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How to Save Star Trek: Make it the True Detective of Science Fiction ►

This ran at the beginning of the month on Vox, and I only just got around to reading it after hearing David Loehr mention the article that episode of Counter Clockwise about Star Trek.

I think there are other avenues that can be explored, but like everyone else, I’m just itching to have Star Trek back on the air.

Today, news circulated that Idris Elba was in talks to appear in the next Star Trek movie. I will be doubly sad to see the 50th anniversary of Star Trek celebrated with another Khan knock-off villain plot. Another Earth-in-peril film. Perhaps it will be more, but the last two installments were literally about vengeful men trying to blow up San Francisco. Two of them! San Francisco’s not that bad.

Villains have their place, and can be used to great effect, but not recently. Here’s a recap of film antagonists, and a projection:

  1. V’Ger — A machine seeking perfection.
  2. Khan — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  3. Kruge — Selfish megalomaniac.
  4. Probe — Accidental destruction.
  5. Sybok, Klaa, God — Selfish megalomaniacs.
  6. Chang — Homicidal war hawk.
  7. Soran, Lursa and B’Etor — Obsession, and power, respectively.
  8. Borg, Borg Queen — Complete assimilation, and domination.
  9. Ru’Afo, Dougherty — Vengeful megalomaniac. Ends justify the means.
  10. Shinzon — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  11. Nero — Vengeful megalomaniac.
  12. Khan, Admiral Marcus — Vengeful megalomaniac. Homicidal war hawk.
  13. Someone? — Vengeful megalomanic?

If this was a TV series, anthology or not, there wouldn’t be so many vengeful nuts. Indeed, Star Trek’s history is full of episodes that have very abstract notions of villains. Many times villains are inserted as a mirror for us, and our society. Some episodes are about broken components, and natural disasters. Antagonists are not the only source of conflict.

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is “Cause and Effect” where there’s plenty of tension, and not a single villain, or hint of malice.

2015-03-25 23:55:00

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Counter Clockwise 2: Lost in Stars ►

Anti-time. Counter Clockwise. I’m hilarious!

My favorite nerd-culture (not grown on a petri dish) is provided by the The Incomparable podcast network. The main podcast spun off an orbiting array of other podcasts, including the The Incomparable Game Show. Which isn’t a show, but a feed of similarly themed game shows. Counter Clockwise, however, isn’t really a game, but just go with it. Each panelist presents a question to the group, and they take turns answering. It’s a mirror version of the popular tech podcast Dan Moren, and Jason Snell do for Relay FM’s podcast network.

The first one was a Star Wars one — which is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing. Their second episode is about Star Trek. Yay! (Throws shiny, space-confetti.)

Readers may recall a similar post about The Incomparable, and Star Trek from ages past, and then, only in legend.

Favorite Character

Dan Moren’s question is pretty straight-forward, but difficult to answer since it’s easy to be torn between several characters. Dan jokes, “Which one’s your favorite child?”

  • David Loehr: Jean-Luc Picard
  • Jason Snell: Leonard “Bones” McCoy
  • Scott McNulty: Worf
  • Dan Moren: Benjamin Sisko

While it’s hard to extricate the character from the actor, Jason Snell has complimentary things to say about both De Forest Kelly’s performance, and Karl Urban’s

I’m torn between Spock, and Data. The characters have many similarities, but some key differences in their personal struggles. There are two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that stick out in my mind from when I was in my formative years: Hero Worship and The Measure of a Man.

Hero Worship is a flawed episode, and it’s hard to really get into it when you view it now, but it left an impression. Here was this kid that felt all alone, and isolated. He didn’t want to feel that way, and he looked up to Data as someone he could model himself after. This spoke to me.

As much as it pains me, I’d pick Data over Spock. If only Jason Snell had invoked The Phil Hartman Rule to save me from this choice.

What Scene, or Plot Element, Triggered a New Story Idea, or Head Canon?

David’s topic is, of course, very writery.

  • Jason Snell: Kirstie Alley’s Savvik, as originally written. Also considered:
    • Kelsey Grammar’s captain from the end of “Cause and Effect” exploring the universe as a fish-out-of-water.
    • The people thawed out at the end of “The Neutral Zone” for another fish-out-of-water story.
    • Dr. Bruce Maddox’s quest to make new androids.
    • Baseball. For … something.
  • Scott McNulty: “Conspiracy” ending with the homing beacon to other little parasites out in the far reaches of the galaxy.
  • Dan Moren: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” - to get to know more about that alternate reality version of Starfleet.
    • Get to know more about Boothby.
  • David Loehr: Explore any interaction between “Mirror Mirror” Spock mind-melding with McCoy, and Spock mind-melding with McCoy in Star Trek II.

Great choices. (Except baseball.) If I had to pick one, I’d go with exploring the unidentified Dyson Sphere from “Relics”. It’s a giant shell world, the size of a solar system, built by a civilization that abandoned it. Like so many things in Star Trek, we never, ever hear of it ever again.

What is the Star Trek Series You’d Want to See?

Jason longs for a series, and asks the panel what kind of series they want.

  • Scott McNulty: Firefly.
  • Dan Moren: A show about Section 31, particularly in the J.J. Abrams universe, where it needs to be rebuilt. Espionage — cloak, and dagger.
  • David Loehr: Star Trek: Continuum — an anthology series with a few episodes to tell specific stories spread throughout Star Trek’s chronology (chronologies). Particularly if it was with the Netflix model with 8-10 episodes set here, and there.
    • Jason riffs on David’s suggestion with the opportunities to bring in the J.J. movie cast for guest spots here, and there.
  • Jason Snell: He has two, but it’s really three.
    • A series set in the original series era, with the costumes, and designs, of the era.
    • A series set in the J.J. Abrams universe, with the costumes, and designs, of that rethought era.
    • Inspired by John Scalzi, and similar books about discovering something surprising on a planet, and uncovers a mystery.

