Short Nerd Chief

Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Sierra Club pitching couch potato tax

Posted by Fred on January 22, 2008

The Sierra Club has proposed a lot of dumb things, but the No Child Left Inside tax on TVs and video games is about the dumbest:

A coalition of twelve environmental organizations in New Mexico has initiated a new strategy to help get American kids back outdoors. The Environmental Alliance of New Mexico is renewing its call for a one-percent sales tax on televisions and video games to fund outdoor education programs. The tax idea, initiated by the Sierra Club, would raise an estimated $4 million a year, to fund programs aimed at giving school kids an outdoors education. “We believe it is such a nominal tax that consumers won’t feel it too much, especially if they are educated about where that money goes,” said Michael Casaus, the New Mexico youth representative of the Sierra Club.

The number of ways in which this is a dumb idea is mind-boggling, so let’s just make a list:

  • A 1% sales tax would have an effect on consumer demand indistinguishable from zero. A $600 PS3 would be $606. A $50 game would be $50.50. Even a $1000 HDTV would only go up to $1010.  I have no idea what the elasticity of demand on luxury electronics is, but it’s certainly not such that a fifty cent price increase would matter.
  • Sales taxes are an incredibly inefficient way to change consumer behavior, even if changing consumer behavior was the government’s business. Which it’s not.  The excise tax on cigarettes is very high, but that hasn’t done much to reduce smoking. Other things have, but not the tax on cigarettes. Cleveland funded its baseball stadium and arena on the backs of smokers and drinkers.  Luckily for the city, the increased taxes did almost nothing to reduce demand.
  • Game playing and exercise are not mutually exclusive.  Fat kids are fat kids because they eat junk and don’t exercise, not because they play video games. Turn off the Wii and go outside, already.
  • Even if a 1% tax would keep a parent from buying Super Mario Galaxy (which it won’t), do we really think the couch potato will go to the park instead of just playing his other games twice as much?

This sort of thing will have no impact on couch potatodom, no impact on the video game market and no impact on childhood obesity levels. It will however, accomplish the primary objective of the Sierra Club, which is to get more money for the Sierra Club.

[via Engadget]


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Hulu Hoopin’

Posted by Fred on December 20, 2007


Want to check out Hulu? Mashable has 2500 invites, which you can claim here.  Right now, there are 2,304 left. I still don’t like that there are only nine episodes from Friday Night Lights available (and only five from Season 1), but I grabbed an invite anyway. NBC’s strategy is stupid, but you take what you can get.

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Here’s One Justification For Capping Cable Growth

Posted by Fred on December 4, 2007

Techdirt wants to know what’s wrong with cable industry consolidation:

Because cable is geographically constrained, from a consumer perspective, all that matters is the market power my provider can exercise locally. If I’ve got three regional cable providers to choose from, it makes no difference whether two of them each hold a 40 percent national share. If I’ve got only one serving my area, the fact that it only controls 3 percent of the national market is similarly irrelevant. And if I’m in the latter boat, declaring that the largest firms with the most resources are forbidden to expand their operations into my neighborhood scarcely seems calculated to increase my access to alternatives. The FCC cites regional consolidation as a motive for the cap, but if cable providers are gunning for such regional monopolies, then won’t they divest first in the regions where they do face competition, and hold on to the areas where they’re the lone option?

There’s a certain element of truth to this, of course.  In determining the price I pay for TV service, it matters little whether Comcast has 5% or 50% national market share.  Comcast just raised my rates for cable service, but left their rates for phone and internet service the same.  They face little competition in the Richmond market for TV service (FiOS is available in limited areas, but not at my house), but compete fiercely against Verizon for telephone and internet customers.  The problem with Julian Sanchez’ thesis, however, is that if freed from the 30% cap, Time Warner or Cox would come into the market to provide cable competition.  They wouldn’t, and in most places they can’t, due to local monopoly franchise contracts.  What the cable companies would do is expand nationally via acquisition of smaller rivals, with TW and Comcast heading inexorably toward a cable duopoly.  They have very little interest in competing against each other, mirroring the situation in telecom in 1996.  Bell Atlantic, while hamstrung in its region, could have offered competitive service in the BellSouth or Ameritech regions, but they had absolutely no interest in doing so, to the detriment of consumers.

So if cable consolidation wouldn’t drive prices down, what’s the harm, given that cable companies already have local monopolies in many areas where IPTV or satellite isn’t an option?  The harm isn’t horizontal market power expansion (going from 30% to 50% of the cable TV market), it’s vertical market power expansion.  Time Warner already produces content through its myriad entertainment properties.   Comcast owns E!, Versus (nee the Outdoor Life Network),  the Golf Channel and G4, along with Comcast SportsNet regional networks in DC and Philadelphia.  Comcast also has partial ownership interests in MGM, United Artists and the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers.  To the extent these cable giants get even bigger and squeeze out competitors, they have even more interest to play hardball, both keeping competing programming off their networks and refusing to provide their own programming to competitors.

