Television, Video

Pulling on a Thread

A dozen years ago, I helped to lead a team that created one of the first “over-the-top” video and audio subscription offerings on the Internet.

For $10 a month, you got a decent package of audio and video programming. Nothing special by today’s standards, but it was the reasonably compelling for the time. [1] The service grew to millions of subscribers, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for our company, and generated millions of dollars a year in revenues to our media partners. It was a pioneering service for the time, but it also had lots of flaws and challenges and I certainly made my share of mistakes (a post for another day, or not).

In the making and operating of this service we stumbled on an interesting idea. We did the thing cable-killers dream about; we un-bundled the bundle.

We gave people a choice — buy the programming as part of our overall subscription bundle, or just buy the specific programming you want on an a la carte basis. For example, you could buy an MLB stand-alone subscription or you could get it as part of our bundle. [2]  In addition to giving people a choice,  we learned it also maximized revenues — for us and our partners. Everyone won.

A group of us started to push an effort internally to turn our subscription service into a subscription platform — let anyone offer and sell stand-alone subscriptions powered by our infrastructure and delivered through our player. That we could, and should, open up what we had built, and let 1000s of flowers bloom.

Unfortunately, the company behind the service decided to make other efforts including the Rhapsody music service, casual gaming, and sales of audio and video delivery software to big companies a higher priority than the video subscription business.

Would we have succeeded if we got to pursue this? I don’t know. But  the notion of making a platform that would give makers of programming — from big companies all the way to individual film-makers — the tools to create and distribute their own “channels” over-the-top and make money from that has been rumbling around in my head ever since.

When we launched Showyou in 2011, we started with the challenge of finding and watching video (“discovery” in the parlance of the Internet pros). We wanted to first focus on making an app that was as easy to use as your TV, but more rewarding.

But from the start we knew discovery – while necessary — was probably not sufficient. And plus we had bigger and broader ambitions as a team. We wanted to use the Showyou app as the platform for a more audacious move  — an over-the-top, tablet- and mobile-centric video distribution platform. And over the past couple of years, that raw idea from a long time ago got re-worked, shaped into something new and different and better by our team.

And that’s the Showyou Channel Platform, which we announced today. It enables anyone — from the biggest media conglomerate to an independent filmmaker — to build a beautiful video channel for the iPad (iPhone & Android coming soon) and make a living from that if they want. As we’ve stated before, our primary focus in on new programming made for and delivered on this new medium.

Of course, YouTube does some of this now with their channel program. And Showyou very much complements those efforts, and works seamlessly with YouTube. But what we are doing is also different in fundamental ways.

Just as we put the viewer in control with our app, we put the channel-maker in control with our  platform. You decide where to host your video. If you want to sell ads, you’re in charge of that, too. You decide who your advertisers and sponsors are. You keep the money you make. It’s your channel. It’s your business.

To be even more clear about what we’ve launched and are building: it’s an over-the-top video distribution platform for the future; one designed specifically for tablets and smartphones; where anyone can build a channel; where you can host your channel anywhere; a platform with  discovery, social sharing and virality built-in; where you control your business and business model; and where you keep the revenues from your efforts.

It’s a start.

Twelve years is a long time to chew on an idea. Ideas alone are worth nothing, of course. But if you pull on a thread long enough, and maybe you’re lucky enough to be with the right team, at the right time, with the right product, to try to make it happen. Exciting, that.

So it’s with real pleasure I get to type this today:

On Showyou, it’s your channel. Go build it.

1. This was at RealNetworks, and the offering was called RealOne. Programming in the US included live audio and copious video highlights for every MLB game; live audio, some live video and copious video highlights for every NBA game; CNN and ABC News on demand video; multiple live streams from the then-enormously Big Brother show; FoxSports highlights and shows; dozens of high-quality internet radio stations (you could eventually add Rhapsody for an added fee); and much more. We also offered packages in the UK and Europe with video and live audio for the Champions League, live cricket, live Rugby, BBC News, classic BBC shows, reality programming from Endemol, and more.

2. 2.  Let it be recorded for posterity that Real got MLB started with their fine efforts in premium audio & video delivered over the Internet and powered most of the back-end for that the first 2-3 years.

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Digital Media, Television

A Guide for Thinking about New TV

When the Internet was first getting popular, and popularized, as a media platform we talked about how it would provide people with new ways to consume or get existing things – that is, newspapers, magazines, music, radio, television, movies. It was hard for us then to imagine how the Internet would, in fact, give us new ways to make and to consume new things – blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, casual and social games, photos on Flickr, and so on. It was hard for us to envision the real revolution that would take place.

