 channels will remain and Time Warner Cable suggests it has plans to add more). The three programmers had complained that the app violated their programming contracts.

“For the time being, we have decided to focus our iPad efforts on those enlightened programmers who understand the benefit and importance of allowing our subscribers — and their viewers — to watch their programming on any screen in their homes,” explained Time Warner Cable in a statement.

Since the AP story hit the wires, Time Warner Cable and Viacom announced they are countersuing each other in U.S. District Court. This case may be an important indicator regarding the growing debate over content and licensing rights amidst an era of mobile devices.

Related Los Angeles Times article: “Time Warner Cable and Viacom sue over iPad app” (4/8/11)

Related Forbes article: “Viacom Yanks Channels From iPad App, Raises Stakes In Streaming Standoff” (4/8/11)

Related Broadcasting & Cable article: “TWC Clicks iPad App Channel Count up to 73” (4/25/11)

Zediva: Simple Rental Solution or Copyright Violation?

David Pogue of the New York Times writes that we are in a fascinating transitional period from physical media to streaming services, but that accessing streaming movies from our TVs, laptops and phones comes with a price. For example, we are missing some of the DVD features including subtitles, multiple languages and director’s commentary. We are also restricted regarding when we have access to some streaming content and how long our subscription or per-title fee allows us to view a specific title.

In response to these concerns, Pogue mentions a new streaming service named Zediva.com that provides subtitle, language and commentary options in addition to some surprising (and perhaps disturbing, for the content creators and distributors) business model features. Rented movies are available for two weeks instead of 24 hours, current titles are available the same day as DVD releases, and there are no hardware or subscription fees — simply a rental charge of $2 per movie.

The process is simple. Zediva has set up hundreds of DVD players in its California data center; the company purchases dozens of copies of current releases and makes them available to consumers. As Pogue writes: “The DVD is simply sending you the audio and video signals, as if it were connected to your home with a really, really long cable.”

Of course, content creators and distributors may have issue with this approach. In related news, the MPAA has filed a lawsuit against Zediva (since Pogue’s article), claiming that the company is violating copyright law by streaming DVDs. While the company bills itself as a movie-rental service, comparing its service with companies like Netflix that purchase hundreds of copies of popular movies and then mailing them to renters, the MPAA’s lawyers argue the service is a form of “public performance” that would require a license.

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Hollywood Studios Sue Start-Up Zediva” (4/4/11)

Netflix Announces Exclusive Rights to Fincher-Spacey Political Drama Series

Netflix has taken another big step forward in offering premium content, following its announcement that it will have exclusive rights to stream 26 episodes of the original series “House of Cards” starting in late 2012. The Internet streaming service outbid cable channels such as HBO and AMC. “House of Cards” is a political drama based on the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. The new production will star Kevin Spacey; David Fincher is tapped to direct.

The deal is a big move for Netflix, which traditionally only airs previously produced and aired content. For the first time the company is licensing content before it is successfully produced. “Typically, we license TV shows the season after they run on a broadcast network or cable channel, and occasionally we have episodes from a current season, as is the case with ‘Saturday Night Live’ from NBC, ‘Spartacus’ from Starzplay and ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ from Disney Channel,” Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos wrote on the Netflix blog. “In all of these cases, the shows are produced before we bring them to Netflix. ‘House of Cards’ represents a slightly more risky approach.”

According to Ars Technica, Netflix currently delivers 61 percent of all digital video content to U.S. viewers. However, it should be noted that Amazon has tossed its hat into the ring with an instant video service that undercuts the Netflix streaming subscription by approximately $16 per year.

Related Wall Street Journal article (subscription required): “Web Shows Get Ambitious — Tech, Media Companies Race to Create Video Hits that Look, Feel More Like TV” (3/21/11)

Related Business Insider article: “Exclusive Interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — Netflix’s Market Opportunity Is a Lot Bigger Than You Think” (4/4/11)

Related Ars Technica article: “Amazon Takes on Netflix with move streaming service for Prime” (3/11)

HP CEO Leo Apotheker Discusses New Online Strategy

In his first public appearance since joining Hewlett-Packard in November, CEO Leo Apotheker delivered a speech in San Francisco that outlined the company’s new online strategy that he explained will target both consumers and businesses. Apotheker emphasized cloud computing and an online app store as part of his vision to bring HP to the forefront as “the platform for the cloud and connectivity.” He suggested that the app store would include programs from HP as well as from other companies.

