Technology

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

Category: Hulu

Boxee adds Clicker's program guide [UPDATED]

Clicker, Boxee, online program guide, Hulu, TV Everywhere Boxee has gained an enthusiastic following among online TV aficionados who'd rather watch programs on a television set than a computer, yet its alpha-version software is still missing a few important components. Today, it's filling one of those holes by adding Clicker's well-designed program guide, making it easier for users to search through the haystack of online videos for authorized versions of the shows they want to watch.

It's a good move for both companies -- Clicker, which made its formal launch last month, gets more exposure and a route to the TV screen, and Boxee increases its usability. The best thing about Clicker, IMHO, is that it doesn't index clips or video fragments. That makes it especially useful for folks who are more interested in finding "CSI: New York" episodes than YouTube clips of interviews with the show's stars. But integrating Clicker into Boxee also makes more obvious what Hulu and other authorized sources are withholding from the latter's software -- about half of the material that Clicker can find online isn't available on Boxee. That still amounts to a *lot* of programming, however, as Clicker notes on its blog: "over 180,000 episodes from over 3,000 TV and Web shows, as well as 5,000 movies," with more to come.

Avner Ronen, Boxee's chief executive, estimates that the studios and networks have put less than 50% of their broadcast TV shows and less than 10% of their cable programming online. That's not a technical hurdle, it's an issue of business models. "It's up to us to show media companies that's it's not `analog dollars to digital cents,'" Ronen said, paraphrasing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker. Ronen said his platform will support more than just free transmissions -- a "major push" next year will be "introducing a billing platform into Boxee." And he sees the TV Everywhere initiative, which Comcast and Time Warner are developing to make cable programming available online to cable subscribers, as a potentially good thing. "We would love to enable [users] to access that content," Ronen said. He also noted that there are numerous ways for studios to make the online versions of the show more valuable to consumers (and, consequently, increase their willingness to pay), including reducing the number of commercials, improving the resolution and making them available sooner. 

For its part, Clicker is planning to generate revenue by matching programmers and advertisers to users through their searches -- a model familiar to anyone who uses Google. CEO Jim Lanzone said the company hasn't pursued that side of its business yet, though, because it's been focused on building its application and attracting an audience. To the latter end, it's trying to bring Clicker to the TV screen through more devices. Lanzone said the Boxee deal is the first of several that are in the works, including at least one that would integrate Clicker directly into Internet-capable TVs.

Updated 10:40 a.m.: Boxee is set to unveil the next (Beta) version of its software Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. The LAT's Technology blog will offer its first impressions of the Beta and Boxee's forthcoming set-top box then. But be forewarned -- the new version of the software won't be widely available until early January.

-- Jon Healey

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

Roku's open TV platform

Roku Roku's $99 set-top box made its debut last year as a tool for watching Netflix's online movie streams on a television set. It later added access to Amazon's video-on-demand service and Major League Baseball's online game broadcasts. Today it announced the latest step in its evolution into a more versatile device: a "channel store" of optional video sources for users to add to their boxes.

The store is an open platform, Roku says, providing a route to the TV set for any online video programmer willing to use Roku's software development kit. That's a promising development for content providers looking to bypass cable and satellite operators. Unfortunately, the first 10 channels available through the Roku store do not include Hulu, TV.com, Sling.com or any other source of network TV shows. Instead, they consist of a handful of sites with original online video, such as Revision3; Pandora's customized music webcasts; and sites for posting and sharing photos and home videos, such as Flickr. All are free to use and easy to add to the box's regular channel lineup, although some require viewers to register.

The biggest shortcoming is the lack of a search engine or program guide that would make it easy to browse across all the channels simultaneously. Users have to scroll through what's available channel by channel, which can be tedious.

Viewers looking for something to replace their cable TV won't find it from Roku -- at least not yet. What they'll find is a broader selection of content, a convenient way to display on TV the personal photos and videos they've stored online, and the promise of more to come.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Sezmi says hello to Los Angeles

Sezmi, over the top, cable bypass, online TV, Hulu, TV Everywhere Angelenos unhappy with the cable or satellite TV offerings in their neighborhoods will have a new, much less expensive option today: Sezmi, a novel combination of over-the-air broadcasting and broadband programming. The company is launching a trial run here in anticipation of a much broader rollout by March, providing free equipment and service for about three months to those who participate. (You can sign up at Sezmi's website.) Even after the free trial ends, the price will be far below competing pay TV services: just under $5 a month for local broadcasts, Internet channels and access to pay-per-view services, and an additional $20 a month for more than 100 cable TV networks. Sezmi has some issues -- some popular cable networks aren't on board, at least not yet, and its selection of Web programming is far too limited -- but it also offers some innovations that push TV service in the direction viewers want it to go.

