Sky Anytime rebrands as Sky Player

18 05 2008

Proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, U.K. satcaster BSkyB has rebranded its online video service Sky Player, in a nod to the success of the Beeb’s iPlayer. New features include live streaming of its six own-brand TV channels, as well as progressive downloads allowing immediate playback of downloaded content.

The re-vamped service, which launched in 2006 as Sky by Broadband and claims to be the first U.K. mass market TV download service, also gets tweaked navigation and some personalisation.

Sky’s mobile TV service will shortly get the Sky Player makeover too, while its Sky+ push VOD DVR service, available to 2.7 million Sky homes, will retain the Anytime brand.





Targeted TV ads ‘three years away’

30 10 2007

When Abe Peled, the brains behind News Corp.-owned set-top box software and conditional access specialist NDS, speaks some of us sit up and take note.

In an interview with the Financial Time, Peled claims that technology which allows advertisers to target viewers according to their viewing habits is about three to five years off deployment on pay TV platforms. As he’s in the business of selling such solutions, it’s no surprise that he’s beginning to talk up their potential. From a man who’s driven much of the technical innovation underlying some of the world’s most successful pay TV platforms, he probably knows what he’s talking about.

For anyone interested in how this is playing out so far, head over to Israel, the report states, which Jerusalem-based NDS is using as a test bed for next gen STBs, just as it did with the Sky platform in the U.K. for 1st gen interactive TV and DVR rollout.

On a related note, could it be mere coincidence that on the same day this interview appeared, Virgin Media, the cable platform arch-rivals of Sky, chose to release the news that it is to offer targeted advertising from next year. But wait for it, the killer quote, by self admission from the company’s content division CEO Malcolm Wall: “There is an issue of measurement. TV is very measured, but for VoD it isn’t there right now.” The technology isn’t there, or Virgin Media hasn’t yet committed to implementing it? Go figure…





Bumper results for Sony, but will it turn around PS3?

26 10 2007

Sony has rebounded from its earlier lacklustre performance to post second quarter profits of ¥73.7 billion ($641 million), fuelled by strong gains in its movie and consumer electronics units.

But what of prospects for its next gen games console, the PlayStation 3?

So far, just 5.6 million units sold worldwide, with the company likely to miss its current financial year target of 11 million units. Plus the double whammy of outperformance by Nintendo’s Wii and just a handful of games titles published. Revenues in Sony’s games division were up 43% at $2.12 billion, however, losses doubled to $841 million.

It’s widely documented that Sony loses money on every console shipped, so even with the $100 price cut for the U.S. version and a lower-priced entry level model for European prospects, all hinges on must-have games being released by the major publishers.

Sony is also getting its ducks in a row when it comes to attracting consumers beyond the hardcore gamers it knows will snap up the consoles, with or without hitting sweeter price points. A new version of the device which morphs the PS3 into a broader home entertainment proposition, combining a TV receiver and DVR, goes on sale in Europe early next year. The company is also ramping up investment in Home, its virtual world which adds everything from community features, through to opportunities for upselling its other entertainment franchises; due to emerge from its beta chrysalis during 2008.

While attractive pricing is an obvious weakness of the PS3, Nintendo’s gamble of producing a lower-specification console which retails for a significantly lower cost has proved astute. Critically, the Wii has cut through to the women’s market, not the traditional preserve of hardcore gamers.

Evidence is emerging that PS3 may be starting to buck the downward trend, with the latest sales figures for European markets showing stronger sales than Xbox 360. There remains, however, a huge gap to close on the best selling Wii.

As disappointing as PS3 sales have proved to date – and in spite of CFO Nobuyuki Oneda’s confirmation that the year one sales target is unlikely to be met – The Street obviously believes overall group performance to be in rude health, with company shares closing up 6% on the day.





Philips brings us the DVR which “knows what we like”

4 09 2007

Spin back to the early 2000’s and the TiVo service was a true revelation in broadcasting. Finally, with the ushering in of a DVR which a) let you self-select the TV you want to watch, when you want to watch it; b) allowed you to skip the boring bits (commercials); and c) re-ignited your enthusiasm for what the medium was capable of delivering. Well, a killer combination.

But then there was TiVo personalisation, the so-called intelligent agent, which anyone with any sense switched off, which also, helpfully, suggested other programmes which migt tickle our pickle.

