netflix

Dwindling Choices

A couple of weeks ago, Ofcom released its annual Communications Market Report. It’s always stuffed full of information about the UK media marketplace that can be fascinating to dissect.

In 2016, ownership of DVD players (including Blu Ray and games consoles with DVD functionality) was 67% of UK households. This year, it’s just 63% of households. That’s still most homes, but it’s indicative of the way that physical media is in decline as consumers move to streaming services.

Then yesterday, Amazon announced that it was closing Lovefilm. You may recall that Lovefilm was originally the UK’s version of Netflix in that it was a DVD rental by post business (Yes – that was Netflix’s original model too). Their basic service saw users renting films for a flat monthly fee and then posting them back when you’d watched them. In time, Lovefilm added a movie streaming service, so that by the time Amazon swooped in to buy them, it was the streaming service that Amazon was really interested in. That morphed into Amazon Prime Video, but the Lovefilm postal service remained.

And it still worked well, because unlike streaming services, customers had the ability to watch just about any film or TV series released on disc. That included classic films, genre titles and world film titles that never make it onto major streaming services.

And there’s the rub.

We have ownership of machines to play discs falling, and yet digital is not a direct replacement.

It’s all very well have a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video account, but those do not represent a full range of choice. In a Guardian piece bemoaning the death of Lovefilm, the author likened the film selection on the streaming services to the DVD selection in a petrol station. A handful of decent titles – all of which you’ve seen – and a load of trash you’d never want to watch.

That’s a little harsh, but it’s not far from the truth. Yes, the catalogues are slowly improving, but the reality is that on any given day, it’s hard for anyone to actually know what films are available on what services.

Distributors package up groups of films – some are good, some less so – and licence them to the online streamers for certain periods. That period might be measured in months, or it might be measured in years. By and large, the same film is unlikely to be streaming on both Amazon Prime Video and Netflix at the same time. So which do you buy? Both?

The reality is that the all-you-can-eat streaming services offer a fairly meagre range considering the vast breadth and wealth of cinema history. There are a few choice morsels alongside a lot of filler.

Furthermore, you can’t be certain on any given day, that a service you subscribe to will have the film you want to watch available to you.

Ah, but that’s OK. I can get everything else I want to watch from iTunes, Amazon Video (the rent-per-film part) or Google Play Video!

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

If the film was pretty popular and released in the last twenty years or so, then yes, for around £4.49 for a rental, you probably can stream a copy, with luck in HD. But I think you’ll find there’s an awful lot missing.

Older films, classic films, mid-list films, genre films, TV series and many more.

Question for Film Distributors

If you’re a bit of a film fan like me, then from time to time you suddenly have the urge to watch a film. Assuming you don’t have your own Blu Ray or DVD copy to hand you head to the streaming services and search for it. Only to find it’s not there.

Why in 2017, is not a distributor’s entire catalogue online?

It seems to me that if you own the rights to a film, then you’re deliberately leaving money on the table if you do not at least make it available to purchase digitally in places like the iTunes and Google Play Video stores.

I’m not talking about things you’re holding back to repackage in various ways for maximum revenue – Disney, I’m looking at you!

I’m talking about average films, that if I wait long enough will pop-up once every couple of months on FilmFour or BBC2 anyway. I’m talking about solid mid-range titles, that once upon a time, I could happily find in physical format in a largish branch of HMV or the Virgin Megastore.

Here are a handful of films that I have genuinely wanted to stream but not been able to find on streaming services when I looked, all from within the last thirty years, and all currently or previously released on physical media.

  • Truly, Madly, Deeply
  • The Grifters
  • Rambling Rose
  • Enchanted April

If I started searching for older films then the list would get much longer much more quickly.

What I really don’t understand is that the costs of making catalogue movies available on these services is surely basically nil. You don’t even have to worry whether HMV will give up shelf space to a title, or Amazon warehouse space. You just list the film and let the money run in (or at least trickle in).

In 2017, if you’re a bit of a movie buff, then while the streaming services might sate your appetite a little, you’re not getting the full picture.

What you can’t do is draw an analogy with music. Spotify has a catalogue of ~30m tracks, so perhaps you could ditch your physical music collection and rely solely on their service (I wouldn’t personally, but many do). The same simply isn’t true for films, and we don’t seem to be close to that point.

Indeed if you don’t own a DVD or Blu Ray player, you’re limiting yourself enormously. And that’s before getting into the lack of extras that most streaming or download services offer.

As a consequence of all this, my physical film collection continues to grow.

Netflix and Disney

Last week came news that Disney would be pulling its movies from Netflix at the end of the current arrangement, and that Disney would in future launch its own streaming service. This licensing agreement generated a vast amount of coverage, much of it ill-informed, and ignoring wider issues in the market.

There are a few key issues to discuss here.

Disney Films on Netflix

Netflix originally signed a deal with Disney back in 2012, whereby Netflix took over from a previous Pay TV deal Disney had with Starz. Library films became available immediately on the streaming service, while Netflix gained the Pay TV window rights for new Disney movies (including Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm) released theatrically from 1 January 2016. In reality, that means first-run films would appear from late 2016 when the Pay TV window opened.

