Tablets: the New TV?

When I was growing up, television was a group activity. Sunday evenings, I’d get an early bath and put on my pajamas so that I could watch “The Ed Sullivan Showwith my family. Shows like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” seem to be keeping that group activity alive, but the it seems that more and more people are turning to television as an individual activity.

As evidence, I offer some new data from In-Stat. Their research indicates that half of all tablet owners are watching feature films and full-length television episodes on these portable devices. Furthermore, the company predicts that the number of “frequent mobile video users” will triple in the next five years.

On the other hand, it could be that it is just that the nature of the “group” part of the activity is changing. In-Stat reports that almost half of all smartphone and table users between the ages of 18 and 24 “frequently” use social media to share about what they’re watching. Perhaps we’re simply witnessing the transition to a global livingroom.

I’m old enough to think that it’s a little strange that Facebook status messages can replace live human interaction, but I’ve also seen enough social changes brought on by technology to realize that these developments are not necessarily good or bad, but can just be different from what we’re used to. I expect that we’re just seeing the beginning of some major social transitions, and I am curious to see how they turn out.

DISH on the Road

Satellite TV subscriptions are great, especially if you live out past where the sidewalks end, beyond the reach of cable services. But it’s not so great when you want to go somewhere else. You can’t exactly bring down your dish antenna and take it with you. At least you couldn’t until now. DISH Network is now offering their new Tailgater that lets you bring your great television content with you to the great outdoors.

Actually, portable satellite antennas are not new, but it is convenient to get one from the same company that provides the service. The Tailgater costs $350, and you’ll need a set top box to go with it; DISH Network’s ViP 211k single-tuner HD receiver will tack on another $150 to the price tag. The good news is that you can use your existing DISH Network account, or if you don’t have one, you can get month-to-month service so you don’t have to pay for the system when you’re not using it. The Tailgater can automatically find the available satellites for your location, and you don’t need to worry about aiming the device in the right direction. The system runs on standard 110 volt AC household electricity, but you can run it on a 12 volt DC current — such as from a car or boat — with an inverter or you can use a portable generator to drive it.

As the name implies, this setup could be the ideal entertainment addition to your tailgate party plans. With a big enough screen (or projector), you might even find that the view from the parking lot is so good that you never even bother going into the stadium to find your seats!

Bye-Bye Channel 51?

Last week, the FCC announced a procedural decision to freeze all pending applications for new low-power or full-power television broadcast stations on channel 51. The announcement also permits any of these pending applications to be modified within the next 60 days to request assignment to a lower channel.

Any discussion of television channels is complicated by the fact that each station broadcasts on a certain assigned channel, but that typically does not relate to the “channel” you tune to on your television. What we’re talking about here is the radio frequency (RF) channel, which assigns a block of the radio spectrum. Before the digital television transition, the RF channel and the tuner channel were the same; for digital transmissions, the tuner channel can be mapped to a different RF channel. Also as part of the digital transition, UHF channels 52 through 69 were taken out of service for television broadcasts and auctioned off to wireless services such as cell phones and wireless broadband.

Last spring, the licensees of the channel 52 blocks complained to the FCC that television broadcasts assigned to channel 51 were causing interference with their transmissions. Groups including the CTIA-The Wireless Association and the Rural Cellular Association (RCA) lobbied the FCC to shut down television transmissions on channel 51, and the federal agency agreed to look into the issue.

The current freezing of new applications for channel 51 is intended to stabilize the situation while the FCC studies the matter. The decision does not force any station to shut down or move to a different channel, though they can do so if they want. In fact, some wireless service companies actually paid television broadcasters to move from channels in the 52 to 69 range in advance of the digital transition, so that the wireless services could expand into those frequencies sooner. Apparently the FCC is open to similar financial incentives being offered to existing television broadcasters in this case as well.

This news does not presage the death of broadcast television, but it does illustrate how the game has been flipped upside down. Instead of being concerned with wireless transmissions interfering with television broadcasts, it would appear that the television broadcasts are taking a back seat to wireless interests. A strong case can be made that the wireless services may make better use of the radio spectrum — which is viewed as a public resource — than television, and it is likely that TV broadcasters will be under continued pressure to move to a shrinking pool of radio frequencies as time goes on.

