In addition to exciting its loyal legion of fans, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” premiere was also once again great news for installs of the network’s app for cord cutters, HBO NOW, which shot to the top of the App Store this weekend. The app this weekend saw a combined 300,000-plus new mobile subscribers in the U.S. across both Apple’s App Store and Google Play, according to preliminary estimates from Sensor Tower.
This is the highest the app has ranked on the U.S. iPhone App Store in three years, Sensor Tower notes, with its previous highest ranking on April 24, 2016 for the Season 6 “Game of Thrones” premiere. At that time, the app had seen 160,000 downloads on just the one day.
Sensor Tower expects to have more precise estimates of the premiere’s impact in the near future, as it wants to incorporate numbers from the fans who are getting a late start and downloading the app today.
Currently, the app is holding its No. 1 position on Apple’s App Store. If that continues, it could easily add another couple hundred thousand over the course of today (Monday, April 15, 2019), Sensor Tower estimates. That could see the app surpassing 500,000 new downloads across the three-day period.
To be clear, these numbers refer to users who have never before installed the app on their phone – not re-downloads.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a 1:1 correlation with new HBO NOW subscribers. Many fans watch the series on their TV’s big screen through an HBO app for devices like Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, and others. Or they may tune in to watch on the web, via their laptop. Still, it’s a notable number – especially considering how late it is in the series for the show to be gaining new fans.
HBO’s app for cable and satellite TV customers, HBO Go, also did well this weekend. It’s on track to exceed 400,000 installs over the same three-day period (the weekend of the Season 8 premiere, plus Monday). This is highest the app has ranked since the Season 7 premiere in July 2017, when it added 350,000 first-time users across both stores worldwide.
Combined, the two apps — HBO Go and HBO NOW — are poised to exceed over 1 million new installs in this three-day period, Sensor Tower forecasts.
However, fans’ interest in the long-awaited new season may have caused HBO’s apps to struggle some.
There have been reports from Down Detector and Business Insider of users who had issues streaming from the HBO apps, as well as Hulu. But these were nowhere on the scale of crashes we’ve seen in years past — as with the Season 4 “Game of Thrones” premiere, which had HBO issuing a public apology due to the size of the outage. (HBO has not responded to our requests for comment about the unconfirmed reports detailing last night’s issues. So the issues could be chalked up to users’ broadband connections, or other factors.)
Other TV apps had a few glitches, too, thanks to the premiere. For example, the TV-tracking social app TV Time temporarily struggled to load, shortly after the premiere’s airing last night. On its app, “Game of Thrones” is one of the most-tracked shows, where it has 4.3 million followers who post comments, photos, memes and more to the show’s in-app community. Today, there are some 6,200 comments in the show’s forum, from fans discussing the show.
The HBO sci-fi blockbuster Westworld has been an inspiring look into what humanlike robots can do for us in the meatspace. While current technologies are not quite advanced enough to make Westworld a reality, startups are attempting to replicate the sort of human-robot interaction it presents in virtual space.
Rct studio, which just graduated from Y Combinator and ranked among TechCrunch’s nine favorite picks from the batch, is one of them. The “Westworld” in the TV series, a far-future theme park staffed by highly convincing androids, lets visitors live out their heroic and sadistic fantasies free of consequences.
There are a few reasons why rct studio, which is keeping mum about the meaning of its deliberately lower-cased name for later revelation, is going for the computer-generated world. Besides the technical challenge, playing a fictional universe out virtually does away the geographic constraint. The Westworld experience, in contrast, happens within a confined, meticulously built park.
“Westworld is built in a physical world. I think in this age and time, that’s not what we want to get into,” Xinjie Ma, who heads up marketing for rct, told TechCrunch. “Doing it in the physical environment is too hard, but we can build a virtual world that’s completely under control.”
Rct studio wants to build the Westworld experience in virtual worlds. / Image: rct studio
The startup appears suitable to undertake the task. The eight-people team is led by Cheng Lyu, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who goes by Jesse and helped Baidu build up its smart speaker unit from scratch after the Chinese search giant acquired his voice startup Raven in 2017. Along with several of Raven’s core members, Lyu left Baidu in 2018 to start rct.
“We appreciate a lot the support and opportunities given by Baidu and during the years we have grown up dramatically,” said Ma, who previously oversaw marketing at Raven.
Let AI write the script
Immersive films, or games, depending on how one wants to classify the emerging field, are already available with pre-written scripts for users to pick from. Rct wants to take the experience to the next level by recruiting artificial intelligence for screenwriting.
At the center of the project is the company’s proprietary engine, Morpheus. Rct feeds it mountains of data based on human-written storylines so the characters it powers know how to adapt to situations in real time. When the codes are sophisticated enough, rct hopes the engine can self-learn and formulate its own ideas.
“It takes an enormous amount of time and effort for humans to come up with a story logic. With machines, we can quickly produce an infinite number of narrative choices,” said Ma.
To venture through rct’s immersive worlds, users wear a virtual reality headset and control their simulated self via voice. The choice of audio came as a natural step given the team’s experience with natural language processing, but the startup also welcomes the chance to develop new devices for more lifelike journeys.
