A LA Carte on the Internet?


A new amoeba in the petri dish of broadband-video distribution is looking to adopt one of cable's key traits.

SyncTV, a subsidiary of Pioneer Electronics, is emulating the cable industry's monthly subscription-packaging model. The venture plans to sell unlimited downloads of TV shows and other content, bundled together in “channels.”

Unlike cable operators, SyncTV proposes to offer individual channels on an a la carte basis for $2 to $4 per month, offering unlimited access to each one. Online-video subscriptions aren't new. Starz Entertainment's Vongo, for example, provides all-you-can-eat downloads of more than 1,000 movie titles for $9.99 per month.

SyncTV already has the participation of one name-brand cable partner, Showtime Networks, although Showtime has no plans to offer its content for a monthly subscription fee.

The network is providing individual shows and whole seasons with download-to-own pricing, including the original series Dexter, in the same way it offers them through Apple's iTunes Store and Amazon.com, Showtime vice president of corporate public relations Stuart Zakim said.

“It is not in any way a subscription package,” he said.

Still, SyncTV is trying to stand out from other broadband-video outlets by emphasizing its so-called a la carte approach. Cable operators and networks have long opposed selling linear TV fare piecemeal, but it's an idea strongly supported by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin.

“We wanted to free up TV from the folks who make it difficult to innovate,” SyncTV president John Gildred told Reuters in announcing the service.

Aside from Showtime, SyncTV doesn't have any major content deals yet. The venture is betting that other content owners will be prepared to sell their video content via flat-fee subscriptions.

SyncTV has disclosed only a few general details of the service. The service is currently in a private beta-testing phase; SyncTV plans to open a public beta test in January.

Another one of SyncTV's differentiators is “home-theater quality” video. It hasn't said what video-compression format it is using but claimed content will be at least DVD quality and available in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus audio.

The San Jose, Calif.-based venture said its service will be compatible with Windows PCs and Apple computers, and at some point in the future will also work with portable video players, as well as TVs via some kind of set-top box. SyncTV's parent, Pioneer, makes HDTVs, home-theater system components, DVD players and other CE devices.

The service will allow playback on up to five PCs in the home. SyncTV said that once it can convince other consumer-electronics companies to adopt the open-source Marlin digital rights management schema it uses, the service will provide playback on up to 10 additional portable devices.