“The forced, bloated expanding bundle”

I like the phrase. It was used to describe the way Americans are forced to subscribe to cable television–if you want cable, you must pay for a tremendous number of unwanted channels. In the industry, the result of unbundling is called “a la carte” cable service because the operator allows you to select, and pay for, only the channels that you will actually watch. Bundled cable is, of course, the reason why Comcast accumulated enough money to buy NBC and Universal Pictures. It’s a sweet deal for cable operators, and for the cable industry, which is funded by selling products to people who don’t want them, but cannot do anything except, to use an example, buy everything in the store in order to make sure they have access to the loaf of bread and the jar of peanut butter. It’s a brilliant marketing scheme, and an utter failure of anything resembling consumer protection in the United States.

I could go on and on, and I could also make a case for why some aspects of the bundling business have utterly changed the television industry for the better. Mostly, though, I wanted to introduce you to an article about shifts in Canada’s cable television business that was published by Reuters last week. Here’s the start of it… to read the whole article, click here:

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Subscribers to Rogers Cable in Canada can select from these a la carte channels. Most are not big name channels, but once the a la carte habits gains a foothold, the entire cable business may change.

Analysis: Canadian Cable TV’s ‘a la carte’ menu begins to take hold

By Liana B. Baker and Alastair Sharp

NEW YORK/TORONTO | Thu Sep 19, 2013 12:49pm EDT

(Reuters) – A transformation in how some Canadian cable TV companies sell channels to consumers might be a sign of things to come in the much bigger U.S. market.

With “a la carte” pricing, cable companies are offering Canadians an alternative to “take-it-or-leave-it” bundles that effectively force viewers there – and in the United States – to pay for channels that they do not watch in order to get access to those they do.

(and so on)

Learning from History

From The New York Times (photo by Tim Gruber for The New York Times), a picture of eBureau headquarters in St. Cloud, Minnesota. You provide the data, and they provide your profile to increasingly savvy marketers. But that’s only part of the story.

On Thursday night, Paul and I had dinner. We split the bill. I charged. He paid me the difference in cash. On Friday night, some neighborhood friends went out to dinner, and I used Paul’s cash to pay our share. On Saturday, I couldn’t resist a 50%-off-everything sale at a local record store, and charged about $40 for about twenty great old LPs. Last week, we went on vacation, and like good Americans, we enjoyed the convenience of our credit cards.

Along the way, apart from the two cash transactions, we generated a cluster of data, enough to build a profile of recent activities. Add the detailed list of supermarket purchases, online book purchases, and EZ-Pass comings-and-goings, and our data stream is sufficient for any reasonably competent marketer to do their online stuff. Add Google’s record of our online searches, Verizon’s record of every TV program we watch, and the picture becomes more complete.

Does Verizon need to know what I watch? Do they need to keep a record of every minute detail of my channel flipping? Is there, somewhere, a complete lifetime record of every subscriber’s viewing history. If there is, shouldn’t I know that? If there’s not, shouldn’t I know that, too? And shouldn’t there be some sort of understanding between me and Verizon about the data that they do and do not collect, and how it might be used? And shouldn’t I understand every word of that agreement?

In theory, each private transaction resides between me and an independent vendor. I choose my vendors with some care, and I am comfortable with the idea that they will use my past purchase history to present me with new marketing offers. If, for example, EZ-Pass notices that I commute on the same routes regularly, I am interested in a discount program for commuters.

My interest ends, rather abruptly, when one vendor provides data to another without my express written permission. In most cases, I would NOT grant that permission. I suspect your personal policy would be the same as mine.

Access to data about my every purchase: useful. Sharing that data with marketers willing to pay for access: priceless.

There is, however, one stupendous soft spot in my argument. I use a credit card. And, I suppose, in some version of logical argument, my transactions with VISA, MasterCard and their affiliated banks, provides some level of permission to share data about my purchases with marketers. I think this is an over-reach, and, increasingly, I believe that my transactions with these companies ought to be private, released, perhaps, only when my creditworthiness is open to question when purchasing, say, a new couch, and I expressly offer my permission, in any extremely limited way, specifically for that transaction. (Of course, this, too, introduces complexity because my creditworthiness cannot be evaluated without a gateway to lots more of my data.)