I’ve been thinking about Star Trek series ideas since TNG. I’ll spare you all the iterations I’ve gone through and present only two:

  • Set post Voyager, but incorporating the “adjusted” timeline of the J.J. movies. It’s like TNG in overall format, a ship exploring the galaxy without a constant threat, but there are serialized arcs, like DS9. The real change is that it isn’t a rehashing of TNG scripts, it will return to creatively thinking of the morality issues that we face in the present day, viewed through the lens of science fiction. I want to go to subjects that were taboo for the previous producers to consider handling. There will also be a guy that kisses another guy, because that shit just needs to happen.
  • Like the first example, but the format would divide the season up into segments all telling the same story. This is similar to David’s Star Trek: Continuum pitch, but more like viewing overlapping events through the eyes of several alien cultures. This view at the same event through characters we can sympathize with will let us look at all angles, and not just the noble Federation scolding aliens every week. Layers of perception and drama. Every season is a new event to dissect.

What is Your Favorite Vehicle?

Scott McNulty steals Dan’s question from the previous Star Wars show.

  • Dan Moren: The USS Defiant.
    • Runabouts. “It’s like the compact car of the Star Trek universe. You don’t need, like, an SUV-Enterprise-thing. It’s like a Honda Fit.”
  • David Loehr: “Ditto” (He means The Defiant, not the runabouts, thank god.)
  • Jason Snell: The classic Klingon battlecruiser (the D7) “as best seen, probably, in The Motion Picture” (that’s the K’t’inga, but same deal as the D7).
    • Excelsior as a runner-up.
  • Scott McNulty: D’Deridex Class Romulan Warbird.

These were all very good choices, except for Dan’s runabouts. I mean, really? Any vehicle? Runabouts? They’re so unexciting, and wimpy, that the role they filled was mostly replaced by the ship he picked as his primary choice.

Anyway, my pick is a little difficult, so I’m going to do the multiple-pick trick of saying a bunch of things I’ve considered:

  • The Enterprise NCC-1701-D. I have a fondness for this comfy, fabric-covered, kid-safe, holodeck-filled ship. It doesn’t look good from all angles, and some of it is a bit dated.
  • The Nebula Class is very similar to the Galaxy Class, but it’s much more compact. The first one we see, is the USS Phoenix, which has a funky AWAC pod. I much prefer the style represented by the USS Sutherland, and it’s arrowhead pod.
  • The New Orleans Class Kyushu is barely seen onscreen as a battle-damaged wreck, but if you were the kind of person that looked online at ships from the Battle of Wolf 359, and their reconstructions, then you probably liked the idea of it. It’s swept back nacelle pylons were great.
  • The Enterprise E is a slicker design than the above, but it’s not as “friendly”.
  • The Akira Class was a great ship, but then Enterprise came out and aped the design, and now every time I look at an Akira Class, I think of that incredibly disappointing show.
  • The Jem’Hadar Battleship - I’m a size queen.

In the end, I’ve got to go with the Enterprise D. It narrowly beats out the Sutherland, because it has a better bridge. They always say that kitchens and baths sell real estate, but in Star Trek, it’s about the bridge. Should have sprung for wood railings, Sutherland.

Bonus Question: Of The Many Starfleet Divisions, Which Starfleet Department Would You Work for?

  • David Loehr: Command.
  • Jason Snell: Command, but probably winds up in Engineering.
  • Scott McNulty: Wants to be in Command, thinks he would be in Ops.
  • Dan Moren: Engineering.

I’d want to wear a nice, soothing teal. Probably ship’s counsellor. I most likely wouldn’t pass any tests, and be one of those civilians with the onesies that never fit right in the crotch.

And Then Dan Died

The bonus on the bonus is the Bonus Track with excerpts from the recording session for the episode. It’s mostly about people that are having computer problems.

Also, the grocery store nearby has Quadrotriticale still. Snell, and Loehr, if you want to get it you’re going to have to come down here. You’re going to have to - come - down - here.

2015-03-20 07:45:00

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The Changing – and Unchanging – Structure of TV ►

Ben Thompson goes on a deep dive over how Apple’s OTT service will mostly move money around. This is very much in line with my own thinking. This is all about advertising money. See here, and here.

From Thompson’s conclusion:

Notice, though, who is not winning here, at least financially: consumers. The money is simply moving around. In fact, of the three major players in this proposed deal, Apple will likely earn the least:

  • Content owners have pricing power because they create must-see TV
  • Cable companies have pricing power because they own the pipe
  • Apple is simply proposing to be content’s customer service layer in place of the cable companies

The benefit for Apple is the strengthening of their ecosystem: owning the TV will make iPhone and Watches more valuable (see Apple’s New Market); this too is the main way in which consumers win, and why they will switch: a better UI, better integration with their devices, and a company that actually cares. Just be prepared to pay the same, if not more, than you pay today.

Thompson also breaks down the business of TV at the top of his post, although he glosses over the complex interaction between TV studios, film studios, and networks that make up divisions of media companies. The networks buy shows, and broadcast rights for films, from the TV studios and film studios respectively. Fox’s TV studio doesn’t always make content for Fox’s broadcast and cable networks, for example, and Fox’s networks don’t exclusively show 20th Century Fox films. The TV studios are even making shows for Netflix and Amazon, with Netflix and Amazon acting as the network in that relationship, and obviating the role the broadcast network division plays in collecting ad revenue.

2015-03-19 08:00:00

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Connected Cable

On episode 31 of Relay FM’s Connected podcast; Myke Hurley, Federico Viticci, and Stephen Hackett discussed many items of Apple news. This included the rumor from The Wall Street Journal concerning Apple’s supposed OTT service.

Whilst I listened to the recording live, it became clear that there are some fundamental concepts about televised entertainment in America that were unclear to people outside the U.S.– and, apparently, to people in Memphis. (Hi Stephen.)

What is Cable?

Federico professed that he didn’t understand the concept, and Myke said it was like satellite. That’s sort of true, when describing television programs, and channels. In the U.S. it’s often easier to group cable, fiber, and satellite together as “cable”, though that also glosses over differences. Skip this section if you feel reasonably confident in your understanding of cable.

