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.

Netflix may launch in Spain later this summer

Netflix is looking to launch in Spain later this year, according to local media reports that were relayed by Variety this weekend. According to these reports, Netflix could launch in Spain as early as September. The streaming service has reportedly already negotiated rights to launch in Spain, and TV manufacturers are preparing to carry the Netflix app in Spain this year. Netflix executives announced earlier this year that they want to expand to 200 countries within two years.

Tina Fey’s new Netflix show is here for weekend binge-watching

There are two good reasons to pay attention to the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is Tina Fey’s new series that debuted Friday on Netflix.

The first reason is that the show, about a young woman rebuilding her life in New York City after 15 years in a cult, is good — really good. I saw a preview of the first two episodes in New York in February, and the show is odd, fresh and funny. It’s easy to root for Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, who also played Erin on The Office), while her gay black sidekick Titus (Tituss Burgess) may be unlike any other character on TV. The show got a 78 at MetaCritic and folks at Rotten Tomatoes seem to like it too.

The other reason to take note of Kimmy Schmidt is because it shows, once again, how much the creation and distribution of TV has changed. As the New York Times recounted earlier this month, the initial episodes of Kimmy Schmidt were supposed to appear on NBC. The network, however, got cold feet, so Tina Fey decided to take it elsewhere.

Netflix lapped it up and agreed to buy two full seasons. Fey told the Times that the shift in platform also allowed for better plots and pacing because episodes were not confined to 22 minutes.

The stars of the show, meanwhile, appeared conflicted over the implication of services like Netflix displacing networks. In response to a question at the February premiere, Kemper said she was glad to be a Netflix star but still felt loyalty to NBC.

Finally, while the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has the makings of a hit, its actually popularity will be hard to measure since Netflix doesn’t disclose how many people watch its shows (even though it knows precisely). As such, it will be hard to know if Kimmy will outperform the unwatchable Marco Polo, another recent Netflix offering that was likely targeted to a very different audience.

If Kimmy succeeds, it will be another feather in the cap of Netflix’s home grown hits, to go alongside House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

House of Cards season 3 debut causes traffic and Twitter spikes

Netflix still isn’t releasing any ratings for season 3 of House of Cards, which premiered on the service last Friday, but there are some indicators suggesting that the show is doing pretty well: Traffic management specialist Sandvine reported this week that the Netflix traffic of one unnamed U.S. ISP grew substantially over the past weekend (hat tip to DSL Reports).

On Friday and Saturday night, that ISP saw 10 to 15 percent more [company]Netflix[/company] traffic than on the preceding weekend. And on Sunday night, traffic was even up 30 to 35 percent, compared to a week ago.

House-of-Cards-Traffic-Comparison-1024x503

Sandvine Media and Industry Relations Manager Dan Deeth is quick to point out that this doesn’t translate into ratings. The company only sees what kind of traffic goes over a network, not which shows or movies Netflix subscribers are watching. But it’s very likely that the premiere of House of Cards had something to do with the spike.

Netflix itself has never released ratings for any of its shows, with executives arguing that ratings simply don’t matter much to a subscription business. But the company did send over some data this week that suggests that the new season of House of Cards did generate some buzz: People tweeted 648,374 times about the show during its premiere weekend, according to Netflix. And that buzz was almost global, as the top ten cities tweeting about the show included five from outside of the U.S.

house-of-cards-cities

Netflix CFO to viewers in new markets: be prepared for the worst

Maybe first impressions don’t matter that much, after all: Netflix often underwhelms when it enters a new market, but wins consumers over by getting better in the following months, said the company’s CFO David Wells during an appearance at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference. “Day one, it is the worst content offering we’ll ever have,” he joked.

Wells said some at Netflix believed the company would have to knock it out of the park on day one in terms of content line-ups, but quickly learned that a lean launch, combined with a commitment to grow the library over time, often does the trick.

Wells also argued that [company]Netflix[/company] was bound to disappoint when it enters new markets, where consumers often expect the service to be like Spotify, offering access to virtually everything for one low monthly fee. “You are not gonna get that,” quipped Wells. But many of these consumers would give Netflix another chance a few months later, and compare it to other online services, or even their local TV networks. In other words: When reality sets in, Netflix actually doesn’t look that bad.

That’s important because Netflix has very ambitious international expansion plans over the next two years: The company is going to launch in Australia and New Zealand this month, and has also announced that it wants to launch in Japan later this year. Wells said Wednesday that we will see additional, not-yet-announced international expansions this year as well. In two years, Netflix aims to be available all over the world.

FCC official says Google, Facebook had little say on net neutrality

The FCC’s landmark decision on net neutrality has produced all sorts of speculation about the degree to which well-known tech giants shaped the outcome.

Gawker, for instance, claimed that Americans can thank a benevolent Facebook-Google cabal for the open internet rules that were passed last Thursday. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, has suggested instead that Google has been conspiring behind the scenes to weaken the rules. So what’s the real story?

“The fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook sat this one out … I don’t what this person is smoking” said FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn in reference to the Gawker story.

Sohn was speaking Tuesday at a Freedom to Connect event in New York City, where journalist Sam Gustin of Vice asked her about the ruling and what comes next. The 3-2 ruling, which reclassified ISP’s as common carriers, came as a surprise to many given that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was once skeptical to the measure and because of fierce opposition from the telecom industry.

