Netflix, Hulu, more bringing video content to VR

At its Oculus Connect 2 event this morning, Oculus announced that a slew of popular video apps are coming to VR.

Hulu, Netflix, Vimeo, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Tivo, Twitch and Facebook are all bringing video content to the new Samsung Gear VR headset, which is shipping in November (in time for Black Friday). The move signals just the latest example of how the media industry is building toward a new era for VR content, and follows news of Disney investing $65 million into VR startup Jaunt.

With new content coming to VR devices in droves, it seems as though the hurdle of capturing widespread interest with compelling experiences is rapidly shrinking. The other big obstacles are, of course, cost and comfort, but even those may be less of an issue in light of Samsung’s announcement. The new Gear VR (which is compatible with a Samsung’s 2015 mobile phone lineup) has been significantly overhauled, weighing 22 percent less than its predecessor and sporting a brand new, aggressively affordable price tag: $99.

Though videos have been available in Gear VR before (thanks to VR Cinema), this announcement is significant because it feels like a big bet on entertainment in VR. Samsung Gear VR isn’t going to revolutionize our living rooms just yet, but making vast amounts of high-quality, desirable video content available in a headset is unprecedented.

With Netflix and Hulu alone, a massive catalog of films and television shows is coming to VR. No longer will users need the video files (as was the case with VR Cinema), but they’ll be able to stream content, on-demand in a VR space. Oculus’s partnership with 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate will allow users to access even more films, like X-Men, Life of Pi, Gone Girl, and the Blair Witch Project. And Vimeo, though it boasts less content than YouTube, is famous for cinema-quality video and extremely well-made content.

Netflix VR

A visual diagram of how Netflix will approach VR with its new app for Samsung Gear VR.

To be clear, though, the video content coming from Netflix, Hulu and the others (with the exception of Facebook’s video efforts, which are spherical, 360-degree experiences) will not be immersive in nature. You won’t be able to look around scenes and it probably won’t feel like you’re “in” the movie.

Instead, those VR apps will presumably perform much like the current VR Cinema, which displays the video content on a huge movie or home theater-like screen in front of you (as shown in the image below from Hulu). So, while it won’t feel like you’re a part of the film, it will create a comfortable theater experience, whether you’re using the headset on a plane, in a hotel, on a train, or in the backseat of a car. There’s also the promise that some of these video streaming experiences will become more social, creating environments where you can sit with and interact with your friends in VR (as avatars, of course).

This move to bring a staggering amounts of video content into the VR space is essentially a vote of confidence in the entertainment experience in VR, which says a lot about how people are using Gear VR already, and very possibly speaks to the comfort level of the new headset. After all, betting on users spending hours inside of the headset watching content would be a fool’s errand if the headset feels like wearing a camcorder on your forehead.

Hulu VR shows off what it's new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Hulu VR shows off what it’s new VR app for Samsung Gear VR may look like within a living room.

Hulu subscribers can now go commercial-free

Streaming video service Hulu will start offering subscribers an option to eliminate advertising during programs, the company announced today.
The move is significant because Hulu has traditionally thought to be against any business model that didn’t include commercials, which were identical to those found on cable and satellite television and nearly as lucrative. And since Hulu’s owners consist of major media companies (Comcast, Disney, News Corp.) — all firmly pro-advertising (or so it seemed) — it didn’t seem like that would ever change. However, it looks like the move was done at least in part to make Hulu more competitive against the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Hulu has priced the new ad-free option at $12 per month, $4 more than the base subscription, which the company will continue offering. At that price, it seems crazy not to spend a little bit more not to have to see the same irritating rotation of commercial interruptions 3 to 5 times per episode. (And with Fall TV premiere season right around the corner, I’m guessing a lot of people will chose to upgrade to ad-free.)
It’s also interesting that Hulu opted to price the ad-free option on par with HBO Go and Netflix. With the exception of CBS and a few popular cable networks like AMC and BBC America, Hulu gives subscribers access to far more current-season content than Sling TV, which starts at $20 monthly.
The new subscription option also comes days after Hulu announced it had secured a licensing deal to add hundreds of popular films from movie service Epix — just as competitor Netflix ends its own contract.
At 9 million subscribers, Hulu is still far behind Netflix’s 42 million domestic customers. But it’ll definitely be interesting to see if there’s any fallout from these two developments — with Netflix users canceling their service for Hulu, much in the same way Apple Music is challenging Spotify for greater marketshare.

