[itvt] Interview: Tara Maitra, VP and General Manager of Content Services at TiVo

As VP and general manager of content services at TiVo, Tara Maitra is in charge of the company's broadband content strategy--which sees it aggregating a line-up of downloadable movies and programming through partnerships with Amazon and around 60 other content providers, and also enabling subscribers to its service to access video from the open Internet via a PC connected to their TiVo device. The company also recently announced a deal with YouTube that will enable its subscribers to access YouTube videos directly from their TV set via their DVR. Maitra recently spoke to [itvt]'s editor-in-chief, Tracy Swedlow, about the new deal with YouTube (which sees the companies collaborating to replicate as much of YouTube's social experience as possible on the television set); about the business strategy behind the company's broadband programming line-up; about the kinds of content that are proving most popular with TiVo subscribers; and more.

[itvt]: Could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been at TiVo?

Maitra: I've been at TiVo for about two-and-a-half years. I came here to build and develop the company's content services business. Prior to that, I was at Comcast for over a year-and-a-half, working on the original VOD efforts within Comcast's programming group. Prior to that, I was at Primedia, developing VOD channels and video services related to the Primedia magazines. And before that, I was at NBC for about six years, working on everything from CNBC to a streaming, subscription-based online video product offering.

[itvt]: You actually started out in journalism, correct?

Maitra: Yes. I started out as a reporter and a producer, both at CNBC and in local news. But while I was working at NBC, I got very interested in streaming video and in how that might eventually evolve as a business--that was back in 1996. I guess my interests developed less down an editorial track and more in the direction of understanding how this new medium of streaming video would allow you to distribute content and create businesses on new platforms.

[itvt]: And today you're in charge of TiVo's broadband content strategy--which seems to be a two-pronged endeavor: on the one hand, the company is aggregating a broadband content offering via partnerships with established providers, and, on the other hand, it recently announced plans to open its platform to YouTube video. Could we talk first about the first prong of this strategy?

Maitra: Yes. The thinking behind our broadband content services is that we feel TiVo is the best way to experience television; and, with so much new video content being created for non-linear platforms like the Web, mobile devices, etc., we wanted to bring all that to the television set via TiVo. So that TiVo would not only be the best way to experience television, but would be the best way to experience television regardless of the source--whether its on cable or satellite, or off a server. So, in other words, we're expanding the promise of DVR so that it not only enables consumers to watch their content whenever they want to, but also enables them to take that content from wherever they want to--or at least from a much wider range of sources. It's about giving as much choice as possible to the consumer.

Our first premium content deal was with Amazon. They're our anchor tenant, so to speak. Amazon is offering television shows and movies on a rental and purchase model, and today we've got more than 25,000 titles available to our subscribers through that relationship. In addition to that, we're working directly with broadcast and cable networks and Web channels to make their broadband content available on our platform on a free, ad-supported basis, so that there's no additional charge for TiVo subscribers. And today, we've already got something like 60 providers launched.

[itvt]: TiVo's broadband video offering is currently not available on the version of your service you offer in partnership with Comcast. Do you foresee Comcast--or your other announced MSO partner, Cox--adopting it as part of their TiVo service?

Maitra: Well, I can't really speak for Comcast. However, by the level of investment that they've made in integrating their technologies with ours and in working together, I imagine that they would view us as a long-term partner, and they have certainly expressed interest in watching everything we're developing. Of course, it may be the case that their interest in working with TiVo has solely to do with our user interface--the way we present content, our navigation and menuing--and that they'll continue to see their broadband content business as something entirely separate from that.

[itvt]: TiVo's broadband content line-up is pretty broad: on the one hand, you're working with established brands like the New York Times and Nickelodeon; on the other hand, you're also offering your subscribers alternative, Web-originated programming from entities like Ask a Ninja and Rocketboom, and content from a range of niche providers. What kinds of broadband content are working best in the TiVo environment and why, and what kind of usage figures are you seeing for your broadband content services?

Maitra: Of the 1.7 million broadband-enabled TiVo boxes that have been deployed in consumers' homes, approximately 800,000 are actually connected to a broadband pipe. Over a period of a little more than a year, those 800,000 boxes have generated over 20 million downloads.

Certain types of content--particularly mainstream movies and television shows--have proven very, very popular. In addition, a lot of the niche content we offer has done a lot better than I, for one, would have necessarily expected. For example, technology news from CNET performs extremely well--which bears out our research: whenever we've surveyed our subscribers as to what kind of content they're most interested in, technology has always scored very high. Cooking programming and other special-interest content is also doing well. Frankly, though, we're seeing growth in pretty much all our content channels, so we're looking to continue to bring as much content as we can to our platform, whether from well-known brands or from new brands that are just emerging on the Internet.

To be honest, I'm interested in offering all kinds of content on our platform. On the one hand, it's important from a business and a status perspective for a content provider to be able to offer "sexy" content like blockbuster movies and TV shows, and we're very interested in continuing to do that. At the same time, what I find particular interesting and satisfying about what we're doing is being able to bring to television content that was previously available only on the Web. We're enabling independent producers and programmers--who otherwise would be restricted to offering their content on the Internet, because the economics of niche and independent content preclude offering it on television--to actually bring that content to the TV set in people's living rooms, even if the audiences are smaller. To me personally, being able to do that is even more interesting than the blockbuster movies we'll be delivering.

[itvt]: As you're probably aware, a lot of set-top box companies, certainly in the IPTV space, are offering interactive TV games on their platforms, and a lot of interactive TV games are now taking advantage of the DVR hard drive to offer rich video and other multimedia. Does TiVo have any plans to offer games as part of its broadband content line-up?