According to Sohn, Wheeler’s ultimate decision did not come about as a result of pressure from corporations or the White House. Instead, she said Wheeler (who is not a lawyer) came to reassess the situation after learning about various legal nuances, and in response to a series of external developments, including a time last spring when his Netflix service started sputtering.

Sohn did, however, credit the White House and members of Capitol Hill for providing “covering fire” as it became clear that Wheeler’s office intended to go forward with reclassification. She added that the FCC’s final decision did not come about as a result of any single factor (including comedian John Oliver), but rather from broad public support.

As for corporate influence, Sohn appeared on Tuesday to chastise the tech industry for not lending more public support to net neutrality, though she did credit Google for providing a small boost late in the process.

“Google to its credit said Title II [the reclassification law] wouldn’t hurt its investment in Fiber… Facebook has said nothing,” Sohn said.

Ultimately, the guessing game over the tech industry’s role in the net neutrality debate may remain just that — a guess. While it seems probable that an 11th hour call by Google persuaded Wheeler to back away from a two-step reclassification for interconnection (the so-called “middle-mile” where ISP’s and websites connect), for now there’s little to support any grander theories.

In the meantime, there will be plenty more for internet policy types to chew on while they wait for the official copy of the final decision to emerge in the next week or two.

Sohn predicted that “people will try to grind the FCC to a standstill” through budget threats and partisan hearings in the coming months. She added, though, that the issue may become less partisan since many groups who ordinarily support Republicans, who are the main antagonists of the new rules, are in favor of net neutrality.

Finally, as Sohn spoke, her boss Chairman Wheeler was wrapping up an appearance at the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona, where he told the audience that phone carriers’ massive recent spectrum purchases belied the idea that the new rules would dissuade companies from investing in the internet.

Netflix buys Beasts of No Nation for theaters and your queue

Netflix has acquired another movie, and it would like you to watch it in theaters, and then one more time online: The company will bring its new drama Beasts of No Nation in select theaters in the U.S. later this year, while simultaneously releasing it on its streaming service worldwide.

Beasts of No Nation, which tells the tale of an African child soldier, stars Idris Elba, who previously won a Golden Globe for his leading role in Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom. The movie cost [company]Netflix[/company] $12 million — a major investment for a company that has mostly concentrated on original TV show productions and has only recently begun to spend money on movies.

Last fall, Netflix announced that it has acquired the rights to a sequel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which will be shown simultaneously in select iMax theaters and online. Netflix was planning to bring the movie to additional screens. However, AMC said that it wasn’t going be part of the release because Netflix isn’t honoring the traditional release windows, which give theaters a couple of months before a movie is available on DVD, and eventually on streaming services as well.

So why is Netflix going through the trouble of a theatrical release, if most theater chains won’t be playing ball? One word: awards. Beasts of No Nation only qualifies for the Oscars and other major motion picture awards if it is shown in theaters — even if most consumers may opt to watch it in the comfort of their own living room, as part of their Netflix subscription.

Netflix won’t count against iiNet broadband caps in Australia

So much for net neutrality: Netflix has struck a deal with Australia’s iiNet ISP to exempt its traffic from iiNet’s broadband caps. This means that iiNet subscribers will be able to watch as much Netflix as they want, without the fear that their viewing will lead to any overage charges. But it’s also bad news for any upstart trying to compete with Netflix, and it runs counter to the company’s long and very public defense of net neutrality.

[company]Netflix[/company] said on Monday that it is going to launch on March 24 in Australia and New Zealand. As part of the announcement, iiNet revealed that it will exempt any Netflix traffic from its customers’ monthly bandwidth quotas.

iiNet currently has a 100GB cap for its cheapest broadband plans, and charges customers who exceed that quota $0.60 AUS (about $0.47) per additional gigabyte. The company also has 300GB, 600GB and 1TB plans. Netflix estimates that its customers use up to 7GB of data per hour for the company’s best-looking 1080p HD streams. However, averages are typically much lower.

In the past, Netflix has taken a strong stance against broadband caps. In 2012, its CEO Reed Hastings said that Comcast was violating net neutrality priciples by exempting its own online video services from its broadband caps. “Comcast should apply caps equally, or not at all,” Hastings wrote on his Facebook page back then.

My Little Pony remains on Netflix, for now

Good news for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans: The cult show remains on Netflix for at least another three weeks, despite the fact that the original contract between Pony franchise owner Hasbro and Netflix reportedly expired earlier this month.

In January, [company]Netflix[/company] told its viewers that it would have to remove the show on February 2. That deadline passed, and Netflix updated its website with a notice that the show would disappear on February 17. However, this week, My Little Pony, as well as other [company]Hasbro[/company] shows including Pound PuppiesLittlest Pet Shop, Transformers Rescue Bots and Transformers Prime are still available for streaming, now sporting a March 16 removal notice.

So what’s really going on here? Spokespeople for Hasbro and Netflix didn’t respond to a request for comment when I contacted them for this story, but it looks as if both companies are still negotiating to strike a new deal, with Hasbro shows remaining on Netflix while talks are underway. Back in January, a Hasbro spokesperson told me that the company was “extremely hopeful” that it would be able to strike a new agreement with Netflix.

This means that with a little bit of luck, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic could remain on Netflix even after March 16. But it probably doesn’t hurt to start binge-watching anyway.

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.