And so it is now with so much of the analysis of the revolution that is about to happen with video, and the television (a subject of a post last week). Much – no, most – of that discussion focused on how these new devices and platforms (Apple TV, Google TV, the iPad and the Kindle) will give us access to the existing world of programming we understand and know. Once again, most people may be missing the bigger revolution that is about to occur.

For me, that revolution is about bringing the world of internet video to the television (or the devices that eventually replace the television). That is, the new programming. The forty-eight hours of video uploaded this minute to YouTube. The thousands of sites that offer new types and kinds of programming — stuff we watch and enjoy every day from TED, College Humor, The Onion, and Pitchfork, not to mention Vimeo and blip.tv and even new types of programming from traditional print giants like the New York Times or Time or the Guardian. And all the new programming that is to come, and that we can’t even envision yet.

And because of the fact there is so much of this new programming, we need new ways to discover it and to watch it. At Showyou, we think this coming world looks like this:

Most of the recent talk has been about the new ways to find traditional programming (the upper left quadrant). But we think the real excitement lays in that upper right quadrant —  new ways to find new programming. That’s where the revolution will happen.

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Apple, Television, Video

The Future of Television Is in Your Hands

Everywhere you turn, there is much talk about the disruption of the television itself and resulting future of the television business.*

Some of this talk is about the rumored AppleTV; some of it’s about other connected television devices (like the XBox service launching this week); and some is about how platforms like YouTube are changing the economics of production and distribution.

But the thing that is currently, actually starting to disrupt television arrived 20 months ago. As soon as we got our hands on the iPad in April 2010, it was clear that it was the future of entertainment.

The tablet is doing for video what the iPod did for music, giving us more control than any other device over what we watch, and where and when we watch it.

There are, of course, other digital devices that allow us to watch video, lots of them. Various connected TV devices (Boxee, Roku, AppleTV, the XBox and more) as well as computers and laptops all give us a wide range of choice between the Traditional (the film and television programming we get on Hulu, Netflix, iTunes Store, etc) and the New (the huge tsunami of video programming of all shapes and sizes available on the Internet).

But the iPad does the best job of any device to date providing seamless, easy access to the full breadth of what’s available, from the Traditional via apps like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO Go and the New via apps like ours.

And unlike laptops and connected TV devices, the tablet frees us up to watch video wherever and whenever we want. This is more than just a bullet point on a slide, or check-box on a marketing matrix — it’s enabling a whole new psychological and sociological framework for how we watch, just as the iPod changed how we listen to music.

Ask iPad users about when and where they watch videos on their tablet and you’ll start to see interesting trends. It’s a quieter, more intimate device than a laptop or TV — it’s at home in your bed, on the couch, a big stuffed chair, or on the train or plane. I talked to one cable network president this summer, and he waxed on about how he and his wife just used the iPad to watch Netflix and Hulu in bed on their iPad at night (and used the TV less as a result).

No surprise, really. In so many ways, watching video on the iPad is just better. Better than TV, even.

Unlike the laptop, we relax a bit more when we use the tablet; we lean back, not forward. No  keyboard beckons us to do something. So we watch, read, browse, play. Video, on a nice screen at arms length, looks great — crisp, clear, personal.

But unlike the TV, we’re not just passive consumers when we use the tablet. The tap of a finger summons a keyboard, or enables us to share or like something, or to tell our friends about it. So we interact, but in just the right amounts mostly.

Anecdotes from families with both kids and iPads in the house are particularly telling. We have a 15-year-old and 13-year-old in our house, and five laptops, one iMac, and two iPads among us. Yes, we’re at one extreme (a bi-product of my work, mainly). Most video-watching in our house now takes place on the laptops and iPads. The TV is rarely on, or used — this is especially true for our kids, who do all their watching now on smaller, more portable screens.

This is particularly striking given we have two Apple TVs, connected to two televisions. The only time these get used are when we all want to watch the same movie. I think this pattern will increasingly be true for most homes as they acquire a tablet or two.

I had thought that Airplay and the AppleTV might have a bigger impact on our habits, that we might use the iPad more as a remote control. That happens, but infrequently. We use Airplay in our house far more often for music, and much less often for video. But still, even with music, using Airplay to reach the stereo is an occasional thing. The iPod, and now the iPhone, is what I use to listen to music most of the time.

So I suspect it will be with video and the iPad and Airplay connecting to the TV. A nice thing to have on occasion, but a sideshow mostly. Watching on the iPad is so much better, so much of the time.

If it were just the anecdotes, you’d be right to treat this all with skepticism. But there is data, too.

With our iPad app, and others, usage peaks during weekends and evenings — just when people typically turn on their TVs. People use their iPads during prime time. This is a big deal —  the web has historically had a tough time breaking into that time slot.

