Samsung has announced the Galaxy Beam, a new Android smartphone with a difference. In addition to all the features you’d expect to find in a computerized phone for your pocket, it has one additional attraction. The phone includes a 15 lumen projector, built right in.
No, this isn’t a high-definition display, but the way things are progressing it may not take long to reach that. It’s only standard definition (not even widescreen), but the phone is still just half an inch thick. And the 15 lumen output would have been impressive for a pocket projector just a few years ago, yet here it is integrated into a smartphone handset. This is not bright enough to fill a wall with the lights on, but in controlled lighting, it’s enough to let a handful of people watch photos or videos instead of crowding around the phone’s tiny display panel.
Projectors in phones have not yet become a compelling feature for consumers; Jack Segal of Pacific Media Associates points out that in spite of Samsung’s pioneering efforts, the company’s projector phones have acheived “only moderate sales.” As the demand for mobile video grows, however, I expect that this feature could take hold before long. And Samsung has a head start on the pack in terms of technology.
The writing on the wall of every pay-TV headquarters is “Evolve now or die!” Some companies appear to reading this with more clarity than others, and there also seems to be a difference of opinion on what the term “Now!” means.
The latest move in this attempt to switch from gills to breathing air comes from the largest cable company in the country. Last week, Comcast announced its new Streampix service that is available to some customers in some areas. The service will be bundled with some subscriptions, and will be available as a $5 per month add-on for others.
What do you get? From the press release: “Streampix is launching with top-notch programming and will significantly increase the breadth of entertainment choices for Xfinity customers in the coming months to include complete seasons of TV series, popular children’s franchises and hit movies available to instantly stream across multiple platforms.” Sounds like it’s going toe-to-toe with Netflix and Hulu Plus, but at a lower cost.
Well, maybe. The content is somewhat less than compelling. The announcement features older movies including “Stuart Little” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. These are perfectly fine movies, but they’re not in any danger of dipping into Comcast’s video-on-demand revenues. And the “past full seasons” goes back to “Heros” and “Married with Children”. (Isn’t Christina Applegate on her third sitcom since then?) And you have to be a Comcast subscriber in order to get the service in the first place.
It’s a baby step in the right direction, I suppose, but Comcast is going to have to do a lot better in a big hurry if it is going to challenge those companies that have already established a beachhead in streaming video. This will do as an initial experiment, but not for long.
Are you a Dead Head? Or perhaps a fan of Scott and Bryan Devendorf of the National? What would you say to the opportunity to attend a concert featuring the Devendorfs and Bob Weir of the Greatful Dead? They will be performing at a one-time-only event called the “Bridge Sessions” on Saturday, March 24, which is a fund-raiser for HeadCount.org. The bad news is that it will be held at Weir’s own TRI Studios so seating will be limited to just 50 people. And the worse news is that tickets are only available with a $1,000 donation to HeadCount.
But don’t give up yet; there is good news. The event will be broadcast live, streamed over the Internet. And you can watch it for free. That’s right: free. Nada. Zilch. How cool is that?
This should come as no surprise, given the Greatful Dead’s bellewether views on controling access to their performance art. Not only did the band not prohibit recording of their epic concerts over the decades that they toured worldwide, they even provide access to the soundboard mix for anyone who wanted to jack in. And then they encouraged people to share their recordings. Did this practice hurt their record sales? Probably not; they seemed to do just fine financially.
And so the same mindset seems to be at work here with this concert. Can’t make it? No problem; those who can will fund it, and there’s no need to get greedy about the rest. And you know that this will generate tremendous goodwill for fans of both the Dead and the National.
This is the kind of thinking that is made possible with video streaming over the Internet. 20 years ago, what would it have cost a band to call up NBC and say “We want to take over your network in prime time for an hour or two so that we can perform a free concert”? It could not have happened without a lot more money. But now we can have a group of people produce a live event and make it available worldwide if they want at just a fraction of the cost.
The world of video entertainment is changing rapidly, and “Bridge Sessions” just demonstrates what can be done with a little imagination and initiative. And I think it’s a Good Thing.
Times have been tough for Sears Holdings, the company that owns Sears and Kmart retail stores. In the fourth quarter of 2011, which is the season that retailers hope to post most of their profits for the year, Sears reported a loss of $2.4 billion. As a result, the company is looking to raise money by shedding some of its assets. According to the company’s announcement, it plans to sell an additional 11 stores in 2012. In addition, it will spin off the Hometown and Outlet stores. The company also plans to reduce inventory and implement other cost-savings measures.