A Note on Windowing

It’s probably worth detailing how movie studios traditionally “window” their wares.

The Theatrical Window is usually first, and theatre owners demand that films don’t get released for usually three to four months (it varies by territory, with countries like France enforcing much stricter rules). Then is the so-called Video Window with digital pay-to-own (e.g. iTunes or Google Play Video) and physical DVD and Blu-ray releases. The former is often released a week prior to the latter. Then, a few months later, comes the Pay TV window, when films end up on premium cable and satellite channels like Sky Movies in the UK, or Starz in the US. After that initial Pay TV window, films may then go into a Second Window with perhaps a free-to-air broadcaster, or streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Obviously with both Netflix and Amazon active in making and acquiring films, they can choose to either go straight to streaming, or miss out some of the other windows. And there is talk of a Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) window between 30 and 45 days after theatrical release that would be priced high for early streaming access. Theatre owners worry about such things because if you know you only have to wait thirty days, then you might not bother going to the cinema to see a new film.

The key thing throughout all of this is that films tend to get less valuable as the windows progress.

At the time of the Disney deal, media estimates were that the deal was probably around $300m a year for Disney, and was seen as a good deal for all concerned. Netflix paid big, but got big films as a result. Disney dramatically increased what Starz (or HBO or Showtime) would have paid, but as a studio they couldn’t miss with their Marvel films alongside the relaunched Star Wars series, as well as their high-performing Disney and Pixar output.

Now the deal is coming to an end, and films released from 1 January 2019 will not appear automatically on Netflix. Furthermore Disney is launching its own streaming service. More on this latter point below.

Cue lots of words about how this could be the beginning of the end of Netflix. The thinking is that if Disney can do this, then surely others can too. And that breaks Netflix’s model.

Well only up to a point.

It’s worth reiterating that this was a US only deal. The deal does not, and did not apply elsewhere. That’s not to say that Disney material hasn’t and doesn’t appear in other territories. It does. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released just ahead of 1 January 2016, so didn’t make it to Netflix US. It did appear on Netflix in Canada however. Meanwhile Netflix UK has a number of Marvel films on its service, although these are second window films. They have already had runs on Sky as part of Sky’s deal with Disney (In the UK, Sky has exclusive Pay TV deals with most of the major US studios, usually locking out competitors for twelve months).

In Netflix’s recent earnings release, they reported that they had 94.36m paid memberships of which 49.38m were in the US. That leaves 44.99m outside the US, and that’s important. Within the next two or three quarters it seems likely that international will outstrip the US in terms of paid subscriptions. While that isn’t reflected in profits (international rollout is expensive), it’s important to remember that Netflix US is not the same as other versions of Netflix. Due to the way that the entertainment industry has historically worked, rights are sold on a territory by territory basis. Furthermore, different studios may own the rights to different films in different territories.

What this all means is that while Netflix losing Disney seems like a big deal, on further examination its notable that the deal didn’t extend to other territories. And those territories are growing just fine without Netflix serving up first-run Disney films.

Disney Already Streams

The other big part of this was that Disney announced that it’d launch a new Over The Top (OTT) streaming service once the Netflix deal ends.

A fact that has escaped many – including a large number of British news reports – is that Disney already has a streaming service. It’s in the UK, it’s called DisneyLife, launching at the end of 2015. Originally priced at £9.99 a month, making it more expensive than Netflix, in time it dropped its price to a more palatable £4.99. For that you get unlimited streaming access to Disney and Pixar movies, as well as all Disney’s TV programming. That amounts to about 400 movies available. The TV programming is both live and on-demand box sets. The service also offers Disney music and audiobooks, and it offers a 10% Disney Store discount.

That all said, new Disney films still get onto Sky Movies before they reach DisneyLife (in other words, the service doesn’t offer first run films during the Pay TV window), and Disney still sells its top films to free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC. I assume that maximising audience also means maximising merchandise revenues from those later rebroadcasts.

Whether Disney renews its Sky agreement in the future, or goes it alone in an attempt to bump up overall revenues will be worth looking out for. But it would seem that the UK has been used as a beta test market for the newly announced Disney service.

(Note that DisneyLife is a different service to Disney Movies Anywhere, which is Disney’s own brand download-to-own digital service.)

It’s notable that the UK DisneyLife does not include Marvel or Lucasfilm output. That’s likely to be either because Disney already had lucrative deals in place with Sky or others at the time of launch, or that including that output it doesn’t make quite as “clean” a service. The audience for Frozen is different to the audience for Ironman.

Perhaps, in time, Disney will want to include these properties in its streaming service, but I’m not sure. The core Disney (and Pixar) offering is very defined and a parent subscribing knows what they’re getting from a service. Offering a film like Deadpool (15 rated in the UK; R rated in the US) would not work. Yes — I know Deadpool is a Fox film and not formally part of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but the possibility of R rated Marvel material is still there. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was rated 15 for its DVD release for example.