Session lengths with our app are an order of magnitude longer than your average web visit, and are more akin to the time we might spend watching television. Another huge change.

So this new type of device is already changing our habits. It’s liberated video, and us, allowing us to watch what we want, when we want, where we want. That’s a big, fundamental, and disruptive change.

Maybe the AppleTV that is supposedly coming will be so great, so magical, so awesome that I’ll feel compelled to revise this in just a few months. It’s happened before; technology surprises sometimes. I’ll undoubtedly buy one. But unless I can put that TV under my arm, and take it onto the couch in the other room, I kinda doubt it will be as big as folks expect.

*Mark Suster wrote up this nice post recapping a talk he gave on the Future of Television; he argues that cheap(er) production and distribution of video (primarily through YouTube) is now poised to disrupt the television business. Fred Wilson has been blogging about handheld devices as remote controls (something we’ve thought a lot about with Showyou) and how that is changing our consumption patterns.  And of course people have gone crazy trying to decipher Steve Jobs’ remark about the rumored AppleTV (“I finally cracked it”) and what it portends.

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Apple, Digital Media, Internet, Television, Video

A New Way to Watch

Today our startup launched a new app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch — Showyou. I’ve worked in digital media for almost 20 years now — shocking, that — and of the many products I’ve worked on, I can say without hesitation this is the one I’m the most excited to have helped create.

I love our new Showyou app most of all because it’s a joy to use. But I’m also excited about Showyou because it and other similar apps that are sure to follow have the potential to change how we watch TV — and what we watch.

We spend more time watching television than consuming any other form of media. Kids 8-18 years old watch television nearly 4 and a half hours a day — far more than they spend with any other kind of media.

And yet television has remained the most shackled platform, with the least range of choice.  With books, music, magazines and more recently the internet we’ve become accustomed to an abundance of choice. The television, on the other hand, has been locked down for most of the last 50 years, limited (for most people) to a set of channels chosen and delivered by their cable companies, and with programming on those channels determined by a small, select group. Maybe 1000 people, total, determine what most of us watch — or can watch. They’ve offered up some great stuff, to be sure — The Wire, Mad Men, The Daily Show and Colbert Report. But we’ve also gotten a lot of this.  And this. And this.

Despite the growing power of the Internet and social media, television has continued to reign supreme from 8-11PM in most homes. But cracks are starting to show. Data just released this week from the makers of the ReadItLater app shows that the heaviest usage of the iPad during the prime time hours. And we know that streaming from Netflix now accounts for a huge percentage of bandwidth consumed in the evenings.

And now, with Apple TV and  Airplay, your iPad or iPhone or iPod Touch just turned into a new remote control for your TV. New apps like Showyou have the potential to change where we get programming for our televisions, and indeed what we watch.  Now available: tens of millions of hours of programming from the internet, chosen by our friends, or people we follow on social networks like Twitter or Vodpod who have tastes or interests similar to ours. Other platforms from other companies  — Android, Windows, and more — will surely give us more options and more choice still over time.

History shows us what happens when these kinds of disruptions occur. In 1985, when cable TV was still in its infancy, the viewers watched broadcast networks 45% of the time. By 2009, that had dropped to 25%, and basic cable has risen 10-fold, from  a 3.5% share to a 36% share.

Even though online video has had explosive growth the past five years, it accounts for just a small fraction of the time we spending watching television or video. Just like cable in 1984. There is a now an opportunity for entrepreneurs to change all that.

And so a pitched battle is going to be waged for how we get programming for our televisions — and that will be a good thing for consumers.

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Television, Video

Jason Kilar’s Terrific Post about Video Economics

Anyone interested in the economics of television and online video, and the future thereof, should go read Jason Kilar’s excellent post up on the Hulu blog right now.

There is a lot of speculation about what Kilar is really saying, but this part of the post leapt out at me:

The opportunity for content owners.

We believe content owners are in a strong position to make higher returns from TV content distribution in the future than they have historically. If studios and networks license their content to distributors with per-user per-month economics as the model (as opposed to a fixed fee model), then they will be able to extract a higher portion of the total economics their content will generate. We state this given our belief that the majority of the US population (and a material percent of the globe) will be subscribers to some flavor of digital premium content service going forward. We also believe that any number of digital distribution companies have the ability to quickly get to scale; getting to scale is not the hard part about this business. Over the past 4 years, studios and networks have not always insisted on per-user per-month economics in their digital licensing agreements, which has resulted in a regretted under-pricing of their content to digital distributors. That said, we believe that all studios and networks will recognize that it is in their economic interest to insist on per-user per-month pricing in all their distribution relationships (library content and current content).