This morning’s New York Times tells the story of eBureau, one of several companies that tracks my combined purchases and provides a profile (a score, actually) to companies with an interest in selling me something, most often online. In the case of eBureau, the game is not only determining an individual’s credit score, but also the individual’s value to an individual marketer based upon past purchase patterns, zip code, income level, and more. In essence, eBureau advances the concept of a lead qualification to a massive scale. Buried in the article are concerns about privacy, secrecy (the scores are not available to the affected consumers, only to eBureau’s clients), and extension of the concept to other forms of marketing. What’s more, e-scores are likely to widen the digital divide, offering better deals to those with certain profiles, and so on.

On the side of the people: a very overworked PIRG organization battling on so many fronts.

In the NY Times article, The US Public Interest Group and the Federal Trade Commission both express specific concerns about new digital scoring and the inadequacy of current law to define appropriate practices, but the related issues are rapidly emerging with tremendous velocity, depth, and complexity.

Where does this lead? I think it ought to lead to some serious discussions about consumer protection in the digital age. We’re way behind on the development of law in this space, and, quite reasonably, marketers and opportunists are taking good advantage of the lag, and establishing precedents that will be difficult to challenge or disassemble in the future.

Why Buy a Camcorder?

On my iPhone, I can shoot video. I can edit, too. I can shoot video on my camcorder, but I can’t edit (not easily, anyway). And that got me to thinking about just what I might want or need in a standalone video recording device.

Although you can find camcorders that record onto videotape or DVD, the standard recording format is now the SD card–the same type of card used in most digital cameras, but with far more available storage capacity.

Less than $200 buys a pocketable video camera and recorder, similar in design to the Flip camera that was popular a few years ago. JVC sells about eight different models, all quite similar to the Flip cameras and to one another. All shoot HD-quality movies, 5MP still images, and easily transfer creative work to a nearby computer via USB connection. The GC-WP10A is especially appealing because it’s waterproof, records time lapse, includes face detection, a 3-inch touch screen, and an image stabilizer to reduce shaky videography (which is a common problem with small hand-held cameras). Compare it with JVC’s GC-FM1BUS, which shoots 8MP still images and offers an HDMI output to digital TV screens, but lacks face detection. Spend fifty dollars less, and you’ll save money but sacrifice some features. If not JVC, you will find similar products from Kodak, Samsung, and lots of other companies. In this price range, there will not a tremendous difference in features or reliability.

If you’re heading in this direction, be sure to check out the Zoom Q3--made by a company now well-known for high-quality portable audio recorders (which I will write about in a future blog post). I really like the design of the Q3–and its emphasis on audio recording.

Beginning around $250, you can buy a digital camcorder with a long zoom len

s, image stabilization, and adequate low-light shooting capability in a package that easily fits into your jacket pocket. Try, for example, Panasonic’s HDC-SD80R, which sells for less than $300, with a 32x zoom lens (that is, if you are 32 feet away, you will appear to be just 1 foot away from the camera). If you visit Panasonic’s camcorder website, you w

ill find 23 similar Panasonic models with prices as low as about $200 and as high as $1,000+. What’s the difference? The HDC-TM900K sells for about $900, and includes three image sensors, which means superior image quality, manual control over exposure and focus (with manual control, more professional results are possible, but these require skill, practice and patience). The lens is better, too. Is one camera worth $600 more than another? If you’re shooting video for YouTube, the answer is probably “no” (though the manual controls would be useful). If you’re shooting video to be seen on a 50-inch HD monitor, the answer is “yes.”

For a few hundred dollars more, you can buy similar camcorders with interchangeable lenses.

But wait! That’s just the beginning!!

For professional quality results, plan to spend about $2,000 for a model similar to Sony’s HDR-FX7. The big difference between these lower-priced pro models and lesser lights is three-fold: image quality, technical capabilities, and creative control.