Apotheker dismissed speculation that HP would be acquiring software maker SAP AG or any other provider of transactional business programs. The Wall Street Journal reports that his goal is to address the “increasing amount of unstructured data — information that isn’t easily categorized”; HP will “focus on products and services that will help businesses better make sense of them.”

Apotheker explained that the company’s webOS operating system (newly acquired along with Palm last year) is designed for smartphones and tablets, but will also ship on HP PCs, providing the company with a greater scale. HP plans to produce laptops and desktops with webOS working alongside Windows, enabling computers to interact with HP’s smartphones and tablets.

Tablet Trends: Interact with Favorite TV Shows via the iPad

We recently reported on a number of new features and trends regarding media consumption via tablet PCs, especially since an onslaught of new iPad apps have been making headlines. One such potential trend may involve synchronized bonus content and interactive features related to live TV shows.

In February, Fox announced the availability of its free app for the series Bones, that enables access to a series of content add-ons while viewing the program live or via Fox.com, Hulu or DVR. Features include social media integration (users can comment with other fans and try to solve cases) and the ability to purchase songs played during the show from iTunes. The Fox launch follows the release of ABC’s iPad sync app for the hit drama series Grey’s Anatomy.

As content providers, perhaps we should be looking beyond complementary content for tablets, and consider what additional video approaches might leverage this growing platform. According to paidContent: “It’s interesting that so far the TV industry is treating tablets more as a sidecar for original programming on TV than a source of original content in its own right, as News Corp.‘s new The Daily is trying to do. Or perhaps sometime soon we’ll see a video-centric company try to evolve its product on the iPad the way News Corp. wants to do same for the news business.”

The paidContent article includes an interesting video promo for the free Grey’s Anatomy iPad app that features interactive components such as polls, quizzes, bonus content, and more.

Digital Distribution: Is it Time to Redefine Cinema?

The New York Times offers an interesting perspective regarding how digital technologies have impacted the production, distribution, marketing and exhibition of contemporary movies. The article addresses a compelling focus in terms of how the communal aspect of viewing film is facing a dramatic cultural shift and how filmgoing has become less of a group experience. Have we reached a new milestone that may require us to redefine the term “cinema” — and, if so, what does this mean for the business of filmmaking?

The article cites the fact that theater attendance has declined in the U.S. from 90 million a week in 1948 to approximately 23 million today. Of course, the 1948 audience did not have Blu-ray, on-demand, cable movie channels, streaming services and an array of new technologies that enable today’s “24-hour movie.”

Technological innovation has led to cultural evolution regarding the traditional cinema experience. For many consumers, experiencing a movie is no longer about the anticipation of a release, the social environment created by sitting in a darkened theater with a date or a friend (and a group of strangers), or the “communal laughter, tears, gasps and heckling that become part of our memories.” For many (perhaps most), the experience is now more about clicking a button — and what has become a more personalized, immediate dynamic based on consumption-on-demand that technologies enable.

If the 24-hour movie continues to impact the demands and expectations of the movie-viewing public, will this require us to rethink how we produce, exhibit and market our content?

Will Apple become the Digital Gatekeeper for Print Media?

San Jose Mercury News offers an interesting look at the pros and cons regarding Apple’s recent push into digital publishing. The company’s new subscription model could potentially make it the “online gatekeeper” as the digital newsstand for newspaper and magazine content (similar to its current dominance in digital music), but the model has met with some resistance from the industry and mixed reviews from analysts.

On the upside, Apple’s model offers publishers instant exposure to the many Apps Store subscribers and makes subscribing a simple, proven process. Recognizing this, some publishers are already on board. The iPad-only digital newspaper The Daily from News Corp., for example, launched around the same time Apple announced its digital publishing plan — while some newspapers, including the Mercury News and the New York Times, are currently test-running the subscription model.

The proposal is a bold move by Apple, which takes a 30 percent cut for each newspaper or magazine subscriber via iTunes. And what may draw the most controversy, the model also restricts publishers from offering lower prices than what they charge through iPhone and iPad apps.

The article raises some possible negative implications, including:

1. There are concerns from European antitrust authorities, which could eventually place a target on Apple.

2. By “playing hardball” with publishers, Apple may run the risk of driving its customers to other tablet-makers.

3. Publishers may fear that Apple is putting itself between them and their new customers.

Is Piracy is a Product of Market Failure?

Internet law columnist Michael Geist, writing for the Toronto Star, comments on a new global study on piracy backed by Canada’s International Development Research Centre that suggests “piracy is chiefly a product of a market failure, not a legal one.”

