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Time to Shine for UltraViolet?

10 Oct, 2011 By: Chris Tribbey

Three years in the making, UltraViolet finally has arrived.

Promising consumers the ability to freely move content across connected devices, along with true ownership — on physical disc and in the digital cloud — of the content they purchase, UltraViolet may be the home entertainment industry’s last, and best, argument that owning is better than renting.

On Oct. 11 Warner Home Video streets Horrible Bosses, the first title enabled with the digital movie storage and retrieval system.

With every major studio other than Disney on board with UltraViolet, many more enabled titles are expected to follow.

“What we’re really trying to do is bring together the best of two different worlds (physical disc and digital) that don’t really exist together today in the consumer view,” said Mark Teitell, GM of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), the 70-plus member, cross-industry consortium responsible for UltraViolet.

Cheap DVD rental outlets such as Redbox and simple streaming subscription models such as Netflix pretty much have rendered the idea of collecting content obsolete, Teitell said, speaking along with other executives at the recent MIPCOM conference in France. UltraViolet aims to be “a reversal of that, a regrowth of the value proposition of owning and collecting content,” he said.

Starting Oct. 11 the industry will find out if it’s going to work.

How It Works

UltraViolet’s concept is simple: Any Blu-ray or DVD featuring the UltraViolet logo includes a code that can be redeemed after launching an account at UltraViolet’s user site, UVVU.com. Once the code is entered, that content is available for use on up to a dozen UltraViolet-enabled devices (PCs, connected HDTVs, Blu-ray players, mobile devices), with a total of six people registered on the account able to access that content at any time.

DECE expects brick-and-mortar and online retailers to eventually sell UltraViolet-enabled physical and digital-only content. With a code-only purchase, consumers would be allowed to burn a physical disc copy of the content.

Best Buy is a DECE member, and Walmart reportedly has expressed interest in selling UltraViolet-enabled products, though neither retailer, nor any retailer, has committed yet.

The idea is to give consumers complete rights to their content in every form, Teitell said, instead of just a one-off copy in the form of a physical disc or a digital copy.

“We know that consumers want the freedom and convenience to watch their content anywhere, anyplace, anytime, and … DECE and UltraViolet have … lowered the barrier to entry,” said Steven Chester, VP of film for Akamai, a cloud content technology company and member of DECE.

But for all the build-up to UltraViolet, and despite UltraViolet’s “buy once, play anywhere” motto, consumers will have very few places to watch the one title marking the Oct. 11 launch.

Warner Ties Flixter in With UltraViolet

When Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group acquired movie site Flixster.com in early May, the studio said it had UltraViolet in mind. Five months later, the Horrible Bosses Blu-ray box and its insert both direct owners to Flixster, and Flixster only, to use UltraViolet.

“The real reason we did this acquisition was … [to have] a studio-agnostic brand that consumers can go to and know they have the best possible UltraViolet experience, particularly early on, where there aren’t a lot of places where that can happen…,” said Justin Herz, SVP at Warner Bros. Digital Distribution and GM of Warner Bros. Advanced Digital Services, speaking at MIPCOM. “Our intention in the early days [of UltraViolet] is to have a reference implementation.”

Connected consumer electronics devices carrying the UltraViolet logo aren’t expected until early 2012, and no current CE device has received a firmware upgrade for UltraViolet. And while Flixster can be downloaded on numerous mobile devices, UltraViolet isn’t “play anywhere” — at least not yet.

“With little clarity around supporting online stores, apps and devices, it might be quite some time before we know if UltraViolet reached its original goal of raising the consumers’ perceived value of digital content,” said Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist for digital entertainment company Rovi Corp., a member of DECE. “As an industry, it’s critical that we continue to develop the digital media ecosystem to ensure the consumer experience is excellent and the value proposition for digital content is clear.”

‘A Marathon, Not a Sprint’

Even with few viewing options at the outset, Warner has committed fully to UltraViolet, with Green Lantern (Oct. 14), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (Nov. 11) and Shameless: The Complete First Season (Dec. 27) all confirmed to include UltraViolet.

“Unlike what we’ve done historically with digital copy, we’re releasing UltraViolet copyrights for all physical product, all Blu-rays, all DVDs, from here on out,” Warner’s Herz said.

He predicted that by the third or fourth quarter of 2012, significantly more than 50% of Warner’s catalog will have UltraViolet rights attached.

“Warner is doing a good job putting a stake in the ground and saying, ‘Here’s UltraViolet,’” said John Calkins, EVP of global digital and commercial innovation at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Sony is the only other studio to announce UltraViolet-enabled titles thus far, dipping its toe in with the Dec. 2 Blu-ray releases of The Smurfs and Friends With Benefits.

Despite the lack of connected hardware options supporting UltraViolet at launch, Calkins said he expects retailers to get behind the initiative shortly. UltraViolet could be integrated easily into movie distribution channels run by retailers such as Walmart (Vudu) and Best Buy (CinemaNow).

Whatever happens with the initial launch of UltraViolet, the industry shouldn’t read too much into the results right away, cautioned Russ Crupnick, entertainment industry analyst with The NPD Group.

“We’re entering a time where there’s no next killer format on the horizon, and you can probably find a few reasons why UltraViolet isn’t a good proposition,” he said. “But remember the old saying: ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ UltraViolet in three years will look different than the UltraViolet of today.”

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