YouTube’s app just for kids on the way (updated)

There are lot of great professionally-made videos for kids on YouTube buried in an avalanche of decidedly inappropriate content. Soon, parents won’t have to filter the millions of videos themselves: On Monday, Google is launching a new free Android app aimed directly at kids, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thusrday.

The app will be called YouTube for Kids, according to Google, and you’ll be able to download it from the Google Play app store for Android phones and tablets on Monday. (Originally, Google was not expected to also release an iOS version at launch, but it did.)

YouTube Kids Screenshot

The free app has several family friendly features, including a simple and colorful design, parental controls and ways to set limits on screen time. But the most important part of the app will be its curated roster of kids shows, including videos from popular series such as Sesame Street and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Companies contributing content include Jim Henson TV, DreamWorks TV, Mother Goose Club, The Jim Henson Company, National Geographic, and Reading Rainbow. The mix of content appears to center be mostly shorter web videos as opposed to full episodes — LaVar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow, for instance, will be contributing an “exclusive original series” called uTech. Shows like Sesame Street offer full episodes on YouTube, but those usually require a subscription.

It’s unclear whether Google will be serving advertisements in the YouTube for Kids app, although the Wall Street Journal reports that Google is paying its content partners to to produce original shows. Google will have to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, so it will have to notify parents before collecting identifying information.

A YouTube for Kids product has been a long time coming. Netflix and Amazon Prime Streaming both offer kids sections — Amazon sells a kid-oriented subscription — and there are lots of third-party apps that have tried to fill the child-oriented gap left by YouTube. But the children’s video market is too important to be left to startups, so Google is doing it itself.

Update 2/23: Google launched YouTube for Kids, and in a bit of a surprise, there is an iOS version on the App Store in addition to an Android version on the Google Play app store. This post has been updated to reflect availability for Apple devices.


The fair use case to show The Interview if Sony will not

After Sony cravenly cancelled The Interview, people who had no interest in the comedy now want to see it — mostly so they can stick it to North Korea, whose threats caused the film to be cancelled in the first place. But where can they watch it?

Some options are already emerging. As the Wall Street Journal proposed, the U.S. government could release the film everywhere, including North Korea where dissidents already smuggle in movies via balloons and USB sticks. Under the Journal’s plan:

[A]n alternative would be for the U.S. government to buy the movie rights from Sony and release it into the public domain. Anyone could then share the file online without violating copyright, burn it onto DVDs or even re-edit it to make new viral videos. Chinese netizens love to mock Kim, and North Koreans like to watch movies smuggled across the border from China. Perhaps the CIA could dub the movie into Korean to make sure it gets to its target audience.

It’s not a bad idea, but perhaps there’s no need to wait for the U.S. government to buy the movie. Instead, distributors of any shape or size, from Netflix to film blogs, could rely on copyright’s fair use exemption to show the movie without asking [company]Sony[/company].

Law professor James Grimmelmann raised this idea last week:

Fair use rules involve courts balancing the rights of the copyright owner against the interest of the public. And in this case, the public interest case for showing the movie is enormous, given the awful precedent that this piece of censorship is setting. As David Carr of the New York Times put it:

Once the film was successfully censored, you could count the days until other films were affected. Actually, it happened earlier in the same day, before The Interview was shelved, when New Regency announced that it would drop an untitled thriller about North Korea that was to have starred Steve Carell. […]

The threats and subsequent cancellation will become a nightmare with a very long tail. Now that cultural discourse has become the subject of online blackmail, it is hard to imagine where it will end.

There is still the matter, though, of how fair use rules actually apply. Here, as with any other copyright case, it involves a standard test. The test involves four steps, but in practice, only two factors really matter: the reason someone is using the copyrighted work, and the effect that this use will have on the market.

As Grimmelmann notes above, the market factor tilts heavily in favor of anyone showing The Interview since, right now, there is no market for the film. And as for the other major fair use factor (known as “the purpose of the use”), there is a good argument that showing the film counts as a so-called transformative use. Unlike Sony’s original intention for the movie, which was as a lowbrow form of entertainment, others who show it would be making a powerful political statement. As President Obama noted on Friday:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States … That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.”