Continue reading »

Clicker's guide to the unlimited-channel universe

Clicker, online program guide, EPG, Hulu, Sling.com, OVGuide One testament to the popularity of online video is the growing number of sites that serve as Internet program guides, helping people sort through the billions of available items to find something they might like to watch. The latest, Clicker, has its official launch at 10:30 this morning (it had been conducting an invitation-only trial since mid-September). Unlike most of the other guides, which direct users to videos available on their own sites, Clicker exists to help people find programming around the Web, including such sources as Hulu, YouTube or Revision3. And it directs users to legal content only, eschewing bootlegs and snippets posted on user-generated sites in favor of full-length content from the most convenient source. The goal, said CEO Jim Lanzone, is to be "the TV Guide for the next generation of television, whatever that evolves into."

Continue reading »

Roku multiplies [UPDATED]

Roku, online video, over the top, Internet on TV, Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, Boxee Roku introduced the first set-top box for streaming Netflix movies to the TV set a year and a half ago, and the little $100 device was an instant hit -- as was Netflix's streaming service. Since then, the company has expanded the box's capabilities a bit, adding support for high-definition video and the ability to stream movies from Amazon.com and baseball games from MLB.TV. But all that appears to be table dressing for what Roku plans to do in the near future.

This morning, the company added two variations on the Roku Digital Video Player (now called the Roku HD) to the mix: an $80 standard-definition box, which is designed for smaller or older screens, and the $130 Roku HD-XR, which adds 802.11n capabilities and a USB port. The latter isn't enabled yet, but it suggests that the player will be able to support movie download services such as Roxio's CinemaNow -- a nice solution for people who want better picture quality than their broadband connections currently support. 

I've been playing with an HD-XR on loan from Roku, and like its predecessor it's a breeze to set up -- remarkably so, considering that it's a networked device. The picture quality was very good for Netflix and Amazon, although I was disappointed to find that my 5 mbps broadband connection from AT&T wasn't fast enough to handle either source's high-def streams. The most intriguing thing was the promise of a "Channel Store" where users can go to add more sources of online video. The player's start-up guide gives instructions for using the store, but it's not yet enabled. The company says it will add the store "later this fall" as an automatic update to all its units, but it provided no details about the contents.

Company executives have talked in the past about their ambition to provide a platform for all manner of online video. Unlike some other set-tops, the Roku players support Adobe's Flash video format, which Hulu and many other sources of video online use. Of course, Hulu's owners have been notoriously reluctant to support Internet-on-TV technology for fear of harming the cable TV companies that figure prominently in their business models. But there's intense interest among tech companies in providing a bridge from the Net to the TV, so it's going to happen with or without the networks' support. For example, DivX and Rovi, two software developers with broad partnerships among consumer electronics manufacturers,  also are positioning themselves to provide a platform for online video in set-tops and TVs, as are Boxee, Apple and Microsoft.

One other quick point: I fully expect telephone companies to partner with a set-top maker like Roku. Nothing made me want to upgrade to an even higher tier of DSL more than seeing the admonition on screen that I couldn't play the HD version of an Amazon movie. AT&T and Verizon might not be keenly motivated to team with Roku, given that they're trying to sell their own versions of cable TV, but there are hundreds of other smaller telcos that don't have that kind of conflict. That's fertile ground not just for video-on-demand players like Roku and ZillionTV, but also full-blown cable replacements such as Sezmi, which is expected to begin deploying in Los Angeles soon.

Updated, 10:20 p.m. Oct. 28: Roku informed me that a software bug may have prevented me from watching streams in high definition the first time I used the device. As it happens, the company was right -- having left the box on for a while, it now streams in HD (wirelessly, connected to an 802.11g router) without a flinch. And the picture quality is quite good, although my less-than-acute vision makes me a charitable audience when it comes to HD images.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow his intermittent Twitter stream: @jcahealey.

New adventures in pay walls

Disconcerting news, Hulu users: Broadcasting and Cable reports that new board member (and News Corp. Deputy Chairman) Chase Carey says Hulu must start charging for at least some of its content. The change could come as soon as next year, he told B&C's Claire Atkinson, although he also said that the pay wall might be limited only to special or advance programming. Said Carey, "Hulu concurs with that, it needs to evolve to have a meaningful subscription model as part of its business." (Hat tip to Gizmodo and TV Week.)