Brief history lesson: In the 1920s, radio networks popped up all over. The stations had limited reach, and thus covered a small area. In order to produce high-quality, consistent programming, they started to create material that would be broadcast from multiple radio stations. Thus, the networks began. Many stations are locally owned and operated, but get the majority of their programming from the network. Local news is the best example of this, with the same hour being filled in by original news programming from each broadcast station.

NBC became the largest of them, with CBS the second largest. In the 30s, the FCC (The Federal Communications Commission) forced NBC to break up because it was too large, and competition wasn’t feasible. The new network was ABC. These radio networks would become TV broadcast networks in the 40s, but they still had their roots in that decentralized grouping of broadcast networks.

Additional broadcast networks have since been added. Independently owned stations offering syndicated programming are now either Fox or CW affiliates.

Cable was a great way to provide alternative, high-quality programming, with a huge array of channels that would appeal to someone. The cable companies pay the local broadcast stations for rebroadcast rights. This also leads to interesting situations like Los Angeles having two different CBS stations that are rebroadcast over cable, KCBS (owned by CBS) and KCAL (independent). This also makes it messy when dealing with advertising.

Because cable requires a physical infrastructure laid out of vast areas of land, there’s usually only one company operating in an area. Huge mergers of regional cable TV operations have resulted in the large cable companies today. Comcast is the largest, with 22.3 million subscribers, and it is trying to merge with the second largest, Time Warner Cable, which has 11 million. Almost all the other cable providers are in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand to a few million.

In the 90s, the cable companies realized they could send data over their networks, and it was far better than telephone lines. This is also why Americans with high speed internet access almost all have cable. This creates a natural conflict between cable companies, and internet companies that want to provide competing programming that undermines the fees and rates the cable companies charge for programming.

The best way to think about present-day cable is to think of it as a wired service that provides digital programming guides, optional DVRs, “start over” service, live TV, and on demand entertainment, some of which is pay-per-view. These are features of IPTV services like Verizon’s FiOS. (Although Verizon owns the physical network they provide their IPTV service through, making it more like an American cable provider than anything else.)

Comparison with Italy

Italy relies on terrestrial, over-the-air signals for programming. This limits the number of channels, and means that on demand services aren’t possible – with the exception of internet streaming services which are used to supplement service. Since there is little overlap, for the most part, with ISPs and broadcasting, this means no one is trying to screw anyone, like Comcast, or Verizon, messing with Netflix.

The most important thing to understand about cable is that the lines aren’t just used to carry TV shows, but also broadband internet, which makes it completely different from Italy or the U.K. Cable providers also have exclusive rights to regions of the U.S. and do not directly compete with one another – this means that costs are generally high. (Businesses gonna business.)

Federico speaks favorably of the system in Italy, because everyone can have the same experience of gathering around to watch sports events, and national political speeches. It’s more like TV in the U.S. used to be before the 1980s with a few broadcast networks that left few options.

There are, however, other problems Italy faces aside from limited selection, and limited utility. (Neither of which are major issues when you take supplemental streaming solutions into account.)

Did you know there is a “Television in Italy” page on Wikipedia? This is a fun excerpt:

According to BBC, the Italian television industry is widely considered both inside and outside the country to be overtly politicized. Unlike the BBC which is controlled by an independent trust, the public broadcaster RAI is under direct control of the parliament. According to a December 2008 poll, only 24% of Italians trusted television news programmes, compared unfavourably to the British rate of 38%, making Italy one of only three examined countries where online sources are considered more reliable than television ones for information.

HBO Won’t Sell Service Directly

In the Connected episode Myke brings up a post on The Verge that confused him and asked for clarification from Stephen. Myke’s not really at fault here because the structure of the post makes it sound like HBO NOW is just HBO Go.

From the post, with the subhead “Sorry cord cutters. You’ll have to buy it through a partner, like Apple or Cablevision”:

Cablevision doesn’t say whether it’ll be offering HBO Now on day one, but it seems like a possibility. Though Apple has touted its position as HBO’s exclusive launch partner, Apple is, in fact, only its exclusive “non-pay TV” launch partner. That means that while you won’t be able to subscribe over a Roku until Apple’s exclusivity period lifts three months from now, you should be able to subscribe though any cable company that makes a deal with HBO. HBO tells us that it hopes to announce more partners soon, but Optimum is the first.

This post is not structured very well at all and basically imparts no information other than HBO is not selling access directly, but through third parties, and he infers that cable companies will offer HBO NOW on day one. That would just HBO Go, as Myke points out on Connected.

The “sorry cord-cutters” is confusing and hyperbolic since the author acknowledges that there’s no information other than Apple and Cablevision (as an ISP) offering to sell HBO NOW. That does not mean that you will only have your regional cable provider to contend with for service. So this is still a “yay” for cord cutters.

The writer also mistakenly assumes that HBO should be the one you buy HBO NOW from, directly, like Netflix. There are large development costs to engineering a solution without partners like Apple. Netflix can manage this because they’ve been building their service in iterations for years.

From Variety, last December, about the resignation of HBO CTO Otto Berkes:

Under Berkes, HBO had been developing a streaming-video platform with the code-name “Maui” designed for the OTT service. But the Maui system was a “less-than-perfect solution” and the project was shut down, according to a memo sent to team members by Mark Thomas, senior VP of technology program management, and Drew Angeloff, senior VP of digital products. The memo was previously published by Fortune.

“This was not a judgment of the team’s work quality or deliverables but rather a bet that an existing streaming service could deliver the needed product faster and at lower risk than Maui,” Thomas and Angeloff wrote in the memo.

The execs added that “Maui’s timeframe caused us to make concessions both in scope and culture. We look forward to returning to teams defining scope, and consumer experiences, without forced top-down scheduling.” Meanwhile, a “large portion” of Maui can be repurposed for HBO Go, according to the memo.

The Verge should have referred to this reporting from Variety, especially when the author started to ruminate about how the service would be available. Technologically, HBO can do anything that Major League Baseball Advanced Media can do. That includes Roku, Android, and game console clients. HBO’s focus is obviously on iOS, and Apple TV, but The Verge would have been better off pointing out the MLBAM relationship than completely wild speculation that confuses their readers.