Forget Amazon-style “Others who bought this, also liked this” type of approach, bring on random selections of content based on: a) deeply flawed content genre associations; b) stuff which you not only wouldn’t like, but absolutely hate. Epitomised, ultimately, not that the sentence preceding this should be linked, to the Wall Street Journal‘s now-infamous 2002 headline: If TiVo Thinks You Are Gay, Here’s How to Set it Straight.

A ‘revelation’ in personal TV has been promised since the early noughties, yet nobody has yet come up with an agorithm capable on delivering against the promise.

But hang on, today, consumer electronics supremos Philips say they can…

So techies: here’s the challenge: before you disappear back into your dens to improve all of our lives, consider this — personalisation technology has to deliver against consumer expectation at least 99% of the time or greater, unless you’re content with ending up in the graveyard of inventions that weren’t meant to be.

I switched my TiVO recommendations off years ago, because they aren’t capable of delivering a true reward. Nor is keyword or favourite actor / director-based criteria. For every film or programme which truly delivers, I get 100s more which don’t.

TV is an emotional connection, start there and build. In the meantime, I look forward to Philips bring me the brave new world of stripping Dutch housewives (which might be fun, if in traditional costume), but otherwise, not figuring within my already trash-enriched vieqwing diet.





TV viewing in continued decline — IBM consumer research

23 08 2007

The internet is severely eroding TV viewing time, claims a consumer survey released yesterday by the IBM Institute for Business Value. But while consumers are spending increasing amounts of time online, their viewing behaviours may be shifting to the web or mobile devices.

The 38-question internet survey of around 2,400 consumers around the world, almost half of which were aged 18 to 34, found that:

  • 81% said they’d watched video via the internet
  • 19% were spending six or more hours of personal time per day on the internet, v. 9% reporting equivalent time in front of the TV
  • A quarter of U.S. respondents said they owned a DVR and watched recorded programmes at least half of the time; though a third claimed they are watching more TV as a result of having a DVR. But in spite of DVRs, Australians prefer to watch 75% of TV live.
  • Nearly a third of U.K. respondents who watched mobile TV reduced their viewing via a traditional TV set as a result
  • Australians are the world’s greatest contributors to social networks, trailed by the U.S. and U.K.

Video interviews of consumer attitudes reflected by the survey can be found here:

Wired has today [23 Aug] followed up with a great interview with IBM’s Bill Battino, communications sector managing partner for IBM Global Business Services, in particular points on how the coming bandwidth crunch will be managed:

Wired News: If most TV moves to the Internet, do you think the infrastructure/pipes can handle such increased data traffic?

Battino: The question is when, not if. Delivering all but the most basic digital content services over networks that were originally designed for voice communications and Web browsing is challenging, and telecom, cable and satellite operators will, in all likelihood, have to upgrade their networks to compete. Even with higher compression technology like MPEG-4, delivering HDTV, multi-room TV and the like, as well as voice, gaming, Internet surfing and other communication services means that every home must have a bandwidth of 20 megabits or more.

As demand for high-definition television (HDTV), real-time video on demand (VoD) and other next-generation services increases, we are heading toward a bandwidth crunch in many countries with the possible exception of parts of south-east Asia including Singapore and Korea, where 95 -100 percent of households can obtain very high speed access. To deliver bandwidth-intensive content services and the experience consumers demand, telcos and distributors will have to make major investments in upgrading their networks. We anticipate that the investments going into IPTV through Fiber-TV, will accelerate bandwidth dramatically, as well as VC investment in wireless technologies.
 

Wired News: We hear a lot of talk about the Internet democratizing content distribution, but what are the real chances that other YouTube-like networks (not owned by major corps) will be able to compete with YouTube and the major studios rolling out their own mini-online networks (such as ComedyCentral’s Motherload)?

Battino: Never underestimate the creativity that can come from the VC and private equity community. Just as people thought MySpace had a monopoly, you saw other entrants (e.g. Facebook) generating interest levels. We may see some backlash against the big players, which will open up the window for new entrants. Also, our survey found that the majority of individuals visited sites based on recommendations from their peers; this also leaves an opening for new entrants. Finally, keep in mind that many of the sites now owned by major corporations started as independents and were then acquired.





European Sony Playstation 3 to get DVR, U.S. version may follow

22 08 2007

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After initial speculation earlier this month, following comments made by Warwick Light, Sony Computer Entertainment head for New Zealand, the company has today confirmed that the European version of the console is to get a digital terrestrial TV tuner and DVR from early next year — a prediction I first made seven years ago — with the possibility of a U.S. version to follow.

