Xbox Boosts On-Demand in the UK

Earlier in the week, Microsoft gave the Xbox a big push in the race for HDMI 1 with Steve Ballmer announcing Xbox TV and partnerships with over 40 content providers. Jeffrey Powers has already covered the main announcement on GNC but I wanted to add a little bit of UK spin.

In the UK, additional programming boxes such as the Roku, Boxee or Apple TV are very rare. Most of my friends would enjoy their gadgets and technology but I don’t know a single one of them who has an extra box. However, many of them would have a games console and there’s a fairly even spread of Xboxes, Playstations and Wiis. Consequently it’s no surprise that the race to provide on-demand content is taking place on the consoles.

Most people in the UK are using the availability of on-line TV to catch up with programmes they missed when they were originally broadcast. What typically happens is that you go into work and some says, “Did you see…..last night? It was brilliant” and you watch the programme through the various free on-line services. The BBC’s iPlayer is very popular.

Reviewing Microsoft’s press release, here are the organisations that will provide on-demand content available in the UK on the Xbox. I’ve ignored the standard social networking sites, such as Facebook and YouTube, but have added the organisation’s background so that non-UK residents can get a feel for what’s happening.

  • BBC – Terrestrial broadcaster
  • Channel 4 – Terrestrial broadcaster
  • Channel 5 – Terrestrial broadcaster
  • BSkyB – Satellite broadcaster (requires monthly subscription)
  • LOVEFiLM – On-line film rental
  • blinkbox – On-line film rental
  • Crackle – Free on-line films
  • Screenrush – Film trailers
  • Muzu.TV – Music videos
  • VEVO – Music videos
In terms of the numbers, the traditional terrestrial and satellite broadcasters have the greatest presence and there’s only one major UK broadcaster missing from the list, ITV, which is a conglomeration of regional broadcast companies.
LOVEFiLM is owned by Amazon, Crackle is a Sony property and blinkbox is 80% owned by Tesco, one of the UK’s leading supermarkets.
The challenge will be to get consumers to pay for the on-line film rentals. Here in the UK, there is lots of good free programming which was originally broadcast but is now on-line through the broadcaster’s portals via tools similar to iPlayer. It will be interesting to see how the paid-for market develops and if the games consoles are key to the transition. It’s certainly where the media companies need to be for the UK market.

Where Is Hulu Heading?

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Hulu lately, and I am trying to figure it all out.  There’s Hulu Plus, rumors of an IPO, content questions…the list goes on.  So, what do we make of it all?

Let’s start with Hulu Plus.  For those not familiar, Hulu Plus  is the recently announced, and released, paid version of Hulu.  You can get full details on what’s available in Plus here.  In a nutshell, though, you get every episode from the current season of all shows on ABC, NBC, and FOX, plus all episodes from past seasons of many of the shows.  This comes with a price tag of $9.99 per month.  That’s not a bad price – a whole lot cheaper than any cable or satellite subscription.  There’s no trial though.  You have to pay right from day one, which has been a big drawback for many consumers.

There have also been recent rumors of a Hulu IPO [initial public (stock) offering].  I would have to say it’s a fairly credible rumor based on it coming from the Wall Street Journal.  Based on that story, Hulu may be worth as much as $2 billion on the market and they are looking to use money raised from stock to land contracts from other content providers.  With only three networks on board there is plenty of room for expansion.

That segues nicely into the last question – content.  Obviously an IPO would allow them to have the funds to really negotiate some big time deals – think CBS, HBO or maybe even Disney.  But if that doesn’t pan out, then how do they build relationships to gain more content?

So, we have looked at the three aspects of what Hulu is doing and/or trying to do right now.  Where does that take them?

First, let’s look at Plus.  It’s a good offering.  After all, everyone’s chief complaint had always been the shifting content.  Any given show you wanted had only certain episodes available and those seemed to change regularly.  So this is a solid win for them.  But, what about subscriber numbers?  That seems to be kept secret from every source I checked.  Everyone talked up Plus when it was announced, but how many actually signed up?  Or, maybe more telling, how many signed up expecting a trial only to find that they had to pay from day one?  We need numbers, combined with ad revenue (which is different from every source), to determine how they are really faring.

Second, the IPO (or rumored IPO).  If it’s true, and if the valuation ($2 billion) is in the right ballpark then that solves a big content issue.  More content available, even if it’s only in Plus (and I would assume most would be) means more users.  That much money, or even close to that much, would allow for negotiations for big content providers.  Every major provider added, such as an HBO, would add huge amounts of value to Hulu and their revenue.

And third, the content question.  This one pretty much hinges on number two.  If the IPO happens, and goes as laid out in the WSJ, then this is moot.  But, if not, then where does Hulu turn to add subscribers?  They have a decent stream of revenue from ads, plus whatever they are getting from Plus subscribers, so there is some money to work with.  In this case they will need to work with smaller networks to get content.

So, let me come to a conclusion, such as it is, here.  We know nothing about the Plus subscribers and, therefore, nothing of the revenue from the program.  The IPO is a rumor, although fairly well based.  If it happens then Hulu has the money to go after the big fish,  But that doesn’t mean they will land any of them.  I think Disney is out of the question for now.  I think CBS and HBO are possible.  If they don’t do the IPO then they go after smaller content providers.  I would think Comedy Central would be on top of the list.  Having The Daily Show would really be a feather in the cap.  But, it can’t go in Plus, because it’s already free on Comedy Central’s web site.  Showtime might also be possible, and they have some sought-after original content.  Then all of the others – Discovery, History, WB, USA, etc.

