Promoting new TV through p2p

Factory new Spike TV show distributed through p2p It's a needle-in-a-haystack world for new TV shows, particularly when they're on cable. That's why so many networks put pilot episodes online well in advance of the series premiere. Still, the Viacom-owned cable network Spike seems to be going one important step beyond its peers in its efforts to build an audience. Not only is it making the first episode of the new series "Factory" available in advance on its website and through downloadable video stores, it's also trying to spread it through Limewire and other file-sharing networks. Without DRM, or seemingly any form of copy protection.

Spike is working with Jun Group, a firm that specializes in promoting media through p2p networks. Mitchell Reichgut, a principal in Jun Group, acknowledged that other TV programmers had used p2p technology to distribute shows (witness the broad support for Joost, or NBC's work with Pando Networks). But those distributions "have taken place in enclosed, rights-protected `fish bowls,'" Richgut said in an e-mail, while "Spike is swimming in the `ocean' - open P2P networks - where Spike's viewers regularly seek out the latest and greatest new content." In other words, Spike isn't using p2p technology to cut its distribution costs. It's doing it to chase viewers.

Todd Ames, a marketing vice president at Spike, said in an interview that putting the show on file-sharing networks was an acknowledgment of "what people are really doing, and the way consumers are really looking for content." Using DRM, he said, would be self-defeating. "I don’t think there’s a marketer out there who hasn’t been told, `Get me that viral thing.' And `get me that viral thing' when it’s handcuffed and ball-and-chained is pretty difficult."

It's not something he'd do for just any show, but it made sense for "Factory," a semi-scripted comedy about four working-class buddies (it aspires to be a blue collar version of "The Office" or "Entourage."). "There is no better marketing tool for the show than the show itself, but you’ve got to be seen," he said. "I’m dealing with something that has no real celebrity, and has never been seen before.... We’re trying for a bit of a ubiquity here, to go where the people are."

Still, those file-sharing networks are hotbeds of TV piracy, so Spike's approach is more of a toe-dip than a cannonball. You won't see any TV commercials on Spike touting the availability of "Factory" on Limewire. (All the same, Richgut expects more than 1 million downloads of the pilot. Jun Group's secret sauce is its ability to use metadata and other techniques to help the files it promotes bubble to the surface in p2p searches.) Nor does Spike plan to make later episodes available through file-sharing networks, although it expects bootleg versions to wind up there anyway. "My goal is not website traffic," Ames said. "It's really about driving tune-in for the television network."

Of course, if Spike could guarantee an additional million views of "Factory" through p2p, it might make sense to distribute the whole series that way -- with commercials, that is. But Ames said the medium still has to prove its ability to deliver individual shows to the kinds of mass audiences they can reach on cable. The Spike network is available in 96 million cable and satellite homes, after all. The online video business isn't there yet.

"Factory," which has been available online since Tuesday, premieres June 29. Here's a taste of the show, courtesy of the Spike website:


 

More on movies going to cable before DVD

Mpaa_petition An astute reader of my earlier post regarding a possible new, earlier window for movies at home pointed out something significant that I'd missed. Rather than being an isolated initiative, the earlier window fits into a continuum of efforts to create a secure, copy-protected pathway into and around the home for high-def programming. Those efforts could eventually give Hollywood inordinate influence over the technologies used in home networks and device-to-device communications.

To recap: the MPAA has asked the Federal Communications Commission to let it use a copy protection technique called "selectable output control" on high-def movies made available through cable and satellite TV operators before the titles were available on DVD. SOC enables studios to turn off the analog and unencrypted digital outputs from cable boxes and satellite receivers to prevent unauthorized copying. The FCC had banned the technique for existing services, such as pay per view, but left the door open to it being used in connection with an innovative new offering.

The MPAA's petition says that titles would be affected only during the period prior to their release on DVD. Once the movie is in Blockbuster, the people who'd been shut out by SOC -- those whose TV sets relied on analog or unencrypted digital inputs -- would have no trouble viewing it. But a pair of footnotes that I'd overlooked in the petition point out that next-generation home-video formats may also include SOC. These include downloadable movies and Blu-ray discs. So if Hollywood restricts high-def releases of movies to the new early-release window, Blu-ray discs and downloadable files, it could make SOC the rule, not the exception -- at least until the films reach HBO and broadcast TV.

