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Category: Netflix

CES 2012: Two approaches to indie movies for connected TVs, devices

FilmFresh

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Netflix, CinemaNow and Vudu seem ubiquitous on the smart TV sets and set-top boxes on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, but they're not the only companies bringing films on demand to the TV, tablets and smartphones. Among the others trying to drum up business here have been two smaller, evolving competitors, Film Fresh and Bigstar, each of which brings something unique to the mix.

Film Fresh began as an outlet for downloadable international films, which it made available for sale or rental. It eventually added films for sale from selected Hollywood studios -- Sony, Warner Bros. and Lionsgate -- because "we learned that you can't sell the long tail without the short-tail films," said founder Rick Bolton. "You need familiar films."

This week Film Fresh relaunched its site, switching to a more widely compatible format (dropping DivX in favor of Windows Media) that's more acceptable to the bigger studios. The switch enables Film Fresh to make those studios' movies available for rent, not just for purchase, and it opens a pathway to more devices. It plans to launch on Android tablets in a few weeks, followed eventually by Apple devices. It also opened a store this week on Facebook.

The company also added a nifty mood-based recommendation engine called "Film Finder" (pictured above). The first set of suggestions comes from the company's staff of film buffs, and the rest are generated by technology from The Filter. The recommendations help users navigate the company's library of nearly 6,000 films, most of which are titles you'd never see promoted on a bus or in a theatrical trailer. "For us, the holy grail is discovery," Bolton explained, adding that Film Finder is designed to give the site a "corner video store vibe."

With CinemaNow owned by Best Buy, Blockbuster owned by DISH and Vudu owned by Wal-Mart, Film Fresh is promoting itself to device makers as the Switzerland of online film retailers. "We're the last independent film download service with independents and Hollywood content," Bolton said. Miami-based Bigstar, meanwhile, is offering unlimited movie streaming for a monthly fee of just under $5 -- the Netflix model, only cheaper.

It can afford to do that, founder Xavi Dalmau said, because it works only with indie film studios and distributors that are willing to forgo guarantees and advances. Instead, the site pays its 150 content partners half the revenue it collects from subscribers. (Most of its more than 4,000 titles are included in the subscription price, but a few hundred are available only on a pay-per-view basis.)

Bigstar has only about 5,000 paying members at this point, despite having attracted 300,000 potential subscribers over its history. It's had much more success winning a place on connected TVs and set-top boxes; it is or soon will be available on TVs by Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio, Roku players, iPads and devices that run the Android operating system.

As a result, only about 10% of the site's streams are delivered to Web browsers. "Our top platform is the iPad and the iPhone," Dalmau said, adding that the segment with the fastest growing usage is connected TVs. And unlike many of its competitors, Bigstar has the rights to stream most of its movies globally.

"We felt that the independent world was a way for us to prove our model," he said. The company hopes to gradually add deals with bigger studios, but not for blockbusters. The hits don't fit into a business model built around $4.99-a-month subscriptions. Instead, Bigstar is focused on overlooked titles -- for example, indie movies that make a splash at film festivals but don't go on to a wide release. That's a common fate for festival fare, most of which never makes it to the multiplex, Dalmau said.

"All along we wanted to make the platform to give it to the filmmakers to be able to show the great movies that they make, year in and year out. A curated library has always been one of our goals. We spent a lot of time figuring out what to put in and what not to."

The privately held company's not making money yet, Dalmau said, but it hasn't been trying to. Instead, it's been building its platform and acquiring content, albeit "without spending the millions and hundreds of millions of dollars" on major Hollywood fare. With a huge supply of long-tail films gathering dust in archives, along with unheralded foreign films, documentaries and shorts, "there's a lot out there that we can get our hands on that we feel people want to watch," Dalmau said.

[For the record, 1:10 p.m. Jan. 12: The original version of this post stated that Film Fresh had just been added to Roku's set-top boxes. The company says it is talks with Roku with the goal of having its app on the device later this year.]

