Wii U's new TV solution suffers gaps in DVR, VOD

Nintendo is finally getting serious about integrating TV into its game consoles, announcing Wednesday a Dec. 20 debut for its TVii feature.

TVii will launch in U.S. and Canada free with — and unavailable independently of — the Wii U, which boasts a tablet controller known as GamePad. It was shipped without TVii, which wasn’t ready in time for the console’s Nov. 18 release.

Though its efforts to date in video entertainment — limited to Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming apps — have shown little of the ambition demonstrated on the same front by Microsoft XBox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo seems ready to catch up to them in repositioning itself as more than just a gaming platform.

TVii is capable of combining navigation for video from pay-TV linear channel packages with several leading digital streaming services in a customizable search experience available on Wii U’s 6.2-inch touchscreen. GamePad, which doubles as a videogame controller and universal remote control, also delivers companion content synchronized to live telecasts of the top 100 TV shows, with a particularly deep emphasis on sports.

It’s a savvy strategy for capitalizing on two key trends: the second-screen explosion that has made tablets and smartphones increasingly common accessories to TV watching, and the fragmentation of viewing options beyond a pay-TV environment that has done little to improve its own poor user experience. Nevertheless, there’s some key gaps in TVii’s own offering.

In its current state, TVii didn’t necessitate Nintendo doing any licensing deals with pay-TV operators; it’s subsisting so far on program listings and doesn’t require authentication for pay-TV subscribers.

But what TVii is missing at this point is access to pay-TV VOD and, more crucially, DVRs, which would have made the content on a user’s DVR hard drive accessible to cross-platform navigation — not to mention providing the ability to set recordings for future programming options.

Nintendo execs say it is currently in talks to get the licenses that will make that possible, though the willingness of MSOs to empower any console manufacturers has to be questioned given their own reported intent to become their competitors as early as next year via cloud-gaming offerings.

While it’s not an unforgivable omission given that the lion’s share of viewing exists in live TV, it’s a notable gap given the whole premise of the product is integrating all the different sources of video out there. Yet it is missing some key pieces of that puzzle.

What TVii will have at launch is Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video, which allow a viewer interested in seeing the latest episode of, say, “The Mentalist” to either find its next live telecast or order it on demand. Netflix and TiVo will join TVii in 2013, which gives Wii U a nice lineup of streaming options, but even there it’s incomplete given that iTunes won’t be available and neither will access to open-Web video sources like YouTube.

Live TV is really where TVii will make the biggest impact, which makes it wise for Nintendo to have focused on sports, live TV’s top attraction. It’s an orientation baked into the set-up process for TVii, which asks the user not just for TV and film preferences but their favorite teams. That leads to relevant data extras ranging from upcoming games to real-time score updates.

Sports also makes for a natural overlap with Wii, a console that shot to popularity on the strength of games powered by motion-sensing controllers capable of blurring the lines between actual and virtual athletics. On the social side, where sports have already proven to be even more popular fodder for chatter than entertainment, TVii will have much richer data to leverage than the usual array of casting information that will accompany movies and TV episodes, which makes for a rather thin second-screen experience.

Impressively, Nintendo will employ its own team of curators who will deliver second-screen content in real time. But Nintendo execs say they have already made overtures to the programmers themselves to offer that service, which makes sense considering third parties can’t possible deliver the kind of added value that comes straight from a network’s writers rooms.

While Nintendo may not be the first hardware manufacturer that comes to mind when one thinks about branching into TV, it might very well should be. Wii edged out both of its rivals as the leading device for connecting broadband-delivered video to TV, according to a a Tremor Video study conducted in August. But Wii trails XBox and PlayStation in terms of time spent per day watching video via gaming consoles, according to Nielsen’s Cross-Platform Report for the first quarter of the year, though that study indicated Wii indexes higher among kids and higher-income families.

While companies like Apple and Roku may command more attention in the race for delivering over-the-top video, that overlooks the simple fact that consoles are better positioned to dominate because they are already sitting next to TVs in living rooms.

But consoles are also a challenged business given that the very device technology GamePad is intended to capitalize on is already starting to eat away at this market, providing alternate gaming options. In that respect, the efforts by Nintendo et al. to position consoles as more than just gaming devices make sense.

TVii is really the first sign of any concerted effort on Nintendo’s part to play a more prominent role in the TV world. XBox and PlayStation have already been trying for years, but with a distinctly different strategy than what Nintendo is doing here: Instead of trying to be a entry point to the existing ecosystem, Microsoft and Sony have built out their own virtual storefronts selling movies and TV episodes a la carte, in addition to modest original programming efforts.

Ambitious as that is, it hasn’t necessarily been proven out yet to be the smarter play, though Microsoft seems to be doubling down there with the recent formation of a Los Angeles-based studio that will produce content for XBox under the direction of CBS veteran Nancy Tellem.

Microsoft may also have the most comparable product on the market to TVii in SmartGlass, a second-screen solution that can also function as a remote control and companion-content showcase. But unlike SmartGlass, TVii will not allow a user to migrate video from one screen to another or work outside of Nintendo’s own hardware (Smartglass works on iOS and Android devices, too). TVii also isn’t a remote control in the fullest sense: It is capable of switching channels but can’t fast-forward or pause live TV.

Wii U is seeing strong initial interest, having since sold 845,000 units already delivering dual-screen gaming and a proprietary social network, known as Miiverse. Nintendo’s Japanese division recently deployed a similar product in that country, and the European division is expected to do the same in that region at some point next year.

Because TVii is a cloud-based service, Nintendo didn’t need it to be at full power at launch. If anything, it’s a calculated move designed to give the company time to examine user behavior and iterate accordingly. But in its current state, TVii makes evident there’s room for improvement.

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