UltraViolet needs more champions

Friday, May 09, 2014

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Managing content from studio to screen has undergone a sea change with the arrival of streaming and digital downloads. However, a new report from the Consumer Electronics Association suggests that digital video content is a supplement, not replacement for TV programming.

The report says that the vast majority (79 percent) of online US adults obtain the video content they watch from traditional television programming providers such as cable, satellite or fiber-to-the-home. However, a significant number of viewers are turning to other sources with DVD/Blu-ray discs (66 percent), free video streaming services (47 percent) and paid video streaming services (37 percent) are also common sources of video content.

Even as adoption of portable consumer electronic such as tablets and smartphones surges, the ability to share content between devices is still limited, although it seems that one intuitive started three years ago is starting to bear fruit.

In February, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told press on an earnings call that UltraViolet, a digital content ownership platform, was one of the most important initiatives to help improve the user experience of digital content. According to Bewkes, the platform now has more than 15 million account holders and is in part responsible for a surge in domestic consumer spending on home entertainment.

The standard  allows consumers to buy content from any UV store, whether that’s online or physical, and store it in a central digital locker which can be played back to any connected device. According to Chris Swan, product manager at Saffron Digital, “In principle it’s a very compelling product, streamlining fragmented delivery formats, DRMs and usage rights into a simple to use and highly scalable system. It keeps content owners, device manufacturers and end users incredibly happy by reducing costs, operational overhead and time to market as well as improving the accessibility and management of content.”

Swan, however, points out that implementing UV has been a pretty bumpy journey so far, but that’s changing.

Although purported to be a global standard, so far it is only available in nine countries. However support from the content owners is growing; to date, Warner Home Video, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Universal Pictures UK and Paramount Home Entertainment are all releasing some titles with UV copies.

Each has also built-out their own UltraViolet service allowing consumers to adding titles to online collections that will stream to a growing number of UV supported devices without the need to have a physical disc present or a required download to a playback device. The theory is great but the process is still convoluted and requires multiple signups.  A few innovators like Flickster and Vudu have made it easier, especially on consoles like the new Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox for which both have intuitive apps.

Although UV now has nearly 90 organisations either from the content, service or device sectors supporting its progress, there are a number of vendors that are still pursuing their own equivalent services. The biggest is Walt Disney Co., which in March launched its own Disney Movies Anywhere service based on its own proprietary KeyChest DRM technology. The goliath has pumped around 400 titles into the service at launch but at present it only supports Apple iOS devices and digital and physical purchases of future Disney movies.

Considering the scope and scale of the Disney portfolio, its cloud may well gain a following and is a clear blow to the aspirations of UV becoming the one standard to create an eventual single-sign-on nirvana for consumers. Disney’s position is actually unusual as other previous hold-outs like BBC, DreamWorks and HBO start to roll out UV capability either through their own or third party service provider. 

With global media and entertainment spending rising, the industry seems to recognise that making it easier for consumers to own digital content while protecting rights holders is in the interests of the entire chain. However, the seeming success that UV represents is still a North American phenomenon. Details regarding its adoption in Europe are far less transparent. The widely different laws on piracy and even digital ownership between, say, the UK and Germany as well as cultural, rights and language issues seems to have hampered adoption.

The lack of a regional equivalent with the stature of Bewkes championing the cause also makes its global adoption much less certain.

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