Thursday, August 30, 2012

The "Seamless" sourcing of video content from multiple aggregation services

10 years ago, life was simple in your living room.  You really had 3 libraries of content to worry about:
  1. the 500 channels of content you were receiving from your Cable, Telco, or Satellite provider, 
  2. the collection of DVD's on your shelf, and
  3. the available plethora of DVDs to rent at your local Blockbuster.  
But even simpler then was the fact that there were only a few rights windows, and as a consumer, you understood them pretty well:

  • Movies came out at the theater first, and then a few months later were available to rent (eg Blockbuster) or purchase (many locations) on the same day.
  • A few months after this, they started appearing in your premium TV networks (eg HBO, Showtime).
  • A few months after this, they came out on the standard, non-premium broadcast networks.
Video entertainment was easy, despite the poor available search methods of channel surfing your EPG and browsing your shelf or local store's shelves.

In 2012, you are perplexed by a long list of growing of (sometimes exclusive) digital sources of content with different restrictions and availability dates.  Some titles are available for sale but not for rent (eg iTunes, Vudu, Amazon).  Some titles are available for rent, but not in your subscription service (eg Netflix Streaming, Amazon Prime).  Sometimes the digital version is available the same day as the DVD/Blu-ray is available in stores for sale, but even the physical DVD rental has different availability dates in the few remaining Blockbuster stores and the Netflix mail service than it does at the RedBox kiosks in your local grocery store.  Throw in TV catch-up services where the DVD is often available after it is available for free or subscription online and you are thoroughly confused.  Or at least should be.

Sure you now have more powerful search capabilities in your EPG and digital video services, but finding what you want to watch often involves checking multiple services for availability and then deciding which option gives you the best living room experience--and it all takes time and effort.


But there are a few technologies and service providers who want to try to make your life simple again, but be forewarned: the challenge ahead is steep.

There are young and innovative apps (eg BuddyTV, Matcha, and Fanhattan) that are trying to help deliver a search capability across multiple content aggregation services, and in some cases, will help you play that video directly to your entertainment device.  There are innovative"cloud" ownership models at iTunes and Amazon, allowing you to effortlessly access content from multiple devices.  The pay TV operators (eg Comcast, DirecTV) and premium TV networks (eg HBO, Showtime) are pushing a TVEverywhere strategy, allowing you to access their restricted content on almost any device (in the home).  And finally, the content industry is trying to launch a service called UltraViolet that will allow you to purchase physical DVD's and Blu-ray and obtain a "cloud" copy of the same title that is available in a number of digital video services.

Let's take a quick review of what the future might hold.  The average tablet or smartphone user is now getting their video content from a plethora of sources.  Typically, he or she has access to some pay TV operators networks (eg Comcast, DirecTV) with its accompanying TVEverywhere service..  Additionally they often have a digital subscription service (eg Netflix, Hulu).  They are also renting and purchasing titles through digital video service providers (iTunes, Vudu, Amazon), potentially with some associated cloud service.  And yes, the vast majority of content is still physically rented or purchased on  a DVD or Blu-ray (potentially with UltraViolet).

So to truly solve your problems, you need an easy to use (and I would suggest tablet-based) app that allows you tell it which services you have access to and which devices you own.  For example, you might want to tell that service provider you are using AT&T's U-verse for linear channels, have Netflix and Hulu, have purchased titles on iTunes and Vudu, prefer renting titles from one of several services, and have purchased a number of titles on UltraViolet.  You then might want to tell it that you prefer watching content on either your big screen TV (and which devices serve up that content) and/or your iPad.

What does today's reality looks like:

  • BuddyTV let's you tell it which of several pay TV network operators you have in your house and will ask you for your sign-on credentials for popular subscription services.  Then, as you search, browse, or hope to discover content, it will show you the available content, and if available on your set top box (live channel, DVR, VOD) will serve it on your first screen (integration with STBs is great, getting the right device to serve up everything else isn't easy).
  • Matcha takes a slightly different approach and assumes your tablet is your intended viewing device from the start and even plays most content directly after your decision with one-click, but it does not attempt to integrate your local pay TV operator.
  • Fanhattan currently has the most extensive list of sources of content, but acts more like a librarian did in days of yore, pointing you to the right service and leaving you to figure out how to get the video content to your viewing screen.
  • Vudu is integrating it's own available library with your Vudu and UltraViolet purchased titles, but no 3rd party service is integrating all of those great "cloud-based" titles you own, and the few apps attempting to integrate your physical DVDs are too painful of an experience to mention.
Assuming we are at the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" or possibly in the "Trough of Disillusionment" on this feature set, how does this complex problem get solved?  
  • Well part of the answer will come from metadata service providers like TMS, FYI and Rovi who will work with subscription and cloud video service providers to be able to serve up better metadata about what is available when and where.  
  • Part of the answer will lie in the nascent discovery segment where service providers like Digitalsmiths, ThinkAnalytics and Jinni are working to create algorithms that can "see" across multiple content sources.  
  • Part of this will have to be work delivered by the video aggregation services themselves, allowing 3rd party APIs to query cloud-ownership of your account in addition to the available content for purchase, rental or subscription viewing.  
  • And finally, the last mile has to be delivered by your 3rd party app or video service provider of choice (assuming your local cable company or iTunes one day start offering you the ability to see content outside their network).  The user experience (UX) can make or break any technical solution.

So do not despair.  All of the answers are technically feasible and my bet is you will see services like BuddyTV, Matcha, and Fanhattan (and soon to launch Dijit and M-Go) continue to make progress against these integration points, eventually making your life as simple as it was 10 years ago, with the promise of "video on demand" which you actually want to watch finally delivered.



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