It seems that they can make it without the IPO and without making a lot off of Plus (if they get something like The Daily Show in their regular feed).  So, they are viable for the foreseeable future.  But, I think, as they stand now, they are not in the best place.  They will definitely need revenue to add either one or two big providers or several smaller ones.  And, depending on who they add, will make the difference of if the content goes to Plus or not.  But some, no matter how much it hurts them, will have to go to the regular, free feed.  After all, that’s what brings the initial views.

Back With DirecTV…For Now

I canceled, well, actually, “suspended” my DirecTV account after the season finales of Lost and 24.  But, as many of you know, from my previous post about the NFL and Sunday Ticket, I was hoping to stay gone permanently.

I have had no problem watching the few shows that I actually do watch online.  And, with a media center PC sitting in my entertainment rack pumping HDMI video to my TV and SPDIF audio to my 5.1 receiver, the experience has been indistinguishable from DirecTV.  In July, I paid $29.95 to Versus Online and had full coverage of every stage of the Tour de France.  That is the only money I have shelled out for TV since May.

As I said in that previous post, though, the NFL will once again not be showing any games online (other than preseason).  Worse, it seems that this won’t change anytime soon either.

Per Wikipedia: Currently, American satellite provider DIRECTV has exclusive rights to NFL Sunday Ticket in the United States until the contract expires at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Well, the other night I received a call from a friendly DirecTV rep who wanted me to turn my service back on and was willing to make a deal if I would agree.  I inquired about a deal on Sunday Ticket, but he couldn’t offer any more than the standard deal that anyone can get.  Probably I could have held out, asked for more or declined and waited for the next call.  After all, football season is still a month away.  They offered me $5 off per month for the next 6 months.  In 6 months football season will be ending.  For $29.95 I took the family package and I will pay only $24.95.  They also threw in three months free of Showtime, which I doubt I will use.  Of course, in reality I will pay more than $24.95.  There’s the $5 charge for HD service and the $5 charge for DVR service, but I am still paying $5 less than I was last Spring, so it’s not too bad of a deal.

When football ends I will be “suspending” the account again and maybe next football season I will get an even better offer.

Watching le Tour Online – Followup

Okay, it’s been three days of watching the Tour de France online and my experience has been less than perfect.  The audio has been fine, but the video has been, mostly, bad.  The Prologue,  on Saturday, froze continuously while we tried to watch the On-Demand version.  Yesterday’s Stage 1 was pretty close to prefect.  Today’s Stage 2 was great until around 50km to go when the video began freezing – and I mean CONTINUOUSLY freezing – as in, I had to refresh the page to get the video started again and then it would freeze again within a minute or two.

I was on the verge of calling, or emailing, Versus to cancel and ask (or demand) for a refund.

But, I will give them props for beating me to the punch and sending out an email today answering what must have been a landslide of feedback about these issues.  They even got rid of the Autobahn plug-in that they had been using, and which may very well have been the source of these issues.

Below is posted the email I received from Versus today.

Dear Tour Tracker user,

First of all apologies for the problems over the last few days with the Tour Tracker service. We know that many of you have experienced problems and have contacted us through our support email or posted your feedback online. We’ve responded to many of you, but while we’ve worked on fixing these problems we know many of you have not yet received a response.

Due to the problems with the Autobahn plugin, after today’s stage we removed the video player and replaced it with one that does not require Autobahn. Initial reaction is that this has fixed the streaming problems. This was also why the On Demand video of todays stage was delayed.

Another issue (particularly for the prologue) has been the start time of the coverage. We start the coverage when the International TV broadcast starts, some days this includes the start, some days it does not – it depends on when the host broadcaster in France decides to start the broadcast. The feed goes up on the Tracker at the same time as anyone in the world gets a TV feed.

The daily schedule of broadcast times is now published on the FAQ page: http://tracker.versus.com/faq

The other issue that many of you have commented on is the audio feed and the lack of background noise. We’re frustrated with this as well. We’re working hard on a resolution to this with the host broadcaster in France to correct the problem.

We’re cycling fans too and understand that the problems over the past few days have been extremely frustrating, we appreciate your understanding and hope you will enjoy the rest of the tour without any further streaming problems with the service.

Regards,
The Tour Tracker Team.

Watching le Tour Online

While the world is buzzing about the Soccer World Cup and the vuvuzela, I will be following the OTHER big European sport – cycling.  Being a cycling fan in America isn’t easy.  While the big races are covered live on all of the big Euro TV networks, America has only sporadic coverage on Versus and Universal Sports.

Now, since I turned off the satellite for the summer because Lost ended, 24 ended, and football hasn’t started, I have had to scramble to watch bike races.  Video recaps are surprisingly not too hard to find online.  But now the granddaddy of all bike races is set to start this Saturday.  That is, of course, the Tour de France.  And, I want my full coverage – every stage, in it’s entirety.

The Tour has been covered daily in the US in recent years by the Versus Network, and they have done a great job.  But, no satellite, no Versus.  Enter the new beta version of their web site.  For $29.95 I can get full coverage of every stage in it’s entirety, both live and, thankfully, since stages start around 7-8am my time, on-demand.  It is being broadcast in “full” HD, even real-time GPS tracking of the riders!  It’s a geek/cycling fan’s dream-come-true!

In the past I have watched some video recaps and extras on the Versus website and the quality has been good.  So, I have high hopes for this.  I am plunking down my $29.95 and I will let everyone know what I think after the race actually gets started this weekend.  It should be an epic race this year so the coverage better also be epic!

Now, if I could just avoid all of those Twitter spoilers until I get home from work and actually watch that day’s stage….