The media piracy study — in an effort to analyze infringements regarding music, movies, and software — was launched five years ago by the Social Science Research Council. Institutions in South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia, and India were identified to better understand the international media market and related piracy issues. The resulting 440-page report is the most thorough analysis of media piracy to date.

The report sets the record straight on several popular piracy myths. For example, it states there are no links between piracy and organized crime, there is no evidence indicating that anti-piracy education programs have any impact on consumer behavior, and tougher legal penalties do not necessarily provide a deterrent to piracy.

The report also suggests that piracy is primarily a result of market failure, not legal failure. Geist writes: “In many developing countries, there are few meaningful legal distribution channels for media products. The report notes ‘the pirate market cannot be said to compete with legal sales or generate losses for industry. At the low end of the socioeconomic ladder where such distribution gaps are common, piracy often simply is the market.’”

The Battle Heats Up over Alpha Android

The battle for control of Google’s phone/tablet OS continues to heat up. In this Bloomberg Businessweek article, developers complain about Google’s increasing demands for control over how its supposedly “open source” Android platform is deployed. One protester says he just cut a deal with Microsoft because he feels Windows Phone 7 offers more opportunity to innovate (he is, at this point, in the minority, as well as a former MS employee, but it pays to keep an eye on the outliers).

Bloomberg reports that Google has recently reached out to carriers and manufacturers that want to implement its mobile operating system with a message: “There will be no more willy-nilly tweaks to the software. No more partnerships formed outside of Google’s purview. From now on, companies hoping to receive early access to Google’s most up-to-date software will need approval of their plans. And they will seek that approval from Andy Rubin, the head of Google’s Android group.”

Perhaps the most telling bit of information in this story is that Android’s share of the smartphone market grew, “from 9 percent in 2009 to an industry-leading 31 percent worldwide.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like Android in terms of gaining share,” explained Bill Gurley, general partner at venture capital firm Benchmark Capital.

Although there are grumblings from various tech companies, and rumors of complaints to the Justice Department, Bloomberg explains that the Android OS is still open — “it’s just getting more heavily policed.”

Increased 3D Content may Push Consumer Adoption

In the wake of disappointing 3D TV sales for 2010 (due in large part to a lack of 3D content), this year may see new traction as television vendors switch their strategy to marketing 3D as one feature of new high-def sets, rather than the single selling point. More 3D content is on the horizon via cable and satellite TV channels, Blu-ray Discs and video games. Eventual adoption may also be impacted as consumers shoot their own video with 3D-enabled camcorders.

Disney’s ESPN 3D sports channel began broadcasting in mid-February — while Sony, Discovery and Imax launched their 3net channel the same month. Comcast and DirecTV already have 3D channels, and more than 100 3D channels worldwide are expected by 2015.

“Clearly, lack of content has been holding the market back,” explained Chris Chinnock, president of research firm Insight Media. “But one or two years into the HDTV transition there wasn’t much programming either … It took about seven years to reach 11 percent (household) penetration with HDTV.”

DisplaySearch predicts 6.6 million 3D TVs will ship in North America in 2011 (16 percent of the more than 40 million sets expected to be sold). The research and consulting firm is targeting 15.2 million 3D TVs to ship in 2012 (up 130 percent).

YouTube: Studio System for New Era of Content?

CNN reports that the debate regarding whether Google is a media company or tech company — a publisher of content or indexer of content — may soon be over, as the company prepares to morph YouTube into an online “studio system” for a new era of content production. CNN suggests Google is already a media company, but the question should more accurately address what kind of media company; perhaps “one that operates by the economics of the Internet, with no legacy ties to the economics of television, movies, or publishing.”

In recent months, Google has been investing heavily in its YouTube division, including: the hiring of content execs from Netflix and Paramount, recent acquisitions to enhance its current quality of offerings, plans to reportedly spend $100 million on developing new celebrity “channels,” and more. Google hopes to expand YouTube’s dominance in the UGC market to include niche programming and mass entertainment.

Of course, what makes the online video resource unique in terms of serving as a content provider, is that it has very little overhead. As compared to other media companies that are more directly involved in actual production, YouTube’s marginal costs are nearly zero. Advertising revenue is earned the same way whether viewers are clicking on a cute video about someone’s cat — or a professional basketball game (Google is in talks with the NBA and NHL to show live games on YouTube).

