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The Problem with Content Channels on Set-Top Boxes and Smart TVs

Amazon yesterday released its Fire TV, a set-top box designed to stream Amazon Instant Video, along with other services. You can use it to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services. But you can’t use it to access the movies and TV shows you bought from the iTunes Store.

On Apple’s side, their Apple TV lets you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services, but not Amazon Instant Video. I have a smart TV; it’s smart enough to let me watch Netflix, but not Amazon Instant Video. I also have a Blu-ray player: a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, a high-end, multi-region, CD, DVD and Blu-ray player. This is an expensive device, but it’s designed for quality playback, and doesn’t come with apps for streaming services as cheaper Blu-ray players do.

So what’s a guy to do? I would like to watch Amazon Instant Video, which was recently introduced in the UK, where I live, but the only way I can currently do that is to either stream it from my Mac or iPad, using AirPlay, or get some kind of device that has this “channel.” I could buy Amazon’s Fire TV, but; oh, wait, it’s not available in the UK yet. I could buy a cheap Blu-ray player; that might actually cost less than Amazon’s Fire TV (when it’s released in the UK), but I would use it for nothing than than Amazon Instant Video, or maybe also use it for Netflix, instead of using my smart TV for that.

I understand that there’s a lot of competition among the different companies whose devices act as conduits for entertainment channels. But this is getting out of hand. If you want to watch a specific service — other than Netflix, which seems to be available on every device that connects to a TV — you may or may not be able to do it with your TV, Blu-ray player or other device. And things like smart TVs and Blu-Ray players rarely get updates with additional channels. So that Panasonic TV I bought last year, because it has a good picture, and was available at a good price, is well, a good TV, and not much more. If Amazon Instant Video had been available last year, I would more likely have looked for a TV that offered this service. But I’m not going to change TVs just to watch Amazon videos.

The sort of channels, or apps, that you get on smart TVs and set-top boxes should be available on all devices, if you so desire. All this fragmentation does — and, of course, this is the goal — is incite people to buy more devices. But we don’t need any more; our homes are full of devices that connect to TVs and computers. We need the One True Device that will allow us to access all these channels. Just as TVs can display all the channels available in a given area, these other devices should be able to do the same thing. They should be easily upgradable, so, when new services arrived, we can add them, in order to end this war between different companies.

The content providers would love this, of course. My guess is that some companies include specific channels, such as Netflix, because they know these channels are popular, but others content providers have to pay to be present on a set-top box or other device. Apple is, of course, one of the culprits, because they refuse to allow any non-Apple devices to display any of their content, whether it’s a video or e-books. (I only buy Kindle e-books because I can read them on just about any device with a screen.) One of the main reasons Apple pushed to drop DRM on music was because of anti-competition investigations in Europe, alleging that this DRM prevented interoperability. It’s time to do the same thing for content channels.

It’s in the interest of consumers that this tangled web of channels and apps becomes less of a headache. It’s in the interest of content providers that anyone with a device capable of playing this type of channel be able to do so. And, finally, it really is in the interest of companies selling devices that they allow as many channels as possible to be present. After all, wouldn’t Apple sell more Apple TVs if you can also watch Amazon Instant? Wouldn’t Amazon sell more of their Fire TV if you can also watch movies from the iTunes Store? We consumers are the losers in this game; it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about which channels are available on all these different devices so we could buy just one and use it to watch what we want.

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Amazon Introduces Amazon Fire TV

001.pngAmazon has introduced the Amazon Fire TV (Amazon.com), a tiny Apple TV-like box that you can use to stream Amazon Prime Video, and video from other services. Amazon describes the $99 box as follows:

Amazon Fire TV is a tiny box that connects your HDTV to a world of online entertainment. With a huge selection of TV episodes and movies, voice search that actually works, plus exclusive features like ASAP and Amazon FreeTime, it’s the easiest way to enjoy Netflix, Prime Instant Video, Hulu Plus, low-cost movie rentals, music, photos, games, and more.

Like the Apple TV, or Roku, the Amazon Fire TV has HDMI out, and handles 1080p video. Like the Apple TV, it also has an optical audio output. But the Fire TV also has a quad-core processor, and 2 GB of RAM, notably because it runs games.

The main reason to buy this device is to watch Amazon Prime Video on your TV.
You can certainly do this with AirPlay from a Mac or iPad, but it’s certainly a lot easier to have a dedicated device. However, at $99, many people will hesitate.

