Spring Streaming Update: 2015
As the first tulips of spring poke their way through the snow, we’re looking back at some of the recent developments in the world of OTT video. And despite a brief lull in the action, we’re once again seeing new services pop up, just as others vanish. So without further ado, here’s our Spring Streaming Update for 2015:
Shuttered Services: Samsung Video Hub, Redbox Instant, and Target Ticket
The shutdown started with Samsung, which closed down its Video Hub on August 1, 2014. Video Hub streamed only to Samsung smart TVs and mobile devices, and allowed users to purchase and rent movies and TV episodes.
A few months later, on October 7th, Redbox Instant closed its doors. The service, a joint venture between Verizon and Redbox (part of Outerwall), bundled unlimited streaming video with Blu-ray and DVD rentals from Redbox kiosks. But Redbox Instant failed to gain traction with customers, in part because it was slow to roll out to new devices and the streaming catalog looked an awful lot like Netflix, only with fewer titles.
Target Ticket soon followed suit, with the retailer announcing it will cut off the transactional streaming service on March 7th. Target’s service didn’t offer any unlimited streaming – like Walmart’s VUDU, it offered streaming titles to rent or buy only. But with the exception of parental guidance ratings from Common Sense Media, there wasn’t much to differentiate Target Ticket from its more established competitors.
For customers who purchased video from these services, you should still be able to access your content — but it may be a tricky process. Redbox Instant and Video Hub are making subscribers’ video purchases and credits available via M-GO, and Target Ticket will be sending its customers to CinemaNow (the streaming venture that Best Buy picked up back in 2010).
At best, customers will need to sign up with another service just to get access to the titles they already own. But different services often have different agreements with studios, so there are no guarantees that every title you purchased through a cancelled service will be available through its replacement.
The End for UltraViolet?
On a somewhat related note, we’ve been hearing rumblings for months now that the UltraViolet initiative may be winding down. When we wrote about UltraViolet nearly three years ago, the service – which acts as a “digital locker” to let you access copies of movies you purchase – had buy-in from all the major studios except Disney and MGM. Instead of joining UltraViolet, Disney introduced a competing service called Disney Movies Anywhere back in February 2014, and now UltraViolet’s studio partners are reportedly in talks about joining forces with Disney.
But at least as of last December, UltraViolet was optimistic, adding new studio partners and anticipating new growth as it expanded to more countries. It’ll be interesting to see how the spin shakes out on this one…
New OTT Streaming Service: Sling TV
And finally, lest you think this post is all about services closing their doors, we do have a new addition in the form of Sling TV – a new web TV service from Dish Network, which launched to the public February 9th. Back in 2012, Dish partnered with Sling Media, makers of the Slingbox, to bring out-of-home streaming to the set-top boxes known as “The Hopper.”
The new Sling TV service is delivered purely OTT, with live TV and VOD from a lineup of about 15 cable networks for $20/month (with more being added, including AMC last week). We’ve been testing out the new service and will be back shortly with an in-depth review. Stay tuned!
Dear UltraViolet: You Have Front-Office Issues
For the past couple years, we’ve heard a lot about UltraViolet – an initiative brought about by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), a consortium of movie studios, electronics manufacturers and retailers.
In short, UltraViolet allows you to access a digital copy of a DVD or Blu-ray disc you’ve just bought. The motto is “Buy Once, Play Anywhere,” and the idea is to make it as easy to purchase and play a title electronically, as it is to pop a DVD into any DVD player, no matter where you are.
Ultimately, of course, it’s a money thing. Studios understandably want viewers to continue to purchase their titles, but as physical media transitions to digital media, it’s gotten difficult, because of all the fragmentation in playback.
Meanwhile, Netflix and other rental/streaming options continue to flourish.
UltraViolet-enabled DVDs and Blu-ray discs come with a code that allows the owner to access the same video from the cloud (of whichever retailer was the point of sale), and on multiple devices.
Unlike iTunes Digital Copy, which handles both the Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the content, UltraViolet is a “digital locker” – that is, it handles the DRM but doesn’t actually store the content.
Currently, there are about 100 titles available though UltraViolet, with 5 of the 6 major movie studios on board, plus independent studio Lionsgate (though not all make movies available through the service yet). Disney, the only big studio not on board, is taking a “wait and see” approach, according to CEO Bob Iger.
In addition to being packaged in with new release titles, UltraViolet now allows consumers to buy access to digital copies of the discs they already own. Earlier this month, for instance, Walmart began offering an UltraViolet Disc to Digital service, meaning customers can bring in their DVDs or Blu-ray discs to a store, and purchase rights to stream and download those titles, through Walmart’s Vudu service.
It’s not clear how many titles are available at launch, but it’ll cost at least $2 to get a digital copy of the same resolution, and $5 to go from DVD to an HD version.
Samsung is also adding Disc to Digital support to its Smart Blu-ray players this year, through the Flixster app. This means owners will be able to pop an eligible DVD or Blu-ray disc into the player and register ownership, after which they can access an UltraViolet copy for a “nominal fee.”
Depending on the studio, the digital copy may be streaming-only or available for download. And here lies the catch: UltraViolet only guarantees streaming and/or download rights “for at least one year after purchase.”
While that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be cut off after a year, it does mean that you should probably download your UV movies sooner rather than later. And in the case of the studios that don’t actually allow you to download your movies, you may have to pay extra for streaming access to the titles you own after a year is up.
I signed up for UltraViolet through the Flixster app on my iPad, enticed by a promotion for a free movie download of my choice.
Flixster is part of Warner Brothers, and is currently the closest thing to a unified UltraViolet interface (though only half of the studios backing UltraViolet allow their content to be accessed through Flixster.)
Once I signed up for both Flixster and UltraViolet using Facebook, I checked out the free movie selection and tried to view more information on one of the titles.
Alas. Somehow, in seeking more info, I accidentally locked it in as my final selection with a single tap. Fortunately, just as I was getting frustrated, Flixster announced that I was getting a bonus free movie on top of the one I’d just accidentally selected. And then it deposited a link to stream or download “He’s Just Not That Into You” into my library. (Ummm … thank you?)
I did ultimately manage to successfully download a movie to my iPad through the Flixster app, but when I went back to the app a couple days later, I got a pop-up notification that I hadn’t confirmed my email address, and needed to log in to the UltraViolet site on a computer before I could access my collection. Iy-yi-yi.
Alas, again: The Facebook credentials I used to sign up through Flixster weren’t recognized by UltraViolet. As a result, I’ve been locked out of my UltraViolet account for the last two weeks. I’ve been assured that the UltraViolet team is “reviewing my issue and will respond as quickly as possible,” but in the meantime this means I’ve got a full-length movie taking up space on my iPad, and I’m unable to access or even delete it. Naturally, my solution to this problem is to just delete the Flixster app altogether.
As I see it, the problem with UltraViolet is this: in trying to unify a fragmented marketplace in a hurry, they have given users an extremely fragmented front-office experience. While some studios give us a choice of different sources for their video, such as iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, others only work with Flixster or proprietary apps.
And for those of us who don’t already own a lot of physical media (and don’t have kids who want to watch the same title over and over and over – I’m told this happens 😉 — there’s not really any incentive to shell out for an UltraViolet copy. That said, although some studios are beginning to offer UltraViolet-only titles, you’ll pay a lot more for those than the same content on iTunes or Amazon.
DECE says that in the next few months it will make the UltraViolet service more consistent, with enhancements such as a Common File Format — so a single downloaded file will work on multiple devices. This is a start, but I don’t really see UltraViolet taking off unless they quickly ramp up the number of titles available and make them all available through a unified app.