YouTube also enjoys the potentially infinite number of specialty channels the Internet provides, an approach that is not practical for cable. It may not matter from day-to-day which channels do well and which do not. As long as YouTube makes the platform available, the content can regularly evolve.

Microsoft to Hit Google with Antitrust Complaint

In the ongoing battle between two tech giants, Microsoft claims that Google is stifling competition in Europe where Google controls approximately 95 percent of the online search market. Microsoft also alleges that Google is limiting data from YouTube and other services. The Los Angeles Times reports that Microsoft Corp. plans to file a formal antitrust complaint against Google Inc., as part of the European Commission’s investigation launched last November.

This is the first time Microsoft has filed such a complaint against a rival.

“Google has done much to advance its laudable mission to ‘organize the world’s information,’ but we’re concerned by a broadening pattern of conduct aimed at stopping anyone else from creating a competitive alternative,” wrote Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith online. “We’ve therefore decided to join a large and growing number of companies registering their concerns about the European search market.”

According to Smith, Google is limiting data from YouTube required to properly display search results for Microsoft’s Bing and other search engines. And while iPhones and phones running Google’s Android software have no problems with YouTube, Smith claims Google has blocked phones running Windows software from interacting properly with YouTube.

“These allegations raise important competition concerns, especially in light of Google’s market share,” Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin said, “and we’ll examine them more closely as we prepare for our antitrust hearing.”

Identifying Effective Tools for Analyzing Social Media

Seth Grimes of InformationWeek reports there is a growing demand to analyze social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but he has yet to see “satisfying criteria” for assessing existing analysis tools. This article outlines what Grimes considers to be six fundamental missing pieces in analysis tools that could prove effective in measuring social media.

Grimes breaks his approach down into six basic categories: Metadata, Resolution, Integration, Alignment, Interface, and Walk the Talk. The following are excerpts from his rationale.

1. Metadata: “Let’s not look at messages in isolation, as so many tools do. SMA tool makers: Help us understand message diffusion and discourse (threaded conversations) with an analytic that incorporates demographics.”

2. Resolution: “Content analysis is the real challenge, getting at the entities (names of people, companies, places, products, etc.), facts, opinions, and signals. For this, you need sophisticated natural language processing (NLP) and sentiment analysis with the ability to resolve parts of speech and, especially for source materials longer than tweets, to spot co-references including anaphora.”

3. Integration: “To integrate, or link records across sources, you need to capture or discern identity. I think the information is more available than most people would suppose, with significant digital sleuthing involved in discerning it.”

4. Alignment: “I’m looking for analysis tools that measure and predict social’s ability to drive business transactions — money-making outcomes — as well as how business news will play out on social platforms.”

5. Interface: “BI tools will typically let you nest variables in an axis to create a pivot table with several dimensions. You often have a choice of measures — sums, counts, percentages, calculated values — and the ability to navigate up and down dimensional hierarchies (such as year-quarter-month-week-day) with automatic value aggregation. I rarely see these capabilities in SMA tools.”

6. Walk the Talk: “I look for clue-ful SMA suppliers. If a company doesn’t know how to use social media effectively, or if it won’t make an effort, do you really want to trust it with your business? The question isn’t moot; anyone who spends time on social platforms can tell strong from weak social engagement and has seen instances of both.”

Apple may Offer Streaming Video to Devices via AirPlay

Apple is considering adding streaming video to its AirPlay service, which currently allows users to stream audio from an iPhone, iPad or iTunes to a home stereo or other devices. According to Bloomberg, two people familiar with the matter (who asked to remain anonymous) suggested the new feature would enable streaming video from an iPhone or iPad to television sets — and that Apple would license its software to CE manufacturers who could potentially use AirPlay in their devices for streaming movies, television and other video content.

Expanding AirPlay functionality could possibly spark more use of Apple devices and services in the home, despite the company’s limited success selling the $99 Apple TV set-top box thus far. Bloomberg reports that, “For Apple, AirPlay is a way to expand into the living room without having to introduce new products.”

While Apple and others such as Google are looking to explore the possibilities of streaming video and Web-connected televisions, a challenge for streaming content from a mobile device involves bandwidth issues and whether signals can be carried without interruption. Regardless of any technical obstacles, there is clearly a shift in how consumers are accessing TV shows and movies, with an increasing number of people accessing instant streaming services from the likes of Netflix and Hulu. Apple’s Steve Jobs — banking on a complete shift from physical media toward content distribution in digital form — has gone so far as barring Blu-ray players from Mac computers.