Sometimes my professional and personal interests overlap and mechanisms for delivering video content are very much in the sweet spot of that particular Venn diagram. We are big Netflix fans at my house. Netflix, of course, is the DVD-by-mail service with a fixed subscription fee per month for having out, in our case, three DVDs at a time. A while back, Netflix added video-on-demand, but you had to watch on your computer. That doesn’t do much for me—I watch almost no TV alone and I don’t see us crowding around my laptop—but when Netflix announced that it would sell a set-top box to deliver content to a TV screen, I was interested. After a very-favorable review in the NYT, I ordered immediately, figuring that we would see a run on the box. (That was right, as Roku is sold-out temporarily.)
The box arrived this past Thursday, and the NYT review was right on the money: the device works as promised. The box is surprisingly small—you can see pictures here—and the setup was easy. We are running it off of our wireless network, though the box has an Ethernet jack as well. The box found our network on its own and after I typed in our password, we were up and running.
The service design is interesting. As I have described in other work, we are turning products into services. Netflix itself is a big step up from your neighborhood Blockbuster. Netflix makes it easy to keep track of what you want to watch and to read reviews by other Netflix users. The new set-box piggybacks on your DVD queue. On your computer, you create a separate queue for instant viewing. That queue in turn shows up on the set-top box. The box comes with a simple remote that you use to scroll through the content you have selected for instant viewing. Make a selection and the content buffers, typically for not more than a minute or two, and then you are up and watching. The content is standard def, not high def, though I gather that the box will support high-def streaming when it is available. All of this costs a one-time fee for the box of $99. No additional charges to your monthly subscription.
The biggest issue will be the content available. Netflix says that there are currently 10,000 titles available. These are not in the main the most recent movies to come to DVD. Many documentaries—I watched one on the font Helvetica the other night—and lots of old TV shows, but also some new TV shows, including Weeds, The L Word and 30 Rock. In that way, the box operates as a substitute for subscribing to Showtime or for purchasing a DVR with a corresponding monthly fee. And think of it as a fill-in service between DVDs from Netflix. For $99, this is a pretty simple choice.
And what does this have to do with law? We have spent—and continue to spend—a large amount of time architecting the content system. Topside briefs—as the insiders call them—were filed a week ago yesterday in FCC v. Fox Television, currently pending in the Supreme Court. This is the fleeting-expletives case and it will bring with it language rarely heard during oral argument at the Supreme Court. (For more on the briefs themselves, see Marty Lederman’s post at Scotusblog.) The Federal Communications Commission is still trying to sort through its media ownership rules as its last set didn’t survive review in the courts.
All of this reflects a notion that content is organized centrally and provided in a top-down fashion. That is changing rapidly, indeed, we might believe that consumers are now the central designers of their own video architecture. I think we are now up to six video inputs on our main TV: a cable box; DVD player; Xbox 360; the new Netflix player; and we have cords for a PSP and an iPod Touch. In defense I will plead three kids, and two teenage boys, but I am not sure that we are unusually overdeviced. We can switch in an instant from watching live coverage of Portugal v. Turkey in the UEFA Euro2008 soccer tournament to playing as Portugal against Turkey on the Xbox. Last night I watched a Ted video—Paul Collier on the bottom billion— from my Touch and part of a Netflix DVD with my wife—The Savages (well done with the always interesting Laura Linney and Philip Hoffman but a little depressing).
That is the video reality that our current regulations need to reflect and the Roku Netflix player is very nice addition to the range of options available to consumers. If you are already a Netflix subscriber, you should spend another TV port and $99 to get one.