The Ultimate Fighting Championship goes over the top with Roku
The "over the top" TV phenomenon -- services and devices that bring programs to TV screens via the Internet, not cable or satellite -- has been stuck in second gear. Netflix's streaming movie service helped give a foothold to Roku and other over-the-top device makers, but too many other programmers have kept their shows off the Net (or, in Hulu's case, away from over-the-top devices) to persuade the masses to leave conventional pay-TV behind.
Gradually, however, entertainment companies that have embraced the Internet as a distribution pipeline have come to see that over-the-top platforms are complementary, not toxic, to their cable-TV strategy. The latest example: Zuffa Inc., which produces the Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts. These events are carried on every major cable and satellite operator's pay-per-view tier. Starting with Saturday's fight between Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans, all live UFC pay-per-view events will also be available to Roku users (in high definition, too, if they have enough bandwidth). So will the UFC archives, preliminary bouts and pre- and post-match coverage, starting early this week.
The UFC already makes its full programming lineup available online and even to mobile devices through Qualcomm's Flo TV. Yet unlike some programmers who've put their content online (e.g., Fox and NBC Universal), the company doesn't fear that extending from the PC to the TV will weaken its cable and satellite partners. Instead, it views the chance to distribute programs directly to the TV screen via the Internet as a potential source of incremental revenue. As UFC President Dana White put it in a prepared statement, “Roku is another way for fans to get more UFC and watch all of the UFC events live and in HD."
The UFC's move isn't as significant for the over-the-top market as, say, a deal between Roku and HBO, which has kept most of its content off the public Internet entirely. In fact, HBO is one of a number of programmers moving in the opposite direction, supporting a project called TV Everywhere that makes their shows available online only to people who subscribe to them through a pay-TV service. But as Roku pointed out in announcing the three-year deal, the UFC is "the world’s largest live pay-per-view event content provider." So it has that going for it.
-- Jon Healey