MLB does sell subscriptions to customers directly, so it would not seem to be a technological limitation. It is possible HBO doesn’t want to directly deal with viewers, or also fears going all-in on that immediately.

Cost

Myke asked Stephen if he felt the cost was reasonable, but Stephen no longer pays for cable, so he wasn’t sure.

I’ll refer you to my previous post covering the cost relative to basic cable packages which offer similar channels:

As I memtioned above, it’s not that much more expensive than basic cable. I am, of course, referring to true basic cable, and not the discounted plans they promote that go up 50-60% after one year. I couldn’t actually find Comcast’s basic cable package on their site. Fortunately, Consumer Reports did the footwork and found out that it’s $16 (receiver included, but no HD or DVR). Time Warner Cable’s package is $20 for a year, and then jumps up to an unspecified amount. Equipment is separate, $12 a month for a basic HD box, and $24 a month for an HD box with DVR. That’s $32 and $44, respectively, before adding in fees.

This was also under the section where I point out that it is likely to include advertising if the rates are so comparable, especially if the networks are primarily motivated by declining ad revenue, and advertisers demanding targeted ads, and analytics.

Stephen is also troubled by the cost of all the a la carte services. He says it’s why people resort to stealing content to save money. As someone that works in the entertainment industry, I am not a super-huge fan of people not paying for entertainment, but that’s my personal bias.

Bundling, and showing ads, are only natural outcomes to try to keep costs down, while still providing a comparable level of service. Apple’s approach, and interests, are different enough from cable TV providers that it should be a better experience even if it is still roughly analogous to what we have now, but will it be attractive to cord-cutters, and cord-nevers?

Despite Stephen’s old-man-ness, he’s actually in the demographic of people that are leaving cable, cord-cutters. His young kids are going to grow up not experiencing cable at all, which is increasingly common, and troubling for entertainment companies, networks, and providers.

On November 28, 2011, a report by Credit Suisse media analyst Stefan Anninger said that young people who grew up accustomed to watching shows online would be less likely to subscribe to pay television services, terming these people as “cord-nevers”. Anninger predicted that by the end of 2012, the industry’s subscriber count would drop by 200,000 to 100.5 million, blaming the economy; Anninger’s report also stated that consumers were not likely to return to paying for television even after the economy recovered. In the case of land-line telephones, people had believed younger people would eventually get them, but now numerous subscribers only have mobile phones. Anninger predicted that the same would hold true for pay television, and that providers would need to offer lower-priced packages with fewer channels in order to reverse the trend.

The Great Barrier

Myke, and Federico are largely dismissive of the Apple TV because it will have very little impact for them where they live. Imaginary boundaries mess up everything. Region locking sucks. Movies are still released in bizarre, year-long international rollouts where the U.K. will have something premiere in theaters while we have something available on home media. Even satellite TV suffers from regions set up to enforce pricing models.

It’s still worth discussing Apple, and TV programming, even if it is just in the U.S. There are 318.9 million people living here, so it is a huge area for potential growth for Apple.

2015-03-18 08:45:00

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You Tell Him I Ain’t No Bandleader

My interest in Apple, and over-the-top services picked up after Apple’s March 9th event when they reduced the price of their Proterozoic set-top box, and announced 3 whole months of exclusive access to the new HBO NOW service.

This seemed insufficient for three years worth of work. Particularly because there have been rumors about new stuff in the works every year. New stuff that gets axed before it ever comes to fruition. Predominantly, the content providers have been blamed for dragging their feet, and withholding valuable programming from OTT services. (This doesn’t satisfactorily explain why nothing has been done with the hardware and software.)

After seeing what happened to sales in the music industry, thanks to iTunes, film and TV companies don’t want to see their content undervalued. Cable providers have also been afraid of being turned into dumb pipes that just move data. Clearly, this is not sustainable, especially when faced with Apple.

The Wall Street Journal, a place Apple typically leaks things to, ran a story that there will be a new OTT service from Apple this fall to coincide with new hardware and software (Here’s a link to Macworld’s post based on the WSJ - that headline). 25 channels, including ABC, and CBS (two of the three major networks (Sorry C-Dubs)). The price? Somewhere between $30 and $40 a month. That’s more expensive than an entry-level monthly plan from a cable provider, but there’s no installation fee, and you don’t rent your Apple TV box with a recurring fee. So it’s not that overpriced, depending on what you want to watch.

Notably absent is NBC, which is part of Comcast, the largest cable and internet service provider in the United States. Thanks for letting that merger go through, you stupid politicians.

The Watch isn’t the Only Thing With Perfect Timing

Apple has been in talks with networks, and content providers for years. The talks with HBO started last spring. Everything was so very slow, and nothing was happening. Apple was also building out their own CDN that could take advantage of any theoretical fast lane, or prioritization. The company had no official statement, in either direction, about Net Neutrality.

On February 26th, The FCC reclassified Internet service and adopted Open Internet rules. There are three main points:

Bright Line Rules:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no “fast lanes.” This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

No, I don’t have a conspiracy theory, so please, save the foil. It is, however, immediately apparent that these rules do help facilitate anyone looking to provide video entertainment over the internet from being obstructed by Comcast, the largest internet service provider in the US.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal says that Apple was trying to work with Comcast until it realized that Comcast was stringing them along to develop their own X1 box. The fact that this is in the Journal, with the rest, makes me think that this is going to turn in to a tale of revenge from a spurned lover, or perhaps a cautionary tale about prized horses, and favors.

Bundle

One major problem with HBO NOW (other than the shouting!) is the price. Not because $14.99 isn’t a good price for on demand movies and original programming, with no subscription, but because it doesn’t scale if you try to apply the same pricing per “channel”. Ordering a la carte will always be more expensive than a package deal. That’s the nature of it.

This package of 25 channels will represent something like the entry-level cable package your cable provider offers. You can add premium content to it, like HBO NOW (and logically other premium services), but the basic package gives you lump of stuff that has value.

