Media Guy gets cranky: Let the backlash begin!

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Already I know what my biggest pet peeve of 2006 is going to be: media-about-media coverage that automatically celebrates, as a good and interesting development, the launch of yet more subscription and pay-per-use portable media options-like last week's announcement from Starz about its new Vongo service.

What we're supposed to be excited about is getting "Unlimited Starz Movie Downloads" for computers and handheld devices. And a live feed of the Starz channel itself. For $9.99 per month. Oh, and the opportunity to download certain pay-per-view movies for an additional $3.99.

Gimme a break. First of all, consider what the "unlimited" access is to. On its launch day, Starz.com was proudly displaying a Vongo "Now Playing" list that included "The Pacifier" and "National Treasure," while asking "Ever wish you could access Starz and Encore movies from your computer?"

No. I've never, ever wished that. Especially for $119.88 or more a year. Now, if there were some sort of downloadable service that could prevent movies starring Vin Diesel and Nicolas Cage from appearing on my computer and portable devices-something like anti-virus software or a pop-up blocker, but which instead blocks no-talent hacks-that I'd consider paying for.

But mostly I'd pay to make all the shiny, happy coverage media about "innovative" new digital media delivery initiatives go away. Because we're officially at or near the breaking point in terms of consumer exasperation-if not rage-regarding the Bright New Digital Future. Over the next month or two, the people who have been all excited about all their new video iPod show options are going to be looking more closely at their credit card bills and realizing that paying $1.99, piecemeal, for programming is simply not affordable or sustainable.

But worse than the cost is the truly bewildering way that consumers are expected to shop for their digital media. The same day as the Vongo launch, DirecTV announced its new DirecTV 2Go service, which will let users download commercial-free shows from NBC, USA, SciFi and Bravo at yet another price point-99ยข-to "a wide variety of portable media players" (but so far, not the video iPod) through the new DirecTV Plus Interactive DVR. But, wait a second. Isn't DirecTV one-third owned by Fox parent News Corp? Why the hell, then, can't I buy Fox shows like "Family Guy" off of my new DirectTV DVR?

Because, well... just because.

Of course, Fox might just elect to do more straight-to-DVD "Family Guy" episodes, like it did in 2005. Except maybe they'll be straight-to-Blu-ray releases, which it's championing in the idiotic Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format wars.

The good news for mankind is that Fox's first Blu-ray releases will include such gems as "Fantastic Four" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." As "OddManOut" asked in the comments section of the Engadget blog last week, "how clearly do you need to see CRAP?"

Thanks to the hi-def format wars, DVD sales have been softening-and if you need any more evidence that confusion is a major consumer buzzkill, just look at what happened to the video game market in late 2005: uncertainty over the availability of the Xbox 360 and the timing of game releases depressed all video game sales; customers threw up their hands in frustration and collectively thought, "Screw it-I'll just wait until the gaming industry gets its act together."

Meanwhile, what Hollywood desperately needs right now is a vendor-neutral standards board along the lines of the World Wide Web Consortium (w3.org/consortium) to create definitive, non-proprietary guidelines for both content delivery and portable digital player specs. A few years back I met the man behind the W3C (and creator of the World Wide Web), Tim Berners-Lee. He's an avuncular, soft-spoken fellow whose lifelong championing of open standards and interoperability-and remarkable lack of self-promotion-make him seem like a throwback.

But open standards and interoperability-which result in simplicity, a level playing field, real competition, and affordability-are the future, of course.

Until the digital content and consumer-electronics industries create their own version of the W3C, I'm siding with the consumers who are largely ignoring all the gobbledygook about PPV and VOD and "unlimited" downloads of ridiculously limited content.

Call 2006 the Year of the Digital Backlash. I'm putting my money on PBAB: Passive Boycott Avoidance Behavior.

E-mail: dumenco@gmail.com

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