This has already happened several times with regional sports programming.  After the Baltimore Orioles started a network (MASN) to compete with Comcast SportsNet, the cable giant sued, and said that “we think in most sports markets in the country, that it’s more efficient and better for the customer to have a single regional sports network.”  Similarly, Cablevision refused to carry the Yankees’ YES network after the team stopped selling cable rights to the MSG network (owned by Cablevision).  When the Twins tried to start Victory One Sports, TW and other providers refused to carry it, killing the fledgling network.

So long as multiple cable providers exist, there’s far less incentive for such shenanigans, but if there are only one or two large providers, the incentive to withhold content from competitors increases, and makes it harder for competitors to establish themselves.  Eventually, diversification and technology will win out, but in the short term, that’s one reason to fear consolidation.

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Cable industry really mad, calls FCC Chairman names

Posted by Fred on November 15, 2007

Cable companies have been taking it on the chin a bit of late, with Comcast under heavy fire for “traffic shaping” (a/k/a screwing around with BitTorrent rather than building adequate infrastructure), the Chairman of the FCC pushing a la carte pricing, and the FCC killing exclusive contracts with apartment building owners. Now the cable lobby is striking back.

“We’re not going to fundamentally wreck business models and hurt customers to appease the chairman of the FCC,” McSlarrow told reporters during a conference call yesterday. “If one looks at the commission’s agenda . . . the issues that have been teed up have been designed to hurt the cable industry. If I were in that position,” meaning the chairman, “that’s not the way I would conduct myself.”

There a many nuggets hidden away in that single paragraph. Note the implicit argument that the FCC has a duty to protect the cable industry’s business model. Note that the FCC’s attempts to help consumers are characterized as being designed to hurt the cable industry. Note the argument that the FCC Chairman shouldn’t be running around hurting the cable industry (remember who your true masters are, boy!). Note the threat at the end. It reads like the pathetic whining of a bully that isn’t getting his way for the first time.

The mission of the FCC was laid out in the statute that created it in 1934: “to make available, so far as possible… a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” Nothing in there about protecting cable business models, but explicit reference to protecting consumers from inadequate service and unreasonable charges. The FCC’s baby steps in this area make the industry mad, and if the cable industry is mad, consumers are probably happy.

That’s not to say that a la carte pricing would be a good thing for TV viewers. Like virtually every cable customer since, well, ever, I’d love to jettison two-thirds of the channels Comcast delivers to me, and subscribe only to the channels I watch. I’d love to adjust the channels I subscribe to seasonally (get rid of ESPN U when it’s not basketball or football season, for example). But the system was clearly built on a foundation of bundling lesser-watched channels with popular ones. True a la carte pricing would kill some channels because demand would be so low as to make them economically untenable. Maybe that’s a good thing – if they can’t survive, maybe they shouldn’t. But that’s the reality, and it’s therefore incredibly unlikely that a la carte pricing would be attractive. Like everything else, cable companies would look at the change and raise rates.

The real answer ultimately is not additional regulation, but additional competition. The 1996 Telecommunications Act was intended to kick-start competition, but the facilities sharing requirements, which supposedly would have permitted upstarts to compete without building redundant infrastructure, instead just gave the incumbent monopolists loopholes and mechanisms to litigate their competitors to death. Only now are we seeing any real competition, with Verizon laying fiber and the satellite companies launching satellites. Eventually, this should improve cable service quality and drive prices down (although duopolies are sometimes little better than monopolies). Ubiquitous broadband and internet programming will help, too.

ico_shoutbox.gifvia CrunchGear

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Welcome to the Dollhouse

Posted by Fred on November 2, 2007

Joss Whedon’s coming back to TV and back to Fox with a show called Dollhouse, which frankly doesn’t sound all that exciting when you read about it:

Echo (Eliza Dushku) [is] a young woman who is literally everybody’s fantasy. She is one of a group of men and women who can be imprinted with personality packages, including memories, skills, language—even muscle memory—for different assignments. The assignments can be romantic, adventurous, outlandish, uplifting, sexual and/or very illegal. When not imprinted with a personality package, Echo and the others are basically mind-wiped, living like children in a futuristic dorm/lab dubbed the Dollhouse, with no memory of their assignments—or of much else. The show revolves around the childlike Echo’s burgeoning self-awareness, and her desire to know who she was before, a desire that begins to seep into her various imprinted personalities and puts her in danger both in the field and in the closely monitored confines of the Dollhouse.

I’m reminded a bit of Dark Angel, another “hot chick kicks butt while trying to figure out who she really is” series, notable mostly for releasing Jessica Alba into the wild. And the whole “burgeoning awareness leads to danger in the field” angle was adequately explore in the Jason Bourne movies.  Nevertheless, we all know what Whedon’s capable of, and Fox really needs a new hit.  Maybe it can be what I hoped the new Bionic Woman series might be, even if it can’t live up to the standards he set with Buffy and Firefly (and his post-TV comics work).

ico_shoutbox.gifvia BB Gadgets

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Hulu, or Who Knew it Would Be So Useless

Posted by Fred on October 29, 2007


The news embargo on Hulu has lifted, so a bunch of tech journalists who haven’t actually used the service are posting pre-reviews of the fledgling video site based on demos NBC showed them and some press releases.