Finally, Disney just bought BAMtech, the streaming specialist company that was originally set-up in-house for Major League Baseball to stream their fixtures. It was spun off by them to offer streaming support to many companies around the world, and now Disney has bought it ahead of a larger rollout of a streaming service. Doing streaming well is hard as many companies have learnt to their costs, so this pay prove to be a very wise investment.

Disney Going It Alone is not Replicable

The reason that Disney is able to even contemplate a full-service streaming offering is because it has uniquely strong branding. Even the very youngest Disney film viewer quickly learns the name of the studio it comes from. They want to visit Disney Stores or visit Disney Theme Parks. I’m not at all sure that other studios have such significant branding across a wide range of output.

For example, do you know which studio is responsible for the Despicable Me franchise and its related Minions? How about Kungfu Panda? Or Shrek? Or Lego Batman?

All of those have been incredibly successful properties, but they don’t have the same consumer recognition at a studio level. I’m not saying that they couldn’t try to do the same, but that it would be hard. Most consumers, unless they work in the industry, have little to no knowledge of which studio produced which film. In today’s world, where budgets have soared, there are now multiple opening production logos at the start of feature films usually indicating many companies have stumped up the budget. What films would even be in Dreamworks or Universal branded OTT offering?

The regular concern you hear about Netflix is that its reliance on third party programming leaves it vulnerable. What if other studios pulled their output to get onto

I’m not saying that Warners, for example, couldn’t launch an OTT service off the back of their DC Universe films, but that might be a bit of a stretch. A handful of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman films does not make a full service, even if you throw in some animated and direct-to-DVD material.

A case in point might be Sony’s Crackle service which, although advertising funded, has not really broken through in the years it has been operating. Perhaps its biggest original hit, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld is moving to Netflix.

How Many Streaming Services Are Sustainable Anyway?

In the US, the market seems to have reached the point where cable cords are being “cut” in sufficient numbers to be of major concern to the industry. Where once a consumer might spend $100 a month on a few hundred channels, only a few of which they actually watched, they’re now increasingly choosing a mixture of “skinny bundles” (Perhaps $20-30 a month for a handful of key channels, possibly internet streamed), and OTT services (Perhaps HBO Now to get Game of Thrones and Veep, or CBS All Access for The Good Wife spin-off, The Good Fight, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery – which notably will be a Netflix exclusive outside the US). Currently, that’s a cheaper option than the $100 bill. But how many services cumulatively would a household buy?

In the UK, the market is slightly different, but beyond Netflix and Amazon, I could also subscribe to Now TV (for subscription free Sky TV), or something like Mubi for arthouse films.

Amongst many others, the BBC and ITV recently launched BritBox focusing on UK shows that are otherwise not sold to US broadcasters. There it competes with Acorn TV’s similar streaming offering.

Meanwhile sports organisations and channels from MLB to the NFL, and the NBA to NBC Sports Gold offer paid OTT options.

How many of these individual packages is one household likely to pay for? 2? 3? 5? More?

NBC has recently announced the closure of its comedy-focused Seeso network, when many might have thought that it was NBCU’s foot in the door into the paid streaming marketplace.

It’s worth remembering that the cable bundle offer meant you get quite a lot for your money, even if you don’t watch much of it. For example, perhaps you don’t watch the food TV channels

A la carte OTT offerings mean that if you’re not interested in food networks, then you don’t subscribe to them. The corollary of that is that if you do want to watch food TV networks, you’ll probably have to pay more to see them.

The economics of 100m US cable subscribing households all contributing perhaps $0.50 a month to make the channels viable with a monthly revenue of $50m. If only 5m viewers choose to watch, they would need to pay $10 month to achieve the same revenue for those channels.

It seems likely that a lot of more niche channels will become unviable without a significant number of subscribers prepared to pay a significant fee to see them.

Netflix in the Future

Netflix has made so secret of wanting to own more of its own programming. Whether it can become completely dependent on acquired programming is questionable, and perhaps isn’t really in its business plan. But beyond the not-insignificant production costs which are eating money, once it has built up a significant library, it becomes a more attractive proposition. That is, assuming that future generations will still be at least partially interested in today’s television. While Dumbo and Snow White are ageless, it’s not clear that the same is true of House of Cards.

Netflix’s international ambitions are not insignificant either. To achieve success in these markets invariably means locally produced programming. Making locally produced shows in France, Germany, India, Brazil and the UK is not cheap. But to break properly into these markets, that’s what Netflix has to do, and that does mean a huge cash burn.

It would be a fool who tries to predict the future of a company like Netflix, and I’m not a fool!

However, I don’t see the end of Netflix’s Disney deal as nearly as groundbreaking as some would position it. Netflix probably does need to broaden its portfolio in terms of earning income. Notably they made their first acquisition last week buying the comic company Millarworld which gives them access to a number of comic book characters as well as opening a new revenue stream. It seems that owning a comic-book franchise is critical for any serious studio. Could this be the start of a wider investment portfolio which supports the main subscription offering, but provides some diversity of income?

BBC Store is closing; Streaming v Ownership

Back in 2015 I took a look at the then new BBC Store. It had opened in a blaze of publicity after a relatively long gestation period. Visitors could buy to own BBC catalogue programmes as well as some of the latest dramas and comedies. Since then, announcers have mentioned the ability to buy programmes from the BBC Store (and other outlets) regularly over the end credits of series.