That's not to begrudge Hollywood's desire for more protection on high-def titles. The problem here, IMHO, is the potential for the studios to control which protection technologies devices use. Under the FCC's broadcast flag rules (which a federal court struck down in 2005), the commission, not copyright holders, had the power to decide which anti-piracy techniques were acceptable. One example of why this matters: the commission approved the anti-piracy scheme for TiVo's TiVo To Go feature over the objections of the MPAA and the NFL. But with SOC, the FCC has no say over what's an acceptable level of protection. That leaves Hollywood with a great deal of sway over which anti-piracy technologies get deployed. Of course, the studios want their movies to be seen, too. If consumers rally behind home entertainment and networking equipment that's not compatible with the studios' favored  protection techniques,  the studios will have to adapt to that reality. That's one of the reasons the major record companies finally embraced unprotected MP3 files -- they proved to be the best way to reach the largest audience.

 

Movies on cable before DVD?

Mpaa_logo The MPAA has offered a deal to the Federal Communications Commission that could bring movies to cable and satellite viewers more quickly after their original release. The trade-off, though, is that the movies couldn't be viewed by some high-definition TVs, nor could they be recorded by stand-alone TiVos. The FCC moved quickly to invite public comments on the MPAA's petition, meaning that it could decide the issue later this summer.

Kung_fu_panda Ars Technica reported this story over the weekend, emphasizing the restrictions on recording and the unusual alacrity of the FCC's response. To me, however, the more intriguing element is the studios' interest in creating a new release window for home viewing of high-def movies. Today, studios release the DVD version of a film about four months after it hit the multiplexes (bombs often are released sooner, and hits sometimes take longer). Cable pay-per-view and VOD services have to wait another 30 to 45 days for the movie, although Warner Bros. has started experimenting with simultaneous DVD and VOD release. These delays are designed to preserve box-office and DVD sales, but they also concede the market to bootleggers. There's no legitimate way to watch "Kung Fu Panda" at home today, but there's no shortage of illegitimate ones.

In its petition, the MPAA says each of the major Hollywood studios wants to explore deals with cable and satellite operators that would make high definition versions of their movies available prior to their release on DVD. No details about the price or timing were included, but one would expect the movies to carry a premium. To a family of four, paying $30 to see a (relatively) new movie in high def at home might seem like a reasonable offer, compared to paying $50 for tickets and popcorn at the multiplex. Of course, the reasonableness of the premium would depend on how soon the movie became available.

Now here's the tradeoff.

Read on »

 

CDT on watermarks and privacy

Center_for_democracy_and_technology The Center for Democracy and Technology weighed in today on the delicate subject of privacy and digital watermarks, recommending a series of best practices for protecting consumers against the unauthorized use of personal information. It's a tricky issue because watermarks -- unique digital identifiers that can't be detected with the naked eye -- are emerging as an anti-piracy tool, in which case the whole point is to identify the source of an infringing file. Nevertheless, as the 17-page report (download here) notes, even watermarks used for such purposes are subject to abuses that could invade innocent consumers' privacy or, worse, expose them to lawsuits for infringements they did not commit. And as the use of watermarks in online and digital media spreads, the threats proliferate. As the report puts it:

Perhaps the most frequently raised privacy concern is the idea that watermarks could enable increased monitoring, recording, or disclosure of an individual’s media purchases or usage. The fear, in other words, is that watermarking could compromise an individual’s ability to use and enjoy lawfully acquired media on a private, anonymous basis. Particular media usage choices could be sensitive if exposed, or could contribute to the creation of profiles of individuals’ overall media purchase and consumption habits, which might be used in ways that the individuals do not expect or understand. Other possible privacy concerns include the risk that watermarks could contain personal information that could be exposed to third parties, and the risk that errors in or manipulation of watermark data could paint a false picture of an individual’s behavior and perhaps lead to adverse consequences, including potential legal liability.

