You bet, and, if they don’t wait for an invitiation, they can also play in the worlds of AppleTV, Slingbox and other CES and Macword gadgets that are giving viewers ever-increasing control over their video diets.
Tuesday was one of those days that make you wish you could be two places at once. I was eager to cover Apple CEO Steve Job’s annual bravura performance at Macworld Expo, but I hated to leave the Consumer Electronics Show, especially since it meant missing CBS Chairman Les Moonves unveil his network’s new Internet strategy.
Fortunately those corporate titans drew so much attention that Wednesday’s trade and business papers offered many thousands of words about each event. But in all that verbiage one word was conspicuously absent: stations.
Amid all the bombast about “revolutionary” new hardware and “ripping, burning and mashing to the new beat,” the two showmen said nary a word about TV stations. Even more surprising, neither did any of the writers in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times or even Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. However unintentionally, Jobs and Moonves signaled a grim message: that broadcasting can be taken for granted and, worse, that stations are maybe a vestige of a passing era.
But take a closer look. If you read between the lines of the Apple and CBS announcements, there are significant lessons and opportunities for broadcasters. And if you bother to ask, there may be plenty of new media partners who are eager to help stations to carve their own path to the media future.
Lets start with Apple’s two big announcements. First, Jobs unveiled AppleTV, a svelte white box that wirelessly streams or records digital content from other computers in your home. Think of the $299 gadget as a video iPod that uses your living room TV as its screen. It plays your family photos, “ripped” CDs and especially the music and videos you buy online from Apple’s hugely successful iTunes Store. And it can do so with full digital audio and up to 780p high-def video through its built-in HDMI connector.
Apple boasts that now users “can even watch part of a movie in their living room, and watch the rest on their iPod,” a prospect made more than feasible by Apple’s second big announcement: the iPhone. But don’t be mislead by the name—this is no mere cell phone. It’s a full-fledged information and entertainment device with a dazzlingly clear, if compact, screen. Instead of buttons it uses a super-smart touch screen with a nearly psychic ability to interpret common finger gestures. The iPhone has all the features of a top-of-the-line iPod and cell phone plus superb e-mail and text messaging, “visual” or random-access voice mail and the first really readable Web browser in a hand-held device. All this techno-goodness comes at a steep price, however—up to $599 for the higher capacity 8 megabyte memory.
The content menus for both AppleTV and the iPhone closely resemble the iTunes interface familiar to iPod users. And if you read them literally, you might conclude that the viewer’s choices exclude local TV content. Not so, says veteran broadcaster and former Tech TV talent Leo LaPorte, who hosts and produces one of the highest-rated podcasts, This Week in Tech. “That AppleTV menu has a podcast option and it’s really kind of misnamed. It really is ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“other stuff you got off the Internet.’ So that’s an opportunity for broadcasters to put up programs, promos, anything up there.”
Laporte says that TV stations can post video segments or entire shows on Apple’s servers—just like any podcaster. Right now, promoting a podcast on iTunes is the producers’ problem. Of course, few podcasters have a broadcast station promoting their show. And Laporte says that the time will come when Apple will help out. “Apple really has cherry-picked offerings from big movie companies and TV networks, but they have also said they’re going to open this up more. It means that everybody has a shot at getting into that living room. The playing field has leveled.”
Of course, broadcasters accustomed to counting viewers by the tens or hundreds of thousands may be leery of the idea of pursuing the fractional and fractious audience for new media. That was certainly Mel Karmazin’s view when he ran CBS. This week Les Moonves made it clear that thinking has changed. Today, Moonves said, the CBS Eye is focused on “technology to connect with our audience, learn from them, and form deeper, more interactive communities around our content.”
To illustrate his point, Moonves shared his CES keynote stage with CSI creator Anthony Zuiker who pointed out ways in which fan sites and bloggers influence the creative development of the various CSIs. Moonves also introduced online gaming executive Philip Rosedale who is developing a virtual Star Trek world for fans to enjoy online. Also on hand was Ilene Chaiken, creator of Showtime’s The L Word and its star Jennifer Beals, extolling the virtues of ourchart.com, which caters to the show’s lesbian fan base. (That whirring sound in the distance is Bill Paley spinning in his grave.)
Moonves revealed that CBS will also be courting the digital audience through hardware as well. Late Show host Craig Ferguson is urging viewers to enter a video clip contest via YouTube. And CBS has formed a groundbreaking partnership with Sling Media, whose Slingbox device gives users remote Internet access to the output of their home entertainment system. Clip + Sling is a new application that lets Slingbox users grab short CBS program clips and share them with their online friends.
Clearly, CBS intends to pursue viewers wherever they go. CBS is no longer just the sum of its programs, Moonves said, but “an audience company.” His apparent new media strategy: to cover all bases and gradually zero in on the projects that produce the most revenue. That’s not a bad plan for stations to emulate.
Even small stations have the resources to exploit blogs and YouTube to encourage online audience “communities.” Perhaps not as obvious are the opportunities to form small partnerships with hardware and software makers.
Elgato manufactures EyeTV, a series of low-cost tuner-processors that turn Macintosh computers into powerful digital video recorders. Product Marketing Manager Lars Felber thinks the offerings on the iTunes store go only so far. “There is certain content only ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“real’ TV can get you and that’s where EyeTV comes in.”
Once installed, EyeTV can find stations on the air or on cable, record specific programs and automatically transfer them into iTunes where they’re ready for AppleTV. And Elgato would welcome the chance to advertise its product by giving stations free units to use as promotional prizes.”That would be a very good idea,” says Felber. “Maybe a contest targeted to Mac users.” A top-of-the-line Mac Mini plus AppleTV along with EyeTV would make a powerful and versatile home entertainment center—at a full retail cost of about $1,200.
That same system can automatically burn DVD copies of favorite programs using Toast 8 software by Roxio, whose director of product development, Adam Fingerman, expressed enthusiasm for local TV partnerships. “We often do promotional giveaways with radio stations when we launch new products. We would be more than happy to do it with television stations as well.”
In fact, Roxio brings another big player to the party. Earlier this week, Roxio and TiVo jointly released the first Mac-based version of TiVO-to-Go, the software that allows registered TiVO users to burn limited copies of their recorded programs onto DVDs or transfer them to their Mac, iPod or to AppleTV.
“We work great with EyeTV, so an EyeTV and Toast 8 combination would be awesome. I’m sure the folks at TiVo would be interested in doing the same thing with TiVos and Toast,” Fingerman said.
Although Mac sales have been surging, stations can hardly ignore the much greater market share enjoyed by PC’s. Happily Roxio also makes the TiVo-compatible Easy Media Creator, the top-selling media management and disk-burning software for PCs.
Of all the announcements at CES and Macworld this week, only one sought direct support from local TV: Samsung’s new A-VSB encoding scheme that cost-effectively encodes a station’s signal for clear reception on mobile devices. As for all the other innovations, it’s the stations that must reach out. With a little creative experimentation, local broadcasters can adapt the emerging CBS media strategy and offer local production through every available medium. In fact, stations may have little choice.