In what could be a glimpse of the future, Sony announced last week that it would offer its hoped-for summer blockbuster, Hancock, as an Internet download to Web-enabled Sony Bravia TVs before distributing it on cable, satellite, DVD, or Blu-ray discs.
The company hasn’t revealed some important details, such as whether the download will be high-definition or even DVD-quality. Nor has it disclosed whether Hancock will be a rental with a limited viewing time, like a pay-per-view movie, or a purchase that viewers can record and keep.
One factor that greatly limits the impact of this announcement, and the potential audience, is the fact that Sony TVs don’t offer built-in Web access, but require consumers to shell out an additional $300 for the Sony Bravia Internet Video Link add-on. Most of the other major TV brands with Web-enabled TVs—including Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and LG Electronics—don’t require any additional gear to download Web content. However, while TVs from these rivals can access news, sports, and entertainment content from a variety of providers, none yet have access to full-length feature-film downloads.
Sony Electronics has the unusual luxury of having a major Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures, as a sister company, giving it access to blockbuster movies. But it’s still too early to see whether any other movie studios will support such a service, or even if Sony Pictures is willing to upset its traditional video-distribution partners—and the hefty revenue streams they provide—on an ongoing basis, especially since delivering more HD video-on-demand content is a key cable and satellite strategy.
Another potential stumbling block: Sony has a substantial investment in the Blu-ray high-def DVD format, which has only recently emerged from a format war to become the sole successor to DVD. It’s unlikely Sony will do anything in the near-term to jeopardize Blu-ray’s success.
Still, the release of Hancock to Bravia TV owners should be an interesting experiment that could foreshadow a more comprehensive strategy of offering "software"—including hit films and TV
shows—directly to Sony’s customers. And the Bravia TV effort dovetails nicely with a previously announced plan to debut a movie download service sometime this summer for owners of its PlayStation 3 video game
We expect to see more of these types of electronic distribution trials in the future, from not only TV manufacturers, but from other makers of Web-connected devices (such as Blu-ray players) in partnership with movie studios, TV networks, and other content providers.
This isn’t Sony’s first foray into downloads. It already has content deals that allow Web-enabled Bravia TVs to access online content from CBS, Yahoo, Sports Illustrated, YouTube, and Wired.com. Similarly,
owners of Panasonic’s Internet-connected Viera PZ850 plasma with VieraCast can view YouTube videos or photos stored at Google’s Picasa online photo-sharing Web site. Samsung has partnered with USA Today to
allow some Web-enabled models to access news, weather, sports, and more from that publication’s Web site. Sharp’s AquosNet-enabled TVs allow something similar, with content displayed in move-able onscreen widgets.
In perhaps the most movie-centric move, LG Electronics has teamed up with Netflix for a set-top box that can stream movies directly to your TV. What none of these approaches offer, however, is unlimited access to Web-based content, or the ability to surf the Web indiscriminately.
—James K. Willcox