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ActiveVideo CloudTV Guide October 2012

On the one hand, with more HTML5 program guides in the works, the TV UI is going to get a lot prettier and a lot more functional. On the other, if Dave’s ticked off now about the ads on his Panasonic Viera TV, just wait until these web-based guides really get going as new ad delivery platforms. In case you hadn’t noticed, television is going the way of the Internet. And that means aggressively targeted ads will soon be the norm.

We’ve still got a few years before the connected TV ad transition takes hold, but HTML5 guide development is already well underway. In addition to the NDS Snowflake guide at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo last week, I saw web-based UIs from ActiveVideo, Rovi and Arris. The first two were of ActiveVideo’s CloudTV interface, which is already deployed by Cablevision*, and the third was an ActiveVideo proof-of-concept VOD guide. The fourth was Rovi’s web-based guide, and the fifth and sixth were an HTML5 guide from Arris.

NDS Snowflake guide 1

The SCTE Cable-Tec Expos is an engineer’s show, but there are always a few hidden gems with broader appeal. One of them this year was the NDS HTML5 Snowflake guide. You can’t find it anywhere in the U.S. yet, but UPC has deployed it in the Netherlands with the new Horizon service. And now that NDS is part of Cisco, there may be a better chance that some version of Snowflake will end up with a cable, telco or satellite provider near you.

There are a few key things to know about Snowflake. First, even though it’s HTML5, it doesn’t have to run on an IP box. NDS creates an abstraction layer on top of existing set-top software to support the guide, which is actually hosted in the network. (A handful of other companies are doing this too now, by the way.) Second, while your set-top doesn’t have to be an IP box a la the AT&T U-verse model, the fact that the guide is IP-based means it runs on tablets and smartphones too. Third, in addition to the pretty UI, web-based guides like Snowflake can add in a whole lot of new information – think personalization, content recommendations, and eventually targeted advertising.

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Well that was fast. Within weeks of Anthony Wood prognosticating about virtual MSOs, Bloomberg reports that Dish is working on a new stripped-down TV package to be delivered over the Internet. According to the news agency, Dish is in talks with Viacom, Univision and Scripps. The satellite operator would also bundle broadcast content in with a new Internet-based service, much like Aereo is doing in New York City. There is no word/rumor yet on pricing except that the new offering would be cheaper than a standard pay-TV subscription.

It makes sense that an incumbent player would jump off the bench to offer a new Internet TV service, and that Dish would be one of the first to try it. Between its use of Sling tech and the introduction of the Hopper, Dish has become quite the stirrer of pots. Dish also partnered recently with Roku to offer Internet-based international content in an app for the retail streaming box. It’s likely Wood had more than a crystal ball handy when he suggested a virtual MSO service was on the way.

There are about a thousand and one implications to consider with the potential new Dish service, many of which we’ve covered here before. They include (but are not limited to):

Of course, Dish hasn’t announced anything yet. Could this be timed for a holiday launch? CES? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Amid new Roku apps and the launch of the Roku Streaming Stick, company CEO Anthony Wood also let slip this week that Roku “has been in talks” with companies about introducing new lower-cost, broadband-only TV services. Wood said at a recent industry event that he expects a new virtual MSO to pop up in the next 12 months. Such a company would offer a limited channel line-up delivered entirely over the Internet, and would target consumers unwilling to shell out major cash for cable TV.

We’ve heard people forecast the rise of virtual MSOs before, but the timing was never right. Today, however, consumers are well accustomed to watching TV online, and both content and service providers have had time to experiment with different models of Internet delivery. We’re also already seeing companies like Aereo and Skitter test out hybrid television models, suggesting that there’s a market for cheaper TV service.

It’s important to note, though, that Wood doesn’t expect some new start-up to jumpstart the virtual MSO market. Says Wood: “A lot of this is about getting access to the content, and that requires a lot of money and experience to structure it well.” That means we’re looking at an industry incumbent to be the source of a new online TV service. And it also means that any future venture is only going to move forward in a mode of extreme caution. Incumbents want to protect their existing revenue sources. Any new service will operate with that premise at its core.

Broadcasters aren’t giving up on shutting Aereo down. A new court brief filed on Friday has several programmers fighting a judge’s ruling this summer that Aereo is legally in the clear (for now) to continue operating. The new filing claims that the ruling ignores an existing statute which requires licensing payment “whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or different times.”

We’ve always known that Aereo has an uphill battle ahead of it, but one thing that’s occurred to me more recently is that the company may have a back-up plan. CEO Chet Kanojia was the star speaker at last week’s Multichannel cloud TV event, and I had a chance to ask him afterward if Aereo is working on an alternative business model in case the current one doesn’t work out. Kanojia was adamant that the company is only focused on the here and now, but he also agreed that there are other applications for Aereo’s technology. Personally, I wonder if Aereo’s tiny antennas and transcoding tech could be repurposed for something other than just broadcast content. The entire TV delivery system is changing after all. Could Aereo help other TV service companies move to a cloud-based distribution model?

It’s also interesting to note that Kanojia has serious street cred in the cable industry. He worked with Time Warner Cable on its Maestro solution. Maestro didn’t pan out, but Cablevision picked up the idea and ran with it for its RS-DVR service. So Kanojia is no stranger to this space.