In 2015 I wrote:

“And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

“If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and Blu-rays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

This week we learnt that the BBC Store is closing down in November after around two years in operation. Those words about DRM have proven to be prescient.

The first series I bought from the BBC Store was Tender is the Night, a 1985 Dennis Potter dramatisation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel. This has never been made available to buy on DVD. It may have been on VHS for a period, but the only streaming version of the novel is a 1962 film.

After November, I will lose all access to this TV series. The DRM locked version that I bought will no longer play.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store is giving me a full refund, or slightly more if I accept Amazon vouchers. But the problem is that there is no DVD for me to buy.

The chief reason given for the store closing is that ownership isn’t the preferred model for consumers. They prefer the all-you-can-eat offers from the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

But while that works for popular fare, that leaves a vast proportion of the longer tail of TV and film out in the cold.

A site called NewOnNetflix reckons the UK version of the site has 4,228 films and TV series across all genres. That sounds like a vast figure. But actually it’s a drop in the ocean. Go to the page that lists films by year and you will quickly discover that prior to 1941 whole years are missing.

In 1939, for example, the following films were released:

Gone With the Wind
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr Chips
The Wizard of Oz
Gunga Din
The Women

Classics all, yet none are on Netflix. Now I can certainly buy all of those on DVD, and Amazon Prime may have one or two, but the point is that both Amazon and Netflix are offering highly curated – and limited – catalogues. Films and TV series come and go from the platforms. Aside from programmes they funded themselves, they acquire the rights for limited periods of time. I can’t be certain with rental that I can absolutely watch Gone With the Wind on any given day.

Now of course I can go to somewhere like the iTunes Store, or the Google Play Store, but even there, the range is surprisingly limited. Google Play doesn’t have Goodbye, Mr Chips or The Women, for example. (I will in fairness note that Amazon doesn’t carry a region 2 DVD of The Women, but does make it available to stream or own digitally, while Goodbye, Mr Chips is available as an inexpensive DVD, as well as digitally to own or rent).

In the end, its market forces that determined that the BBC Store needed to close. If not enough people are using it, then the business model doesn’t work. But I do dispute the idea that a Netflix or Amazon subscription is a complete solution. So while bona fide hits like The Night Manager, Line of Duty or War and Peace are available on the various platforms, other series very definitely are not. At this point in time, physical media is still the providing the greatest depth of range – with a significant number of specialist labels ranging from Network DVD to Second Sight and beyond, offering a vastly greater depth of catalogue than streaming is currently offering.

Streaming may well be the future, but right now I wouldn’t be without my DVD/Blu-ray player!

Meanwhile all of this is another case to prove that DRM is fatally flawed in the longer term. While I may be getting a full refund, I’d have preferred to have kept the programme.

Streaming TV Boxes

So here’s a question. You live in the UK, and you want to buy a cheap streaming box to pop under your TV and get all the main channels. Perhaps you don’t have a smart TV, or it’s not smart enough and doesn’t have the features you really want. There’s a plethora of devices hitting the market. Which should you get?

For the sake of this piece, I’m going to suggest that you’re particularly interested in having access to:

– BBC iPlayer
– Netflix
– Amazon
– Now TV

That’s not a complete list by any means, but a device that worked with all of those services would be really useful and I would suspect cover most people’s bases. iPlayer is free for licence fee payers. Netflix and Now TV let you subscribe for short periods of time – binge House of Cards or watch Super Sunday on Sky Sports. And Amazon bundles Instant Video with Prime, or will sell you films on a pay-per-view basis.

Well there’s a problem, because there’s not actually a box or stick that natively supports all of those devices (at time of writing). There are workarounds involving laptops, tablets or phones. But I’m after something that natively streams from all four services.

I spent a bit of time and came up with this table. You’ll note that I’ve actually looked at a wider number of apps/services. You’ll also note that it’s not all black and white.

DevicePrice (RRP)WiFiEthernetBBC iPlayerITV Player4ODDemand 5NetflixAmazonNow TVPlexYouTube
Now TV£19.99Single BandNYYYYNNYY (hack)Y
Amazon Fire TV£79.99Dual BandYYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Amazon Stick£35.00Dual BandNYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Chromecast£30.00Single BandNYN*N*N*YN*YYY
Nexus Player£79.99Dual BandNY*NNN*YN*YYY
Roku 3£99.99Dual BandYYYYNYNYYY
Apple TV£59.00Dual BandYN*N*NN*YN*YN (partial hack)Y

* You can access services using screen-sharing technology either using AirPlay Mirroring or by Casting a tab in Google Chrome. However this can mean slower response times and reduced battery life. It also means having access to third party devices within the same ecosystem.

Obviously, if you live within a single ecosystem such as iTunes or Google Play, then devices within those ecosystems work well. But I’m going to assume that not every TV show or film you want to watch is in iTunes or Google Play. You’re going to need a variety of options.

Perhaps the closest any of these devices gets to meeting my not-unreasonable needs is the most expensive – the Roku 3. But it fails the Amazon hurdle – I have Amazon Prime, why wouldn’t I want access to that?

