New TV With an Old Twist

I talked with SyncTV last week, a TV download service that launched in private beta in November 07 and demoed a proof-of-concept device at CES in January. While others in this space like Hulu and Joost focus on broadcast content online, SyncTV aims to clear that elusive path from the study to the den, offering downloadable content online and allowing viewers to take it offline to view as they wish. SyncTV started as a skunkworks project within Pioneer Electronics and both parties are interested in spinning it out on its own.

SyncTV is an open-standards-based subscription service that allows users unlimited downloads of home-theater-quality television shows to watch when and where they choose. It currently works on Windows, Macs and Linux PCs and will work on consumer devices by the end of 2008, including TVs and portable players. Users subscribe to channels, each about $2 per month, and can download as many current and classic shows as they like from said channels, with no viewing limits and no expiration date. As long as you remain a subscriber, you have access to all your downloaded content, which is ad-supported. Each account allows for viewing on five home devices (TVs, computers) and 10 portable devices (in-car players, portable players). The company’s open-standards approach will hopefully facilitate quick development of devices by third parties. It will launch to the public later this year with at least three major broadcast partners.

To be honest, my excitement about SyncTV was tempered somewhat when I heard about the ads. While I realize fully that ads are a necessary evil, especially in television, I don’t think consumers should be hit with a double whammy of ads and subscriber fees. Up the subscriber fees and get rid of the ads. Or vice versa. But asking viewers to pay on two levels may turn many off. PR reps for SyncTV told me that ads are “part of the deals we’re making with networks” and that “the number and length of ads are dependent on the contract.” The plan is to have similar break intervals and lengths as traditional television.

If one industry has been profoundly turned on its head by technology, it’s television. (The music industry has suffered decidedly more but that’s a post for another day.) Between the DVR, HD, YouTube, the iPod, Netflix, etc etc, today’s television is about as far from the ‘Texaco Theater’ days as one can possibly get. There is undoubtedly much innovation and forward thinking that needs to happen in this space. And I think that services like Amazon’s Unbox and iTunes‘ television offerings are steps in the right direction, albeit small ones. But if television is truly going to break out of our desktops and into our living rooms, it can’t keep one foot in the Texaco Theater days. Simply put, we need to think about business models differently when it comes to the new era of digital media. The music industry has endured some painful lessons regarding revenue; the television sector would be wise to learn from them.

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