This isn't a huge surprise; my colleagues Dawn Chmielewski and Meg James reported back in May that Hulu was considering tiers of programming -- some free and some paid -- to attract some cable networks that had been reluctant to share content with the site. (They explored the idea further earlier this month, in the wake of Comcast's talks to buy Hulu co-founder NBC Universal.) But it reflects how eager broadcasters are to collect money from distributors to supplement what they take in from advertisers. And if the fees were limited to programming that wasn't otherwise available online, or to features that Hulu hadn't previously offered, then they wouldn't seem inherently unreasonable. That doesn't mean people would pay them, of course -- they have plenty of other ways to be entertained online for free. But at least Hulu could make the case for the fees with a straight face.

Meanwhile, out in Long Island, Newsday -- a tabloid that Cablevision bought last year from the struggling Tribune Co. for $650 million -- announced that it would charge non-subscribers $5 a week to read the paper online. Pricey! But the paper will be free to Cablevision's broadband subscribers too. Given that Cablevision says 75% of the Long Island market subscribes to Newsday or its broadband service, if not both, there aren't many local readers left to alienate. Still, you have to wonder why any company thinks it can increase the price of a product without increasing its value to customers. Oh, wait -- Cablevision is a cable company.... Never mind.

(Full disclosure: Tribune Co. owns the Los Angeles Times.)

-- Jon Healey

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

Comcast, 1Cast and Boxee

Comcast, TV Everywhere, over the top, Hulu, 1Cast, Boxee, cable bypass, news Two seemingly unrelated announcements this week illustrate the intensifying pressure on cable TV's business model. Comcast announced this week that it would make more cable-TV programming available free through the Internet by the end of the year but only to people who get broadband and cable service from Comcast.

According to PaidContent.org, the additional programming includes fare from HBO, TNT and TBS, which have kept most of their shows off of Hulu and other online TV sites. The move might dissuade a subset of Comcast's customers from dumping cable in favor of free online TV but won't charm the ones who get their broadband from a phone company.

Granted, the masses still prefer to get their TV shows from cable and satellite operators rather than Hulu because they bring it to the TV, not the PC. But the momentum behind free online TV is unmistakable -- there are new devices, such as Netgear's Digital Entertainer Live, that make it easy to bring online video to the big screen in the living room, older devices such as the Roku Video Player with ever-expanding capabilities and services including Hulu and Netflix that are continually expanding their libraries of free content. 

So here's the second announcement. 1Cast, a self-styled Hulu for news videos, unveiled a new partnership with Boxee, a program that provides a user interface for online video streams that's optimized for a TV set. The deal adds an important element to Boxee's entertainment-heavy lineup, while giving 1Cast a route to TV screens.

1Cast's approach is novel for an online news aggregator -- it strikes revenue-sharing deals with networks, rather than just monetizing the feeds that are freely available online. CEO Anthony Bontrager said his company gets clips directly from the networks in "near real time" -- typically within minutes of their appearance on air. Visitors to the 1Cast site can browse through thumbnails of the most recently added clips, or they can use the site's search function to gather all the clips related to a given topic. They also can create virtual newscasts on the topics of their choice that are dynamically updated whenever new material arrives. Or they can watch what other users have been watching or saving.

In other words, it's the Internet's remix power brought to bear on the TV news industry. It's not for people who like having someone else decide what the most important developments of the day are or who the most credible speakers might be. Instead, it's for those who want to be their own news directors or tap the collective judgment of the crowd and who like the idea of being able to view multiple perspectives on the same story. 1Cast draws from more than a dozen sources, including CNBC, Fox Business, Bloomberg, the BBC and MarketWatch. It's also expanding into entertainment news -- it just added clips from E! Entertainment and Style. What's in it for them? In addition to the shared revenue -- 1Cast adds post-roll advertising and some interactive overlays to the clips -- Bontrager said networks like the idea of getting their material in front of viewers who might otherwise be wedded to a competitor's channel. 

One interesting tidbit about 1Cast's users: The big screen doesn't appear to be as important to them as the mobile one. Bontrager said viewers typically spend 12 to 15 minutes watching 1Cast on a PC, but the average session time on mobile (iPhone or Android phones) is 36 minutes. Sure hope they're not watching while they drive. ...

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

ZillionTV gets a new CEO

ZillionTV logo TV-over-the-Internet start-up ZillionTV changed its leadership today, bringing in a new chief executive to take over for Mitch Berman. The new guy is Jack Lawrence, formerly head of North American operations for Hong Kong toy maker Corgi International. Berman is staying on as executive chairman, he said in an interview.

