191-_Go Over the Top_workWe all know about ‘Over the Top,’ where an online video provider circumvents or disintermediates a pay TV operator (while using the operator’s own network to deliver said video).  Then there’s ‘TV Everywhere,’ in which pay TV content providers require users to associate themselves with their pay TV subscriptions or, no play.

Through the Middle

A third online video service model is where a pay TV operator enters into a relationship with an OTT provider or online aggregator and exposes the online service within its pay TV experience.   In other words, not OTT or TVE, but “through the middle,” or “TTM.”

At first, it sounds like a gimmick – some kind of desperation move by the pay TV provider to give frustrated subscribers one more reason not to cut the cord.  But let’s look a little further…

TTM: A little background

In March 2014, the Danish broadband provider Waoo! introduced Netflix from within its pay TV user interface, through the middle.  Here’s a demo video (in Danish).

This is enabled through the integration of software from Netflix, Nordija and Airties, which are Waoo!’s TV middleware and set-top box suppliers, respectively.

DISH embraced TTM too

In December 2014, DISH Network introduced Netflix integration as well.   DISH’s implementation is different from Waoo!’s.  While Waoo! dedicated a button to Netflix in its main menu, DISH placed Netflix within the electronic program guide, which made Netflix “just another channel.”

DISH 2015-0403 Netflix in Hopper EPG

So now, I can access Netflix using the same method of access as DISH uses for video on demand.

TTM’s not a gimmick

Again, I thought “it’s a gimmick.”  Until I decided to try it.  If you own a streaming video player, you’ve probably been through a drill that goes something like this:

  • Turn on the TV set (using either the pay TV STB remote or the TV set’s own remote)
  • Locate the streaming video player’s remote, press the button to activate it
  • Locate your TV set’s remote, and change the input from your pay TV set-top box, to the streaming video player
  • Navigate the video player’s menus to the Netflix application, and activate the app
  • Navigate the Netflix thumbnails, using up/down/right/left on the streaming player’s remote, or locate the search field and use the text search character matrix.
  • Watch videos on Netflix
  • Grab the TV’s remote and switch the input back to your pay TV set-top box
  • (…At which point, we’ve used at least two different user interfaces – that of your streaming player and Netflix.’  Plus, perhaps, the TV set’s own UI – and as many as three different remote controls)
  • (…At which point, my wife asks me to call someone for technical support – but who?)

Compare this classic early-adopter experience with DISH’s TTM experience

  • Turn on the TV, using the DISH remote
  • Bring up the EPG and navigate to Channel 370
  • Press the center button to enter Netflix.
  • The Netflix user experience takes over (DISH can’t be held responsible for Netflix’ unusable search and recommendation capabilities)
  • Hit Cancel, Cancel, Cancel… to back out of Netflix and return to DISH
  • (…at which point we used one remote control and two UIs: that of DISH and that of Netflix)

The first time you access Netflix via the DISH EPG, you must enter your Netflix ID and passcode.  Any subsequent use of Netflix goes right from the EPG to Netflix, with no login needed.

Has someone already decided that TTM is too good to be true?

I was initially motivated to write this article because Zatz Not Funny published a report that the YouTube and Amazon apps were being removed from the TiVo Series 2 and Series 3 DVRs, as of April 15.  Sure enough, TiVo confirms this.  Because the apps reside on the TiVo box, this is really another version of Through the Middle.

I immediately jumped to the conclusion that Amazon and YouTube were starting to get choosy about their distribution channels – and that TTM might just be a fleeting phenomenon as different content providers contend against one another to be the one on top.   Or as my wife’s dad used to say: “If it’s any good, they’ll stop making it!”

As it turns out, the moves by Amazon and YouTube are simply because the TiVo 2- and 3-Series are old, and the app developers made the choice not to support them anymore.   In fact, video apps from Amazon, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu (and others) are all key selling points for TiVo’s current Roamio DVR, and surely these video providers must appreciate having access to TiVo’s subscribers.

tivo-roamio-ttm

Not long ago, an industry friend of mine told me that Netflix had been in a pay TV operator’s EPG, but had pulled out.   But the reason that Netflix and the pay TV provider went their separate ways was because Netflix wanted more control over the user experience.

So, these weren’t cases of competitive wrangling or channel conflict at all.  One was about discontinuing support for old devices, and the other was about a content provider trying to maintain its look and feel across any device environment.

TTM is BoBW

Pay TV operators that integrate their services with TiVo can choose whether or not to expose TiVo’s OTT apps through the middle, but that’s also another story.  In those cases, the pay TV operator is calling the shots, which brings us full circle back to the debate as to whether OTT is a threat or an opportunity for operators.

In the end, I view ‘Through the Middle’ is BoBW (the Best of Both Worlds) as a consumer retention tool for pay TV.  But I think it’s more because of the added convenience, and it’s a tacit admission by pay TV operators that OTT can be a friend and isn’t a threat.

[ Side note: This topic takes us into a whole 'nother discussion about where the pay TV provider's user experience leaves off, and where the OTT (TTM) provider's UEx takes over.   I promise an article about this soon. ]