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-- Jon Healey

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

Credit: Film Fresh

Google, Facebook, YouTube are most visited websites in 2011

plus.google.com

Google, Facebook and YouTube racked up the most unique visitors among U.S. websites in 2011, according to new data from the research group Nielsen.

Not necessarily the most surprising news is it? What may be a bit more interesting is that, despite its rapid growth, Google+ was on average visited by fewer users than Myspace this year, according to Nielsen. Google+ was released in beta in July and opened to the public in September.

The Nielsen data also doesn't cover the entire year, only January to October.

According to Nielsen, the top 10 U.S. social networks and blogs, by page views, in 2011 were:

1. Facebook -- 137.6 million average page views per month

2. Blogger -- 45.5 million average page views per month

3. Twitter.com -- 23.6 million average page views per month

4. WordPress.com -- 20.4 million average page views per month

5. Myspace.com -- 17.9 million average page views per month

6. LinkedIn -- 17 million average page views per month

7. Tumblr -- 10.9 million average page views per month

8. Google+ -- 8.2 million average page views per month

9. Yahoo! Pulse -- 8 million average page views per month

10. Six Apart/TypePad -- 7 million average page views per month

Nielsen also reported that the 10 most visited overall U.S. Web brands in 2011 were:

1. Google -- 153.4 million average page views per month

2. Facebook -- 137.6 million average page views per month

3. Yahoo! -- 130.1 million average page views per month

4. MSN/WindowsLive/Bing -- 115.9 million average page views per month

5. YouTube -- 106.7 million average page views per month

6. Microsoft -- 83.8 million average page views per month

7. AOL Media Network -- 74.6 million average page views per month

8. Wikipedia -- 62 million average page views per month

9. Apple -- 61.6 million average page views per month

10. Ask Search Network -- 60.5 million average page views per month

 And finally, the top 10 U.S. Web brands for video, according to Nielsen's data:

1. YouTube -- 111.1 million average page views per month

2. Vevo -- 34.6 million average page views per month

3. Facebook -- 29.8 million average page views per month

4. Yahoo! -- 25.3 million average page views per month

5. MSN/WindowsLive/Bing -- 16.6 million average page views per month

6. AOL Media Network -- 13.3 million average page views per month

7. Hulu -- 13.1 million average page views per month

8. The CollegeHumor Network -- 12.5 million average page views per month

9. CNN Digital Network -- 8.3 million average page views per month

10. Netflix -- 7.4 million average page views per month

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screen shot of plus.google.com. Credit: Google

New Netflix app ready for Kindle Fire and Nook, but not iPad

Netflix announced a revamped tablet app now available for the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble's Nook, but not for the iPad

The great tech horse race of 2011 pits the iPad, that thoroughbred of tablet computers, against a pair of new lightweight fillies, the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble's Nook

But this year, the race may not be decided by horsepower alone. Indeed, in the run-up to the frenzied holiday buying season, the Android manufacturers are focusing less on their devices' technical prowess, and more on the kinds of things that people can do with them.

Last week, Amazon announced that the Kindle Fire will feature a "Lending Library" that will let paying users borrow a limited selection of books. Then Amazon pushed Hulu Plus, saying the for-pay TV and movie rental service would also be available on its Kindle Fire, along with music apps Pandora and Rhapsody.

And now, not to be left behind, Netflix is joining the party, announcing a revamped tablet app now available for the Fire and the Nook.

But not for the iPad. That version will arrive "in the coming weeks," the company said.

"It's nothing more than a timing issue," wrote Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey in an email, explaining that the Android release was timed to coincide with the Kindle Fire and Nook releases this week, and that there was no favoritism involved. "Netflix is agnostic on platforms -– no preferences or priorities," he wrote.

Still, that means iPad owners will have to be content with the older version of the Netflix app. Swasey did not reply to a question about whether the new version of the iPad app would be available by holiday buying time.

The new app, which Android users can download now, fits twice as many movies on the screen as the earlier version, and lets users easily swipe through many categories of films and TV shows, as well as begin streaming videos directly from within the app.

Check this space for continuing handicapping of the tablet derby.