The PS3 will be spec’d with two tuners, allowing users to watch one show, while recording another, one-touch series recording and easy transfer to portable devices, such as the PSP. No disclosure was made on the likely hard disc size or how this may equate to storage capacity.

An official press release has yet to appear on Sony Computer Entertainment Europe’s site. But coverage in The Guardian states that the first countries to get the PlayTV-enabled PlayStations are the U.K., France, Germany and Spain. Forbes adds that Italy is also among the first countries to get the new device.





TiVo’s prospects down under

19 08 2007

Following its misadventure in the U.K. in the early 1990s (due, no doubt, to its decision to get in to bed with NewsCorp.-owned BSkyB), TiVo spent the following few years focusing on its key U.S. business.

It’s only in the last couple of years that TiVo has, once again, spread its tenticles further afield: to China and, more recently, Australia.

Not much has been heard of the China (or was it just Taiwan) deal since 2005 which, for a company which has so effectively timed press announcements of any kind to coincide with results reporting, likely means no news is… no news.

But the Oz deal is generating an increasing amount of press, not least this spoiler piece, coincidentally from a paper owned by NewsCorp., which also happens to own the majority interest in pay TV platform Foxtel and offer its own DVR product.

Perhaps a reaction to other reports last week that TiVo has bagged charter advertising partnerships with 20 companies, each paying AU $1 million (US $792,517) each to learn more about what makes ad-skippers tick.

Australian TV and its liberal sprinkling of ads (most usually with very low production values) throughout programmes makes it ripe for DVRs.

Yet, paradoxically, many of its free-to-air broadcasters have actively suppressed the emergence of DVRs through some strange anomaly which allows them to retain copyright over listings information and, thus, strangling EPGs which are the lifeblood of DVRs.

The copyright ruling was successfully challenged in an Australian court earlier this month

But it’s already an overcrowded market: TiVo will be launching against Foxtel’s already-established DVR, domestic company ICE TV — which, like TiVo, offers a platform-agnostic product — and, according to other speculation, possibly a DVR-enabled Sony PlayStation 3 too. 

One to watch…





A tale of two DVR strategies: the pathfinder and the luddite

15 08 2007

Rewind to earlier this decade, when DVRs were but a nascent segment of the entertainment landscape and the debate playing out again and again in broadcast network boardrooms and future media conferences was DVR: friend of foe?

Jump back to the present, 17% of U.S. homes and around 7% of U.K. homes use DVRs. Despite some curious pieces of research from both sides of the pond, including NBC’s finding that viewers fast-forwarding through breaks had higher recall of the ads they’d seen, we all know the reality: the vast majority of DVR households:

  1. Skip through ad breaks.
  2. Are oblivious to the traditional 30-second spots running in these breaks (though it’s arguable that first in / last out spots, as well as sponsorship bumpers are creating impact).

As characterised by the years earlier friend of foe debate, there are still two classic responses from industry: embrace the change and come up with new ways of engaging audiences; or prohibition.

What better example of strategies rolling out on both sides of the debate than this interview with Brian Sullivan, BSkyB’s customer group managing director, and the individual who has been the driving force behind Sky+ being installed in over two million  U.K households.

Meanwhile at the luddite end of the scale, comes news that Time Warner Cable is to disable ad-skipping via its Look Back TV catch-up service. This from the very same company which ran a small-scale trial in the early 1990s of prohibiting ad-skipping on DVRs — unsurprisingly the feature, one of the key USPs of a DVR, got a resounding thumbs down from consumers. Yet history repeats itself…





Storage vs. bandwidth re-visited

6 08 2007

Rewind by three years, courtesy of journalist Kate Bulkley’s painstaking cataloguing of everything she’s ever written, and James Murdoch proudly proclaims “storage trumps bandwidth”, referring to the greater efficiency of content delivered via the broadcast stream to a DVR-type device, rather than using a IP for delivery.

BT Vision chief Andrew Burke cried: “Pah!”

Apart from being slightly curious to remind myself when young Murdoch first proclaimed on this (if memory serves me well, it was possibly a year earlier), it’s worth dredging up the remark, if only to recognise how much things have moved on since and how Sky’s own position has moved to embracing IP delivery of content.

In fairness to James, Sky’s advances with its DVR product are significant (I recall following the story right back to the early rumours in 1999, when Sky first negotiated a co-marketing deal for TiVo’s ill-fated entry into the UK market) — penetration of which now stands at 28% of its U.K. customer base.

