Scan comScore's monthly rankings of top video properties and one of the interesting things you'll notice is that aside from maybe one or two TV networks' sites, those with the heaviest traffic (e.g. YouTube, Yahoo, AOL, VEVO, Facebook, etc.) specialize in short-form content.
What this means is that unlike traditional TV - which features 30 and 60 minute programs (if not longer) - in online video many viewers' experiences consist of cobbling together numerous shorter clips, requiring them to repeatedly make a choice of what to watch next. The reality is that in online video there is little actual "programming" or "scheduling" that happens - where human beings actually create and curate a flow of programs designed to keep the viewer in place for longer (and more monetizable) periods of time.
Recognizing this deficiency - and the proliferation of Internet-connected TVs - a new service launching today called Portico, from startup Net2TV, aims to package, or cluster by genre as "mosaics," certain online videos, to create a more TV-like experience for viewers. Portico's service, which is available initially on Philips SmartTVs in the U.S. presents mosaics featuring either a specific content provider, or multiple providers. In the former example, CBS Interactive's CHOW.com has its own mosaic, whereas the "Portico Tech" mosaic includes content from Discovery's Revision 3 and Bonnier's Popular Science.
If you've ever used video-on-demand from your pay-TV operator, you no doubt agree that trying to find and then navigate to what you'd like to watch feels like a Soviet-era experience. The problem is the set-top box's processing limitations have hamstrung pay-TV operators from delivering a more web-like VOD experience.
The company looking to change all that is ActiveVideo Networks, and yesterday it got a big boost as Comcast, the largest pay-TV operator in the U.S., licensed ActiveVideo's CloudTV H5 platform for a trial in its Chattanooga, TN market. If the trial goes well and Comcast rolls CloudTV H5 out nationally, the VOD experience is going to dramatically improve for millions of viewers, in turn making it more competitive with web-based OTT VOD providers.
Amid all of the attention Netflix has been receiving for embedding its streaming software in one consumer electronics device after another (the Wii just yesterday) and its recent Warner Bros. deal, it's been easy to overlook the fact that Blockbuster has been getting some online traction itself. One announcement at CES last week, by ActiveVideo Networks, caught my attention as it has the potential to leapfrog Blockbuster On Demand's user experience past Netflix's Watch Instantly.
Much as I'm a big fan of Netflix's Watch Instantly streaming feature, one of its limitations is that the user experience is very segregated between computer and TV. You browse and search online for titles - just as you would for DVDs - and then when you've made your choices, they show up in your Instant Queue online and on your connected TV (via Roku, Blu-ray, Xbox or other device). While it's a perfectly functional approach, wouldn't it be nice if you could do the entire process of search, discovery, previewing, selection and viewing on the TV itself?
The requirements are that ActiveVideo's thin client has been integrated with the device, and that Blockbuster has its own deal with to distribute through the specific device manufacturer. Navigation is via the remote control using an on-screen keypad (see example screen shots below from last week's CES demos).
Similarly, ActiveVideo is also focused both on CE (currently through a partnership with middleware provider Videon Central) and on cable. It has deployed on set-top boxes with Cablevision and Oceanic Time Warner Cable in Hawaii, reaching an audience of 5 million homes. Content providers that have developed apps include Showtime, HSN and Fox, among others. No doubt ActiveVideo and Blockbuster will synch up their biz dev activities to proliferate the Blockbuster on Demand app as widely as possible.
I have to admit that I haven't been paying too much attention to Blockbuster, as it has worked to re-position itself, aiming to close another 1,000 stores by the end of the year and installing more kiosks to compete with Redbox. Of course, it can ill afford to allow Netflix to get too far out in front of it in digital delivery as DVD rentals are poised to be supplanted by streaming down the road.
But Blockbuster has an ubiquitous, if somewhat dated, brand that could be skillfully leveraged into the digital era, provided it has the right services in its arsenal. In this respect, the potential to bring a converged user experience between online and connected TVs is a meaningful differentiator. No initial joint customers have yet been announced by Blockbuster and ActiveVideo, though I expect that soon. And, as online video and TV continue to converge, ActiveVideo is likely to find itself in the middle of a lot of action. All of this is worth keeping an eye on.
Update: Looks like I'm 1 step behind on Netflix's Xbox implementation. Apparently in Aug '09 it was updated to allow full browsing and search for the Watch Instantly catalog. I'm used to the Roku and Blu-ray experiences. Hat tip to Brian Fitzgerald for bringing to my attention.
(Note - ActiveVideo Networks is a VideoNuze sponsor)
Another building block for delivering video applications to the home through broadband connections is being announced this morning by ActiveVideo Networks and Videon Central. The companies are unveiling a partnership in which AVN's client software will be embedded in Videon's middleware stack used in millions of CE devices. I talked to AVN's SVP of Marketing Edgar Villalpando and Videon's VP of Business Development Michael Daulerio last week to learn more.