Let’s Watch a Movie; Fire Up Facebook

Maybe it would be easier if I just listed all the websites that aren’t offering streaming movies these days. We can now add one more to the list of the ones that do: Facebook. Miramax has signed a deal to provide blockbuster titles for streaming onto computers, tables, or Google TV devices. You can now choose among 20 titles for a $3 rental, including “Chicago,” “Cold Mountain,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Good Will Hunting.”

This seems to barely putting a toe in the water. These are all films that presumably are already available online from Netflix or Hulu. Few viewers will find more than a couple must-see titles on the list, and chances are excellent that they will have already seen them anyway. (I’ve actually seen more than half of them already, and none are ones that I would rent to see again, probably.) I’m not clear on the point of this exercise; navigating multiple Facebook company pages to find movies does not seem like a particularly appealing prospect, but perhaps this is just the first baby step toward something bigger. I’ll be interested to see what develops.

Bad Economy? hhgregg Steams Full Speed Ahead

After opening ten new stores in Florida this summer, electronics retailer hhgregg is expanding into the Chicago market with 14 new stores. It was not so long ago that we saw the implosion of Circuit City and CompUSA, and the discounting 6th Ave Electronics beat a retreat from its efforts to expand into the Philadelphia market. So here is hhgregg, swimming against the tide with an expansion that will reportedly add 700 new jobs in the Chicago area.

The 14 store locations are slated to open on September 15, with plenty of goodies offered as part of the celebrations. Customers will be able to register for drawings for a Frigidaire Stainless Steel Appliance Package, a 55″ LG 3D TV, or a Magellan GPS. Not too shabby!

This is clearly a bold move for hhgregg, but with the sagging economy and a ready workforce, the price tag for the expansion may be lower than it will ever be. If the company can manage to attract shoppers this holiday season, we may seen even more expansion in the future.

NFL on PS3: It’s More than Just Madden

Okay, here’s how I see it. Online streaming content has been the poor step-child of the broadcast networks, movie studios, and other content distributors. All the good stuff goes to the cable and satellite services, and the crumbs fall to the online sites. But streaming is managing to post some impressive growth and revenue figures, and the content folks are beginning to tip to the fact that there may be some gold in them thar hills. So we’re seeing more and more experimental deals that are exploring the possibilities of letting online sources get movies and episodes sooner, or even get access to live programming.

So here’s news of a big experiment. We already know that PS3 users are watching tons of streaming content, including Netflix. So DirecTV and the NFL have joined to try something big; you can get the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket on your PS3, even if you aren’t a DirecTV subscriber. That’s access to up to 14 different out-of-market games each week, streamed live on your PS3.

Okay, now here comes the price, so brace yourself. If you are a DirecTV subscriber and already get the NFL Sunday Ticket package (either because you pay for it or got it free as a bonus), you can access the same content on your PS3 for just $50 more. I’m not entirely sure why you’d do that, unless you want to watch on some screen other than the one that is hooked up to DirecTV. The more intruiging deal is for those who are not DirecTV subscribers; it’s $340 for the season. With a 17 week season, that’s just $20 a week. (Or it’s OMG TWENTY FREAKIN’ DOLLARS A WEEK, depending on your point of view.) I know that I spend way more than $20 when I go to a sports bar in order to watch an out-of-market game. I’m guessing $20 probably wouldn’t even cover your parking at some football stadiums. And you don’t have to commit to paying for satellite service the rest of the year.

My guess is that they’ve priced this high because the revenue will be more or less gravy, and because they don’t want to have to deal with too many subscribers at first so that they can keep the scale down. But if it goes smoothly, and it appears that there are more subscribers waiting on teh sidelines for the price to come down, we’ll not only see this program expanded at a lower price, but it may blaze the trail for other sport and live programming events on streaming video.

So find four buddies who will bring a six-pack apiece each week, and you’ve got your costs covered. Are you ready for way too much football?

Optoma Shatters 3D Home Projector Price

Have I got a deal for you! How would you like a 55″ 1080p high definition display for $1,500? Not so exciting? Okay, let’s make it 70″; does that make it more interesting? I’ll sweeten the pot and throw in 3D capability and support for radio frequency (RF) active glasses, still for $1,500. Do I have your attention yet? Okay, how about if I increase the size to 100″?

