Weekend tech blog: Watching TV on your living room couch? That's so 2010

HBO has joined the ranks of media giants who are making their shows available on mobile devices. But where is Showtime?

HBO has joined the ranks of media giants who are making their shows available on mobile devices. But where is Showtime?

Watching TV at home, sprawled on the living room couch, is so 2010.

Already, 2011 is brimming with solutions that are decentralizing your choices of where you want to watch your TV shows: on a smartphone, tablet, or computer in addition to your TV set.

To what degree people are taking advantage of these opportunities, or whether it’s the answer for traditional network TV and cable operations to hold onto their audiences, isn’t yet clear. But among many major media players, it’s not for lack of trying.

Here are some gleanings from the current TV wheat fields.

Cable pay service giant HBO announced this week that HBO Go — the “HBO anywhere” concept that has been long discussed and spottily delivered — is now available to anyone in the Apple iOS and Android world.

If you own an Apple device such as an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, an Android smartphone or tablet, or any up-to-date desktop browser on a Mac or PC, and if you’re both a cable and an HBO subscriber, you can see virtually every program in the HBO catalog and not be tethered to your TV set and cable box. (For those fortunate or unfortunate enough to own a Google TV system, it's also available to you.)

This is not a sampler or a collection of clips: These are full seasons and full episodes. Looking to watch the new “Game of Thrones” series, or watch every episode in the seven seasons of the Hollywood bad-boys show “Entourage”? They’re all there for the viewing.

Lest this seem like an ad for HBO Go, it’s not. While the service breaks down the HBO shows into movies, series, comedy, sports, documentaries, and late night (can’t wait to watch “Busty Cops and the Jewel of Denial”?), show availability is inconsistent depending on whether you’re viewing programs on a mobile device, a computer, or using your cable service’s on-demand feature.

A few examples:

  • HBO’s fascinating “Deadwood,” which was terminated far too early after only 3 seasons, is available complete on Android phones, iPhones and iPads. On Comcast’s on-demand service, only 6 episodes from the show’s second season are available.
  • The first two episodes of the new “Game of Thrones” series are available on iPads and cable on demand, but not on iPhone or Android phones.
  • The 2 seasons of the Brazilian crime series, “Epitafios” are available on iPad, iPhones and Android phones, but not on Comcast on demand.

The movie selection is weak: a wide variety of films but other than the usual blockbusters like “Avatar” or “Sherlock Homes” (the Robert Downey version), the films are available elsewhere. HBO in one sense is a victim of the times. Movies previously available to you on the small screen only through your cable system/premium HBO subscription are now ubiquitous via monthly subscriptions (i.e., Netflix), per-use rental (iTunes, Amazon on Demand, or several other services) or heavily discounted DVD or Blu-ray services. HBO apparently hasn’t seen fit to showcase little-seen films or rarities so, despite a multitude of titles, the pickings are slim.

But when it comes to HBO’s strengths — original series and documentaries — the new HBO Go service is offering a window into its rich archives and offering some gems: Every episode can be watched end to end, and taken with you wherever you are. Every episode of “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under,” ”Oz,” “Generation Kill,” “Taxi Cab Confessions” and more.

The service has just been turned on so the offerings are likely to increase over time. But what’s here is a TV junkie’s dream so far.

A caveat: Episodes can’t be downloaded. You have to be connected to the Internet via a broadband/WiFi system, or using your phone data system. Warning: if your data plan isn’t unlimited, multiple hours of viewing can be fatal to your phone bill.

Caveat 2: HBO is only making this service available to subscribers—no a la carte purchasing of these shows to non-subscribers. If you’re not an HBO subscriber, you can always purchase DVDs, buy/rent them through iTunes or Amazon on Demand, or wait and see if Netflix or its brethren (VuDu, CinemaNow, etc.) have them in their libraries.

Caveat 3 is for techies: The HBO Go app may be available for Android tablets but it's unknown if it's optimized for the Honeycomb 3.0 OS. In other words, it might make for lousy viewing on Android tablets.

If you (or your kids) spend endless hours on your Xbox gaming system, you may be pleased to know that Hulu Plus, another widely used on-demand subscription service, is now available on your Xbox system as part of the gaming console’s Xbox Live service. Hulu Plus’ range of network programs and TV shows is deep, includes at least one specialty movie service — films from the Criterion Collection — and is competitively priced with Netflix at $7.99 a month.

This plan further expands on Microsoft’s intent to turn its Windows franchise into a “Windows Everywhere” strategy: available on any computer or consumer platform, and extending the Xbox’s usefulness from a gaming platform to an entertainment hub. This is a trend that bears watching: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spelled it all out in his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) conference last January (here’s a link).

Where is Showtime in all this? Strangely enough, the other major premium cable service, with edgy shows such as “Dexter,” “The Borgias,” “Californication,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Weeds,” to name a few,” is not being as competitive as is HBO in the off-line movement. The service has apps for iPhones and Android devices, but no iPad app. Moreover, its off-cable offerings are limited mostly to show clips, trailers, and, on occasion, a full episode.

The service seems content at this time to advertise on its website, “Watch select full episodes right now!" with links enabling viewers to rent or purchase episodes on iTunes — hardly a competitive stance in view of HBO’s programming diaspora.

In the near future, I'll talk about the smartphone/tablet apps that are opening up vast libraries of media never before available to the general public. "60 Minutes" archives, anyone?

I gotta go. Season 2 of “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix awaits: only 37 episodes until I’m caught up . . .


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