The added emphasis at the end is mine. In case you missed it, pretty clear that that’s a plea for his partners not to do deals with Netflix… Of the articles I’ve seen, only Ryan Lawler @gigaom seemed to pick up on this. Ryan read it as cheapness — a desire by Hulu not to pay up front fees.

I read it as fear.

 

 

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Digital Media, Film, Lit, Music, Television

Old Media, New Media

Some of the digital media cheerleaders out there are so eager to dethrone “old media” and the MSM, but sometimes I worry their plans will neither cure the disease or save the patient, just replace it with something different and maybe worse in some regards.

In short, despite the fact I’ve made a living in digital media for over a dozen years and consider it my calling, I hope many traditional forms of “old media” won’t go away anytime soon or be displaced by new media.

Books, for example. Love them. Not just the narrative form, the linear story, the artful prose, but the form factor of paper and pages and spines and the feel of them and the portability. They just work, have for hundreds of years, I’m not sure whether hyperlinks or digitization would add anything, and I know they might take away a lot. I can’t imagine, ever, lying in bed and reading a book on an ereader.

Newspapers, as another example. That business, which employed and employs my father for nearly five decades now, put food on our table when I was a kid and helped put me through college. So there is that bias, yes. But also the depth, the lack of interruption, the form factor again — whether spreading the paper over the table next to my coffee at breakfast, or reading a redtop, or the Independent, or the Guardian berliner format on the tube, or sitting in a cafe somewhere in the sun parsing through the International Herald Tribune (so snotty sounding, yes, but so pleasing). No distracting hyperlinks, or e-mail chimes, or other nonsense that results in twitching, not reading. I like the purity of the newspaper experience — reading, thinking, reading some more. 

An aside at this point: I go to Ritual in San Francisco to meet friends now and again, and it’s full of people with laptops open cranking on the free wifi. I joked to my friend the other day: “They should put some cubes in here.” Sure, I like my wifi in a coffee house now and again. But at Ritual, it’s always on: few folks, sometime none, have a newspaper or a book there. That makes me a bit sad, I think they’re all missing something really.

Films, on the screen, in a movie theater. Don’t care if it’s digital or analog, but the traditional experience of seeing a movie with a hundred other people, the community of our common laughter or suppressed gasps. That is nice, it feels human and connected and vibrant in a way that sitting in front of a tv doesn’t. I don’t ever want that to go away.

I go back and forth on theater. Yes, when great, which is really just in New York or LA or London best of all. But elsewhere?

Most television and music I’m happy to consume in more digital forms, be it DVDs or just bits on an iPod or over IP.

Cinemas, books,  newspapers — I like them analog, I hope they stay that way.

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Television

Woeful Night for Cooper (Rivera Unspeakable)

Like others who watched all three overtimes of the Orange Bowl game, I switched back and forth last night between the final moments of the game, and the opening moments of what looked like a surprise rescue of twelve miners trapped in the Sago mine. It was three hours of gripping television, gripping because it felt throughout like we were watching a terrible car crash in very slow motion.

It was about forty five minutes into the drama when my wife turned to me and said, “Something’s fishy here. I’m nervous they’re getting too carried away with this. If they really knew the miners were safe, we would have gotten some official announcement by now.” If she thought it, surely Anderson Cooper and his producer(s) should have thought it. Stunning, at the time and especially now in retrospect, that he never used the words “unconfirmed reports” and that he didn’t try to introduce a wee bit of caution and uncertainty into his reports.

One can imagine Aaron Brown, or another seasoned anchor or reporter, maintaining a degree of skepticism and reminding us (and frankly, the families in the church) that we didn’t yet have all of the facts and that the story was still developing.

But no, Cooper kept pouring his own quirky brand of hyperbole onto the hypefest, while trying to his best to fit in with the locals (has he ever said “gosh” so much?). Geraldo Rivera was worse, unspeakably creepy, but we’ve come to expect that from him. 

Jeff Jarvis writes today that we saw professional journalists grappling live with a breaking story “trying to find their ways (sic) through the fog of war” and that “next time I hear someone being haughty about professional news vs. citizen’s news, I’ll remind them of the West Virginia tragedy.”

That’s the wrong way to look at it. What we saw last night on the television was not professional journalism, at least not from the cable news networks. It was entertainment hypefest journalism, with an anchor on the scene not even doing basic j-school 101 reporting. If the citizens media is to work, let’s hold them to a higher standard than CooperRivera.

When we crawled into bed last night, we were saddened both by the turn of events, the horrible double tragedy for the miners’ families, and the sad reminder that the country is without a 24 hour news network that practices good, basic journalism.

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