A major issue with the current “channels” offered by the Apple TV is a lack of any value. The majority that have content require a cable subscription in order to use them. This cable verification system has been a method the cable providers and networks devised in order to provide “cable anywhere” programming. It’s a flawed system because the agreements between networks and cable companies are not universal.

This also effectively negated any reason to open those Apple “channels” instead of using the cable set-top box. Pretty much missed the point.

Advertising?

I must assume that there will be ads.

As I memtioned above, it’s not that much more expensive than basic cable. I am, of course, referring to true basic cable, and not the discounted plans they promote that go up 50-60% after one year. I couldn’t actually find Comcast’s basic cable package on their site. Fortunately, Consumer Reports did the footwork and found out that it’s $16 (receiver included, but no HD or DVR). Time Warner Cable’s package is $20 for a year, and then jumps up to an unspecified amount. Equipment is separate, $12 a month for a basic HD box, and $24 a month for an HD box with DVR. That’s $32 and $44, respectively, before adding in fees.

So what does that have to do with advertising? Well, it basically proves that the cost of Apple’s package with HD, and on demand, is comparable. Apple would have to charge far more to get the networks to strip ads.

That doesn’t seem super exciting, but consider this: Advertising on cable is a two player system. As breaks feature ads sold by the network, and ads sold by the cable company.

Here’s a lovely page from Comcast all about their spot advertising platform. Here’s a page about analytics that they provide based on various audience measuring services.

Comcast Spotlight relies on sophisticated quantitative and qualitative applications to provide you with customized research to maximize ROI. The quantitative data from Nielsen, comScore, Kantar and others gives you precise analysis of television viewership, online activity, views into the competitive media landscape and more. MRI, Simmons, Scarborough, Nielsen Social and various other resources provide extensive qualitative data on consumers, geographies and social media habits to help you make a more informed decision during the media planning process.

Barf.

Analytics is actually an important issue facing networks because advertisers are increasingly demanding targeted ads. From Variety, Senior TV Editor Brian Steinberg writes about how prime time TV is being pressured to provide advertising solutions akin to online advertising.

Senior executives at both TV networks and some of the industry’s biggest ad-buying firms see a time looming when primetime TV is no longer viewed as TV’s most desirable real estate. Instead, these executives say, a new flow of consumer data and a dizzying array of video-viewing behaviors will prompt advertisers to carve out ad plans that put their pitches in front of very specific groups of people: first-time car buyers, for example, or longtime orange-soda drinkers, or expectant mothers. Chasing those targets, rather than viewers of big-ticket shows like “The Voice” and “Scandal,” could well transform primetime into a cultural artifact like Rubik’s Cube or Donkey Kong – something that was certainly fun while it lasted, but is no longer of the moment.

Advertisers and TV networks have long talked about Nielsen ratings guarantees and a pricing metric known as a CPM (a measure of the cost of reaching 1,000 viewers) as part of the upfront, where U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Now, “technology is pushing that to the back burner,” says one media-buying executive. If advertisers are more interested in capturing very select kinds of audience, the buyer says, they will be less concerned about what time a show comes on the air, and more interested in how and when they viewers they desire more choose to watch it.

Read his full report for all the details, but it confirms what many would suspect: Viewership is down, and ad spending is down. The number of young viewers is really, really down.

Compare this with Hulu. Hulu tracks every ad viewed, and every program watched. Their ad targeting is absolute garbage, but if advertisers think it works then that’s just as good as thinking ad buys based on Nielsen numbers worked.

Apple is no stranger to advertising. They sell ads through their iAd platform for mobile apps on iOS, as well as for their Pandora-esque iTunes Radio service. It underperforms the competition with 2.5% of mobile app advertising.

Does that mean that Apple will serve ads like a cable company does? Will regional businesses be able to buy spots through Apple? Political campaigns? Apple might eschew that completely and only show ads that the network requires. Thus reducing the number of ads shown, and simplifying the experience. It would be money left on the table, but if Apple’s real interest is in device sales (boxes, phones, and tablets) then it could be a way to convince people that it was worth it over basic cable, where they would see more ads. It is an area that cable companies would be reluctant to compete in.

It’s very easy to argue the other direction too, that they would sell their own ads, like cable, in order to finance much of this endeavor.

Of course it all depends on how ads are sold.

Possible Ad Configurations

If we assume some amount of advertisement will occur, then there are a few different ways this could play out.

  • Networks broadcasting the same ads on Apple’s OTT service as they broadcast over their terrestrial and satellite agreements. Bundling those together would make sense because it’s increasing the volume of available viewers, but then it would be difficult to split out metrics, or split out ads, which is what advertisers desire.
  • Networks manage ad buys, but display them through a system Apple provides for tracking anonymous data. This is different from iAd.
  • Networks go completely targeted with the platform.
    • Structurally, if the new “channels” are set up like the current ones, then the content provider is hosting the material themselves, and they can track requests for certain media files from IP addresses and assume they’re all the same. Then, when an ad is requested, one can be served based on what the viewing habits tell them is likely to work for people at the IP address. Not great.
    • Apple could provide targeted advertising to users through their own means, through iAd, like they do for iTunes Radio. This is the Hulu model, which allows for targeted advertising, but it takes networks out of wheeling-and-dealing ad sales. (Seems unlikely.)
    • Apple provides networks with a targeted, anonymous platform, but allows the networks to serve ads they sell themselves to those targets based on the way Apple interprets the audience members.

It’s possible to combine any, and all of that. Especially if different content providers go different directions, and it’s not a uniform advertising approach across all the new “channels”. What Apple currently has on the TV platform is a mishmash of different things so it’s plausible that the bundle might be one cost to the user, but ads are still handled on a one-on-one basis.

2015-03-17 15:45:00

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Power Lawyer Ken Ziffren on Who Wins the Race to Go Over-the-Top ►

The Hollywood Reporter has a guest column posted by a “power lawyer” – They do not specify if he is “mighty” or “morphing” so I’m going to guess both.