Maitra: Nothing to announce at this time, but we are, of course, open to discussing any interesting and compelling content for TiVo users.

[itvt]: Let's talk more about the business models for your broadband video offerings? How do your content providers generate income?

Maitra: Well, Amazon obviously is renting and selling content. Most of the other content providers are offering their content on an ad-supported basis: our content providers can insert advertising into their video content on the TiVo platform, whether that be pre-roll, post-roll, sponsorship, product placement or whichever other method they choose.

[itvt]: And they then share with you any ad revenues generated by their content on the TiVo platform?

Maitra: We actually have different relationships with different content providers. In some cases, the content provider keeps 100% of the advertising revenues, and in other cases we have a revenue-sharing arrangement.

[itvt]: Does TiVo view its broadband video services more as an enhancement and differentiator for its platform--as a loss leader that will attract consumers to that platform--or is the long-term strategy for them to eventually become a significant generator of revenues?

Maitra: We view broadband content and our presentation of and search functionality for that content as a major differentiator of TiVo. No other service integrates all of your viewing options in one user interface and search, whether cable-, satellite- or broadband-delivered, and this makes TiVo truly unique. We do generate revenue from content today and will continue to do so, but our main focus is to market this one-of-a-kind service as a reason to buy.

[itvt]: To what extent do you see your broadband video services competing with Apple's iTunes and Apple TV offerings?

Maitra: Certainly, if you look at Apple TV, there are comparisons to be made between it and TiVo, in that Apple TV is a device that enables you to view broadband video content on the television. I think the major advantage our broadband video service has over Apple TV is that TiVo is really the only service available today that actually integrates your broadband video download options with your linear TV viewing. It's the only service that--through one menu, one search engine, one remote--gives you access to all of your different kinds of television viewing options.

It's quite different from Apple TV or any of the other devices out there that allow you to view Internet content on your television set. It provides you with a single, integrated service, regardless of where the content you're watching is coming from. So I think that's a major differentiating factor.

[itvt]: As your broadband video services expand, do you feel there is a risk that the MSO's with which you're working on securing relationships, will start to see you as a competitor?

Maitra: We work closely with the MSO's. I don't see a big risk there.

[itvt]: In addition to this managed line-up of downloadable premium content you've secured through partnerships with various content providers, you're also making it possible for your subscribers to access Internet video content in general, correct?

Maitra: Yes. We have a separate offering, which we refer to as "Web Season Pass." If you download and purchase our TiVo Desktop Plus software, you can--using your TiVo remote control--search for, request and pull in Internet video via RSS feeds: the feeds are pulled in through your PC and sent to your TiVo for viewing on your television. Basically, Web Season Pass gives TiVo subscribers access to any video on the Web that's in RSS format and free, by having your TiVo box work in combination with your PC. As you point out, this is all over and above the deals we're doing directly with content providers.

[itvt]: TiVo also has a new partnership with YouTube, correct?

Maitra: Yes. We're very excited about YouTube. We think that having the ability to access on your television set the thousands and thousands--actually, millions--of videos that are available on YouTube is going to be of great benefit to TiVo subscribers. It certainly helps us deliver on our promise of bringing the world of Web video to the TV.

We're working on developing the technology infrastructure for this now, and the feature should be available sometime this summer. From a technology perspective, implementing this feature requires us to enable streaming on TiVo devices--which is something that we have not supported previously. So this YouTube capability will be our first foray into enabling streaming through the TiVo service.

One thing we're doing is working very hard to preserve the environment--the community feel--that you have with YouTube online, and translate that to the television. We want people to have the same experience of browsing, searching and discovering YouTube content as they do online, but in a TV-friendly environment. From what I've seen of the development so far, we've been very successful in doing that. So we're definitely looking forward to launching this feature.

[itvt]: Will TiVo subscribers be able to leave comments and participate in the various other social networking features offered by YouTube?

Maitra: I don't think TiVo subscribers will be able to leave comments--at least not at first. However, as we continue to evolve the service, we'll certainly be exploring ways to make it possible to make recommendations, and, in general, we'll be attempting to recreate YouTube's social networking environment as best we can, within the parameters of the television experience. Obviously, the YouTube experience online will always be different from the experience on a television. But we are working very closely with YouTube to preserve their environment, as best we can, for the television world.

[itvt]: Now, in addition to enabling your subscribers to download video, you're also enabling them to upload and share their own video, correct?

Maitra: Yes. We offer that capability through a partnership with a company called One True Media. The partnership enables a TiVo subscriber to upload his or her personal videos online, and set up a private, secure channel, through One True Media, that allows that subscriber to deliver the video to another TiVo subscriber. The other subscriber simply needs to enter a passcode provided by the sender. When that passcode is entered, the video is delivered directly to the recipient on a secure channel--downloaded via broadband directly to his or her box. Once the passcode is entered, the recipient can play the video from the TiVo menu's "Now Playing" list.

[itvt]: Is TiVo interested in developing social functionality that would complement all this broadband video content on its platform? For example, things like the ability to recommend or discuss a piece of video?

Maitra: I can't speak specifically to any new development in those areas--especially because I'm probably not even aware of half the things we're trying to do. What I can say is that TiVo continues to be an innovator, and that you can certainly expect to see more from us along the lines of advanced technologies and features that pertain to broadband video, its presentation and social networking around it.

[itvt]: In what directions do you see TiVo's broadband video offering developing over the next year or so? What kinds of announcements should we expect to see from you in this space?

Maitra: We will continue to innovate and bring in new partners to provide compelling content to our subscribers. Unfortunately, I cannot get into specifics, but definitely keep your eye on TiVo.