Video ad technology provider BlackArrow has announced Virgin Media as its first European customer, signaling a broader international expansion starting in 2015. BlackArrow will be powering dynamic ad insertion on Virgin's VOD TV platform and its Virgin Anywhere multi-screen service. Virgin, which was acquired by Liberty Global last year for approximately $16 billion, has deployed its digital TV service to 5.3 million screens in the UK.
The two new boxes TiVo unveiled last night - the Premiere and the Premiere XL - go right to the top of my list of most impressive devices that handle both broadcast and broadband content in one seamless experience. The new boxes continue TiVo's pattern of always being one step ahead of the competition in delivering an outstanding user experience. All of that is the good news. The bad news is that unfortunately, nothing I learned in my briefing earlier this week with Jim Denney, TiVo's VP of Product Marketing, suggests that these boxes will find their way into any more than the relatively few homes that prior TiVo boxes have.
First the boxes themselves. The key Premiere innovation is that TiVo now elegantly recognizes broadband sources such as Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, YouTube and hundreds of others as bona fide content options, right alongside the customary broadcast and cable channels. That means that when you do a search for a specific TV program or movie, TiVo returns all the viewing options. Say for example it's Saturday night and you search for the classic movie "Raising Arizona." It may be on a cable channel the following Tuesday, but you want to watch it now. Well it is also available from Netflix's Watch Instantly. Assuming you've linked your Netflix account to the Premiere, a couple of clicks of the remote and you're watching right then. That type of all-in-one-box convenience isn't available elsewhere.
The TiVo browse and recommendation experience is tremendously improved also with a new "Discovery bar" - a strip of artwork and images from the programming that adds a lot of zip to the previously text-heavy browsing UI. Selecting an image triggers an expansion window with relevant details (program description, air time, cast, etc.) You can then immerse yourself in a "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon" IMDb-like experience by subsequently selecting an actor, subsequent movies, co-stars, etc, all in a rich, graphical interface. You can also select "Bonus Features" and immediately start reviewing accompanying clips from YouTube.
TiVo is also introducing "Collections," a set of curated categories like "Oscar Winning Films," "Sundance Award Winners" and "AFI's 10 Top 10" which, with accompanying artwork that are another quick, fun new way to browse for what's on (again these collections tap all broadcast and broadband sources). The gorgeous user experience is all built on Flash and is formatted for HD widescreen, to maximize the amount of real estate used. Another first for TiVo is a full QWERTY keyboard that slides out of the remote control for enhanced navigation.
That's a lot of new goodness from TiVo, which as expected comes at a price. The Premiere, with 320 GB of storage (enough for 45 hours of HD recording) is $299 and the Premiere XL, with 1 TB of storage is $499. Best Buy is again highlighted as a key marketing partner. Then of course there's the $13.95/mo TiVo service charge.
These are basically consistent with previous prices, suggesting that yet again TiVo will bump up against the brick wall of most consumers' resistance to buying expensive hardware. No matter how cool TiVo's boxes have been over the years, this is TiVo's traditional Achilles heel and it doesn't seem likely to lessen with the Premiere. When I highlighted this issue Jim allowed that the purpose of the standalone box is to be a "crucible of innovation" and that it is intended mainly for "discerning customers" (my interpretation: TiVo itself doesn't plan to sell a ton of Premiere boxes).
To address the sell-through problem, TiVo has worked hard to develop "TiVo-inside" relationships with video service providers, so that it can become more of a software and services company. For instance, I've been getting my TiVo service as part of my Comcast set-top box for a while now. With the Premiere announcements, TiVo said that RCN, a smallish American "overbuilder" and Virgin Media, a significant U.K. operator would include the Premiere features in their new set-top boxes, which is great.
However, no plans were revealed for what Comcast, by far the largest operator with TiVo inside, will do with the Premiere. In fact, one sticking point for Comcast is almost certainly the very access to broadband content that TiVo is trumpeting with the Premiere. My Comcast box frustratingly disables all of the previous "TiVoCast" broadband features I used to enjoy on my Series 2 box as Comcast seeks to maintain its "walled garden" approach. While RCN may be aggressive about providing access to 3rd-party broadband sources, I'm doubtful that Comcast will be given their own extensive TV Everywhere plans. That raises doubts about whether Comcast's TiVo customers will ever see the Premiere's full range of features.
And so all that brings us back to where TiVo always seems to find itself - with market-leading devices that have serious hurdles to widespread consumer adoption. I really hope there's a forthcoming breakthrough this time around for TiVo. Otherwise history will repeat itself yet again and TiVo will continue to be a well-respected, but relatively marginal player in the digital media landscape.
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Google's recently-announced fiber-to-the-home experiment (which I estimated could cost the company $750 million or more) looks even sillier in the context of continued announcements by cable operators of faster broadband deployments. As an example, this week brought news that Virgin Media, a large U.K. cable operator, is launching 100 megabit/second service by the end of this year, and also intends to expand its trial of 200 megabits/second service. Virgin's announcements came on top of Shaw Communications (a large Canadian cable operator) news from last week that it would soon test expanding its current 100 megabit/second service to 1 gigabit/second, a 10x increase. And big U.S. cable operators themselves continue deploying "DOCSIS 3.0" equipment to offer ever-faster broadband services.
Google pegged one gigabit as the target for its fiber-to-the-home project, but doesn't the question beg - if cable operators (and telcos) themselves are continuing to improve the speeds of their broadband services to approach 1 gigabit, what is the point of a small, isolated Google experiment? As I pointed out, consumers have benefited from continuous improvements in bandwidth over the years and, even absent net neutrality regulations, enjoy open, unfettered access to all legal content and services. What Google is contributing to the broadband ISP business with its fiber trial remains a complete mystery to me. At some point I have to believe Google shareholders and Wall Street analysts covering the company are going to want more clarity too.
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