He provides a succinct overview of all the OTT efforts being made by traditional studios, traditional networks, and stars from those traditional studios and networks. It doesn’t delve deeply inside how anything works, or acknowledge efforts made by non-traditional entrants, or services.

By “over the top” services, I mean Netflix and Amazon Prime, of course. But I also mean any outlet offering professionally produced content made available on-demand over the Internet (either in lieu of or in addition to linear viewing). Here, content is streamed to connected televisions and other devices. The business model could be subscription, VOD and/or ad-supported. In today’s pay TV industry, cable and over-the-air networks are paid affiliate fees ranging from a few cents to about $6 for ESPN, based on the number of subscribers reached, as opposed to the number of viewers actually watching the programs. The current OTT ecosystem is not following the linear TV model, so subscribers are being asked to pay for only the specific channels to which they subscribe; the appeal is made to millennials, mostly, who are willing to limit channels to escape the $80-plus-a-month tab when they subscribe to cable, a telco or satellite.

Ignore the conclusion where he tries to grade the OTT efforts for their potential to return on their investment. He just kind of hand-waves.

The worst is this line:

With incumbent companies, the criteria is more complicated. For them, I see the goals as improving the stock multiple, increasing the brand recognition and avoiding cannibalization

You can’t avoid cannibalization. Not unless you can make older customers immortal. Which is a power that I’m not sure Ken has.

2015-03-12 13:00:00

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Rocket 9: Channing Tatum Saves Feminism ►

Don’t let this sexy podcast title fool you, this episode mostly analyzes announcements from the Apple event and discusses HBO NOW. Christina Warren discusses the positive aspects of the NOW deal, though I still feel like the three month exclusivity window is fairly disappointing.

2015-03-12 12:10:00

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Companies That Start With “V”

Saba Hamedy, writing for the LA Times, reports that Verizon is purchasing original programming. As I’ve discussed previously, internet services, networks, studios, new media, and old media are dancing around how to handle entertainment — and paying for entertainment. In this particular case, a group that has a YouTube channel was acquired by DreamWorks a few years ago, and now they’re getting contracts to make content directly for an internet provider. This goes around television networks, and traditional production studios, cutting them out of the process.

There’s some unintentionally hilarious stuff:

“The millennials are at that stage where they are forming brand prerferences that will likely last a lifetime,” said Jim Nail, an online video market analyst at Forrester Research. “If brands can’t reach them through old media, they will be desperate to reach them through some of these new innovative channels.”

He’s not wrong but it’s so, so, so funny. Verizon’s primary motivation here is brands, so maybe we’ll wind up with some horrible webisode garbage? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that it can’t really be dismissed.

AwesomenessTV, which DreamWorks Animation purchased for $33 million in 2013, has grown into one of the Web’s biggest multichannel networks for emerging online talent. The network, which has more than 7 billion total views and 112 million subscribers, has served as an important launching pad for YouTube stars.

Please read the rest of Saba’s reporting on this, because it really shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s only the start of further acquisitions of cheaper-to-produce online media being repurposed, instead of expensive-incumbent TV being repurposed for online.

Vox Media, a company known for stylish video pieces, and comparatively high production values, announced Vox Entertainment yesterday. They’ll be creating, and collaborating on scripted content, unscripted content, and even tie-ins with Top Chef. They’re pushing out the material on any avenue, not through a specific network, like Verizon, but with a strong emphasis on the Vox sites as an over-arching brand behind all that they’re doing. It’s really nothing to sneeze at.

While I have reservations about Snapchat’s ability to stick around, Vox Entertinment will be everywhere, so it won’t matter if Snapchat does, or doesn’t exist. They’ll also have the flexibility to figure out what kinds of advertising will work best across the platforms — it is a business.

I keep harping on this point, but the traditional sources of entertainment are artificially propping up a business model that is withering away with their customer base in North America.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote a listicle about “Five Worrisome Moviegoing Trends in 2014“. A year isn’t a trend, but they do go on to actually site things over more than one year, so it’s just a silly headline. The piece specifically talks about the decline in frequent moviegoers in the most valuable demographics, and an increase in old people showing up to movies. Also, everything basically hinges on China’s growth compensating for North America’s decline.

Everything’s just fine, Hollywood. No reason to react to the world changing around you. None whatsoever.

2015-03-12 07:30:00

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Rumor Has It

Yesterday’s blog post over the Apple TV generated a lot of tweets. Once I was up to my neck in tweets, I realized it really should be a post instead.

Gurman

Zach Kahn pointed out that I wasn’t considering Mark Gurman’s reporting about the new Apple TV being held up by content deals. I had considered it, that’s why I had lines in the piece about what Apple can do without content providers being onboard.

Mark Gurman, from 9to5 Mac, writes a lot of leaks, rumors, and sourced material about the internal workings of Apple. What he prints very often turns out to be true, but not always, and more often it’s mostly true. Jason Snell has a really good episode of Upgrade where he discusses receiving tips, in general, and ATP also has some speculation about why people would choose to send anonymous tips to them.

Mark’s inside info from February 10th, 2014:

We reported last fall that a revamped Apple TV set-top-box is in the works, and then we learned earlier this year that the new box would likely be introduced in the first half of 2014. Sources said at the time that the new model would be redesigned (at least on the inside) and would sport new content (perhaps a true App Store or gaming functionality). Since that time, sources indicated that internal prototypes for the new device include AirPort Express-like functionality, a form of enhanced iOS gaming integration, and a TV tuner component for connecting to existing cable setups.

He goes on to talk about the hardware references included in the iOS builds. That does, of course, mean that there is something that hasn’t shipped, but is referenced in official Apple software that has shipped. It doesn’t mean that whatever is internally known as “AppleTV4,1” will go out the door. Indeed, Mark has more current info which suggests it was redesigned again, last fall.

Mark’s March 5th post from before the March 9th Apple event said that they would not be launching a new TV because of additional delays, and wouldn’t have anything TV related to announce.