Image quality is easy to understand, and easy to see. The sensor and the associated image processing technology is superior to lower-priced models, and so is the lens. The viewfinder offers more detail, better contrast, more accurate color, and more detailed information about camera settings. The lens is, roughly, a 20x optical zoom. The zoom controls are smooth, and can be handled with nuance.

Jump to the $3,500 model HDR-AX2000 for professional XLR microphone connectors, even better image sensing and processing, and vastly improved low-light shooting. You could shoot a television series for a cable network with this camera. In fact, many professional production companies now use these cameras–and others like it–for just that purpose.

Look for a post about dual system audio recording in the near future.

So: which camcorder is right for you?

If you shoot a few minutes of video from time to time, and post your output on the web, then you may be able to use your smartphone.

If you shoot some videos, and some still pictures, and you really don’t need high quality audio, or even a microphone for the occasional interview, then you can use a recent vintage digital still camera. If yours is more than 2-3 years old, it may be time for an update if you want to shoot video.

If you are serious about still photography and videography, then you should consider a digital SLR, with its long zoom lens and substantial body size. Although most digital SLR bodies include a built-in stereo microphone, your work will be better if you attach a stereo microphone, or shoot “double system” with an entirely separate audio recorder (the topic of a future blog post).

In fact, it makes more sense to invest in a digital SLR than a standalone camcorder in the $300-$1,000 range. These are useful if you shoot a lot of video–but you can do the same, with greater flexibility–with a digital SLR.

If you serious about videography, then a serious prosumer or low-range professional camcorder is the appropriate choice. Most people who use these cameras devote considerable time to video editing–the camera alone isn’t going to make anyone a star. Fortunately, video editing software is now widely available at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, professional quality video editing requires a lot of time and careful work.

With any of these HD camcorders, the work can be stunning. For the best results, professionals rely on quality lenses, sensors, image processing and microphones.

No iPad for You! – Day 6

Day 6 of the stupidest product launch in American consumer products history.

So far, here’s what I’ve done to not buy an iPad:

1. Supported my local Apple dealer (not an Apple store, just a local store specializing in Apple products). I visited, tried out a display unit, and offered to buy one. During the cash register transaction, I realized it wasn’t a 3G model. End of transaction. Beginning of wait.

2. Tried to go to an Apple Store in a New Jersey mall. The mall was closed due to flooding.

3. Visited an Apple Store in Manhattan. No iPads for sale. Just a sign saying, more or less, come back tomorrow (when we may or may not sell you one).

4. Checked in at the local AT&T store. The staff laughed at me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Why Netflix won’t become a TV channel

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Netflix is bidding against HBO and AMC for a new TV series, House of Cards. It’s a drama starring Kevin Spacey, directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) that will cost about $4-6 million per episode (high, for series) with an apparently unheard-of two-season upfront commitment.

Is Netflix starting a TV channel? Nope. They’re smarter than that.

For Netflix, there are two key success metrics. One is subscriber count (20 million as of December, 2010). The other is dollars per subscriber per month. In 2010, more Netflix customers paid $7.99 per month for unlimited streaming than $9.99 per month or more for by-mail DVDs.

Which means: Netflix must press hard to find–and keep–their online customers. Increasingly, motion pictures and TV series are available from lots of TV, video, internet and other sources. To stay ahead, Netflix needs its own stuff. But they don’t need to offer a 24/7 channel. Instead, their relationship with customers is based entirely upon on-demand viewing–anytime, anywhere, any device, etc.

Which means: in some ways, Netflix is establishing a new model. USA Network, AMC, HBO–these companies program TV channels first, and offer programs on various platforms second. By focusing on the ways we’re all learning to use our iPads, phones, etc., Netflix is jumping over the old linear TV model. And if they have the right programs–always the biggest possible “if”–they may succeed, and cause some damage to competitors. If they flop, only industry insiders will notice. Netflix’s customers will just continue to happily stream movies and TV shows, unaffected by this particular adventure.



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