Start-ups frequently change CEOs in mid-stream, often because the person with the original vision isn't the one with the managerial chops to make it happen. Those are two different skills, after all. But the change at Zillion of Sunnyvale, Calif., is sure to raise eyebrows because of extensive recent layoffs that had one former-employee-turned-blogger suggesting that the company was on its last legs. (The blogger, Brandon Wirtz, offered a similarly dismal spin on the news about Lawrence.)

Berman said the switch in roles was his idea. He wanted to hand the reins to Lawrence -- a longtime veteran of the satellite, cable TV and telecommunications industry -- because the "constant running around and raising money" had been taking too great a toll on his quality of life and his company's momentum. Lawrence will take over the fundraising duties, leaving Berman to strike the deals with content providers, advertisers and commercial partners that are crucial to Zillion's survival.

Unfortunately, Zillion isn't disclosing much to reassure people about its prospects, at least not yet. Berman wouldn't say how much money the company had raised (although Multichannel News reported that Zillion had collected more than $18 million by the end of last year), who its distribution partners were, how many titles it had in its library or what content deals it had signed (granted, the company counts five Hollywood studios among its investors). As for the layoffs, Berman said the company has morphed from a technology developer into a media and marketing operation, and so there was no work left for some employees to do.

He said more confidence-building announcements were soon to come. The company launched last month in communities where it doesn't have an ISP partner, offering the service to anyone who agrees to pay the one-time equipment fee of $99. But Berman wouldn't say where those were, nor did he disclose how many customers had signed up. So there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical about Zillion. Nevertheless, I'm paying attention to the company because I'm intrigued by its business model. Offering a subscription-free twist on online video-on-demand, Zillion says its customers will be able to buy, rent or watch movie and TV programming for free in exchange for viewing personalized commercials. It's not exactly a replacement for cable TV, nor is it a gateway to all the video riches the Web has to offer. And the most innovative aspect of the business model -- free viewing with targeted ads -- still has to be proven before Zillion is likely to get the studios' most compelling content. Yet its user interface is great, and the picture quality it demonstrated this year was impressive. So stay tuned.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

A Zillion here, a Zillion there [UPDATED]

ZillionTV, online TV, over the top, cable TV, pay TV, TV EverywhereIt looks like the public will have to wait a bit longer for ZillionTV, but when it does arrive, it will be available in more places. CEO Mitchell Berman announced this morning that privately held ZillionTV Corp. had added a new element to its Internet-on-TV distribution strategy: In addition to offering its on-demand programming through Internet service providers, Zillion will serve consumers directly. To promote both approaches, Berman said the company is working with consumer electronics manufacturers to embed enabling technology in their Internet-enabled TV sets and set-top boxes (e.g., Blu-ray disc players). These devices won't become available until the second half of next year, however; nor does the company expect to move beyond trial deployments with ISPs this year.

In an interview earlier this week, Berman said ...

Continue reading »

Computer is the new TV, even for sitcoms*

Glee
Viewership of TV shows, such as "Glee," online has quadrupled, a new survey shows. Credit: Hulu

If you're watching more TV on your computer these days -- and less on an actual TV -- you're not alone.

A survey by the nonprofit Conference Board released today shows that nearly a quarter of households in the U.S. now watch television programs online. *That's up from 20% who watched TV shows on the computer last year.

This quarterly Consumer Internet Barometer survey found that news shows are viewed by 43% of online watchers, followed by the 35% who watch sitcoms, comedies and dramas. Then it goes down to 19% who view reality shows and 18% favoring sports (that number might be higher if more live sports events were shown free online).

Viewership of the Hulu service -- which offers shows from NBC, ABC, Fox and others -- nearly quadrupled from last year, but that's not a big surprise because Hulu didn't debut until March 2007.

 

The survey found that 90% of online viewers watch at home. The remaining 10% watch at the office, which is shocking.

I'd write more, but Hulu just added a new clip from "Glee."

-- David Colker

Connect

Recommended on Facebook


Advertisement

In Case You Missed It...

Videos

How to Reach Us

To pass on technology-related story tips, ideas and press releases, contact our reporters listed below.

To reach us by phone, call (213) 237-7163

Email: business@latimes.com

Andrea Chang
Armand Emamdjomeh
Jessica Guynn
Jon Healey
W.J. Hennigan
Tiffany Hsu
Deborah Netburn
Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Alex Pham
David Sarno


Categories


Archives