Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Digital TV

Sezmi charts a new path to competition with cable

Sezmi, Roku, Boxee, over the top, cable TV, pay TV, online videoSezmi stunned subscribers in Los Angeles Friday night by telling them it would no longer be offering a package of popular cable networks as part of its pay-TV service. But the company isn't scaling back, co-founder Phil Wiser said in an interview -- it's switching technologies.

Sezmi positioned itself as a low-priced alternative to cable when it made its debut here about a year ago, offering a basic tier for $5 a month and a "Plus" package for $20. The basic tier consisted of local digital TV channels transmitted over the air to a high-tech indoor antenna, plus YouTube, podcasts and broad selection of video-on-demand programming delivered through subscribers' broadband connections. The "Plus" tier added 23 cable networks, which were transmitted over the air by local broadcasters who had agreed to share their spectrum with Sezmi. It was available only in Los Angeles; in 35 other markets, Sezmi was offering just its $5-a-month service.

Using local stations to deliver cable channels was efficient, but striking the necessary deals with broadcasters in each market was time-consuming and expensive. So the company decided instead to transmit that programming over broadband, expanding on the technology it had built for its video-on-demand service. "If we can deliver those signals over a broadband connection," Wiser said, "why would we go city by city? We would take the live signals, whether they’re cable channels or other live signals, and deliver them the same way we deliver on demand."

In other words, instead of being a hybrid of broadcasting, datacasting and online video, Sezmi is switching to a more conventional "over the top" model that combines local broadcasts with broadband. The Plus tier will return ...

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YouTube Remote app controls YouTube, on the TV or PC, from Android phones and tablets

The smart phone is increasingly becoming one more living-room remote control.

Not long ago Apple came out with its Remote app for the iPhone and iPad, which can be used to control iTunes when synced with a computer or Apple TV device.

YT+Remote+Screenshot Today, Google introduced YouTube Remote, an application available free on the Android Market that will let users find a YouTube video on their Android smart phone or Android tablet, then push that video from a hand-held device to a computer or Google TV-equipped television set for watching on the larger screen.

The YouTube Remote app creates a “virtual connection” between any Android phone or tablet and YouTube Leanback -- YouTube's user interface for Google TV.

For those who don't have Google TV, YouTube Leanback is also available for the computer at YouTube.com/leanback.

Connecting an Android device with a YouTube Leanback display requires only the two apps and signing in on both apps via a Google account.

Once signed in and synced, the Android device can also work a remote control that can play, pause, rewind and control volume for the desired YouTube videos.

As of now, YouTube Remote works only in the U.S. and is available only through Google's Android Marketplace.

Google, which owns both YouTube and the Android operating system, has not announced any plans to make a YouTube Remote app for the rival iPhone or iPad from Apple.

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

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Image: A screen shot of the YouTube Remote app on a smart phone running the Android operating system. Credit: YouTube

Taking another stab at home networking over power lines

CG5111 High Res Photo The advent of WiFi was a boon to home computer users, but the consumer electronics industry keeps searching for a more idiot-proof and higher-performing home-network solution -- something that can transmit multiple HDTV streams throughout a home, yet doesn't require anyone to read an owner's manual. Technologies that use a home's power lines to carry Internet traffic have seemed promising in the past -- after all, every electronic device in the home has to be near an outlet -- but the public never really embraced them. They simply didn't work well enough in too many homes with complex internal wiring or (electronically) noisy appliances.

So chip makers and telecommunications companies went back to the drawing board, coming up with yet another standard for power-line networking: G.hn. Today, Sigma Designs announced what it says is the first chipset for G.hn products, which boast top connection speeds of more than 1 gigabit per second. The chips will be available early next year, with products based on those chips coming by the end of 2011, said Michael Weissman, a marketing vice president for the company.

In addition to offering significantly more bandwidth than WiFi or HomePlug AV (the current version of power-line networking equipment), Sigma Designs' G.hn chips ...

