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A view from the future

BLAYNE SLABBERT
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014

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Kiwis got a taste of the future of television viewing recently with two big changes which could lead to a smorgasbord of shows for TV fans.

Last Friday, Telecom (soon to be renamed Spark) unveiled plans for ShowmeTV, which it hopes will be the Kiwi version of Netflix, the US-based streaming service.

Then, on Sunday, TV3 released the first season of House of Cards on its rebranded online demand service 3NOW.

The moves mark a crucial point in the battle for the internet television market in New Zealand, but have Kiwi companies left their run too late?

The country is following the overseas trend of online companies such as Netflix and Hulu taking on the traditional cable TV providers and networks.

Access to content online rather than over-the-air transmission is the defining factor. With more than 80 per cent of Kiwis having access to broadband, and the accelerated rollout of ultrafast broadband, it's a logical move.

The shift is part of television providers offering shows which viewers want to see (online) ,when (anytime that suits them) and on their chosen platform (phone, tablet, computer or television).

There have been a flurry of changes in New Zealand recently: ShowmeTV is due to launch in the next few months, TVNZ announced it was ramping up its Ondemand service and will this month release several new shows before they screen on air, and Sky has just released Sky Go, an online streaming service for existing subscribers.

However, Regan Cunliffe, the editor of the television website Throng.co.nz, said it could be too late for the Kiwi companies to catch up.

"We are quite a few years behind overseas subscription services such as Netflix, which are really starting to take off."

People were used to getting their online content free from TVNZ and TV3 on-demand services, he said.

"With these new streaming services, you are asking people to pay for content they typically would have had for free in the past."

Companies needed to be able to offer premium shows as soon as they become available, as Kiwis were sick of waiting months or sometimes years to access shows such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.

Kiwis would be reluctant to pay several subscriptions to watch TV and they would prefer a one-stop shop where you only pay once and get whatever you want on whatever platform you want.

"Consumers want it to be easy. Anyone desperate for these shows are going to get it online for free anyway. If you have to subscribe to three different platforms to get the content you want, then they are going to have to do that or throw up their hands and walk away."

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While the changes are potentially good news for television fans, the companies face several challenges. The first is the looming threat of Netflix, an American provider of on-demand internet streaming media.

Netflix can already be accessed in New Zealand, but it requires a technical workaround. It has an easy-to-use interface, it's cheap (about $10 a month), and it has an exhaustive catalogue of shows.

Then the companies have to make sure the services are easy to use. At the moment viewers use one remote to flick between shows. They will not be pleased if they are juggling several set-top boxes and remotes and trying to connect their computers to their televisions. In New Zealand, only Sky has a set-top box, which may give it an advantage in the short term. However, as internet-capable smart TVs become more popular, it may become easy for companies to get their apps on televisions or gaming consoles.

The final challenge is getting the right shows - whoever has the best content will win viewers.

There have already been reports of competition over shows, with the race to secure the series Vikings sparking competition.

Cunliffe sees content as the defining factor as the whole industry has evolved.

"The future may depend on the content. At the moment, companies can secure exclusive rights to a show, but that may change, which would allow several streaming services to exist. Unless they can get the content and pricing right, it's really an uphill battle."

While he thought the release of the entire series of House of Cards was a good move, it was astounding it came a year after it screened overseas.

"It's too little, too late. Perhaps they should be congratulated on taking that step, but the reality is that it's 12 months after it showed in the US. If you were a fan, you could've got it from Netflix, bought the DVD or downloaded for free. They should've done it a long time ago."

The changes probably do not mean the end of having to watch TV shows when the networks decide, it just gives viewers more options, and possibly more frustration.

Cunliffe said the recipe for success was simple:"If they can position it price-wise and make it everything a consumer wants, then it can become a viable option."

THE PLAYERS

TVNZ: Has a wide range of shows on its Ondemand service but they only stay on there for a limited time. The company has plans to revamp the service soon. Cost: Free

TV3: Recently relaunched its online service as 3Now and shows can be streamed from their apps or websites on to computers and devices. It upped the stakes recently by releasing a full series before it airs on TV. Cost: Free

Telecom (Spark): Telecom's ShowMeTV service will be available on computers and tablets through internet connections. There are plans to make it available directly to smart TVs. Cost: Unknown

SKY: Recently launched Sky Go which allows existing subscribers to watch shows on their computer. Cost: Free for existing subscribers

Netflix: US-based provider of on-demand internet streaming media with a huge range of TV shows. Is not available in NZ yet, but can be accessed via the internet. It has 44 million members in 40 countries. Cost: (about $10 a month)

- The Dominion Post

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