Now TV is great and very cheap – the price quoted here will come bundled with some limited vouchers for films or entertainment (watch all of Game of Thrones for example). It’s actually a Roku box built to Sky’s specifications. But Sky, who owns Now TV, isn’t interested in supporting rivals Netflix or Amazon. There is hack which allows you to get into the box’s development mode and install things like Plex. You really can’t complain about the price – they even bundle an HDMI cable. Note that they will make you register with a credit card for their services, but you can cancel these afterwards.

Amazon’s Fire TV would be a good bet, but it fails on Now TV. That might just be a question of Sky not having produced an app for it yet. Were they to do that it might become the winner! However, other UK channels have been slow supporting it. iPlayer was late to the party but is there now. However for ITV Player you have to hack around and use the Scottish STV player. On launching it, the first thing it asks is for a postcode – give it a fake Scottish one or you won’t get access. There’s no bespoke YouTube app which is poor, and the Vimeo app that is there is a bit rubbish compared with the same offering on Now TV.

The real question must be why you would buy it ahead of the upcoming much cheaper Amazon Stick which is half the price. Indeed it was available for a couple of days for just £20 as part of a limited deal. Well the included remote doesn’t have voice search, and it has less memory and a lower-powered processor. But it looks like a bargain if they can get those other services working.

Chromecast works in a slightly different way to the rest of this set in that it requires an Android device (phone or tablet) to properly use. Some apps have Chromecast built in – meaning that throwing programming to your TV is easy, and the data actually streams direct and not via your device saving you battery power. For non-optimised apps, it’s possible to cast your entire tab. But that’s not a great experience. While I’d be happy to do it for a presentation or something, I wouldn’t use it to watch Bosch on Amazon Prime video. Chromecast works really well with the Google ecosystem of course, and things like Google Play Music work wonderfully.

Apple TV also talks wonderfully to Apple devices. But it’s nobbled by the lack of British apps. There’s no iPlayer which is critical, and nor is there Amazon. You can use AirPlay Mirroring, but that requires another device, and is sub-optimal. But it’s perfect for iTunes of course, and even on a PC, you can fire off music or video to it directly. But if you’re about to buy one, you should know that there’s a much updated model due later this year. (I did laugh recently when someone moaned that the recently announced HBO Now app was US only. Er, well Now TV has a native app, and you can watch nearly everything from HBO via that for less than HBO Now will cost a month.)

The upcoming Nexus player would seem to have the same set of apps as Chromecast, but removes the requirement for an Android device to control it – you get a remote. And like some of the other pricier boxes, has an ethernet port in case WiFi near your television isn’t what you’d want it to be.

The Roku 3 is the most expensive device here, and I included it just to compare it with the rest. There are cheaper Roku options though. It is fully featured but bizarrely fails the Amazon test as mentioned.

For me personally, none of these devices actually meets my needs as I’ve alluded to. I’ve managed to accumulate three of them over time, usually taking advantage of special offers. I have them all attached – via an HDMI switch – to my smaller TV.

Now TV does well with UK channels like ITV Player and 4OD (soon to be All4 for reasons that still escape me), where others fail, and it curiously has the best app for Vimeo. Amazon Fire TV is beautifully made device, and voice search works well. The games are all rubbish and all seem to be “freemium” – stick to mobile or consoles. But it works great with Netflix as well as its own Amazon service. It talks nicely to my Plex server too. And I have some music on their cloud courtesy of CDs and downloads I’ve bought over the years. But most of my music is on Google, so Chromecast wins there. It also has the best YouTube functionality, and it’s very portable. Throw one in your bag when you’re travelling (although Amazon’s newly announced hotel-friendly WiFi signing in update sounds very useful practically for travel).

What this does all show is that however good the hardware is, and however cheap you make it, it’s really about who you’ve done deals with. I think this is the difficulty that largely American tech firms have in the UK. Have they made enough effort to get services on board? Apple would probably have shifted a lot more Apple TVs if they’d ever properly integrated BBC iPlayer into it. But they haven’t.

Depending on your use case, different boxes might work for you. I’ve completely ignored games here for example. And as I’ve mentioned, where you keep your music might make a difference to you (I have my music duplicated locally on iTunes and in the cloud with Google Music. I use the latter almost exclusively). I’ve not talked about Spotify or Sonos for example. Or your TV, games console or BluRay player might do the trick, and you don’t need one of these boxes. But keep an eye out for special offers as nearly all of these devices have been sold at lower prices than presented here.

Bosch and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I remain unconvinced about whether or not streaming services are really the future. They’ve certainly had more hits than misses recently, but those will come in due course. “Traditional” media never strived to create a deliberate failure after all.

But that all said, Amazon and Netflix have had a couple of stormers in the last few weeks and I’ve binged both of them. (I dislike the word “binge”, but it’s true that I devoured each series over a single weekend).

Amazon’s big new series is Bosch, a new adaptation of a series of crime novels from Michael Connelly. I watched the pilot last year, and hoped that Amazon would make a full series – which they have duly done.

Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is a Los Angeles homicide detective. He’s longer in the tooth than many of those around him. The TV Bosch has served in Iraq (in the books it was Vietnam, putting the current literary version of the character as even older).

The magnificently named Titus Welliver plays our eponymous hero. I didn’t know him from anything previously, although it looks like he’s done a fair bit of US TV work. He plays Bosch as quiet and controlled. He doesn’t have a fancy car, but he does have some usual TV detective quirks. He likes jazz, listening on vinyl with an analogue amplifier – valves and everything. And his house reminds you a little of the Stahl House – lots of glass, high in the hills overlooking LA. He lives in this luxury, we are told, because Hollywood turned one of his old cases into a terrible film. He put the money into his home.

The fact that Bosch is an older detective is one of the more pleasing elements of this series. Many of the characters are older, and they feel more real. Amy Aquino is his Lieutenant, not suffering fools too gladly, and Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe) is the Deputy Chief, climbing the very greasy pole to the top.

Jamie Hector (also a Wire alumnus) is his partner, and their relationship feels real. He in turn is a properly drawn out character, even if we see less of his personal life.

Meanwhile Bosch has a daughter living with his ex-wife in Las Vegas (Sarah Clarke – known to me as 24’s Nina Myers) who plays cards professionally, using her police profiling skills now for personal gain. Again, it’s not an unrealistic portrayal.

The series definitely has its routes in noir. Despite being made in colour, and mostly set during the daytime, it has that languorous feel to it.

And it also has a real sense of place. The opening credits are outstanding. Simple, yet beautiful, using a an inversion effect to reflect the city on itself. Yes, Jesse Voccia’s theme music seems to be influenced a little by House of Cards – it has the same tone – but it works perfectly with the credit sequence.

As an aside, why is it only “premium” cable/streaming series that still invest in powerful opening credit sequences. A good opening sequence can really adjust your reality settings and set you up for the series’ reality.

I absolutely loved this series. I’ve read a couple of Connelly’s books, and he’s heavily involved in the series, both as an executive producer, and co-writing a couple of episodes. The rest of the writers are also experienced TV writers from the quality end of the spectrum.

But it’s interesting to note the extent to which Connelly has had control over this series. After he sold the film rights and watched them languish within Paramount as they failed to make a film, he eventually wrestled them back, and quickly did a deal with Amazon. There’s an interview with Connelly in the current episode of KCRW’s The Business.

The story is told well, never feeling stretched out across the ten episodes. It does that great thing of having a bit of a hook at the end of each episode that makes you want to binge watch the whole series. Here’s hoping there’s a second series.

[Update 18 March 2015: Amazon has renewed Bosch for a second season. Good news!]

Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is something quite different. It also started out different, with NBC commissioning the series from executive producer Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (of 30 Rock fame). But for one reason or another, they got cold feet, and the series was snapped up by Netflix.

Perhaps it’s the slightly unsettling premise of the comedy: four “mole women” have been kept hostage by a cult in an underground bunker for fifteen years, in the belief that some kind of apocalypse has happened outside. At the start of the pilot episode they’re rescued, and we follow the eponymous Kimmy – played wonderfully by Ellie Kemper (from The US Office) – who decides that she wants to start afresh in New York.

There she ends up sharing a down at heal apartment with room-mate Titus (Tituss Burgess) and their landlady Lillian (Carol Kane). Kimmy also manages to quickly land a job with the insanely wealthy Jaqueline (Jane Krakowski, also a 30 Rock alumnus) and her kids.

The comedy comes from Kimmy adapting to modern life – her pop cultural references ending with mid-nineties boybands – but also her determined positiveness. She dresses in vibrant colours, and most things have a positive spin on them.

This could sound a bit too twee, but there are moments of darkness too. We get lots of 30 Rock-style throwaway lines which sometimes reveal the unpleasantness of her previous situation. There are flashbacks too. But Kimmy is a positive character – glass half full.

I think I loved absolutely everything about this series. I laughed out loud – a lot. And the performances are just wonderful. There are loads of references littered throughout it, and even the slightly unusual “Autotune-the-news” styled theme music (from those very guys Wikipedia tells me) becomes insanely hummable. Indeed, the internet is already full of articles that say precisely that.

There are also guest stars aplenty – especially towards the end of the run. No spoilers here.

Frankly I’m annoyed with myself that I blitzed through all thirteen episodes of the first series over a couple of days. Thankfully, Netflix commissioned two seasons of the series from the off, so only another year to wait for more.

I’m really not disproving the notion that streaming services are all superior am I?

Why is Discovery So Poor in Amazon and Netflix?

Over on The Medium is Not Enough, Rob Buckley notes that Amazon has quietly launched a number of new US series onto the service with hardly any publicity.

And I find it particularly interesting because I really hadn’t noticed despite spending quite a few hours on Amazon over the weekend. While a lot of this time was spent binge watching Mozart in the Jungle, I did watch a couple of films as well.

And at no point did I see any sight of Halt and Catch Fire, Klondike, The Red Road or any of the other series he mentions. None of them are “massive”, but all to a lesser or greater extent worthy of checking out.