As for the Apple TV, the new service will be an app that replaces the existing Beats channel. Sources say that Apple is also finishing up work on a slimmer Apple TV set-top-box with a more capable and tactile remote control and a redesigned operating system bundled with an App Store. As of last fall, Apple had hoped to debut a new set top box as soon as this month, but with reports of the discussions between Apple and content providers being in only “early stages”, it seems that, just like last year, content roadblocks could keep the new Apple TV from debuting until another point in the future. As we learned yesterday regarding the larger iPad Pro, Apple will have another busy fall, so perhaps the new Apple TV will launch later in the year.

The event occurred, and the existing TV was talked about, with a discount, as well as a new service. The information Gurman had for the TV turned out to be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean he’s incorrect about a more substantial change being held up — how can you be wrong about something that isn’t announced? It’s not even his fault if they change their minds. Really, I am not speaking ill of him, or his sources, but they’re really not something that should be used as justification for Apple’s inaction.

This is why I didn’t explicitly discuss the rumors in the previous post. I find it fruitless to discuss Apple’s unreleased prototypes that are changing. I implicitly refer to the rumors of content providers holding everything up, and I refute them by citing things in the platform that can be changed that have absolutely nothing to do with the consent of content providers. I refuse to believe that shipping the Apple TV in basically the same form since 2012 is rational.

The Apple Way

Another point Zach Kahn made was that it’s not the Apple Way to ship something that isn’t 100 percent perfect. That’s, like, the Google Way, man. They don’t care like Apple cares. This is demonstrably false. Apple incrementally updates products all the time. They also inconsistently update products. The current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are getting the Force Touch touchpad from the newly announced MacBook, but they’re not getting the USB-C connector. You know.

I don’t buy into this omniscient Apple that knows the perfect time to announce, ship, and package products. They do, without a doubt, have waaaaaaayyyyy more info about what they’re doing than any of us do. I simply don’t believe that means they shouldn’t be critiqued for a product that has been in stasis for three years.

There is a philosophical case to make that they will finally get the perfect moment to launch the next Apple TV, when all the content providers will align with all the component parts, and the angels will sing in harmony, but I think that’s a weird case to make for a three year-old set-top box.

Content Content Providers

There was a suggestion made by Josh Centers that the whole reason to announced the HBO NOW plan was to scare the other content providers. I disagree. I don’t think a three month exclusivity window on a service that is an alternative to an existing cable service is significant leverage over other content providers, or cable companies. If anything, HBO NOW data might be a test to try to convince some providers that are on the fence. Even then, I’m deeply skeptical that anyone feels significantly motivated to abandon what they’re currently doing.

Far more likely scenario is that we’ll continue to see other over-the-top services created by cable/satellite providers, with special restrictions, and package deals, and they’ll have apps that stream to a TV. At that point, it’s not significantly different than the current state of affairs. Dish already shipped their Sling TV service, which has plenty of weird restrictions, and it’s not available for the Apple TV, but is available for iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire, Samsung TVs, etc.

DirecTV (soon to be acquired by AT&T (we’re all fucked!)) has created an over-the-top service for Spanish speaking audiences in the US, Yaveo. It’s also not available for the Apple TV. They’ve also been in the process of securing OTT rights for years so they might be launching something else, or it could be a defensive maneuver to ensure they have the same rights as anyone else that might use those rights (like Dish has with Sling TV). Mutually Assured Over-the-Top.

The largest internet and cable provider, and content provider, Comcast (NBC, Universal) was merged together in a way to defend against OTT. This is, hilariously, the first search result for “comcast over the top”

So, no, I don’t think Apple’s 3 month exclusivity deal with HBO NOW is sending anyone into a tizzy.

That’s also not the point of that previous post, because they have so much latitude to make the device, and viewing experience, better without involving any cable companies, or studios. Tying software and hardware updates to the whims of proven enemies seems irrational.

I have missing rentals from my Apple TV that show up only on my phone because of content providers? No. That’s all on Apple. Comcast also isn’t holding up changes to menus, or icons.

WWDC

Zach also made the case that the 90 days of exclusivity would coincide with a possible time for Apple’s WWDC event this year. I think that’s pure coincidence though. It’s not like they’re going to announce that they lost exclusivity. He does speculate that Apple could announce a product to ship in the fall at this time. If it was the device with the game controllers, and the app store, then yes, but then the whole argument about them waiting around for content providers doesn’t make any sense. All indications seem to be that the content providers aren’t budging right now. Perhaps Apple will release something then, and perhaps it will, as I’ve argued, not rely on the content providers, but that would basically prove my point that they need to ship a significant update, not refute it.

It’s also kind of silly that they’d discount the existing Apple TV for 90 days, and then release a new platform. Unless the new platform will exist over the current one. $69 Apple TV, and $99 Apple TV Pro (giggle). That still means they’d need to update the software on the existing model in some way to align with with the ATV Pro (giggle). Again, this speculation doesn’t refute, or excuse, the current product, or Apple’s inaction.

The panel rumor also came up in the conversation thread, and I’ve felt it’s too big of a leap to go from the current puck to an integrated panel. Eventually, it makes total sense, so my skepticism is simply my gut feeling and I have nothing to support it.

2015-03-11 07:35:49

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The Bold, Old Apple TV

Everyone expected more details on the Apple Watch today at the event in San Francisco. The special 12” retina MacBook had also been teased as a possibility. No one seriously expected any Apple TV news. I’ve cracked a few jokes about it, but even I didn’t think it would really get an update.

It Didn’t Get an Update

They reduced the price by $30, to $69, which means you can now buy an Apple TV and a Chromecast for the same amount of money! What a deal!

The device, the physical hardware, has remained virtually unchanged for several years. The last revision changed some components but didn’t add any hardware features, and that was in January of 2013. Two years of … basically nothing happening. Competitors have entered the market with similar boxes, and some even smaller sticks. They offer channels and access to on-demand content from various sources. Apple TV has the dubious honor of being the only device that will let you stream iTunes Store content to your TV. (You know, when you really want your rental to fail, or a movie to buffer for a projected 5 hours.) Google and Amazon have mostly kept pace with Apple in terms of content that can be purchased online. Apple offers still offers no all-you-can-eat streaming service of it’s own, but does allow for other partners. Amazon isn’t present, and Google’s purchases must be conducted on another device linked to the YouTube account shared with your Apple TV.