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Sony unveils sets with Google TV software

Sony
Sony will begin selling televisions with Google's much-touted Web-surfing software, Google TV, on Saturday. The high-definition sets will have LCD screens ranging from 24 inches to 46 inches, with retail prices ranging from $599 to $1,399.

Sony unveiled the TV sets in New York on Tuesday. The sets will first go on sell online Saturday, and they should be available in Best Buy stores by early next week. For more details, read Alex Pham's Company Town blog post.

-- Peter Pae

Photo: A Google TV-powered Sony television set with a QWERTY keypad remote control. Credit: Sony Electronics

Jim Wiatt, former William Morris chief, expands his role helping AOL in Hollywood

Wiatt After a year on AOL's board, former William Morris chief executive Jim Wiatt is ramping up his commitment to helping the online media company in Hollywood. 

Wiatt is leaving his board seat to spend most of his time as a consultant to AOL, using his clout in the media business to advise the company on creating star-branded online video content and courting advertisers.

"We're seeing a very large migration of content and talent towards digital media," said AOL's chief executive, Tim Armstrong, in an interview Wednesday.  "What we're hoping to do with Jim and with AOL is speed up that migration and have AOL step in the forefront of digital content and partnerships."

After a year of cost-cutting following its split with Time Warner, AOL has been aggressively trying to reinvent itself as a primary online video and news destination.  Its recent efforts include a Jonas Brothers-centric Web video portal called Cambio.com, and an online distribution partnership with "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

"You look at companies like Google that are so powerful in delivering content and see this is really in its infancy," Wiatt said in the interview.  "It's not going to be long before all forms of content are going to be available through multiple distribution systems."

"So many people are coming toward AOL already wanting to do things," he added, "it's really trying to make decisions on who are the best and brightest in making video and other kinds of content."

Armstrong said that Wiatt had been a close advisor to himself and other AOL executives over the last year, and that Wiatt's position on the board wasn't adequately taking advantage of his potential value.

"Most board members are doing six or eight meetings a year," Armstrong said. "Jim was doing six or eight meetings a week."

Armstrong added that AOL is watching recent Internet TV efforts by Google and Apple with a careful eye on how his company can become a player in the broadband TV space.

"It's not hard to imagine a place in the next five or 10 years where plasma TVs -- driven by an on-demand format -- are the primary way people consume media," Armstrong said.  "If you look at how quickly people are moving to those kinds of services, content needs to follow."

"By announcing Jim's helping AOL, that's a space we'd really like to tackle," Armstrong said.

-- David Sarno

Photo: Jim Wiatt. Credit: AOL

How Sezmi stacks up

Sezmi, cable TV alternative, pay TV, over the top If digital cable and Verizon's FiOS are version 2.0 of pay TV, then Sezmi is version 2.5. It's a step in the right direction, but still a work in progress.

Sezmi is a hybrid of over-the-air, cable and online television services, combining more than 50 local stations in Los Angeles and Orange counties with 23 cable networks, hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows (most of them available on a pay-per-view basis), YouTube and video podcasts. The local stations and cable channels are broadcast over the air to a customized indoor antenna that Sezmi supplies. The rest of the programming is delivered through a broadband connection, although the company plans to do some combined broadcast and broadband transmissions to boost picture quality (more on that later). Some of the local stations and on-demand programs are available in true high definition, while the cable channels and online video seem to be in various grades of standard definition.

Unlike Boxee, Sezmi doesn't try to bring much of the online video universe to the TV screen. There's no Hulu, no Revision3, no Netflix streams. But also unlike its "over-the-top" rivals, Sezmi tries to deliver a full-fledged alternative to cable at a much lower price. And it succeeds, albeit with some important caveats.