Personally, I’d like to get one. Amazon introduced Prime Instant Video here in the UK, and I have an Amazon Prime account. But I’m surprised that they haven’t launched the Fire TV in the UK at the same time. This is the only country, other than the US, where Amazon does video, so I’d have expected it available here now. I’ll just be patient and wait until they bring it to this side of the pond.

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Is Edward Snowden Really Saul Goodman?

Check for yourself. Here’s Snowden talking at the SXSW conference today:

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And here’s Saul Goodman:

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Take Saul, add the stubble and glasses, and I’m convinced.

Better call Snowden!

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Amazon Instant Video Comes to the UK; Amazon Inflates the Numbers

Amazon Instant Video is (finally) now available in the UK, and is free with an Amazon Prime membership. Initially £49 a year, this has just increased to £79 a year. I got a Prime membership in January, so I benefit from “free” streaming, and if I renew next year, I’ll pay the new price.

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Amazon has been promoting this for the past week, saying that one can “Enjoy unlimited streaming of more than 15,000 movies and TV episodes.”

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But when you look at the full catalog, the numbers are very different. There are currently only 2,269 movies, and 938 TV series. Granted, they’re counting every TV episode in the 15,000, but that number makes you think there’s a lot more content than there really is.

Also, if you don’t have kids, then your available content dwindles. About one-third of the TV series are for children, and one-fourth of the movies.

It looks like there’s some interesting content, but there’s far less than Netflix, and there’s much less variety. (Granted, most of what’s on Netflix is crap…) There’s also much less HD content; only 258 HD items are listed.

As long as it’s free with my Amazon Prime subscription, I’ll check it out. But given the limited content, I’ll need to see a lot of new movies and TV series there to get me to renew my Prime subscription next year. I got the Prime subscription because I wanted quick delivery of purchases; I’m happy to pay the £49 a year, but I doubt I’d want to pay £79 for that service. If they can’t split the two, then I’m unlikely to want to continue.

Update: As I’ve been browsing through the selection, I did find one classic movie that’s a must see: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni. This 1932 film shows how a man is wrongly convicted for a robbery and ends up in a chain gang. It was a very important film in its time, having exposed the way prisoners were treated. Also, it has one of the best last lines in the history of cinema.

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The iTunes Store Goes TV Marathon

Netflix has shown that people want to watch TV series in marathon viewings, and has released a number of the series it has produced – such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black – to meet this demand. Instead of letting episodes trickle out one a week, they give you an entire season, all at once. You can binge watch if you want, or take your time.

The iTunes Store generally doesn’t do this, since it sells series that are broadcast weekly. But with the fourth season of Downton Abbey – already broadcast in the UK – they can, and they will.

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If you buy a season pass for season four of Downton Abbey, you’ll get all the episodes on January 28. So you can watch them at your own rhythm.

But they’re not just doing this for Downton Abbey; they’re also offering the full season three of Game of Thrones. The difference here is that this season was already broadcast in the US, so it’s just a release of a digital box set of the season.

They’re also releasing the entire series of The White Queen, another British series (yawn-worthy), at once.

I doubt we’ll see more of this, except for British series sold in the US. No TV network wants to lose viewers to digital sales in this manner, potentially losing advertisers.

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How Downton Abbey Lost Its Edge [Contains Spoilers]

Note: This article contains spoilers. Do not read this if you are not up to date with Downton Abbey series 4 and the 2013 Christmas special.

This was my first Christmas in the UK, and I was able to partake in the quintessentially British pastime of watching Christmas specials on TV. It’s a thing here, to have a long episode of a TV series on Christmas evening. This year saw Christmas specials for Doctor Who, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Call the Midwife, and Downton Abbey, among others. Consolidated ratings – which include those watching the shows live, and catching up afterwards – show that Downton Abbey came in second with 10.28 million viewers. (I didn’t watch live; I recorded it on my TV so I could skip through the many commercials. And there were plenty; about a half-hour’s worth in the two hours the show was on.)

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The Christmas special has two goals. First, it’s an episode of a series, even if the actual season for a series ended months earlier. (Downton Abbey’s fourth series ended in early November.) But it’s also meant to be a family event, where everyone can sit down and watch the Christmas special after dinner even if they don’t follow the series.

Downton Abbey has had a rocky road with Christmas specials. For the first season, the show wasn’t popular enough to have one, but in the second series, Matthew Crawley proposed to Lady Mary, culminating the events of the first two season. However, in the following year, things got ugly, as Matthew Crawley was killed off in a car accident just as their son was being born. This poorly staged, melodramatic sequence was probably not something a lot of people appreciated on Christmas night.