It might be that Amazon just chooses to use its marketing budget on other shows, although precisely none of these series got a mention in The Guardian’s list of upcoming series which one would assume was compiled with help from Netflix and Amazon’s PR teams.

But I also think it’s problem of surfacing programming on both Amazon and Netflix. Indeed it’s been a broader problem with the like of Amazon and iTunes for years. I’ve always strongly argued that they’re great if you know what you’re looking for, but they’re terrible for discovery if you’re just browsing.

Before Christmas Netflix launched its big new series, Marco Polo. I turned on the Netflix app on my smart TV, and was amazed to find precisely no promotion for it. It was in none of the various lists that Netflix generates based on my viewing. It didn’t feature in the “new” lists either. I had to use search to find it. Even this past weekend, it was hidden away and not near the top of the screen.

Now perhaps it’s because my TV’s app is bit aging. My TV is two years’ old after all. It doesn’t have any kind of carousel that you might get on Netflix’s website. Amazon can be even worse. The Amazon app on Blu Ray player doesn’t even highlight the programme you were last watching so that you can pick up if you didn’t finish it. If I search for it, I can resume. But the clunky layout doesn’t present you with

The trouble is that there’s no slick, fast and detailed interface that can easily be navigated with a TV remote control. Or if there is, I’ve yet to see it. Even using a laptop or tablet offers only a marginal improvement in navigation. Surfacing catalogue programming is hard.

In the meantime, it can be a better bet to discover new programming via social media or blogs than using the sites’ own navigation and menu systems. Which is where I came in!

Battle of the Streaming Services

This morning, Amazon UK announced a shake-up of its streaming offering, hitherto called LoveFilm. From next week, the service gets rebranded as Amazon “Prime Instant Video”, but perhaps more importantly, it gets rolled into the regular Amazon Prime offering.

So far, so good, unless you were attached to the LoveFilm name.

However there are price increases around the corner. Although it doesn’t say it anywhere I can see particuarly obviously on the Amazon website (indeed, I can’t see any press releases on the Amazon UK website post 2012!), the cost of Amazon Prime will jump from £49 to £79 for users. Anyone already on the £49 deal, or who joins before the end of the month, continues at the current price until the end of their 12 months. But the price is jumping up to that higher level with renewals or new starters after that point.

I’ve been using Amazon Prime since 2007, and it has undoubtedly made me use Amazon for many more purchases than I would have otherwise. The overall reliability of their next day offering, and the fact that I can use it easily for gifts, means that it’s been of immense value. I have to weigh that, of course, against Amazon’s avoidance of tax, the effect it has had on record, DVD and bookshops on the high street, and their reported working conditions. I try to use bricks and mortar bookshops as much as Amazon for this very reason.

When Amazon US started bundling streaming video in the US and offering it to Prime customers there, I wondered when we in the UK would get it.

Of course it was different market situation there to here. In the US, Amazon was the upstart fighting against the dominant Netflix. In the UK, Amazon had bought the market leader, LoveFilm (which had mirrored itself on the US Netflix model), and therefore didn’t need to offer a great deal to their customers.

In recent times, Netflix has made an inroad into that LoveFilm dominance, although I believe LoveFilm has remained bigger. And Amazon has been more heavily branding LoveFilm as Amazon LoveFilm in recent months until today when we lose the LoveFilm moniker altogether.

What they’ve not tried to do is work hard to upgrade UK Prime members to a package that included LoveFilm. They did have an offering – also at £79 – that gave consumers both. But it was handled strangely. You had to cancel your current Prime account, get a refund, and then take out the new deal. Amazon never seemed to try to upsell to the new package, I suspect because they always knew that today was on the horizon.

In many respects, it’s not a great deal. If you just want next day delivery on all your purchases, your cost has just gone up 61%! I would think that’ll be a deal-breaker for many people. Yes – there’s the Kindle lending library, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never used it – on the basis that most of the books I want to read are unlikely to be included (and I rarely see the icon on a book’s page suggesting that they are). So if streaming video is of no interest, you’re seeing an enormous price hike. And the new combined price of £79 seems particularly high compared with the $79 price for the same package in the US, even if in the US it’s more about two day delivery than next day delivery.

And it seems that those still on the DVD monthly rental scheme are seeing the basic price from £7.99 to £9.99. I’m sure that in time, Amazon would like to kill off that administratively complex model. But at the moment, it’s only via discs that Amazon is able to offer the widest selection of fare.

I did have a 6 month cheap trial of LoveFilm about 18 months ago, but I ended up not staying with the service. It just didn’t offer the choice of films I wanted. And there was a particularly frustrating issue with it allowing you to search for a film, only to discover that it was only available as a disc and not for streaming. Let’s face it, LoveFilm was able to offer every film as a disc, so that was particularly frustrating.

Amazon has obviously made inroads into original commissioning, and I’m interested to see their new pilots. However, it was Netflix that got me to sign up first, when they unveiled the first season of House of Cards this time last year.