The Optoma HD33 is a 1080p projector with 3D support that sells for less than $1,500.

No, this is no “fell-off-the-truck” special. You now can buy the new Optoma HD33 projector for under $1,500. The manufacturer says that you can use it with up to a 300″ diagonal screen, but I suspect that you’ll be happier keeping it closer to about 100″ in order to get a brighter image. (That’s still the size of four 50″ flat panel HDTVs.) The projector is rated at 1800 lumens, and comes with two HDMI connectors as well as connections for VGA and component video. This is a big drop in price; most equivalent projectors cost more than twice as much.

So if you’ve dreamed of converting that basement room into a home theater but don’t have the price of a new car to invest in the project, you may find that Optoma has brought the cost within reach. You’re closer than you might think to enjoying a big screen viewing experience in your own home.

Fox Limits New Episode Access

Are you a fan of a Fox Network series such as Family Guy, the Simpsons, or Fringe? Have you been using Hulu or to catch up on a recent episode that you missed? Well, Fox has delayed your access to new episodes until eight days after the original air date. If you try to watch a newer episode, you’ll be prompted to log in so that you can watch it. And here’s the first catch; you can’t log in unless you have a paid subscription with a satellite or cable TV provider. And here’s the second catch, the only service that currently has an agreement with Fox to provide access to the new episodes is Dish Network. Their subscribers can watch new episodes one day after their original air date.

This is an interesting tactic by Fox. For many reasons, content producers and distributors are scratching for new sources of revenue for their programming. It’s clear that consumers don’t want to pay any more; they’re already upset with the high price of cable and satellite subscriptions. So the network is going after the subscription services, and are trying to enlist angry consumers to pressure the services into giving the network more money.

Will it pay off? Time will tell, but I suspect that the subscription services won’t cave easily to the extortion. So many subscribers already have DVR service of one sort or another that they probably don’t need online access to last night’s episodes. And those who don’t have DVRs probably are won’t mind waiting the eight days until the episodes show up for free. As I read the situation, the most likely loser will be Fox which will anger consumers and gain little. It’s not a friendly move, and the subscribers are not likely to forget being treated as pawns.

Netflix Retools For Kids

According to an article published by GigaOM, Netflix appears to be testing a new user interface designed specifically for children. Not only is the listed content limited to kid-friendly titles, it also makes it easier for youngsters to navigate. A scroll bar at the top of the screen shows individual characters, including kid favorites such as Big Bird, Barney, and Dora. Click on the character, and you get a screen showing large stills from each available episode with a minumum amount of text. It makes for a point-and-click selection that can help children find their own programs quickly and easily.

As the GigaOM article points out, Netflix has put up split-run tests in the past, so you may find a different arrangement on your account. In any case, Netflix deserves credit for investing in a different interface for children, and for recognizing the need to give them a safe and friendly place to find their own programs.

TWC: #2 and Growing

The cable TV industry news has been full of gloom and doom over the loss of subscribers recently. Time Warner Cable (TWC) has found a way to boost its subscriber rolls quickly; the company is going to acquire Insight Communications which is a leading cable company in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In exchange for $3 billion in cash, TWC picks up nearly 700,000 video subscribers. It also gets about 550,oo0 broadband customers and almost 300,000 voice customers. The deal requires federal approval before it can be completed.

According to a company press release, TWC expects to save about $100 million a year “through programming expense savings and other cost reductions.” I interpret that as meaning that they expect to pay less for their content licenses than TWC and Insight combined do now, which means that the savings will come out of the pocket of the Hollywood content producers. And that’s only going to put added pressure on finding other sources of revenue for video entertainment content. I expect that this means that Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming services will be paying even more for their content in the future. And under the heading of “other cost reductions,” I expect that we’ll see some people lose their jobs as the two companies will be able to be run more efficiently as one.

The bottom line is that this still won’t be enough to move TWC ahead of Comcast on the subscriber list, and that it will mean that we’re in for even tougher negotiations on issues of content licensing and rebroadcasting as the different parts of the industry continue to consolidate. Hold onto your hats — and wallets — as this ride could get even bumpier.