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-- David Sarno

Twitter.com/dsarno

Image: The new Netflix app for Android.  Credit: Netflix

Netflix integration with Facebook is a no-go in U.S.: Here's why

Netflix on Facebook

Netflix announced on Monday that it is integrating with Facebook, allowing subscribers to share what they watch through the streaming service on the social network.

But that integration, while coming for users in Latin America and Canada, won't be available in the U.S.

Why's that? Los Angeles Times reporter Ben Fritz has the answer over on our sister blog Company Town:

The reason: The Video Privacy Protection Act, a 1988 law that forbids the disclosure of people's video rental information. Companies that violate the law are liable up to $2,500 for each infraction.

Netflix's Facebook sharing app would likely be illegal in the U.S. because it makes recommendations on what to watch based on what a Facebook user's friends watch, Fritz reported.

Blockbuster, the struggling movie rental store chain (which also offers online streaming in competition with Netflix) learned the hard way about the VPPA law. In 2008, a Texas woman sued Blockbuster alleging that it violated the the law when it shared her rental history with Facebook, Fritz noted. 

For more on why Netflix opted out of this type of sharing with Facebook and what bills in Congress Netflix is hoping might allow it to eventually change its policy, head over to Company Town and read the full report, Netflix coming to Facebook overseas, but not in U.S.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Image: A screenshot of Netflix's Facebook page. Credit: Netflix / Facebook

Roku 2 comes in 3 flavors, plays Angry Birds with Wii-like remote

Roku2_hand

Roku has sold more than 1 million of its TV set-top boxes, with the main attraction being Netflix streaming. But with the new Roku 2 device, the Saratoga, Calif., company is betting on another hugely popular item for its killer app -- Angry Birds.

The Rovio-built game has been sold more than 200 million times across different smartphones and tablets, and Roku is hoping it'll cause more consumers to pick up a Roku 2, which was released on Tuesday in three different models and price points, ranging from $59.99 to $99.99.

So, how does one play Angry Birds on a little black box (that looks a lot like the Apple TV) that fits in the palm of a hand? With a bluetooth motion-sensing remote (that works a lot like the Nintendo Wii remote).

Roku2_remote_rf_motion2 The top-of-the-line version of the Roku 2, known as the Roku 2 XS, sells for $100 and includes the motion control remote and a copy of Angry Birds already downloaded and ready to play, as well as USB and ethernet ports not available on the cheaper models.

The $79.99 Roku 2 XD's bragging right is the ability to play 1080p full-high-definition video, which its more expensive sibling can do too.

And then there is the $59.99 Roku 2 HD, which is limited to playing back 720p resolution video.

All three of the boxes use an Internet connection to tap into Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, Pandora Internet radio, Vimeo and nearly 300 other "channels," the company said on its website.

But the big news here is still casual gaming, said Anthony Wood, Roku's CEO, in a blog post.

"Angry Birds is just the beginning," Wood said. "Between now and Christmas you'll see the games selection on Roku grow dramatically. My goal is to grow Roku into a major low-cost family oriented gaming platform, with games in the $5 range rather than $30 range.

"Just like Netflix is shaking up the video world, and Pandora is shaking up radio, Angry Birds and their friends are shaking up the gaming establishment. We're trying to help as best we can."

Rumors have been circulating for months that the next version of the Apple TV could add games too. It'll also be interesting to see how the Boxee Box responds to casual gaming on the Roku.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Twitter.com/nateog

Images: (Top) The Roku 2 and (bottom) the Roku 2's motion-sensing remote. Credit: Roku

Facebook adds Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to board in advance of IPO

In a sign that Facebook is seriously preparing for what some anticipate will be a $100-billion initial public offering next year, the social networking company said Thursday that it has added Reed Hastings, Netflix's chairman and chief executive officer, to its board of directors.

Hastings, who guided his company through an IPO in 2002, should be a real asset to the Palo Alto company in navigating the process. Hastings also sits on the board of Microsoft, which made a significant investment in Facebook.

Hastings In a written statement, Mark Zuckerberg welcomed Hastings to the board.

