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!
An Update on Redbox Instant
A few months ago, I reviewed the latest streaming service to hit the lab, Redbox Instant by Verizon. Back then it was still in the beta test phase, and the experience (and lack of content) made that all too clear.
But the beta tests are over, and Redbox Instant launched publicly on June 3rd. So how is it doing now?
Devices and Playback:
Redbox Instant originally worked only on mobile phones, tablets, and computers, with an Xbox 360 app added during the beta phase. In early June, GoogleTV devices (2nd-generation and later; the Intel-based devices don’t work) got a Redbox app too. What’s more, we’re told we’ll have an app on Roku before the summer’s over.
I tried out the GoogleTV app (which doesn’t automatically appear with the latest update — you have to search for it in the Play Store) and I liked the interface well enough, but the app crashed a couple times during playback. Though to its credit, the app did remember where it left off and was able to resume when it crashed.
Of course, with any new app glitches will be discovered and resolved, so this kind of thing is somewhat expected. You may recall that I experienced a few playback issues with the iPad app for Redbox Instant, back when I tested it during the beta phase. Those issues have cleared up and the Redbox app now performs as well as any other video service on my slow connection. We’re expecting the same from the GoogleTV app, and the Roku app when it eventually launches (don’t disappoint us now, Redbox.)
I also found that the resolution was noticably lower on Redbox than when I streamed the same title on the same device through Netflix — while Netflix and Hulu Plus have some titles at 1080p, Redbox and Amazon Prime top off at 720p. This was especially pronounced on my slow DSL connection at the farm, so I think the way each service handles adaptive streaming plays a role as well (in our experience Netflix seems to be particularly good at this.)
Redbox Instant’s web interface
Last time, I complained about the fact that Redbox Instant has very little subscription streaming content, and that most of what’s available isn’t exclusive – so if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, there’s not much on Redbox that’ll be new to you. That’s still largely the case, though we have seen Redbox’s streaming catalog expand to about 8,000 titles since the beta launch (for comparison, Amazon Prime has about 33,000 titles in its unlimited streaming catalog.)
The latest streaming content from Redbox (on Google TV)
The catalog is still movies only, no TV, and it still combines titles that you can see for free with your subscription with those that you have to pay extra and/or drive to a kiosk to pick up. While they offer the flexibility of unlimited streaming and per-transaction titles, and you can do things from the app like reserve titles at a kiosk, it all starts to feel a bit cluttered. There are filters for each content source – kiosk, rental, and subscription – but I occasionally found myself accidentally browsing everything of just the unlimited streaming content. It’s hard enough to choose something to watch, without deciding on a title and then realizing you have to drive to a kiosk or pay extra to watch it.
Browsing titles to rent or buy on Google TV
What’s next for Redbox Instant?
Like virtually every other streaming video service, Redbox Instant plans to create some original content in the future. According to CEO Shawn Strickland, the primary focus will be family-oriented programming, a genre he claims is lacking in other services. (We’re not so sure – Amazon has three new original childrens’ series planned, and just scored a deal with Viacom to pick up a bunch of Nickelodeon programming. Not to mention Netflix’s exclusive deal with Disney.)
But if you listen to Redbox tell it, they don’t want or need to compete with Netflix and the other services – disc rentals are an important part of their plan, as that allows their customers to get new releases from a kiosk before they’re available to stream. Their plan is to focus on disc rentals and then upsell streaming packages to those customers who are already heavy users of Redbox kiosks. So they’re betting that there’s still enough life in physical media to carry them through.
Us, we’re not so sure. But we’ll be watching to see how this all shakes out.