So, for this year’s Christmas special, series creator and writer Julian Fellowes pulled out none of the stops. He went for drab and dull, with, as my son said, Downton Abbey jumping the shark. A contrived situation led to Mary and two others burglarizing the lodgings of a Mr Sampson, who was in possession of a letter that could embarrass the Prince of Wales. Rose was presented to the London season, in front of the king and queen, with a few shots of extras lining the street leading to Buckingham Palace, then the luxurious innards of the palace itself. And the Americans were back, with Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother, and Paul Giamatti, looking very uncomfortable in his role as Cora’s brother.

And that’s the clue to what’s happening to Downton Abbey. Never before has a British show had such popularity in the US; it’s clear that Fellowes is dumbing the show down to make it palatable to US viewers. With an audience much larger in the US than in the UK, there’s no doubt that the show is being targeted at these foreign viewers now. So we’ll be seeing a lot more of the London season, with balls, royals and lots of extras.

Downton Abbey was somewhat edgy in its first two seasons, but once it got popular in the US, it became comfortable. Granted, there was a rape this season, and the repercussions of this event were still felt in the Christmas special, but overall, it’s getting even soppier than it was when it started out.

Make no mistake: Downton Abbey is a soap opera, but a high-class one. I found it interesting and nearly addictive in the first two seasons. It gave me a (somewhat distorted) look at class in the UK, and presented many interesting characters. But it’s turned into the type of series that creates artificial complications for its characters just to string them along. Two main characters have already been killed off, and one minor character has disappeared (leading to some of the events of the fourth series). Others are added as objects to be used for plot points and nothing more. What started as a good ensemble cast is now a cast of dozens who come and go to fit the needs of the writer, and it’s become hard to follow the many characters who appear occasionally.

When there was less attention to romance and more to the problems the characters had living as they do, the series was more interesting. Unfortunately, Downton Abbey has taken the easy route, becoming an international soap opera, hoping to appeal not only to its home audience, but also to the growing overseas audience watching one of the few foreign TV series that crosses borders to the US. Fellowes is a good writer; I hope he can get his mojo back, and stop writing for ratings.

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Liveblogging TV Shows: Are We Really That Distracted?

Yesterday was a big day for fans of the Doctor Who TV series. The show started 50 years ago yesterday – though it has not been on continuously – and the BBC aired a 50th anniversary special. One of the characteristics of Doctor Who is that the main character, the Doctor, changes every few years. A new actor takes over the role as the previous doctor “regenerates.”

I’m not a fan of the show, but being in the UK, I felt I should watch it. This episode featured two previous doctors – Matt Smith and David Tennant – and, as far as I can understand, a new-old doctor, played by John Hurt.

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This morning, reading the Guardian web site, I noticed that the newspaper had liveblogged the show. This made me wonder: are we that distracted that we want to watch a TV show while following what others say on a website, or Twitter, or other social media platforms?

The liveblog is not new. It’s used very often in my profession, tech journalism. For example, when Apple makes a new product announcement, they don’t always provide a live video feed. For this reason, journalists present send text and photos to websites to provide real-time information. Liveblogs can be used for sporting events, award ceremonies and others. But TV shows?

I may be wrong, but what’s important when watching a TV show is to follow the story. Can a viewer really appreciate a show when reading what someone else is writing on a website? Do they need that as a crutch? And can the “journalists” doing the liveblogging even follow the show closely enough to write seriously about what is happening?

I don’t recall liveblogs of big, recent TV series finales, such as Lost or Breaking Bad. Viewers were too interested in following the complex stories and seeing how they tied up. Could it be that Doctor Who is just simple enough that it can be liveblogged?

I wonder what kind of person – who is a fan of the series – would sit and watch the show while following such a liveblog on their tablet, phone or laptop. I noticed that my Twitter stream was very quiet last night during the period that the show was on. Many of the people I follow are long-time Doctor Who fans, and they were not tweeting, but rather paying attention to the TV screen.

It’s sad that people can’t focus on something as simple as a TV show for an hour; that they have to depend on following what others say to get through it. Naturally, some people would have watched the show with friends, perhaps sharing comments, but there’s a big difference between that type of shared watching and the proxy of a liveblog.

There are times when one should focus on just one thing. Are we that distracted that people really can’t do this? I feel sorry for anyone who can’t sit still for an hour and absorb a TV show without having to read what others have to say.

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