OVGuide, combing through the online video haystack

OVGuide online video guide index movies TV shows As mentioned in the previous post, defenders of embattled movie indexing sites such as TorrentSpy and  Peekvid argue that they're doing essentially what Google does -- helping people find material stored elsewhere on the Web. But for a glimpse at an online video site that really does resemble Google, see Beverly Hills-based OVGuide. Actually, it's a cross between Google and Yahoo -- a hybrid of a search engine tuned to find videos online and a directory of video sites organized by genre. Yes, you can use it to track down pirated movies and TV shows. In fact, when I visited OVGuide this afternoon, all five sites topping the directory provided working streams of "Iron Man," and three delivered the latest Indiana Jones movie. But most of the more than 1,700 sites indexed on OVGuide aren't devoted to movies or TV shows. Instead, they're focused on games, sports, cooking, education, cars, travel, science and scores of other interests. That's what sets OVGuide apart.

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Netflix, Roku bridge the Internet-TV gap

Roku_playerTwo things struck me about Roku's newly announced $100 Netflix Player, a book-sized set-top box that lets people watch streamed video files from Netflix on their TVs. First, it was priced lower than anything I'd previously seen in the "digital media adapter" category (i.e., devices that bridge the gap between the Internet and the TV). And second, it delivered less than any of those other devices. All it can do, in fact, is connect to Netflix's website, select a movie or TV show to stream, then display the chosen program on a TV set.

And that's all it should do, at least for now, argued  Anthony Wood, Roku's founder and CEO (and the guy who started ReplayTV, which introduced the DVR alongside TiVo). Some consumer-electronics gurus would disagree, noting that people are reluctant to stack more black boxes into living-room shelves already crowded with disc players, recorders, amplifiers, game consoles and cable or satellite boxes. But Wood has developed and marketed a series of digital media adapters over the past 5+ years, so he speaks with some authority on this issue.

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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.

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Magnify: another approach to online video guides

Magnify_publisher_logoI wrote a post last month about the dearth of truly useful guides to the growing mass of video available online. Magnify.net is one of the companies responsible for creating that mass; its platform is home to 37,000 channels of niche online programming, including the Flavor Flav Video Network ("Return of the Romantical") and the Dermatology channel. "Lots of them don't get looked at," co-founder and CEO Steve Rosenbaum said in a recent interview. "Lots of them really do. The one thing I've been struggling with for the last six months, as more and more stuff pours onto the Web, who's going to sort it?"

The answer, Rosenbaum believes, is bloggers. "They help you organize the things you're going to see," he said, adding that if one blogger's recommendations don't pan out, you try another. "They become the micro road map around video content." With that in mind, Magnify decided to create tools to help bloggers find videos online and build posts around them.

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HBO's timid iTunes offer

Ituneshbo_screen_grab Time Warner subsidiary HBO has gotten a fair amount of credit today for persuading Apple to abandon its one-price strategy for TV shows at the iTunes Store. That's an interesting development, and it could open the door for NBC to bring its shows back to the store. But what many of the reports overlooked was how little HBO decided to put onto the virtual iTunes shelves. The network is making available downloadable versions of older shows only, and charging premium prices for many of them to boot. Rather than trying to attract new customers and chase incremental dollars, it seems to be designed to cause the least possible offense to HBO's existing markets.

HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson said the network's full offering on iTunes will roll out over the next couple of months, so it will be more extensive than the current selection -- six shows, most of which are represented by just a portion of their episodes. But no show will be available before the corresponding full-season DVD is released, Cusson said. That's consistent with HBO's digital strategy thus far: no full-length program or episode is available online to non-subscribers until long after its first run. The exception was "In Treatment," which HBO offered briefly in full-length form on YouTube earlier this year in a bid to drum up viewership. Now, though, even that show is available only as clips.

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Defunct TorrentSpy kicked while down

Torrentspy_logo U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper has handed BitTorrent index site TorrentSpy a bill it couldn't possibly pay. Having ruled in favor of the major Hollywood studios' lawsuit in December, Cooper awarded the studios damages of $30,000 per movie allegedly infringed with the assistance of TorrentSpy's site. The total for the 3,699 movies listed in the studios' complaint: $110,970,000. Wow. (You can download a PDF of the ruling here.)

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StreamCast's undoing

Streamcast_morpheus_logo Like David going 15 rounds with Goliath, StreamCast Networks Inc. battled the biggest companies in the entertainment industry for nearly six and a half years before finally dropping the slingshot and hitting the dirt. The file-sharing company filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition last week, sending it down the road to liquidation.

But the company's demise wasn't triggered by Hollywood studios or the major record labels, as much as they would have liked to have done so. Instead, StreamCast was felled by one of its own rocks: a lawsuit it filed in January 2006 against file-sharing rival Kazaa and a host of related companies. It proved to be a tactical blunder of the first order. Two of the defendants in that case counter-sued, won and locked StreamCast in a financial death-grip. And here's the delicious irony. StreamCast executives had long grumbled that Kazaa had sabotaged their business just as it was taking off in 2002, enabling Kazaa to dominate the second generation of file-sharing networks (i.e., the one that succeeded the original Napster). That may or may not be true, but there's no doubt that StreamCast's attempt to take revenge against the extended Kazaa family proved its undoing.

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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.

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Morpheus throws in the towel

Morpheus p2p file-sharing software StreamCast goes bankrupt StreamCast Networks, the company behind the Morpheus file-sharing software, filed for protection Wednesday under Chapter 7 of federal bankruptcy law. Now, perhaps, the when-will-it-ever-end legal battle known as MGM v Grokster will finally come to an end, more than six years after the major record companies and movie studios sought the federal courts' help against StreamCast, Kazaa and Grokster. At the time, those companies were the three heirs apparent to the original Napster. In fact, StreamCast -- backed by Timberline Venture Partners, a venture capital firm tied to legendary VC Tim Draper -- had begun life (under the name MusicCity Networks) piggybacking onto Napster's protocol and client software. It eventually switched to the FastTrack network it shared with Kazaa and Grokster, only to be booted unceremoniously from that network and forced onto Gnutella. Its bankruptcy doesn't come as a shock (except, perhaps, to the employees who were laid off as of April 22), yet it leaves a few intriguing legal questions unanswered.

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Sezmi presents TV 2.0

Sezmi_logo We know what the second generation of the World Wide Web looks like -- a cornucopia of services and applications, not just text and graphics. But what might the Web 2.0 counterpart be for television? It will be digital, certainly, and offer far more programming from a greater variety of sources. It will make more shows available on demand, to meet the expectations of consumers who've been liberated by TiVo. It will be more interactive, to meet the expectations of advertisers spoiled by the Web. And it will be mobile. After all, every cell phone in the market will soon be able to show video, and TV flows inexorably toward any screen that can display it.

Today, a Silicon Valley start-up called Sezmi (formerly known by the more stealthy and Webster's-friendly moniker Building B) goes public with its version of TV 2.0. It may not succeed -- the landscape is littered with the empty offices of firms that tried and failed to compete with the local cable operators -- but its approach shows what's possible.

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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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