Amazon will need to up its game in terms of making its device offering better. Netflix is currently superior. Incredibly, there is still no Android app! There obviously is a Kindle app (which of course is built on Android), but Amazon is so determined to flog Kindles, that it has deliberately not made an Android app – a marketing decision that is a strike against them, and is detrimental to the large core of its customers who own Android devices. Amazon does have an app for iPad though!

And the streaming technology used by Amazon is based on the abysmal Silverlight and is thus full of curious error messages and a lack of support on some operating systems like Chromebooks.

For what I imagine are rights reasons, neither Netflix nor Amazon yet offer cached offline viewing as, say, Spotify is able to. This is obviously a shame for those travelling with portable devices. From keeping kids quiet in the back seat to giving yourself a better selection of films than your airline has chosen, there is a significant demand for it. London commuter carriages are packed with people watching iPlayer cached video, and to a lesser extent Sky Go video.

It’ll be interesting to see what the next moves are.

At the moment, it feels that although Amazon is the bigger player in the market, it’s Netflix that has the can’t-miss programming that’s getting critical acclaim. Amazon hasn’t managed this yet. Which goes back to my note the other day about Netflix being a game-changer. Their batting average is high so far, but probability suggests that won’t last.

That said, I note that Amazon has stealthily added pay-per-view to its offering. So it’ll be able to offer Game of Thrones at £1.99 an episode or whatever.

The game’s afoot.

[UPDATE] And according to Re/code, Amazon is going to be launching its own set-top box next month. Whether or not it arrives in the UK, and offers more than their streaming service remains to be seen. One set-top box – one service feels very wasteful.

Viewing Habits

On the train home this evening, I noticed an outdoor advertisement for Sky Atlantic’s big new series, True Detective. So I posted this on Twitter:

Now I was a being a tad disingenuous as I do know (or at least think I know) the answer to my question. But a few people engaged in conversation, so I thought it might be worth elaborating a little and discussing things more broadly.

In some respects there is the simple answer in that expecting people to remember a date and time is pointless in today’s 24/7 world. I can go home and Google it. Sky emails me weekly and has told me about it. If I go into the On Demand section on my Sky box, it’s already there waiting for me to preview it.

Then after it has aired, the show will get lots of repeat opportunities across the week. And it’ll stay available on demand for box-set style catch-up opportunities.

So in that respect, giving me a date and time – the traditional way of doing things – isn’t necessary.

Then again, look at the promotional activity surrounding the upcoming fourth season of Game of Thrones. It’s all about the date.

That’s because the shows do two different things. Game of Thrones gets audiences that are probably bigger than any other show on the channel. It’s also the most pirated show in the world.

Whereas True Detective isn’t going to be a mass crowd pleaser. HBO who make both shows understand this. And so does Sky. HBO simply has to keep making shows that prevent subscribers cancelling the premium channel, or make them want to subscribe to it. Actual viewing figures don’t matter. Sure, you’d think one would drive the other. But that’s not always the case. It’s a bit like buying a book or an album that you think you should read or listen to, but never quite get on. It doesn’t matter. You’re part of the in-crowd.

In fact, True Detective isn’t an easy-to-watch programme. If you’re in the habit of sitting with a tablet on social media while you watch TV, then you’re not going to get a lot out of this. But it does come with two mega-stars in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. So in fact the show is getting a massive marketing push because it’s the kind of show you should be watching – even if you don’t.

And given that Sky Atlantic is exclusive to the Sky platform, it’s another reason to be with Sky and not Virgin Media.

How do I know this? Because it’s going out on Saturday nights. Yes BBC Four has made a virtue of using this night for dramas, but there’s no way that True Detective will get more than a couple of hundred thousand going out at 9.00pm on Saturdays up against the big entertainment shows on BBC1 and ITV.

The other big programme at the moment, with Hollywood star quality is of course the second series of House of Cards on Netflix. Is this the future of television? All thirteen episodes available in one go from last Friday? Superb acting, writing and production?

Well yes. But also no.

House of Cards is superb. The cast is exceptional, and the second series begins with a bang (No spoilers, but I remember the original series. I also watched this the same day I watched the first episode of the second series of Line of Duty).

The question I’ve got to ask is this – how long can Netflix keep up its batting average?

So far you can just about name every series that Netflix is 100% responsible for. In some instances, they’ve “saved” broadcast shows like Arrested Development and The Killing. In other cases they’ve commissioned new series like Orange is the New Black (still to get into this, although I hear John Plunkett likes it) or the less well received Hemlock Grove.

So far, they’ve mostly done really well. But just because you have the cash to hand, and have allowed producers more creative freedom than certainly US broadcast networks offer, is that enough to “guarantee” hits? Well no. Netflix hasn’t had a big flop yet – although they keep streaming figures a closely guarded secret – but it’s inevitable. Compare and contrast with the film business. Even arthouse studios aspire to make every film the best possible, but as we well know, that’s not possible.

The real problem is that it’s one thing commissioning two series – 26 episodes – up front for $100m and getting a hit. What happens if the series fails spectacularly?

What’s clear in both the case of HBO and Netflix shows – it’s near impossible to discuss them in the workplace because no longer is everyone at the same place.

And on that, can I just ask nobody tells me what happens in Breaking Bad, as I’m only two episodes into the first series…