Read on »

 

Napster and MP3, together again

Napster_kitty_loves_mp3 The original Napster didn't invent the MP3 format, but it did more than any other software company to popularize it. That, of course, was its undoing. Now, almost seven years after Napster went under, the company that bought the its name in a bankruptcy auction is making its first foray into selling MP3s. It's late to the party, but at least it's making a big entrance -- the new Napster has more than 6 million MP3s for sale, the largest collection of any online retailer (excluding those with dubious licenses). Like Amazon.com, it has MP3s from all the major record companies. But Napster Chief Operating Officer Christopher Allen says his company's selection is about three times the size of Amazon's because of the extensive offerings from indie labels and artists.

Read on »

 

The future of entertainment, USC style

Usc_entertainment_technology_center The entertainment industry has been pressuring colleges directly and indirectly to teach students the do's and don'ts of copyrights, hoping such lessons will help abate online piracy. But at USC's Entertainment Technology Center, students often are the ones giving lessons to Hollywood and the high-tech world about the right way to deliver movies and TV shows to consumers who are increasingly mobile and digital.

Etc_screen_grab_3 The ETC, a 15-year-old branch of the university's School of Cinematic Arts, was established as a forum for tech companies and studios to collaborate -- a good example being the center's work on digital cinema. A more recent project is the Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab, a place for ETC staff to put a variety of cutting edge (or even bleeding edge) entertainment equipment and services together to see how they work. Or don't, as the case may be.

David Wertheimer, the ETC's executive director and a former digital guru at Paramount, said that while studios focus on their product, the lab concentrates on the user. The hope, he said, is that its work will show studios and tech companies how to "meet in the middle and provide new kinds of products" that appeal to the next generation of consumers. In addition to interviewing USC students on campus every week about their media consumption habits and attitudes, the ETC brings about 20 students into the lab to talk to its board and try out some of the gear it has assembled. It's not a scientific sampling, but the ETC does try to draw specimens participants from a range of backgrounds and fields of study.

The lab takes up a portion of the ETC's office, which is planted in an industrial strip between the USC campus and the 110. The current configuration includes a home theater, a conference area and a room for testing and experimentation (i.e., a place to answer questions like "Can I make it do this?"). The centerpiece, though, is an 18' x 20' demo room with eight flat-panel screens hung on the walls at eye level. Below the screens sit black metal boxes of various shapes and sizes -- amplifiers, disc players, computers, hard drives, iPods, cell phones, networking gear and the like. It's a bit like an electronics retailer's showroom, designed to make it easy for the staff to add, subtract and connect things. "It could end up looking like NORAD and be totally stressful to people," Wertheimer cracked. The intended vibe, though, is more like the living room you wish you had at home. If you were me, that is.

Read on »

 

Apple, Hollywood and windows

Apple_itunes_store_movies_2008Apple closed two gaps today with its announcement about downloadable movies for sale through the iTunes Store. The one it emphasized was the agreement by six major studios to pony up their films the day they were available on DVD. This was a no-brainer for Hollywood. In fact, according to a publicist for Vudu, the studios have long been providing downloads for sale through other online vendors "day and date" with DVD releases. The more interesting element here is that Apple has finally persuaded Hollywood's largest studios to sell movies through iTunes.

Read on »

 

MSN: the sound of silence

Eff_logo EFF Executive Director Shari Steele fired off a nastygram today to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, blasting the company for abandoning customers who bought 99-cent downloads wrapped in a soon-to-be-defunct DRM. Although I think the letter is unrealistic on some points, Steele hints at a step Microsoft could take that would be truly helpful to buyers stuck with song files that just won't play.

Read on »

 

CinemaNow phones in movies

Cinemanow_logo This morning, CinemaNow announced a mobile version of its downloadable movie site. Happily, the point isn't to supply movies to your cell phone (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, it lets people use their phones to order movies and have them delivered electronically to their PC or a variety of other devices.

Read on »

 

Microsoft, Silverlight and Widevine

Widevine_logoMicrosoft has an uphill climb with Silverlight, the browser plug-in technology it's developing to compete with Adobe's ubiquitous Flash technology. To boost its chances, it's taking a distinctly un-Microsoftian tack: it's designing the technology to work on software platforms and devices outside the Windows universe. And in that vein, it's working with Widevine to supply a non-Windows DRM for content delivered via Silverlight.

Read on »

 




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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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