Kara Swisher, for example, who has been deservedly critical of the service, now says that:

From a demo (here are some screen shots of pages) I was given Friday by Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, the boyish former Amazon exec who seems to have learned to swim well with the Hollywood sharks, I am impressed thus far.

I will, of course, reserve judgment until I get to test-drive it for a while, but in concept and tone and aims–that is, more open than I ever expected the service to be–it is off to a good start. (Actual reviews of these sites I will leave to Walt Mossberg.)

If you’ve forgotten what Hulu is, other than another stupid quasi-Hawaiian name reminiscent of Mahalo, recall that NBC got irritated with Apple for its pricing inflexibility (it now appears that NBC wanted to charge $2.99 per episode for Heroes to see what would happen, and Apple said no thanks, competition should drive prices down, not up), and teamed with Fox to form Hulu, which will offer streams of current TV programming and some movies. It thus is an attempt to compete with (a) the iTunes Music Store per-episode download service, (b) YouTube, (c) illegal BitTorrent downloads, (d) the network’s own websites, (e) Amazon’s Unbox and other movie download services, (f) DVRs, (g) DVD sets and a bunch of other stuff besides. In reality, the big dogs are YouTube and iTMS. Hulu will offer a dozen movies to start and the most recent five episodes of current network programs (delayed by at least a day to protect their original airings and give you a chance to skip the ads on your TiVo box). It will be an ad-supported service, but the precise nature of the ads is up in the air. Given that this is NBC, expect at least some ads to be in-stream and unskippable. They just can’t help themselves.

The service hasn’t even launched yet, but the restrictions seem clear (despite what Kara says, it is not open, at least not compared to other non-Hollywood offerings). No user-generated content (no big loss, in my opinion), no downloads, no desktop player, no mobile access, no real-time or close to real-time access, no proper archive of content. You get five episodes of Heroes, which you can watch in a Flash player via a browser or embed in a website so other people can stream it in a Flash player via a browser. You’ll be able to recommend clips or make quasi-mashup highlight reels.

The TV networks are sitting on a treasure trove of content, but they’re just too paranoid to release it into the wilds of the internet. Just think of what Hulu could be if the networks grabbed that brass ring:

  • The of the TV generation. Sixty years or more of programming, available on demand. Want to see the Vitameatavegamin episode of I Love Lucy? Stream it on demand, or download it for a buck or two. Stick some ads in the free stream or plaster them on the website to get cash for the non-downloaded content.
  • Mashup central. People love best-of clipfests – where would VH1 be without the commentary-laden clipfest? Release downloadable clips of content and let people mash them, combine them, snark all over them. Then let them upload their creations to Hulu, highlight the best of the bunch. If they’re really good, stick them on real TV and come full circle.
  • Compete with the iTMS. This means really compete, offer-an-alternative-like-Amazon compete. iTMS shows are laden with DRM, play only on Apple TV, iPhone or an iPod and cost too much. Provide DRM-free downloads for a buck that can play on anything that plays video, or offer Hi-def downloads for a reasonable price increase. Get creative with pricing, but that doesn’t just mean “charge more for popular stuff.”
  • Replace the DVR and/or DVD box set. This is covered above in a way, but offer a high-quality stream in real-time. That way, I can start watching Heroes at 8:12 on a Monday if I don’t get home in time. Include ads if you want, but let me skip them. It has to be no worse an experience than I get by paying 10 bucks a month to Comcast. You can also bypass the plastic discs for catching up on past seasons. I caught on to Friday Night Lights late and bought the DVD set. Why? Let me download season one and watch it on the PC or stream to the TV via a media server. I don’t need the discs and won’t have time for the extra features.

Hulu, of course, does none of these things. NBC and its partners are too afraid of cannibalizing other channels, too afraid of alienating advertisers, too afraid of P2P and BitTorrent and the internet. Hulu could kill the iTMS, but this version of Hulu won’t. I generally agree with Marshall Kilpatrick:

No user generated content (not even best-of), no desktop player or download of material (it’s all in a Flash player) and very little viewer interaction is enabled. Viewers are allowed to select which section of the precious Hollywood content they are most in love with, that section or the whole video can then be shared with a friend or embedded on a website. This is just a multi-partner content deal with paltry technology behind it and a whole lot of money for marketing. Nothing innovative to get excited about.

Marshall wants social elements, too, but I’m a misanthrope who doesn’t care to be your friend on Facebook or otherwise, so making the solo viewing experience first-class is more important. But Hulu isn’t social, isn’t first-class, and won’t shake anything up. It’s just another half-baked service with a lot of marketing and a stupid name.

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