USED TO BE a knock to say someone had gone "over-the-top." Like he'd flipped out, lost his mind. Today, over-the-top is a cool expression describing the new breed of Internet-connected TV sets and specialty streaming players (Roku, Boxee, Apple TV) meant to sit on top of your cable or satellite box — or even replace it.
Over-the-top also defines all the neat, weird content those video-streaming products can deliver — from the ultrapopular Netflix and Hulu Plus movie and TV services (the former now boasting 23 million subscribers), to the monthly/seasonal passes you can buy to out-of-market sports-league action to the most esoteric of specialty channels.
"Digital streaming is the next wave in entertainment," said Gary Delfiner, a Philly guy who knows the signs when he sees them. Delfiner used to buy the movies for locally based West Coast Video, a biggie in the boom years of video-rental stores. Now he's pushing content at us with Popcornflix, a nifty new movie streaming service.
There's something for almost everyone in web-TV land, with channels devoted to everything from indie rock (Baeble Music) to the rantings of Glenn Beck (the very popular GBTV). Tune in to shots of Oregon beaches and Jamaican waterfalls, church services in Ohio, movies in Cantonese or Hindi, yoga classes for one. There's even a dedicated channel, Suspect TV, that shares nothing but information about suspected bank robbers still at-large.
Roku, the leading player in the Internet video-box category, now claims an installed base of 2.5 million devices (most reasonably priced at $59-$99) and an inventory of 500 public channels.
A few web TV pioneers, such as content aggregator Mediafly, have already dropped by the wayside. But new channels are popping up "almost every day," shared Ed Lee, Roku's vice president of content acquisition. A real gold-rush mentality seems to be at work here, bolstered by growing evidence of consumers cutting the cord to traditional TV services and slowing their acquisitions of so-called "hard goods" like DVDs.
Finding cheaper alternatives and eliminating clutter drives some Internet TV adopters. There's also the immediate gratification of web TV's mostly on-demand nature, which someday will make digital video recorders obsolete, predicts Roku founder Anthony Wood.
Market watchers say that a third of U.S. homes equipped with broadband have seen movies and TV shows streamed through the Internet. And 16 percent of all pay TV customers are "likely" to reduce their level of pay service in the next year.
Leading the charge
With physical sales of DVDs slipping and on-demand movie and TV streaming on the rise, "every studio is diving deep into digital distribution," said Delfiner, who ran Republic Studios for famed film and TV producer Aaron Spelling and boxed up the first TV series for home video — "Twin Peaks" and "Beverly Hills 90210."
Even traditional pay cable services like Comcast and movie channels like HBO, Epix and Starz are establishing online beachheads in an effort to retain customers. And Internet giants like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube are starting to act more like traditional cable channels by investing big in original, long-form content.
For his part, Delfiner is helping to stoke the bonfire as senior vice president for digital distribution for New York City-based Popcornflix and parent company Screen Media Ventures. Recently sprung on most platforms and still in "beta" mode, the Popcornflix app has already been downloaded close to 400,000 times to Roku and Boxee boxes, iPads, iPhones and PCs. (Versions for the Android operating system and Samsung TVs are coming soon.)
Last weekend, after a software update, was the site's best to date. "We added more than 50,000 customers and served up more than 25,000 movies," said Delfiner, himself a "lifelong" film buff by choice and inheritance. Delfiner's dad was a Havertown-based candy broker — the first importer of Gummi Bears to America, no less — who counted many movie theaters as customers. By the time Gary was in the third grade, he was obsessed with the movies — "going to double-features every Saturday and Sunday at the Lawrence Park Shopping Center in Newtown Square."
So what's so sweet about Popcornflix? For starters, the service is free and just lightly salted with commercials. Better still, Popcornflix is filling film-buff appetites and "creating a nice niche for itself," said Roku's Lee, with a big tub of recent vintage movies boasting both unfamiliar titles and performers you know and care about.
Culling the resources of Screen Media Ventures, an internationally focused film distributor, Popcornflix's special niche is with low- to medium-budget "personal project" films featuring notable talents — like Alec Baldwin's recent "Lymelife" or Maggie Gyllenhaal's "Sherrybaby" — plus lots of flicks featuring talents who've since become stars. We're talking everyone from Brad Pitt in "Too Young to Die?" and "The Dark Side of the Sun" to Kristen Stewart in "The Cake Eaters" and Jennifer Coolidge in "Freshman Orientation."
Popcornflix also shares recent documentaries — from Barry Levinson's slam of Hollywood politics "Poliwood" to "Biggie and Tupac," along with lots of family-friendly features, Bollywood hits and more. A significant collection of notable European films has just been acquired.
How it's done
Besides lots of content, creating an online channel also requires a business relationship with the equipment conduit (a Roku, Samsung) to guarantee platform placement.
Copious amounts of technical expertise and support are required, too, detailed Delfiner, including a content storage/streaming backbone and an "integrator" to stop each stream at designated spots to dynamically insert commercials on the fly. "It's getting to the point where advertisers bid for placements, second by second, and user by user," said Delfiner.
Online channels need separate software-development kits for each form of connected box or TV, phone, tablet or computer that content is delivered to. That process alone costs upward of $100,000 per app. All the customization explains why a site built for streaming through a Roku box is less detailed than the one on the more sophisticated (and pricey at $179) Boxee Box.
Oh, and Popcornflix also builds in today's all-important Facebook and Twitter connectivity. When a viewer sends a "like" notification for a film, friends can watch it, too (and learn about the service) with little to no effort.
"Getting into the Internet TV-channel business is not for sissies," groaned Delfiner, although clearly he's having the time of his life.
Visit the website, here.