Thursday, March 5, 2009

Annecdotes on Television, On-line Video and the Gaps Between

I want to start this post with a note about a television show that I've been fairly amused with recently -- Leverage. Leverage is a dramatic TV series on TNT and a great example of how a huge chunk of the "TV worth watching" is on the cable networks. I'm no TV critic and I can't say that you'd enjoy the show as much as I have -- that's not really the point of this post. Instead, what I wanted to do was characterize my content viewing process and provide what may be an interesting insight into online versus broadcast use cases.

One aspect of a series, particularly one that has an evolving storyline, is your entry-point -- where did you learn about it, where did you come in, and how long did it take to get you to watch repeated episodes. With Leverage, I actually happened to catch the season premier -- drawn in by a pre-episode advertising blitz and a convenient time that didn't conflict with other shows that I might normally watch. The first episode was amusing -- enough that I thought I might try to watch the show again when it came on. Of course, it's worth noting that the era of planning a schedule around a TV show is long gone.

Multiple Opportunities to Keep Up With the Current Episode
Now I should preface all of this with, I may be the only person on the planet without a DVR, but I don't have one; so, if I don't catch a show during the window that it was initially broadcast, the most chance that I have to see it is when it is re-screened. This is one thing that the cable networks like USA, TNT, and Sci-fi do well in terms of making their programming much more accessible. By repeatedly broadcasting the week's episode of Monk, Burn Notice, Psych, Leverage, or the Closer, these shows have opened up to me simply by outperforming everything on the other channels. Re-screening won't save a bad show, but it increases the likelihood that I might give it a change.

That being said, I didn't catch another episode of Leverage until the other night when I came across the season finale while flipping through the channels. Once again I found it amusing and I was disappointed that I missed the entire season. Being the resourceful computer guy that I am, I started looking for ways to view the series online. Rather than dwell on the implementation details, let me just say that I found and watched the entire series online. And for those of you that have never watched a TV series by staring at your computer -- it's really not bad. In fact, it's pretty cool and can be even easier than watching it on the entertainment system.

One other aside on this that's probably worth noting is on rights management, broadcasting, and the availability of this content. As a viewer, people inside TNT might argue about the revenue that they lost with me not watching their ad-supported broadcasts, but I missed those. They also might argue that by watching these episodes, they lost some potential revenue from sales of DVDs. However, as a viewer I would counter with a different perspective. With viewing access to the previous series episodes, I was able to immerse myself in the series and become a fan (or at least interested enough to attempt to schedule and watch it when it begins airing again). I've done this with series in the past -- Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, Heroes. I also have not bought any broadcast-series DVDs even though I've thought that it might be nice to watch the all of the episodes in Monk and some others. Still, by whetting my taste for this content, I have moved into their broadcast-watching audience (or probably will watch if I'm in front of the TV).

When Online Video Doesn't Work
So here's part of the story that triggered me to write this post. During my efforts to watch the series, I attempted to use the published streaming video approach. My first stop was (in that way, I think that their ad campaign has been effective). Hulu had a listing for Leverage that linked to the TNT web site, so off I went to the TNT site. While I attempted to watch one of the full episodes, I kept having problems with the video -- the site wanted to force me to download a Flip-for-Mac wmv converter plug-in component, but an older version than the one that I already have installed. Sensing that it might be a PC thing, I decided to fire up VMware and attempt to watch in running as a PC -- but it still wanted additional components. I updated Windows, installed Flash, and it still wouldn't work. At that point, I just gave up. Later, while looking at some TNT FAQs, I came across a note that said something like, "sorry, no support for Mac. We can't support DRM using the Mac. Nobody has a Mac anyway, beat it."

In an era of YouTube, when I can go to just about any site and watch streaming video, "Sorry, our online video just doesn't work" just doesn't cut it. To me, the funniest thing about the, "I'm sorry, you've got a Mac. We don't support Mac. Get a real computer," is how dated the message feels. Whether it's iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone or Apple's continuing consumption of PC marketshare, you can't ignore Apple. And while I still come across some web-based services that only work on the PC or with IE, today's web is all about it-just-works interoperability and applications (and organizations) that don't respect that have a growing image problem.

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