Sunday, September 17, 2006

Divx anyone?

You've probably heard about the networks cutting deals with DirectTV and Comcast to offer episodes of their shows for pay-per-view download. It's the hot topic in Hollywood this week. Personally, I think it's not going to amount to very much, and here's why...

Remember Divx?

I'm not talking about the video codec Divx used by some online video-on-demand sites, I'm talking about the Divx DVD box that came out about twelve years ago. (My timeline might be fuzzy.) This was the brainchild of the studios, their big effort to control the use and distribution of DVDs back in the early days before they realized sell-through DVDs were a golden goose waiting to be throttled. It was a brilliant technological tour-de-force. And it was rejected thoroughly by consumers. Why? Because it was completely anti-consumer and totally pro-studio.

The Divx box played a special kind of DVD that could be purchased for about $3-5. Unfortunately, this DVD could only be played for forty-eight hours, and only if your Divx box was hooked up to your phone line. After forty-eight hours it turned into a coaster. (I believe you had the option to "buy" the DVD -- again -- and have it "unlocked" via the phone-line hookup, but if you did so, it would only play on the original box, which means you couldn't give it away to friends or family, or sell it online, or do anything else with it except keep your drinks from wetting your coffee table.)

Needless to say, in competition with the "open" DVD player, the "closed" Divx DVD player died a quick and horrible death.

Who on earth, other than an early-adopter tech geek, would buy such a monstrosity?

Apparently, no one.

(An aside: I knew the guy who was president of the Divx DVD corporation. Before the system came out, he tried to explain the benefits of the design to me, but I just didn't get it. Sure, it's good for the studios, but where's the benefit for consumers? As far as I could see, it was nonexistent. Sales seem to have borne this out.)

So, what does this have to do with the network deal to sell their shows on a pay-per-view basis for 99 cents a pop?

It sounds like a great deal... if you don't have a DVR or VCR.

DirectTV is touting this "service" as a feature of their new DirectTV Plus DVR. Now, unless they're planning to cripple their DVR to prevent their customers from recording TV shows, who's going to spend 99 cents for an episode of their favorite show when they can record it for free with their DirectTV DVR? And if it turns out they can't record tv shows for free... why on earth would they buy the DVR? DVR stands for Digital Video Recorder. If it doesn't record, then what the hell is it? It certainly isn't a DVR. Know what it is?

It's a Divx DVD.

I don't know, maybe there's something I'm missing here. I can understand the attraction of buying TV shows from iTunes for your video-playing iPod: There's no easy way to transfer an episode of "Lost" from your Tivo to your iPod without jumping through various software hoops that the average viewer doesn't want to know about. It's a convenience, and people pay for convenience. But why would anyone pay for something they can get right now, for free, and legally? It's not like buying the season DVD set, which comes in a nice box, sometimes with extra bonus material, and makes a great Christmas gift. In effect, you're buying a recording of a show that you can already record for free. What's the market for this? The only way this kind of thing can work is if the networks manage to convince, say, Congress to pass a law making it illegal to record television shows off the air (or, by extension, off cable or satellite.)

Funny that should come up...

Even as I speak, the studios and networks are trying to get Congress to pass a law that will do just that.

They want to break your VCRs and DVRs and prevent you from recording free tv.

If only the guys who created the Divx DVD had thought of that twelve years ago. If consumers won't buy a broken product, pass a law to make 'em.

That's the American way.

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