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A new, barred window for pay-TV movies

Hollywood won another incremental battle Friday in its war on digital piracy, persuading the Federal Communications Commission to approve a new approach to protecting movies on cable and satellite TV systems. The likely result is that some, but not all, pay-TV subscribers will be able to pay a premium to watch a movie at home, in high definition, before it comes out on disc. My colleague Richard Verrier wrote about the order for the Company Town blog, focusing on the complaints voiced by movie theaters and consumer advocates. My take is a bit different. Although it's unnerving to think about the studios turning off certain TV sets and digital video recorders via remote control, the FCC did a credible job limiting the studios' influence over new technology.

The order concerns an anti-piracy technique known as "selectable output control." For a movie made available before its release on disc, a studio will be able to instruct pay-TV operators to turn off the analog connectors on viewers' set-top boxes, transmitting the movie only through encrypted digital outputs. Analog connectors have rudimentary anti-piracy controls at best; encrypted digital outputs, such as HDMI with DTCP, can be programmed to bar or limit copying. 

A 2004 FCC rule had forbidden pay-TV operators from using selectable output control, largely out of concern for the millions of early digital-TV buyers whose sets don't have encrypted inputs. But the commission had also said the prohibition could be waived for a new Hollywood business model. The Motion Picture Assn. of America applied for a waiver almost two years ago for movies made available on pay TV before they came out on disc, only to be fiercely opposed by lobbyists for the consumer-electronics industry, tech companies and consumer groups. These groups argued that the MPAA hadn't demonstrated that analog outputs were a piracy problem. They also argued that too many consumers would be hurt by the use of selectable output control, and that the studios were seeking a dangerous degree of control over technology development.

The FCC accepted the anecdotal evidence the studios offered about piracy, and I'm not troubled by that. A decade ago it took professional-grade equipment to record high-definition programs transmitted through an analog output, but that's not true today. And the ready availability of bootlegged cable-network programs online, in high definition, strongly suggests that the "analog hole" really is a hole. 

As for the harm to consumers, it's hard to see how anyone is hurt when programs are made available in additional ways in a format that only some people can access. That kind of thing happens any time a new technology is introduced -- witness HDTV and Blu-ray discs, for example. And the FCC smartly barred studios from turning off analog outputs for more than 90 days on any given title, to avoid the possibility of consumers who rely on older TVs and conventional DVD players from being cut off completely.

Admittedly, the studios will have the power to impose far tougher viewing limits on early-release movies than on, say, a film aired by Showtime. For example, they could bar consumers from using a digital video recorder to pause a film halfway through and resume watching it the next day. But if the studios make the experience unappealing in their zeal to deter piracy, people can always wait to watch movies when they come out on disc or a cable movie channel, just as they can today.

A more serious threat posed by the MPAA's application was the risk that Hollywood would force pay-TV operators to adopt new anti-piracy controls on their digital outputs, limiting the use of home networks and dictating technology winners and losers. The FCC appeared to have heard the tech industry's complaints, though, ruling that the studios will have to settle for any technology approved by pay-TV operators based on objective criteria.

Conspiracy theorists may see the advent of selectable output control as another step by Hollywood deeper into your living room, giving studios the ability to keep its content off of legal devices used in perfectly legal ways. In that sense, it dovetails with the arrival of Blu-ray (and its erstwhile rival, HD DVD), whose players can be disabled remotely en masse if their security is hacked. But to me, the early-release movies seem like just another format whose success will depend on Hollywood's ability to set the right terms of use. If selectable output control turns off too many consumers, the format will fail, just as it will if the price isn't right.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

CES: Hulu fans PlayOn

Logo-playon Trying to protect the revenue they collect from cable operators, the Hollywood studios that own Hulu have stopped the online TV and movie outlet from working with "over-the-top" companies such as Boxee that bring video from the Web to the living room. But as set manufacturers equip more of their models with Ethernet jacks and the software necessary to act as displays on a home network, there's just no holding Hulu back.

