Biz buoyed as glut of fare alters online plans

The demand for content from online streaming services has created a potentially lucrative situation for Hollywood studios looking to monetize libraries with digital dollars. But for consumers, the flurry of dealmaking surrounding films and TV shows is creating confusion over who owns what they want to watch.

That wasn’t the original plan.

It had long been thought that studios would blanket most services with all of their titles, letting the content benefit from each service’s growth, rather than betting on the individual players that studios thought would survive and shunning the others.

But when Netflix started ponying up considerable coin to lock down exclusive content, studios started siding with the highest bidder. Pay cablers like HBO, Epix and Starz see their own streaming-content apps as a way to keep their subscribers happy and staying put, and as a way to secure films and TV shows for a longer run and away from other platforms.

Cablers have reason to worry about sub retention: Pay TV households declined by about 366,000 during the second quarter of 2011 (and remained flat in the third quarter), according to IHS Screen Digest, with more losses expected in 2012, analysts say.

And by 2015, nearly 12 million U.S. households will receive TV shows and movies from Internet services rather than a traditional pay TV provider, up from 2.5 million homes at the end of 2010, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

Netflix and its rivals may have to start shelling out more money for content, though.

Without its Starz deal, Netflix no longer has Disney and Sony movies, but will have DreamWorks Animation’s toons — like “Puss in Boots” and ‘Shrek” — starting in 2013, through a pricey new exclusive deal.

As Hollywood brokers more digital deals, content is cluttering screens — from TVs with built-in Internet connections to tablets to smartphones — as well as videogame consoles and other set-top boxes.

Websites too are becoming more fashionable for content delivery, with studios increasingly turning to Facebook to offer up film rentals — Blockbuster is also preparing to offer up its films as rentals on the social network next year, while Warner Bros. acquired Flixster to stream movies and promote cloud-based service UltraViolet.

Meanwhile, Amazon.com, Walmart’s Vudu and Best Buy’s CinemaNow, among others, are stepping up to compete with Apple’s iTunes, still the dominant seller and renter of films and TV shows and pushing to sell more titles through its iCloud. Expect more competition once Redbox starts streaming films through its website.

As a result, there are more than 100,000 full-length TV shows and movies available online at any given moment, according to SNL Kagan and Nielsen.

All of that has forced hardware makers to consider new ways to make finding programming easier — an especially important issue as each streaming service starts looking even more similar to the others, and with the same content.

One answer is to turn to search engines like Microsoft’s Bing, for example, to quickly identify all of the platforms that offer a specific film, TV show or project that features an actor. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 vidgame console will have this feature, which will no doubt be a main talking point at CES next month.

As a result, consumers may end up winning as services offer up cheaper subscription packages to attract more customers.

Vudu, which previously only enabled members to stream films they rented or purchased from its site, is now letting them download the titles for later viewing on a variety of devices. And Best Buy paired up with Intel to add its Insider technology, featured in its second-generation of Intel Core processors, to CinemaNow, which will make more HD versions of films available through the service thanks to its enhanced copyright protection.

No one in Hollywood is expected to complain — at least not as long as their terms keep getting more attractive.

CONTENT COMPETITION HEATS UP

Walmart’s Vudu
Titles: 16,000-plus; over 1,900 available in HD
Price: Rentals range from $.99 to $5.99. Rentals of films still in theaters or in premium VOD window: $4.99 to $24.99. TV show episodes to own cost $1.99-$2.99. For full seasons: $16.99-$43.99.
Film partners: All the major studios; FirstLook Studios, Kino and Magnolia Pictures
TV Partners: Bravo, BBC America, Comedy Central, Discovery Communications, MTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon, NBC, Oxygen, Showtime, Spike TV, Starz Entertainment, Syfy, TLC, USA Network

Best Buy’s Cinemanow
Titles: 6,000-plus movies and TV shows to download to own, over 3,000 films to rent
Price: Download to rent: $2.99 to $3.99; download to keep: $9.95 to $19.99.
Film partners: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Intel (which will provide more HD titles).

Netflix
Titles: 17,000-plus*
Price: Base price to stream movies and receive them by mail is $16; $8 for Netflix Instant streaming; $8 for disc-by-mail
Film partners: DreamWorks Animation, Fox, Lionsgate, Miramax, MGM, Open Road, Paramount, Relativity Media, Universal, Warner Bros.
TV Partners: ABC Studios, ABC Family, AMC, the CW, Discovery, Disney Channel, Fox, Lionsgate, Media Rights Capital and BBC’s “House of Cards,” NBCUniversal, Sony

Hulu Plus
Titles: 45,670; includes 2,520 movies
Price: $7.99 per month to access mostly TV shows.
Film partners: Criterion Collection, Miramax Films
TV Partners: ABC, BBC, Fox, NBC, The CW, A&E, Bravo, VH1, Comedy Central, E! Entertainment, FX, History, MTV, Spike, Univision, USA Network

Amazon Prime Instant Video
Titles: 13,000 by early 2012
Price: $79 a year
Film partners: Universal, Sony, Warner Bros., Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, Strand Releasing, Music Box Films, Film Movement, Reel Media
TV Partners: Sony, BBC, PBS, National Geographic, Egami Media, Vivendi Entertainment, New Video Group, Fred Rogers Company, Sesame Workshop, CBS, NBCUniversal

*analyst estimate

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