This is not good news for the company and its shareholders, but it could mean that you’ll want to keep a close eye on sales at your local Sears stores. It’s possible that they may have to move some of there electronics inventory at aggressive discounts in order to raise some cash, and you might be able to snag some attractive bargains.
One step forward, maybe two steps back.
One major retransmission dispute is now resolved. After nearly two months, the Madison Square Garden (MSG) channels have been turned back on for Time Warner Cable (TWC) customers. This did not happen until the New York governor and state attorney general weighed in to put public pressure on both parties to settle. One reason that make the negotiations particularly sticky is that MSG is controlled by the family of the CEO of Cablevision, which is TWC’s major competitor.
So now we can look to Rhode Island and Pensacola, Florida, where LIN TV is threatening to pull the plug on its stations from Cox in those markets unless they can come to terms. What makes this dispute particularly interesting is that LIN TV has two franchises in each of those markets. They own a Fox and a CBS affiliate in Rhode Island, and a Fox and a CW affiliate in Pensacola. Relaxed FCC rules made it possible for a company to own more than one station in a market, which gives LIN TV increased leverage in its negotiations. According to an article in FierceCable, LIN TV has seen a severe drop in ad revenues, and so appears to be turning to retransmission fees as its main source of income.
The pay-TV services are not bottomless buckets of money, as many of their subscribers are all too happy to tell you. Milking these services (and their subscribers) for ever-larger retransmission fees is a dangerous game that is likely to hasten the inevitable review of the FCC’s rules, and who knows what changes that might bring.
Nearly a year ago, Samsung and HBO announced a partnership that would let consumers stream HBO content to Samsung TVs. You would have to be an HBO subscriber to access the service, which meant that you had to be signed up with a pay-TV service.
Since then, you could get this HBO Go content on your computer, iPad, iPhone, Android smart phone, or even a Roku box. But not a Samsung TV. Until now.
Samsung has just announced that the service is available on certain models of their Smart TVs, with one additional restriction; not all pay-TV services are eligible. While Verizon FiOS, Charter, Cox, DISH Network, and DirecTV are supported on the Samsung screens, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are among the most conspicuously absent (though they do support the smart phone and iPad apps).
I continue to find it fascinating that the content providers such as HBO are being so timid about opening up streaming access to their content. The HBO Go service is free, but available only to HBO subscribers, perhaps so that HBO doesn’t anger the pay-TV services that provide the bulk of its revenues. On the other hand, this may simply be the company’s way of limiting demand for the streaming service, giving them time to test it out before rolling out in a big way.
It might well be that HBO is planning a streaming-only offering down the line with it’s own monthly fee. The same pay-TV service that currently gets subscriber dollars for the HBO channels would almost certainly be the same company that provides the broadband connection used to access the streaming service, so while this could mean less money for the pay-TV service, it’s not as though HBO would be cutting them off completely with the new service. There is no doubt that the cable, satellite, and telco services are going to have to be nimble and responsive over the next few years if they are going to survive the rapidly-changing video entertainment landscape.
There are almost 40 million Wii video game consoles installed in U.S. households. And now a partnership between Nintendo and Hulu has brought Hulu Plus to the Wii. For $7.99 a month, viewers can add the service that provides access to many television shows and movies, and unlike the free Hulu service (which apparently still is not available on the Wii), you are not limited to the last five episodes of many current shows.
This offers a low-cost way for viewers to experiment with making their current television a “Smart TV” and access streaming video content from the Internet. You’ll need a broadband connection, but the vast majority of American households already have this either through cable or telco service, so this should not be a limitation for most people. If the offerings on Hulu Plus are not enough, you access use your Netflix streaming subscription on the Wii as well.
What do people really watch when they watch the SuperBowl? Thanks to the new world of connected entertainment systems, TiVo has a very good idea. By monitoring an anonymous sample of 41,666 households equipped with TiVo DVRs, the company can compile a map of “live and same-day” viewing of content that was watched at “play” speed on the systems. And guess what? People really do like the SuperBowl commercials.
According to the TiVo results, the Dorito’s “Man’s Best Friend” showed the greatest increase compared with the viewing numbers for the adjacent 15 minutes. Even this was well below the numbers for Madonna’s halftime show, and the highest viewership number for the entire program was the desperation “hail mary” pass that ended the game.