For those not familiar with AVN, it is a cloud-based provider of interactive video applications, with customers like Showtime, Fox Reality, HSN and others. AVN initially focused on delivering apps to service providers' set-top boxes, but has also expanded into the Internet-connected CE space. Videon provides middleware to semiconductor and CE manufacturers, driving user interface and navigation in various devices. As an example, its middleware can be found in over 2M Blu-ray players from Samsung, LG, Insignia and others.
As Edgar and Michael explained, the goal of the partnership is to enable content providers and others to deliver up-to-date video apps to the growing universe of connected-CE homes. In some ways this is comparable to what Intel and Yahoo are doing with the Widget Channel and other industry initiatives.
To understand how this works, think of a consumer who rents The Dark Knight Blu-ray disc. The disc itself has additional content like Director's cuts, etc. The problem is that the disc's content is fixed, whereas there's always new Dark Knight-related content being produced (e.g. branded entertainment, product-tie ins, games, user-generated content, etc.). Simply using a bumper to promote the Dark Knight's URL on the disc is a start, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of specific promotion. Given the amount of money now involved in ancillary revenue streams, Warner Bros, the Dark Knight's distributor, is highly motivated to drive stronger engagement.
There is much speculation about how convergence between broadband and TVs is going to unfold. A big sticking point is how the convergence device gets into the home and who pays for it - consumer, content provider or both. From my perspective, building blocks like AVN-Videon are important because they open up new revenue opportunities for content providers and others to help offset the cost of the device. I expect these kinds of initiatives throughout the ecosystem will only accelerate, bringing the convergence era ever closer.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Remember "two great tastes that taste great together," the slogan from the classic Reese's ads featuring the mixing of peanut butter and chocolate? Recent developments suggest that independently produced/made-for-broadband video and Video-on-Demand could be another Reese's-like combination, bringing together two disparate worlds that have attracted loyal audiences in an offering that could have significant consumer appeal.
Consider, last week Multichannel News reported that Verizon plans to bring over 7 million broadband video clips from providers like blip.tv, Veoh and Dailymotion to its FiOS service, which users can browse with their set-top boxes. Also last week, AnySource Media, a software company that powers broadband-connected TVs, announced content deals with TheStreet.com, Break.com, Revision3 and Next New Networks, creating hundreds of "virtual VOD channels." And yesterday, Clearleap, a startup technology platform I recently profiled, announced its own deals with blip.tv, Revision3 and Next New Networks, providing content that cable operators can meld with their VOD offerings.
This push among made-for-broadband producers, technology companies and incumbent video service providers is not coincidental. While they each have their own motivations, their alignment could signal a winning proposition for viewers.
For the indie content producers, on-demand access on TVs augments their viewing experience and access to their programming. Given how difficult the environment has become for independents (Daisy had a good piece on this topic yesterday) on-demand access is a real differentiator. For cable operators and telcos, popular indie video gives them a targeted pitch to the tech-savvy, younger audiences who have become loyal fans of indie content. Down the road this group is probably most up-for-grabs for alternative "over-the-top" services, so focusing on defending them is smart. And for technology providers, a big market opportunity looms trying to connect the previously disparate worlds of broadband and VOD.
In fact, in a conversation I had last week with Braxton Jarratt, CEO/founder of Clearleap, he explained that cable operators get all this. They're looking for quality "mid-tail" video from broadband producers, including clips and short-form programs. The company's technology is currently feeding broadband video to a couple hundred thousand cable VOD homes, with a backlog of "double digit" markets pending deployment. Braxton has a lot of content deals on Clearleap's docket, creating a menu for its cable customers to pick and choose from to incorporate into their VOD offerings. Clearleap also offers an ad insertion platform, so indie video can be monetized, not just offered as a value add.
Meanwhile, VOD has long proven itself popular with viewers. Comcast recently announced it has delivered 11B views since it launched VOD. It has continued to augment its library and add more HD titles. While VOD hasn't really been a money-maker itself, it has become a strong part of the digital value proposition and a defensive move against other viewing alternatives. By incorporating popular broadband video into its VOD choices, its appeal is only strengthened.
While the tectonic plates of "convergence" continue to shift, examples of broadband video making its way to the TV continue to happen. TiVo has been at this for a while with its "TiVoCast" service, along with technology providers like ActiveVideo Networks and others. The likelihood for independently-produced broadband video and VOD to get together seems poised to increase.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
What: Clearleap has introduced a new technology platform for distributing broadband video content directly to TVs and an accompanying ad management system.
For whom: Incumbent service providers (cable/telco) and new over-the-top entrants (device makers, aggregators, etc.), content providers and advertisers
Benefits: For service providers, a flexible, cost-effective system for offering broadband content to their subscribers with minimal technology integration; for content providers a scalable system for distributing content across multiple providers and platforms; for advertisers a new method of targeting on-demand audiences.
More innovation is coming to the ongoing quest to bring broadband content to TVs as Clearleap, an Atlanta-based startup, pulled back the curtain yesterday on its ambitious technology platform. Last fall, CEO/founder Braxton Jarratt gave me a glimpse into what the company was working on and yesterday he explained it more fully.
