Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.

disc-free Netflix on Wii at last

great news, you don’t need the disc anymore to stream content fron Netflix on the Wii!

Starting today, Netflix customers in the US and Canada can instantly stream content through their Wii consoles without the need to fire up a disc first.

Netflix says members who have a plan starting at $8.99 a month (or $7.99 in Canada), a Wii and an Internet connection can now instantly watch movies and TV shows by downloading the application from the Wii Shop Channel.

The new channel is available at no extra cost.

I am finding netflix streaming to be a great way to sample some of the older anime fare in particular that I have missed out on.

Wii + Netflix = geek rapture

forget the Singularity (bah, humbug) – the real moment of transcendence approacheth. I just saw via @arstechnica that Netflix discs for Wii owners are being shipped out. Should have mine by next week!

This is bad news for Roku, because I was literally about to buy one when I first learned of Netflix on Wii. I still might be persuaded to buy a popbox eventually, but the Netflix/Wii combo will suffice for some time.

UPDATE: I just got the email from Netflix – my disc will arrive tomorrow. Don’t forget to grab yours at http://netflix.com/wii for free!

Also – the Netflix blog has a cheery blurb:

Jessie Becker here from Marketing and we’ve got some great news to share. We are in the final phase of getting ready for the launch of streaming to Wii. Today, we shipped out instant streaming discs for the Wii to some of our Netflix members. Their feedback will ensure that we deliver a great experience to everyone when we launch. Instantly watching movies and TV episodes from Netflix via Wii will be available soon at no additional cost – all you need is a Netflix unlimited plan starting at $8.99 a month, a Wii console and a broadband Internet connection. If you have reserved your disc already, you don’t need to do anything – we will send you an email as soon as we ship the disc. If you haven’t, reserve your disc today at www.netflix.com/Wii and stay tuned for a launch announcement!

the battle for the box

The Set-top Box Wars continue. Amazon is offering $20 in video download credit to anyone buying a Roku XR or Roku HD until March 31; the Popbox is due to be released in a few weeks (here’s a hands-on demo at SXSW); and now Google is getting into the act with hardware built by logitech and running Android and Chrome. Oh and don’t forget Boxee.

It’s starting to feel like that scene in Moscow on the Hudson where the guy collapses while trying to choose coffee (one of only two scenes I remember from that movie). Just like cell phones, I’m basically paralyzed by (as yet unreleased) choices. I do have my Netflix Wii disc preordered (which was free, admittedly).

Incidentally, I’m still waiting for a Certain Otaku to review his Popcorn Hour. You know who you are 🙂

Netflix coming to Wii

This was expected, and welcome news indeed: Netflix streaming is coming to the Wii in March.

Screw the Roku or popbox, man, between my DVD player and Wii I’ve got 95% of my bases covered now. And the Wii’s lack of HD support isn’t a big deal – for streaming, standard-def is actually better anyway, and most TV is still standard def anyway.

I think the console makers need to realize that they could basically swallow the market share of devices like Roku, Boxee, popbox, etc whole just by adding software support for video formats, a USB port, and WiFi to their next generation consoles.

I just logged into my netflix acct and reserved my Netflix Wii disc which unlocks the streaming. Ships automatically to my address! one click.

Boxee and Popbox gunning for Roku

I’ve prevously mentioned the Roku digital player as a game changer for home entertainment, but haven’t actually bought one yet. It looks now like there’s some serious competition to Roku, which is of course a good thing. The first is Boxee, which has a software-only variant you download to yor PC and also actual hardware slated for release this year. Like Roku, the Boxee box has simple connections for your TV, has built-in wifi, and USB for external drives. Boxee also has an SD card slot and intriguingly, a full QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote. It isn’t clear if Boxee supports Netflix or the Amazon video store, but unfortunately Boxee was forced to yank Hulu support recently. Boxee is expected to cost about $200, which about twice what Roku costs.

The other challenger to Roku is popbox, which is an evolution of the Popcorn Hour box which Nick has been using (and promising to blog about for ages! *nudge* *nudge*). The popbox looks to be a simpler deice than Popcorn Hour’s flagship model the C-200, and promises support for pretty much every file format out there (including MKV, which doesn’t seem to be supported by Roku). Popbox will support netflix, and also crunchy roll which pretty much screams “otaku buy me!” – and its price is more comparable to Roku at $129 (available in March). The only downside is that it doesn’t come with wifi included, you have to shell out a little for that.

So, whats a prospective consumer like me to do? The ideal device for me would be to support every possible format (like popbox), built-in wifi (like boxee and roku), and be priced no higher than $150. And of course netflix support is the key. Its worth noting that both popbox and boxee also will have app development platforms so presumably someone could add support for other services. I also imagine that Roku isn’t going to sit back withouut any competitive response; if Roku could add MKV support then I’d probably still favor it over these other more featured, but more complicated and expensive, options. That has to be a simple firmware or software update, I imagine.

Regardless, it’s great to see how this market is coming along. With the death of disc imminent, it’s where the future is. You can easily imagine someone taking a BD player and adding a Roku to it and making a complete convergence device. In fact, what if Nintendo were to do that with Wii v2.0 – have it be a BD player like the PS3 and also support all these features in software? Given all the hype about mobile device convergence (camera+phone+PDA+apps) it makes sense that we would see a trend towards convergence in our living rooms. Theres no reason I should have to have a separate device for DVDs, games, and digital entertainment. The PS3 is closest to this now, in fact – but its expense still sets it apart. A fully converged device as I describe above, my hypothetical Wii 2.0, shoudl be priced no higher than $300 to really make inroads.

Related: article on Popbox at Electronista

Roku digital video player: game-changer for home entertainment

Digital video has its advantages over discs, but also suffers from a major flaw. I have to admit that (unlike others who are more diligent) I haven’t taken full advantage of the Netflix streaming video service, because I find that being tied to the PC screen just isn’t the most convenient location for watching movies. I do use Hulu.com a bit but still, it’s being tethered to the PC that really inhibits usage. I’ve found that I do watch a lot more anime now, though, because I can torrent the AVI files, put them on a USB jumpdrive, and watch them on my DVD player (which has a USB connection). However, that process is time-consuming since you need to download the whole video file before watching, and of course there’s the inconvenience (not to mention legal gray area) of finding torrents in the first place.

Roku digital video player
Roku digital video player
This is why Roku’s new digital video player
box is so exciting. Unlike the latest piece of s^&t from Sony, the Roku player is a simple and small box with the standard video outputs (component, HDMI) and an ethernet jack, plus built-in wifi. It connects to the internet over your home network, plugs into your TV, and brings Netflix streaming-on-demand and Amazon.com’s video store right to your living room. The concept works because it’s so simplistic and cleanly executed – it doesn’t do anything else. Even the remote is a piece of utilitarian art.

There are other ways to get Netflix streaming onto your television – for example, the Samsung BD-P2500 Blu-Ray player, which adds the streaming capability. But at $300, it’s three times the cost of the Roku (and doesn’t support Amazon). Amazon’s video store lets you rent or buy movies and television and rivals Hulu.com and the iTunes store for selection, so the Roku really almost replaces the need to go to a retail video rental store like Blockbuster in a way that Netflix alone never could.

If digital downloads are going to really kill off the physical-disc format, it won’t be until devices like Roku become mainstream. And at the price point of $99, that’s not too far off at all.