"Reed is an entrepreneur and technologist who has led Netflix to transform the way people watch movies and TV," said Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. "He has built a culture of continuous rapid innovation, something we share and work hard to build every day."

The board seat is a coup for Netflix, which has been slow to embrace the social evolution of the Web. It is working on what it calls a substantial Facebook integration for its more than 23 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada. It canceled a previous effort.

Hastings could also help Facebook figure out how to tap into Hollywood. Facebook is said to be planning to debut a music streaming service this summer and has been exploring what role it can play in delivering other media such as movies to users.

In March, Warner Bros. launched an application allowing users to rent and watch movies directly on Facebook, starting with "The Dark Knight." 

"Facebook is propelling a fundamental change in how people connect with each other and share all kinds of content," said Hastings. "I'm looking forward to working with Mark and the rest of the board to help Facebook take advantage of all the opportunities ahead."

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-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg.

The Skini on set-top boxes

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If size matters in the TV set-top box market, the new Skini by semiconductor company Sigma Designs wins by losing.

The Skini -- a combination of pay-TV receiver, Internet TV terminal and home automation hub -- is about the size of a couple of packs of playing cards, and it hangs off a wall outlet like a night light. It uses advanced powerline networking technology to connect to a home network, and Z-Wave wireless networking to receive commands from a remote control and send them to compatible light fixtures, thermostats and other devices.

The company unveiled a reference design for the box Monday. Michael Weissman, the company's vice president of corporate marketing, said he expects to see products based on Skini by Christmas or early next year, including digital media receivers and pay-TV set-tops. Those should sell for less than $100, he said.

That's the right price, and you've got to love the mini Skini's ability to hide behind the TV -- its remote's radio-frequency signals can pass through objects, unlike the infrared signals used by most controllers. Its capabilities are impressive too, at least on paper.

What would truly be compelling is if Skini-based products enabled consumers to combine basic pay-TV services with low-cost Internet video subscriptions, such as Netflix and Hulu, into more affordable video packages. But just because the reference design is capable of doing so, that doesn't mean pay-TV operators will interested in providing those features in their set-top boxes. Any company selling premium tiers and on-demand movies would have little or no incentive to help customers subscribe to Netflix instead.

A coalition of consumer electronics manufacturers, retailers and Internet companies has been pushing the Federal Communications Commission to circumvent that problem by adopting a new standard for set-top interoperability. Called AllVid, it would enable device makers to create gateways that bring multiple sources of audio and video to the TV screen, including pay-TV services, Internet feeds and files stored on home computers.

Not surprisingly, cable operators hate AllVid, arguing that the market, not government, should determine which technologies prevail. They also note that Internet-ready TVs are proliferating, an increasing number of which can receive cable TV service without requiring a set-top box. That's because those sets adhere to the cable industry's unique protocols, which would be useless to set buyers who switch to any other form of pay TV. But cable operators are also starting to deliver programming to devices whose interfaces they don't control, such as the iPad.

The open, multi-function environment envisioned by AllVid is tailor-made for the Skini. A federal mandate for the AllVid interface, Weissman of Sigma Designs said,  "only accelerates the opportunity for this type of technology."

The FCC hasn't ruled yet on AllVid. According to Ryan Lawler of GigaOm, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski offered attendees at last week's cable industry trade show a typically opaque update on the proceeding, saying the commission would “take steps to spur innovation in and around the TV platform.”

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Credit: Sigma Designs

Online video watching to double by 2015, Cisco forecasts

Online

The number of people watching video on the Internet is expected to nearly double by 2015 to 1.5 billion while the amount of video they watch on the Web is also seen doubling to more than an hour a day, according to a forecast released on Wednesday by Cisco Systems.

In the company's Visual Networking Index, which is released annually and forecasts Internet usage over the next five years, Cisco predicts the amount of total Internet traffic will quadruple from 2010 to 2015, with video streaming a major factor behind the growth. 

Netflix's video streaming already accounts for more Internet traffic than anything else on the Web, making up nearly a quarter of all Internet traffic, according to a recent report by Sandvine Inc., a networking equipment company.