Does this mean that the fair use case for showing The Interview is open-and-shut? No, it’s not. But the case is strong and, anyway, would Sony really double down by filing copyright lawsuits over a movie that it was too cowardly to release in the first place?

So let’s hope that everyone from [company]Netflix[/company] to [company]BitTorrent[/company] considers making a stand on this one. This would be a good occasion for the file-sharing crowd to prove that they care about something more than getting movies for free. And for [company]Hulu[/company] and [company]Amazon [/company]and anyone else with an interest in Hollywood, this would be a second chance to take up George Clooney’s call for the film industry to take a stand about something that matters more than money.

Hulu adds Fargo and other cable shows, looks more like Netflix

Hulu doesn’t want to leave all the good shows to Netflix and Amazon: The streaming video services has signed deals with 20th Century Fox and MGM to make Hulu the exclusive subscription home for a number of shows, including Fargo, Taboo and The Comedians. However, the deals are also make Hulu look a lot more like its competitors, and less like the catch-up service we are used to.

The deal with 20th Century Fox brings a number of FX Networks and FXX shows to Hulu, including Tyrant, The Strain, Married and You’re the Worst, all of which are set to become available on Hulu before the second season airs on TV. The service also secured the rights to a bunch of shows scheduled to launch on the two networks in 2015, including a comedy series starring Billy Crystal called The Comedians, a drama called Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll starring Denis Leary and a drama called Taboo from executive producer Ridley Scott. All of those shows will also come to Hulu only after the first season concludes on TV.

The MGM deal exclusively brings the first season of the hit mini series Fargo to Hulu, with episodes coming to the service just before the second season hits FX in fall of 2015. The deal also adds the History channel’s Vikings show, as well as a bunch of catalog fare, including “thousands of episodes” from shows like Stargate Universe, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate: SG-1, Flipper, Adams Family, Dead Like Me and others, according to a post on the Hulu blog.

There’s a common thread throughout those announcements, and I’m not talking about the fact that most of this stuff aired on FX. Most of the content that comes to Hulu through these deals will only be available to paying Hulu Plus subscribers, and none of it is available in-season. So if you are looking to catch up on a show that aired on FX last night, you’re out of luck. Instead, Hulu will offer everything after a whole season aired on TV, in a binge-friendly fashion.

Sounds familiar? That’s because this is essentially the Netflix model. Netflix has long concentrated on full previous seasons, and only very rarely offered a catch-up experience (the release of Breaking Bad in the U.K. was one of those rare exceptions from the rule). Hulu on the other hand started out primarily as a catch-up service, promising access to shows long before they ended up on Netflix.

But in recent seasons, networks have severely curtailed next-day access on Hulu. ABC, Fox and the CW network already delay access to their content for users for eight days after a show airs on TV. FX shows are only available in season to users who sign in with their pay TV credentials — even Hulu Plus subscribers only have access to previous seasons. Bravo posts episodes of its shows often after multiple weeks, and only gives users who sign in with their pay TV information access to next-day content.

As next-day catch-up becomes more of an exception than the rule on Hulu, the service is clearly putting a bigger emphasis on Netflix-like binge-watching. Fargo and the other content announced this week is just the latest reminder that Hulu’s identity is evolving.

Rupert Murdoch on Myspace: We just messed it up

Myspace could have been what Facebook and YouTube are now if News Corp. hadn’t messed it up, according to Rupert Murdoch, who also believes that it will take a long time for HBO to succeed online.

Good news for Hulu Plus subscribers: Hulu CEO is considering running fewer ads

Think there are too many ads on Hulu Plus? You’re not alone: Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins is considering reducing the ad load on Hulu’s paid subscription tier, according to a New York Post report. Hulu has been showing users more than 80 ads per month, compared to 32 on YouTube, according to the Post. Of course, paying Netflix subscribers don’t have to endure any ads — but it’s unlikely Hulu would go that far any time soon: The service just launched in-app subscriptions for its iPhone app, making it even more dependent on advertising for paying users.