UltraViolet Lands in the U.K., but With Questions

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A major initiative to grow the market for electronic sell-through of film and TV content has launched in Europe, but its success rests on the endorsement of a wide community of service providers, retailers, and pay TV operators.

On December 26, the U.K. becomes the second territory, following the U.S., to launch digital rights library system UltraViolet. Backed by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), a consortia which includes the Hollywood studios (bar Disney) and 70 other technology providers, consumer device makers, entertainment retailers, and video service providers, UltraViolet is an attempt to unify the access which consumers have to digital content across devices. 

In the U.S. its commercial rollout began in October with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and Universal Pictures announcing initial UV-enabled titles. Warner Bros. has followed suit in the U.K. stating that all of its new releases will have free streaming rights bundled into the purchase of the physical DVD or Blu-ray.

In addition, 21 companies have acquired licensees to offer UltraViolet products and services in the U.K.. These include NBCUniversal, Samsung Electronics, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Intel, and PacketVideo, with hints that others have signed on but have yet to announce publically.

Early days it may be, but when Warner Bros. releases its UV-enabled title Final Destination 5, consumers will only be able to stream it from devices carrying the Warner Bros.-owned movie-based social network service Flixster.

DECE signatory Tesco recently launched its own digital locker in conjunction with Blinkbox, the online movie service it majority owns. Tesco customers who purchase select DVDs and Blu-ray discs gain free access to a digital copy on the Blinkbox portal. It launched with 23 movies included in the service, with more expected to become available shortly.

According to DECE, Tesco's initiative is complimentary rather than competitive to UltraViolet, and it may be that future titles will also carry the UV badge. The last thing the DECE wants is for the market to further fragment.

A DECE representative told StreamingMedia: "We cannot speak for Tesco's plans, but we understand they are planning on launching UltraViolet later next year. The UltraViolet concept assumes and encourages retailers and others to maintain their own flow of innovation. UltraViolet is an open platform that builds on the value of various retailer offers. We believe that consumers will benefit from UltraViolet's ability to ‘connect the clouds' -- meaning they will be able to access their content from a variety of retailers/service providers and devices in one central location under the UltraViolet umbrella."

The UV licensee list in the U.K. is expected to grow as roll-out gathers pace in 2012, with rights initially introduced via Blu-ray and DVD discs, but later through online retailers or apps for download and streaming.

According to DECE general manager Mark Teitell: "Consumers are demanding a more advanced and open alternative to the closed video distribution systems being offered today. The U.K. launch of UltraViolet represents another key step in the development. We're working with the inaugural licensees to begin introducing UltraViolet to consumers in the U.K. over the coming months."

The 800-pound gorilla not included in the UV project is Apple, but Teitell dismisses these concerns: "The market for physical film and TV media is eighteen or nineteen times size that of the electronic one. Nobody's business is healthy and that includes Apple which has a very healthy music business but it is not satisfied with its business selling movie and TV shows." 

He adds: "Consumers have been holding back on making digital collections because they lack the freedom to watch their content on any device they own, and the confidence in the longevity of their purchase. UltraViolet is strong because it gives the choice, freedom, and confidence in content ownership that has historically been lacking."

Could it be the case that consumers prefer to rent or subscribe to online content rather than own? "We believe there are few consumers who only rent or who only buy. Most people mix-and-match how they consume digital entertainment and we are only really seeking to re-establish a natural balance between collecting behaviours," Teitell says.

There will be further hurdles, not least to create an end-to-end ecosystem which will securely stream content to multiple consumer electronics devices across Europe's non-homogeneous market.

DECE has pre-selected five digital rights management systems so that CE vendors and content service providers can create security applicable to different devices and platforms, but only time will tell if UltraViolet will be able to update rights propagated to millions of devices while staving off the piracy that crippled the music industry.

In the first half of 2012, DECE will introduce a Common File Format for downloads, making download functionality consistent across all UltraViolet retailers. Teitell says DECE is also mindful of a source file for streaming. "Many of our members are playing important roles in developing MPEG-DASH and as a group further down the track we are looking at how we should approach streaming, with a mindset that works with standards and doesn't try to invent new ones."

Following the U.K. launch, DECE plans to begin rolling-out UltraViolet in Canada, with details on timing to be announced soon, as well as a number of other territories in 2012 and 2013.

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