Consider MediaMall Technologies' PlayOn, a $40 program that enables people to stream programming from Hulu to their TV sets via their computers. (The software's server also can transmit videos from YouTube, CBS, Netflix and several other online sources.) Today, PlayOn relies on a game console (Wii, XBox 360 or PlayStation 3) or a DLNA-compliant set-top box (e.g., Moxi's digital video recorders) to decode the streams for a TV set. But with set-makers equipping more and more of their models with Ethernet jacks and home-networking software, PlayOn is increasingly able to send shows straight to the TV screen. "Unquestionably, the notion of getting online [programming] into the living room is a very good trend for us," MediaMall Jim Holland said at a CES event Thursday night.

Holland also offered a few statistics that confirm some of the studios' fears about Hulu on the TV screen. About 40% of MediaMall's customers said they used PlayOn daily, with Hulu being the most popular source of programming by far. In addition, 38% said they had either significantly reduced or canceled their cable subscriptions; of that group, almost 80% said they were still watching their favorite programs in spite of the cable-cutting. 

Another way to watch Hulu on a TV is to connect a computer directly to your set. Laptop makers have tried to encourage this trend by equipping their models with digital-TV-friendly HDMI outputs instead of just a VGA plug. At CES, Alereon Inc., which makes chips that send information in the Ultra Wideband spectrum, offered a simpler (albeit pricier) alternative: a stubby USB dongle that can transmit programming wirelessly from a PC or laptop to an antenna attached to a TV's HDMI input.

The signal travels 20 to 25 feet and can pass through walls, although the most likely use is to beam programming from the couch to the TV, said Eric Broockman, Alereon's chief executive. He added that the unit is expected to be available by April for less than $200.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

CES: DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg arrives, in shades, to welcome 3-D TV

Katzenberg
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg wears 3-D glasses during a Samsung media event at the Consumer Electronics Show at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev. Dreamworks, Technicolor and Samsung announced they had formed a partnership to offer 3-D in-home entertainment. Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images.
Samsung Electronics America launched its new line of 3-D televisions, Blu-ray players, glasses and home theater systems with a little bit of Hollywood sizzle.

DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg took the stage today, before the official start of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, to announce that the studio would release "Monsters vs. Aliens" as a 3-D Blu-ray disc in an exclusive promotion with Samsung. The disc will be created by Technicolor.

Katzenberg said theater audiences have already embraced this new way of watching films, with four of the 10 films released in 3-D ranking among the top movies at the box office.

"With 3-D, we give them the feeling of being immersed in the stories and characters," Katzenberg said.

The new televisions and players that can lift these images off the screen will bring this experience to audiences in their homes, he said. Katzenberg is hoping that audiences will agree with his pronouncement, as he and Technicolor CEO Frederic Rose took the stage wearing 3-D glasses at the annual geek fest

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

CES: DirecTV to offer all-3-D satellite TV channels to home viewers

Panasonic
A worker makes adjustments to the Panasonic booth at the Consumer Electronics Show, where DirecTV and Panasonic announced a partnership to offer all-3D satellite channels. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
The prospects for 3-D TV took a major step forward today with a joint announcement from DirecTV and Panasonic that three all-3-D satellite channels will launch by June.

The three channels will be made available to DirecTV’s HDTV subscribers, bringing movies, TV shows and live events to homes in 3-D.

A Panasonic executive said pricing has not been set. But at least one of the channels would be made available to the subscribers at no additional cost. The two companies have formed a strategic partnership to create the channels.

One of the major barriers for 3-D TV has been a lack of content. In December, a standard was announced for 3-D Blu-ray machines to make it practical for movies to be issued in the format.

But this is the first announcement by a U.S. content provider that it would bring a steady supply of 3-D to its customers. One of the first live sports events to be shown on the 3-D channel will be the Major League Baseball All-star game this summer, according to a DirecTV official.

To view 3-D programming at home, viewers will need specially equipped television sets. Panasonic, which has been at the forefront of bringing 3-D to living rooms, will be offering 3-D enabled sets and Blu-ray players.

Of course, 3-D glasses will be needed to view the channels.

-- David Colker

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