Friday, 24 October 2014

House of Shards

If you will forgive the mixing of media metaphors, it seems that House HBO is preparing to enter a full scale war for the Kings Landing living room with House Netflix, while in the meantime casually pulling the rug out from House Amazon Prime ahead of a probable beheading. George RR Martin might not be writing the script for corporate entertainment America, but there’s still blood on the walls and you never know quite who’s going to end up on the losing side.

So, finally finally, HBO has announced that it will offer a standalone OTT service for customers who don’t have cable subscriptions, immediately prompting a flurry of articles and posts about cord-cutting and even reposts of the Death of Traditional Broadcasting zombie feature that refuses to die.

So, who are the winners and the losers in all this? Frankly, apart from one notable loser it’s too early to tell: the US resembles Westeros at the end of the second book in Martin’s series. HBO is entering the market at a premium price (a rumoured $15 per month, $6 above Netflix’ most popular subscription tier) but then so are a lot of other people at the moment. Dish, Sony and Verizon are all imminently entering the OTT market featuring content libraries from the likes of Viacom and Disney; ESPN has signed a nine-year licensing deal with the NBA to launch a dedicated online service for live basketball; and CBS has cracked open its vaults and current offerings in a fairly limited fashion and launched CBS All Access.

Amidst all that, you have to consider that Netflix is growing faster outside the US than inside (estimates being that two thirds of its expanding base in the last quarter were outside the contiguous states — sometimes well outside). And that consistent research shows that viewers are happy to run two services: a base level ‘traditional’ broadcast service which they then top up with OTT content as and when.

Whether HBO’s mooted premium pricing model will fit into that emergent behaviour or break some invisible ceiling is an unknown, but if anyone has the depth and quality to attract the consumer to such a deal it will be them. Which is where Amazon Prime Video is looking on increasingly unstable ground.

Much was made of a deal struck for the HBO back catalogue on the still-nascent service a few months ago and, while theoretically it still has years to run, the likelihood of their long term viability on the platform now has to be questioned. And Amazon, for all its clout, is finding the OTT space a difficult one to compete in, boasting an estimated 20m customers in the US as opposed to Netflix’ verified 50m.

In the US financial press the knives are already out. Already thoroughly unimpressed by the Fire Phone and its impact on profits, one survey has suggested that only around 13% of Prime subscribers are in it for the video and sentiments such as “AMZN stock investors should be pushing the corporation to kill the service ASAP” are starting to poke their heads above the parapets.

Can a beheading be far behind? As always, it’s best not to get too attached to the individual characters: you never know what fate might befall them.

Monday, 13 October 2014

BSkyB searches for Pluto

The Pluto UI in Minecraft action

BSkyB has managed to establish itself a fairly enviable reputation as a trend-spotter over recent years and, while this doesn’t always work out in its favour (stereo 3D for instance) it is prepared to invest to bring new technology to the market and onboard.

Its latest investment is $500,000 pushed towards LA-based online video aggregator Pluto.TV. Pluto.TV is an online television platform that aggregates video content from across the web (YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, Funny or Die and more it says) and programs it into themed and curated TV channels.

It’s an eclectic mix. Out of the 100+ current free channels you’ll find plenty that wouldn’t find any room in a conventional broadcaster’s EPG — Channel 114 is currently dedicated to playing Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ 24 hours a day, while 707 World of Minecraft does exactly what it says on the tin — but that is, you suspect, the whole point. A recent upgrade has included the ability to save programmes to a list of favourites for time-shifting.

While freely available everywhere through a browser, the app and connected TV functionality (so far Fire TV, Chromecast, and Apple TV via Airplay and an iOS device) is currently limited to North America. But it is something that you could easily see folded into a mainstream EPG — especially when Sky rolls out its Project Ethan STB — and it certainly has the potential to crack the insidious and ongoing problems with Connected TV UIs. Much will depend on how good the curation is and whether it can surpass the ‘watch this’ algorithms all the big video players already deploy.

Other investments made by Sky this year include $750k in Californian VR start-up Jaunt and a whopping £5m in US advertising technology firm Sharethrough, while streaming specialist Roku, and digital distributor 1 Mainstream benefitted from its investment largesse in 2013.

Sharethrough is billed as a world leader in native advertising (which, if you haven’t stumbled across it yet, enables publishers to monetise their sites and apps with adverts that are non-interruptive and stylistically similar to the surrounding content) and Sky has been using it on Expect to see much more of that onscreen as Sky’s advertising sales house Sky Media will offer its clients access to Sharethrough as well as utilising it itself.

And expect to see much more of all of this sort of thing too. Earlier this year, Sky opened up a dedicated office in San Francisco - an investment SkunkWorks if you will - to help it continue to forge new partnerships with tech startups. It will be fascinating to see how much of what it invests in is purely speculative and how much leads to actual onscreen innovation. Compared to the BBC R&D budget (the Corporation’s failed DMI project alone cost £98.4m) the amounts are relatively small but, like Pluto, it will all depend on how good the custodians of the conduits are.