A By By Jon Healey
ctor Hank Azaria hasn’t started shooting his first film, but it’s already been booked on half a million screens.
Of course, they’re small screens. But then, it’s a short film.
The screens are television sets connected to a TiVo Inc. personal video recorder, a high-tech version of a VCR. TiVo recently struck a deal with Standard Film Trust, which produces short films directed by celebrities, to transmit an undetermined number of the trust’s films to TiVo recorders.
As a result, films such as Azaria’s will be delivered electronically to every home with a TiVo. And although no one will be forced to watch the films, their placement on TiVo’s main on-screen menu will make them hard to miss.
The deal illustrates how digital technology is opening new routes to the TV set for filmmakers, programmers and advertisers. Instead of having to win airtime from a broadcast or cable network, Los Angeles-based Standard Film Trust is using TiVo, based in San Jose, Calif., to beam its products directly into consumers’ living rooms.
Along the same lines, TiVo’s main rival, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sonicblue, offers a video pipeline from the Web to TV sets through its latest ReplayTV models. And other companies are providing a new outlet for programs through cable or Internet video-on-demand services.
The drawback for these digital alternatives is that they don’t reach the masses. Less than a million homes have a TiVo or Replay PVR. Cable video-on-demand services are in their infancy, available to a small fraction of their customers. And a host of Web-based programmers have withered and died for lack of a high-quality pathway to TV sets.
TiVo’s numbers – about 500,000 subscribers and more than 1 million viewers, according to company officials – are small by TV-broadcasting standards. But most of its customers fall into a demographic group coveted by advertisers: affluent, gadget-hungry TV lovers.
To deliver something directly to customers’ recorders, TiVo arranges for a national network like the Discovery Channel to broadcast the program late at night. It then sends instructions electronically to every TiVo, commanding the devices to tune to that channel at the appropriate time and record the program.
For the dozen or so films it produced in its first four years, Standard Film Trust lined up supporters within the movie business who were repaid with product placements or credits in the film, founder Robert Bauer said. The deal with TiVo enables the group to sell sponsorships to a new set of companies, such as manufacturers and retailers eager to reach TiVo owners.
Many broadcasting executives put a different, more fearful spin on the changes caused by the new devices, which make it simple for consumers to fast-forward through commercials. The most vocal doomsayer has been Jamie Kellner, chief executive of AOL Time Warner Inc. subsidiary Turner Broadcasting System, who has likened skipping commercials to stealing.
TiVo has done a number of distribution deals with retailers, carmakers and music companies, but the latest one is a bit of a departure, TiVo Chief Executive Michael Ramsey said. “Everything we’ve done up to now on showcases has been largely with a promotional slant to it,” he said. “It’s to sell something, whether it’s a movie or an album or a gadget.
“What we’re doing with the Standard Film Trust is really more in the category of content delivery. It’s getting interesting and compelling content to TiVo viewers that wouldn’t ordinarily make it over the airwaves.”
Such exclusive programming is important to TiVo, Ramsey said, because it sets TiVo apart from its competition and helps justify the monthly service fee. It also may generate some revenue for TiVo, but not right away, Ramsey added.