Clearleap aims to do multiple things with its "clear|flow" and "clear|profit" products. For incumbent video service providers (cable and telco operators) and new "over-the-top" entrants (device makers, aggregators, etc.), Clearleap enables delivery of broadband and other video to the TV including integrating with existing Video-on-Demand infrastructure when present; for content providers, it improves the process of distributing of content across multiple providers and platforms; and for both service providers and content providers it offers an ad management solution that allows flexible ad insertion and business rules for ads running with Clearleap-delivered video.
That's a mouthful, so to break it down a bit, here's my interpretation. First the delivery side. Obviously there's been a lot of discussion, particularly just since CES in January, of new entrants delivering broadband content to TVs, thereby presenting potential alternatives for consumers to "cut the cord" on existing cable and telco providers. One way for incumbent to combat this is for them to offer the best of the web (like TiVo has been doing with TiVoCast for a while now) in one seamless package delivered through the existing set-top box.
To date incumbents haven't pursued this strategy much though. Braxton attributes this intransigence to lack of adequate technology, than to lack of interest. Braxton says Clearleap has a couple of small deployments active and other announcements pending. The key to success is allowing the incumbents to control the process of what content they acquire and to present it in context with other VOD offerings. clear|flow ingests video from content partners into Clearleap's data centers, transcodes it and properly formats it for target devices, adds metadata and business rules and then enables service providers to subscribe to whatever content they want. The video is either served from Clearleap's data centers or pushed to an incumbent's own hosting facility.
On the other side of the coin, another goal of clear|flow is to become the glue that allows content providers who want to distribute across all these emerging platforms to do so with minimal work. Just upload your content, specify business rules and the service providers take it from there. Of course, there's a "chicken and egg" challenge here that content providers will only take an interest when there's sufficient distribution. Braxton recognizes this issue as well and said they've been encouraged by the willingness of certain "friendlies" to get involved, which he hopes will provide validation for others to come on board soon.
Last, but not least, clear|profit allows ad avails to be created and properly divided between the content providers and service providers according to specified rules. Ad management and insertion has of course been the Achilles heel for existing VOD systems, rendering today's VOD a largely revenue-free pursuit for most service providers. Cost-effectively solving the ad insertion process for VOD alone would be a major win.
Clearleap has an ambitious vision and ordinarily I'd say it feels like a lot for any startup to bite off. But Clearleap has a veteran executive team from N2 Broadband, which was a successful VOD software provider prior to its acquisition by Tandberg Television. The Clearleap team knows its way around cable data centers, has strong industry relationships and is benefitting from pressure incumbents feel to broaden their offerings - all no doubt key factors in helping the company raise money.
Still, there's going to be plenty of competition. Others circling this space in one way or another include ActiveVideo Networks, AnySource Media, GridNetworks, Sezmi, TiVo and lots of others who all have their own approaches and systems for connecting content providers with incumbent and new service providers to bring broadband video to TVs. It's going to be an interesting space to watch as there is no shortage of energy aimed at merging broadband with the TV and vice versa.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
If ever there was a year for giving thanks - and for trying to keep perspective - this is surely it. For the last several months or more, all of us have been buffeted by the economic meltdown to one extent or another. It isn't fun for anyone, and regrettably, if you believe the experts, things aren't going to turn around anytime soon.
Still, as I mentioned in last week's "Deflation's Risks to the Broadband Video's Ecosystem," for those of us who make our living focused in one way or another on broadband video, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Consumers continue to shift their behavior toward on demand, broadband-delivered alternatives. Clever entrepreneurs are introducing ever-more innovative technology-based products and services. Large pools of existing revenues are shifting around, in search of better, higher ROI ways to be allocated. And investors recognize all of this, motivating them to continue funding companies throughout the broadband ecosystem.
These are all things to be thankful for, and hopefully allow us to keep a little perspective. For those of us old enough to remember past downturns, it is also important to keep in mind that there have been difficult times in the past, and fortunately, eventually, things do correct. That doesn't relieve the current pain, but at least gives us a measure of hope for better days ahead.
Speaking of giving thanks, I want to give a shout out to the 30 companies that sponsored VideoNuze or its events in 2008. VideoNuze is just over a year old now, and I've been truly gratified by the support its received from both sponsors and the community of readers and participants.
VideoNuze is not immune from the economic meltdown, so I'd like to also mention that we're offering some great sponsorship specials going into '09. If you're interested in reaching a highly-targeted, broadband-centric group of senior decision-makers, VideoNuze is an outstanding value. I welcome your calls or emails.
Thanks to our '08 sponsors below. Happy Thanksgiving and see you on Monday.
ActiveVideo Networks, Adap.tv, Adobe, Akamai, Atlas Venture, Anystream (Grab Networks), Brightcove, ChoiceStream, Critical Media (Syndicaster), Digitalsmiths, ExtendMedia, EyeWonder, FAST Search & Transfer, Flybridge Capital Partners, Goodwin Procter, Gotuit, Jambo Media, KickApps, Kiptronic, Macrovision, Move Networks, Multicast Media, PermissionTV, Signiant, Silicon Valley Bank, thePlatform, Tremor Media, VMIX, WorldNow and Yahoo