But then enter broadband, a utility which has defied expectations from even the savviest media-watchers and broken all records for consumer uptake (oh, yes, there’s Freeview too). Let it iterate and enter YouTube, taking a category which didn’t exist three years ago and making it mainstream. MySpace followed, and was snapped up by young Murdoch’s dad.

As we come full circle to today’s environment, it’s worth a read of this piece in today’s New York Times, which suggests streaming trumps downloads. How far we’ve travelled…

So, to return to the original question: does storage trump bandwidth? Or re-phrased: does streaming trump storage and downloads?





What the studios say, what the studios are doing

31 07 2007

Sometimes a job title catches your eye, and it was just that when I was at a recent industry event in Hollywood. The scheduled (but no-show) speaker from Sony Pictures Entertainment was purportedly VP of the mysteriously-named ‘Digital Media Initiative’.

I’ve watched with interest Microsoft’s convergent play with its Xbox Live Marketplace VOD service, so when’s Sony going to join the party? PS3 is, after all, a superior platform (technically speaking).

Perhaps further clues lie in this report from Broadcasting & Cable which suggests a strong contingent from SPE at next January’s consumer electronics bun fest, CES.

Let’s hope they get it right this time. Despite Sir Howard Stringer’s insistence that the company will be more joined-up, its squandering of opportunity across the digital media space, given its disparate interests across content and devices, is nothing short of scandalous.

Watch this space.

Update: 1 Aug 7

Mention and the internet delivers. The blogosphere is rife with rumours, centring on a tuner/DVR-enabled PS3 (predicted some years back). Can’t wait to see what the online VOD offer is like…





Amstrad: “You’re hired!”

31 07 2007

amstrad.jpg 

The consumer electronics manufacturer used to be a byword for cheap and cheerful hi-fi tower systems, the company even introduced the concept of mass market PCs to the U.K., but now Amstrad (shortform for the Alan Michael Sugar Trading Company, after its no-nonsense founder Sir Alan Sugar, and sometime frontman of The Apprentice) has been sold to BSkyB.

For the last few years Amstrad has been churning out set-top boxes for the U.K. satellite platform, including Sky+ DVRs. The deal is to be worth £125 million, or £1.50 per Amstrad share.

A briefing note from industry analysts Ovum can be found here.

Edited 2 Aug 07 to add comment from coverage in the Financial Times yesterday: “Sky said the Amstrad acquisition would give it more control over the design of new products and help it accelerate development. Analysts expect Sky to use Amstrad’s expertise to create high-margin products such as high-definition set-top boxes and personal video recorders.”





The end of TV (…just not quite yet)

31 07 2007

When is the end of TV not the end of TV? When it “changes significantly over the next decade,” observes Ben Macklin, senior analyst with eMarketer and author of the new report US TV Trends: The Impact of DVRs, VOD and the Web.

TV ad revenues showed positive growth during 2006, states the report:

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A forecast which is broadly mirrored by U.K. numbers published yesterday by Zenith Optimedia, which predicts modest growth of 2% for TV advertising during 2008 and slightly flatter growth of 1% to 2% from 2009-2012. Significantly, it asserts that growth across ITV’s portfolio of digital channels isn’t enough to shore up the decline in revenues for its primary ITV1 network. Unlike the U.S., however, U.K. TV airtime is the cheapest it has ever been since 1995 or the early 1980s.

Returning to the eMarketer forecast, it predicts that by 2011 as much as half of U.S. viewers will have access to timeshifting technologies, such as VOD and DVRs, combined with greater viewing of video online:

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… Leading to more ad spend moving online:

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In a related report, Media Post poses the question: will this year’s ad negotiations be the first digital upfront? No, according to the straw poll of one: MediaVest’s Christine Merrifield; though interest in VOD is on the rise.





Consumers want internet-connected TVs, research

12 07 2007

Market intelligence firm iSuppli claims nearly two-thirds of consumers would like their TVs to be connected to the internet. It predicts that shipments of network-connected consumer electronics devices such as DVD recorders, cable modems, digital TVs and multi-room DVRs will rise to 732.9 million units in 2011 (vs. 225.3 million units in 2006).





Sky+ rocks

12 07 2007

UK satellite TV platform BSkyB’s latest set of numbers, announced yesterday, reveal that a further 207K Sky+ DVR subscribers were added in the quarter ending 30 June 2007, bringing its cumulative Sky+ subscriber base to 2.374 million (or 28% of its entire customer base). Now that Sky has scrapped its £10 / month subscription charge, expect similar stellar performance in future quarters.