Weekend Tech Scan: So many movies, so little time

Comcast and Facebook make some moves into making even more movies available for their customers; also, Sony introduces a new hand-held gaming console.

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Cable providers and others are in increasing competition to provide movies to customers.

Comcast and Facebook make some moves into making even more movies available for their customers; also, Sony introduces a new hand-held gaming console.

It’s hard to believe there was once an era when we could complain there weren’t enough movies to watch.  This week alone, two giant communications companies, Comcast and Facebook, added more pay-per-view movie services.  But like everything else in this emerging industry, there’s a catch with each of them.

Take the new Comcast entry, a monthly subscription service called Xfinity Streampix, which adds a variety of movies and TV shows into your Comcast on-demand library for viewing on your TV, computer, or any mobile device that allows you to see Comcast on-demand shows.  Plans for the service include featuring full past seasons of numerous current hit and/or popular shows

Some see it as giant Comcast’s fightback strategy against Netflix and perhaps Amazon Prime, but according to the Wall Street Journal, Comcast sees this service as a way to keep subscribers from “cutting the cord,” or ending their cable subscriptions in favor of less expensive alternatives.

Because the service is just beginning, it’s probably not wise to make any long-term judgment on its content.  Certainly the studios signed to participate in the new service are a good selection:  include Disney-ABC, NBC Universal ( Comcast owns NBC Universal), Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., and Cookie Jar, a childrens show provider.

That being said, the available content isn’t exactly stellar.  According to the company’s press release, the list of movies available at launch includes seven movies, among them “Ocean’s Eleven” (presumably the George Clooney version, not the 50-year-old Frank Sinatra version), “Stuart Little,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Three of the films are available for streaming on Netflix; six are available from Netflix on DVD.  In addition, of the seven TV initial series on the service, only two are current ones.

Cost for the service is an extra $4.99 monthly; if you have a Comcast triple-play account (cable, phone and Internet service), the service comes free; otherwise, it's a monthly charge.

For TV watchers, Streamcast is listed in Comcast’s on demand listings under its premium channels.  For viewing on a computer, look up the individual movies or show on the Xfinity website.

Given the potential revenue involved, it’s probably no surprise that studios and Facebook are beginning to dance together. By more than one estimate, 1 out of every 8 people on earth have Facebook accounts whether they’re active or not; imagine the revenue for Facebook and a studio if a film really became well viewed on Facebook.  There are roughly 6.8 billion people on earth. A film renting for $4.99 to that 1-in-8 demographic ... you do the math.

In 2011, Warner Bros. announced it would start renting movies through Facebook, a venture that has had little exposure since its announcement nearly a year ago. But the idea of using Facebook’s vast potential to reach vast audiences seems to continue to fascinate entrepreneurs with its possibilities.

According to a blog in Multichannel News by well-known media analyst Gary Arlen, a little-known Australian film, “Tomorrow, When The War Begins,” is being released this weekend through Facebook.

Distributed by a California start-up called Milyoni (as in “million eye”),  the company bills itself as a firm that “helps entertainment convert Facebook fans into customers.” The film itself, a 2-year-old production about teens fighting back against a military attack, is less important than the marketing idea it represents. The film can be downloaded directly from Facebook, or seen on a variety of sources including iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, and Cable On-Demand (the on-demand service available from Comcast and most other cable services).

According to Arlen, Facebook, like Google, intends to play a big role in the development and distribution of feature films — competing with cable and more traditional film providers.  Add to that equation companies producing their own movies and TV shows — Netflix’s fish-out-of-water  series called “Lilyhammer” about a U.S. gangster taking refuge in Norway under a witness protection program, or Hulu Plus’ “Battleground,” which takes a comedic backstage look at a political campaign.

These two, plus the new Facebook entry, show how what we used to think of as just “TV” is evolving in some fascinating ways.  When companies like Facebook, Google, Netflix and Hulu Plus get into the original content producing game, how long can it be before the companies that create the platforms on which we view programs get into the act: companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Samsung, or Apple? Sony has already blazed the path with its Sony Pictures arm.

In other news, Sony announced a product that some say could be bucking the hand-held entertainment tide. It introduced a new hand-held game console this week called the Playstation Vita. Distinctively different from the old Sony PSP handheld unit, this device is more like an iPod Touch but designed for gaming. Start with it being Internet-friendly with its own web browser, music player, front-and-back-facing cameras, and optional AT&T 3G network data connection. Instead of the now-antiquated UMD CD-ROM disks, everything is downloaded from its own store that handles games, music and movies. According to the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed the unit, there will be a music streaming service. No word if it will be able to handle books, although Sony has its own digital book service.

But this is first and foremost a portable gaming device with a unique dual-joystick feature. It also “talks” to Sony PlayStation gaming consoles.  At launch, the system has 26 games directly written for it, and another 275 games re-engineered for the Vita from the older PSP unit.

The unit’s cost will be $249 for WiFi only, or $299 for the 3G version.

The big question is whether a hand-held console, a technology some see as being past its time, can compete with the new generations of games being played on smartphones and small tablets. We’ll probably know that answer in a few months.


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