Arielle Sumits, a senior analyst for Cisco, said one of the biggest factors behind the expected exponential growth of Internet traffic is the migration of viewers from broadcast TV to Internet video.

Individual Internet usage is also expected to more than triple to nearly 25 gigabytes a month for an average user in 2015 from 7 gigabytes. That would be like watching six HD movies, 30 TV episodes and a 3-D move a month, compared to the average user today who could watch three HD movies and five TV shows.

Cisco, which makes networking devices and systems, stands to gain from the kind of increase in Internet usage it is projecting.

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Photo: Indian schoolgirl Akshaya Longjam watches a South Korean film on her laptop in Imphal. Credit: Findlay Kember / AFP/Getty Images

Epix streaming-TV apps: Not epic

Epix logo Premium movie channel Epix announced Wednesday that it would chase new viewers online by offering them ... trailers. Insert disappointed emoticon here.

If you're a cable TV subscriber in Los Angeles, you probably have no idea what Epix is, because it's not offered by Time Warner Cable. Or Comcast, DirecTV or AT&T. All told, the would-be competitor to HBO, Showtime and Starz is available to 30 million pay-TV subscribers, or about 1 in 4 TV households in the U.S.

Epix (a joint venture of Viacom, Paramount Pictures, MGM and Lionsgate) released applications Wednesday for "over 100 consumer electronic and mobile devices" that will enable its subscribers to watch Epix programming on those devices. The list includes Android-powered tablet computers, Samsung Internet-connected TVs and Roku set-top boxes, which bring video from the Internet to a television set. The tablet-computer app has appeal, but why would Epix subscribers (who get the channel and its on-demand counterpart on their pay-TV service) want to stream versions of the same movies to their TV sets?

The company's new TV and set-top-box apps would make a lot more sense if Epix allowed people who don't (or can't) get its pay-TV channel to buy subscriptions to the online feed. HBO and Showtime won't do that for fear of undermining the pay-TV operators who provide the vast bulk of their revenue. Unfortunately for Epix, it doesn't have nearly as much to worry about on that front. It hasn't persuaded the country's largest cable and satellite operators to carry it.

Nevertheless, Epix is eschewing the growing market of cable-cutters. Evidently trying to build a groundswell of demand for its pay-TV channel, Epix is enabling nonsubscribers to use the apps to watch the service's "robust offering of movie trailers, interviews and short form video content." Now there's a unique consumer value proposition!

It's also promising "limited free trials" of long-form content for nonsubscribers. Maybe that will persuade more of the people who do have access to the pay-TV version of Epix to subscribe, and maybe that's the true low-hanging fruit. But how large is that number compared with those who don't have access to Epix's cable channel?

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Bamboom takes over-the-air TV over the top

Bamboom2 Bamboom Labs wants to help people cut their cable cords by putting local TV broadcasts online with all the digital trimmings -- that is, the ability to watch live or recorded shows in high definition on any device with a browser, anywhere a broadband connection is available. It's technologically ingenious, but I can't decide whether it's a service the market has been waiting for or a lawsuit waiting to happen. Or maybe it's a solution to a problem not many people are eager to solve.

The New York-based startup is the brainchild of Chaitanya "Chet" Kanojia, former chief executive of Navic Networks, whose technology in set-top boxes enabled cable and broadcast networks to measure audience demographics and match advertisements to them in real time. His time at Navic taught him that at any given moment, about half of pay TV viewers were tuned in to local broadcast channels. That observation led him to believe that if he could get live broadcast signals to people reliably, with the ability to time-shift shows and watch them on any device, and with the social features of the Internet, they'd be more willing to abandon cable and satellite TV.

Other companies have taken on parts of this challenge. For example, Sling Media makes set-top boxes that let people tune in remotely to the TV service they have at home. And Monsoon Multimedia makes set-tops that combine remote viewing with TiVo-like digital video recording. But those devices build off of the programming that pay TV delivers to homes. Kanojia wanted to let people watch local broadcasts  through the Net without the help of pay TV.

Here's where things get complicated.

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