The last major revision to the software on the device was also years ago. In the intervening time, updates have brought only the headache of a download and a restart to provide some unheard of service. Since the Apple TV’s software is based on iOS, it’s baffling to me that adding channels requires a restart. Could you imagine restarting every time you installed an app?

While the iTunes Store provides many things for purchase, the other services amount to almost no value at all. Several apps allow for users to pay additional monthly fees to access content (unless it’s sports, which is sometimes under local blackouts).

Apple TV is pretty nice for Netflix though, and it has the largest library of the monthly subscription services on the device (not much of a contest!). Netflix is available on literally everything under the sun that can plug in to a TV, or in most cases even the TV itself. Even premium services, like HBO Go, are available elsewhere.

In a previous diatribe on the state of online media as a whole, I lamented the current stagnation of Apple’s entertainment efforts. If the lack of significant progress is directly tied to the content providers, then that’s bad, but other companies are finding ways to work with content providers, or work around them.

Apple Worked With an Exclusive Content Partner

The biggest news was, of course, that Apple is bringing HBO NOW (an over-the-top service, and shouty name) to the Apple TV. Oh, except it’s only getting that exclusive for 3 months. [Update: This deal also took one year to put together. Read the Re/Code piece on it for more info, and to get some quotes of HBO’s Richard Pleper talking like a cartoon CEO.]

That is not a very long time. I’ve been around for several three-month periods so I feel pretty confident in making that assessment. That is approximately the current window of time between a movie being shown in theaters, and the movie being available to consumers in their home. Think back to the last movie you saw available for home purchase, you know, when you said, “I thought that was just in theaters.” That’s how short this window of exclusivity is. It’s not even as long as most video game exclusives for different game consoles which can typically last a year. Once the exclusivity is over with, will there be any differentiating factor between the Apple TV and the other devices that this is available on other than access to the iTunes Store?

Whither Growth?

Does this drive sales, or does this ensure people are actively using the little plastic boxes tucked in their media centers? I’m guessing it’s the latter since it seems most of the sales are driven by product refreshes.

As we can see on this chart, from Horace Dediu’s site, the biggest sales spikes have been after product refreshes. So why hasn’t the product been refreshed? It would score some points, no?

Today, at the Apple Event, Cook said that Apple has sold 25 million units to date.

In May of 2013, Tim Cook said that 14 million Apple TVs have been sold.

“Frankly, the popularity of the Apple TV has become much larger than we thought it would. We aren’t marketing it.”

Yes, this is very apparent to me, Tim, thanks.

Fortunately, thanks to the lack of any upgrades at all, it’s pretty easy to do the math and determine that Apple sold 11 million of the 2013 model over the last 2+ years. That’s not exactly explosive growth, but it is a large install base of mostly identical appliances at a rate of about 1.3 million units per quarter. After the initial price drop, and smaller form factor, the device was about to pass a million units total in late 2010. In January of 2012, Cook said they sold “a bit above 2.8 million units, and just in the past quarter, we set a new quarterly record for Apple TV at over 1.4 million.”

The iPhone, in contrast, is sold 51 million units from October to December in 2014 alone. That’s double the entire install base of Apple TVs. This is not a case of iPhone owners buying Apple TV so they can use AirPlay with their TVs. Even if we compare sales to the iPad, which were 26 million for that same quarter, that’s still more than all of the Apple TVs ever sold. That press release for the quarter makes no mention at all of the Apple TV in any form.

Apple’s largest pool for future-buyers has always been its existing customers. With no update to the model, what would compel any of the people that own those 25 million units to upgrade what’s in their home? Obsolescence hasn’t been a factor in 3 years.

My (joking) open letter:

Dearest Tim,

Hey, bro, what’s up? Nada mucho here. I was wondering if you guys have considered doing literally anything to refresh the Apple TV? I have a couple freebies for you:

  1. You bros love gold right now. It’s totes sweet. Why not just make a gold one? That doesn’t even mean you need to change anything!
  2. Make a stick. Sticks are so in right now.
  3. Software refresh. It’ll feel like a new model, because hey, you can market it and it looks different. You can still push the update out and claim a consistent install base across all the Apple TVs.
  4. Streamline the setup and operation of the device. Your remote is stupid and painfully irritating to most of humanity. The Remote app for iOS would be fine if it didn’t seem to want to completely jump out of RAM and reload every time I wanted to use it.
  5. Crush the bugs. There are tons of them, mostly involving rentals and purchases, which is strange because that’s where you stand to actually make money off the thing you are selling people.
  6. Build in a way, a button right there on the movie page, to convert a rental to a purchase. It’s possible to do, but not easy, which makes very little sense.
  7. Universal search, Spotlight, to find media across all the services.

This is low-hanging fruit that requires the consent of no content partners.

Things that would require the consent of content partners, but would make your platform more enticing to people looking to purchase it, or as a device current owners might recommend to other humans:

  1. Force rentals. The studios want to push the value of “owning” content, and rentals undercut that, but persuade the studios that you have a brilliant way to leverage rentals into purchases, and it’s called making the movie worthwhile for people to keep it. It’s a crazy mechanism that requires the studio to exert a little effort.
  2. Allow users to lend purchased movies to other iTunes users. It’s all in the cloud anyway. Amazon has been able to do this with Kindle.
  3. Produce your own behind-the-scenes iTunes Extras. You might not be able to make your own movies without ruffling studio feathers, but surely you can obtain access to produce Apple-quality featurettes that make purchasing content from iTunes more valuable than it currently is, where it’s mostly what’s available from different DVD and Blu-Ray extras. There should even be previews of those extras to entice people considering a purchase.

I have lots of other thoughts that are mostly inapplicable to your business, so please don’t hesitate to call me about those.

Love ya,

Joe

2015-03-09 23:59:00

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