The big take-away from this, however, is not about the SuperBowl. It simply demonstrates how granular our data can be now about who watches what. These “temperature” graphs showing what viewers find most interesting is going to help content producers attract sponsors both for in-line commercials and for embedded product placements in the content itself. This data is likely to become the foundation for new funding models that will make it possible to reach specific markets more effectively, which means that individual sponsors can spend more per viewer in a smaller audience, because they will know what that audience is watching and what holds their interest.
For me, the main point is that the future does not belong to the companies that can deliver the stars and blockbuster content. Instead, the winners will be those best equipped to handle Big Data and be able to match viewers with content and sponsors in a tightly-integrated system. The world of video entertainment is indeed changing.
I’ve already written a bunch about the problems with retransmission fees and how pay-television subscribers get caught in the squeeze between their services and the content providers. Many people don’t realize that there is a fascinating flip-side to this problem, which is known as “must carry”. It works like this.
Every three years, local television broadcasters have to make a choice. They can either make their content available to local pay-TV services (cable, satellite, and telco) in return for a retransmission fee, or they can choose to forego the fee and just require the pay-TV service to carry their signal on the subscriber system. It’s a tricky proposition. If you’re sure that consumers will want your programming (note that the pay-TV service is not allowed to go to some adjacent market to replace yours if it’s from the same network), then you go for the gold. If you’re not sure that anyone would miss it if your programming gets left off, then you may want to invoke the “must carry” rule so that you can reach a bigger audience and get more money from your advertisers.
This whole system got more complicated with the digital transition. Cable companies started as community antennas, distributing the over-the-air signals through cables on the ground so that all homes in the area could get good reception. Originally, all cable systems were analog, and they just pumped the signals from the antennas through the wires. Then they got premium channels which they encrypted, which led to set top boxes to decrypt them. And then we got digital systems that offer improved image quality (and more secure encryption). The digital systems also made it possible to deliver high-definition images.
So now we have digital transmissions from almost all television broadcasters, but many cable companies still maintain analog distribution networks. This means that the digital signals have to be converted back to analog in order to be sent to analog subscribers. Cable companies would like to convert over to all-digital systems, but this requires capital investment and converter boxes for any subscribers who still don’t have a television set with a digital tuner.
Cable companies would like to free up some of their capacity by dropping local stations that don’t have much of an audience. Smaller broadcasters want to keep the “must carry” rule so that they don’t lose a major part of their audience (since so few people rely on over-the-air signals these days).
This issue has come to a head because cable services were given a three-year waiver from the requirement to not degrade the rebroadcast signal. This was required because the standard definition analog systems cannot display the high definition content of some digital broadcasts without scaling it down significantly. That waiver expires in June, and the FCC needs to decide whether or not to renew it. If it does not renew the waiver, then local cable companies may be forced to switch to digital networks unless the FCC makes other changes to the “must carry” rule as well. In preparation for these deliberations, the FCC has called for comments on the issue.
Would you pay for a service that lets you watch over-the-air broadcasts on your tablet or smartphone? That’s what a company called Aereo (formerly known as “Bamboom“) plans to launch just such a service for New York City residents starting next month.
The company is building a system of thousands of tiny television antennas; each one is the size of a dime. These capture free broadcast television signals over the air, which are then encoded and made available as streaming data sent over the Internet. These arrays are positioned so that they get excellent reception, which is not a trivial matter in the concrete canyons of New York. Each subscriber is assigned a specific antenna, so all the service is doing is providing a feed from the antenna that you rent. The intent is that the service is not acting as a shared antenna like a cable company, which would be subject to retransmission fees. Instead, each subscriber gets their own dedicated antenna. The company also has massive amounts of data storage, so that they can offer DVR service as well; this means that subscribers can record the shows that they want to watch, and then view them later.
All the control and viewing is done over the Internet, and you can get HD quality programming. The service is starting with 20 channels. The system can also be accessed using a personal computer, an Apple TV, or a Roku network media player. The system comes with a 30-day free trial and a $12 per month membership fee. You must be a New York City resident to sign up.
If this system works, it could present an attractive and low-cost alternative to basic cable or satellite services in the Big Apple. And if it can make it there, it could probably make it anywhere (as the song goes), especially in other major urban markets.