Satcaster, Dish competitive at CES

LAS VEGAS — Taking video off the TV was big news Thursday as companies ranging from MTV and NBC Universal to TiVo and satcasters DirecTV and Dish made news on the opening day of the Consumer Electronics Show.

MTV Networks was the only major media company to make its own CES presentation, and it coincided with a deal the cable conglom made with Microsoft to take its content digital. As with other deals Microsoft has made with companies like Disney and Time Warner, no specifics were announced, but the companies are planning to make content from MTV Networks compatible with the software giant’s growing line of handheld and homevideo products.

“Our companies will form a taskforce on digital media,” MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath explained in a major address, the only one given by a media exec.

In a sign that tech pros are not as attracted to Hollywood execs as many hoped, though, McGrath’s speech was the least attended of any major CES speech thus far, half filling the usually standing-room-only space.

McGrath also revealed that MTV will later this year debut MTV Overdrive, a channel devoted exclusively to broadband Internet connections. Content from the online channel will also be made available to other video-on-demand providers.

In addition, MTV is partnering with Verizon Wireless to bring its content to the mobile media. Net also plans to launch its previously announced digital music service to compete with iTunes by later in 2005.

Direct competition

Meanwhile, satcasters DirecTV and Dish Network upped the stakes in the battle with each other and cable companies. DirecTV unveiled its long-awaited digital video recorder, which uses technology from News Corp. sister company NDS.

Set to launch in the middle of this year, DirecTV’s DVR will feature a 100-hour hard drive and allow users to record pay-per-view films and only pay if they watch them.

DirecTV also announced that it will launch a home media center allowing users to move video, as well as digital music and photos, between televisions in their homes. Company is also launching a series of interactive channels that group all the stations in a genre, such as news or sports, onto one viewing screen where viewers can browse among them. DVR and home media options will launch later this year with yet-to-be-determined pricing, while the interactive channels are debuting now.

Competitor Dish, which already offers its own DVR, announced an upgraded version that allows users to record programs in high definition and view the programs in multiple rooms. Like DirecTV, Dish also announced what’s essentially a makeshift video-on-demand system in which users can download movies and pay only if they watch them.

TiVo strategy

New products could help satcasters accelerate their advances on cable. But they’re also a potential blow to TiVo, particularly DirecTV’s proprietary DVR. About two-thirds of TiVo’s 3 million-plus subscribers have come through DirecTV, and while the satcaster is contractually obliged to continue offering TiVo service through 2007, a rep for DirecTV confirmed that new customer acquisition will focus primarily on company’s own DVR.

To better compete with satcasters and cable companies offering their own DVRs, TiVo on Thursday revealed a new strategy to position itself as what CEO Mike Ramsay called a “personal entertainment network.”

Dubbed “Tahiti,” the new approach will have TiVo expanding its capabilities beyond TV to include Internet content such as movie showtimes, video-on-demand and e-commerce. Set to roll out later this year and in 2006, Tahiti is expected to include a number of content partnerships, including the VOD program TiVo’s currently developing with Netflix. It will also be part of company’s portable service TiVoToGo, which it started rolling out this week. TiVo is partnering with Microsoft for the latter service so it may work with the tech giant’s line of media electronics.

Joining the fray with satcasters and cable companies are major telcos, who are at CES revealing strategies to offer TV later this year. SBC chief exec Ed Whitacre said in a morning address that his company will dub its offering U-Verse. It will combines Internet-delivered TV, broadband content and other services.

While most companies were focusing on digital content in the home, wireless tech firm SmartVideo revealed agreements with a number of entertainment companies, including NBC U, to provide video content to cell phones. Company’s newly launched $12.95 per month offering will include on-demand video from ABC News, the Weather Channel, CNBC, MSNBC and NBC U-produced programs on the Peacock net.

Unlike competitor MobiTV, which launched last year on SprintPCS with some of the same providers but lower video quality, SmartVideo is offering its content directly to consumers and is partnering with Microsoft for technology and marketing.

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