“It’s sort of like how the film Ready Player One built its own gadgets for the virtual world. Or Apple, which designs its own devices to carry out superior software experience,” explained Ma.
On the creative front, rct believes Morpheus could be a productivity tool for filmmakers as it can take a story arc and dissect it into a decision-making tree within seconds. The engine can also render text to 3D images, so when a filmmaker inputs the text “the man throws the cup to the desk behind the sofa,” the computer can instantly produce the corresponding animation.
Path to monetization
Investors are buying into rct’s offering. The startup is about to close its Series A funding round just months after banking seed money from Y Combinator and Chinese venture capital firm Skysaga, the startup told TechCrunch.
The company has a few imminent tasks before achieving its Westworld dream. For one, it needs a lot of technical talent to train Morpheus with screenplay data. No one on the team had experience in filmmaking, so it’s on the lookout for a creative head who appreciates AI’s application in films.
Rct studio’s software takes a story arc and dissects it into a decision-making tree within seconds. / Image: rct studio
“Not all filmmakers we approach like what we do, which is understandable because it’s a very mature industry, while others get excited about tech’s possibility,” said Ma.
The startup’s entry into the fictional world was less about a passion for films than an imperative to shake up a traditional space with AI. Smart speakers were its first foray, but making changes to tangible objects that people are already accustomed to proved challenging. There has been some interest in voice-controlled speakers, but they are far from achieving ubiquity. Then movies crossed the team’s mind.
“There are two main routes to make use of AI. One is to target a vertical sector, like cars and speakers, but these things have physical constraints. The other application, like Alpha Go, largely exists in the lab. We wanted something that’s both free of physical limitation and holds commercial potential.”
The Beijing and Los Angeles-based startup isn’t content with just making the software. Eventually, it wants to release its own films. The company has inked a long-term partnership with Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese sci-fi publisher representing about 200 writers, including the Hugo award-winning Cixin Liu. The pair is expected to start co-producing interactive films within a year.
Rct’s path is reminiscent of a giant that precedes it: Pixar Animation Studios . The Chinese company didn’t exactly look to the California-based studio for inspiration, but the analog was a useful shortcut to pitch to investors.
“A confident company doesn’t really draw parallels with others, but we do share similarities to Pixar, which also started as a tech company, publishes its own films, and has built its own engine,” said Ma. “A lot of studios are asking how much we price our engine at, but we are targeting the consumer market. Making our own films carry so many more possibilities than simply selling a piece of software.”
Now, alongside the free content, Roku users can choose to subscribe to premium channels like Showtime, Starz, EPIX, and others – including, as of this week, HBO. Those channels’ content can then be streamed directly through The Roku Channel itself on TVs as well as within Roku’s updated mobile app.
When The Roku Channel’s subscription platform made its debut earlier this year, HBO was one of the biggest names to come up missing, along with Netflix and Hulu.
But Netflix and Hulu don’t tend to allow subscriptions through third-party platforms like The Roku Channel (or, more recently, via Apple TV+). HBO, however, does. The premium channel and home to “Game of Thrones” is available as an add-on across a range of streaming services and a la carte TV providers – including The Roku Channel’s biggest competitor, Amazon Prime Video Channels.
Without HBO in The Roku Channel, users who wanted to stream one of TV’s biggest shows would have to leave Roku’s hub and navigate back to the Roku home screen where they could access HBO directly through its dedicated Roku app. That was bad news for Roku as it’s trying to keep users’ viewing activity centralized and contained in one spot, in order to promote the ad-supported fare that helps Roku make money.
Roku says users can now opt into a free 7-day HBO trial in The Roku Channel, which then converts to a $14.99 per month subscription if the trial isn’t cancelled.
Those who subscribe to HBO through The Roku Channel won’t be able to login to HBO’s standalone apps, HBO NOW or HBO Go, but will instead watch its content through Roku’s hub, where its programs are featured alongside Roku’s over 10,000 free movies and TV episodes.
For consumers, keeping all your add-on TV subscriptions in one place makes it easier to track what you’re paying for, and simplifies the cancellation process when you’re ready to adjust your cord cutting mix.
Similarly, viewers who’ve read “Bad Blood” or followed the Theranos story closely may not discover many new facts in “The Inventor.” But even so, the film is worth watching for its clear distillation of what happened, and for its copious behind-the-scenes footage of Holmes (who ends up feeling like a major presence even though she wasn’t interviewed).
The documentary is called The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley.
The tech world was shocked when the WSJ broke the news that Theranos, the biotech startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes, wasn’t what it appeared to be.
Promising to revolutionize healthcare, Theranos wanted to accomplish the impossible by creating a device that could significantly speed up the time it takes to test blood and diagnose disease. This, it turns out, was actually impossible.
HBO documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley debuts on Monday, March 18, and catalogs the story through interviews with the reporters who documented it, whistleblowers, former Theranos employees and experts.
This includes John Carreyrou, author of “Bad Blood”; journalists Ken Auletta (The New Yorker) and Roger Parloff (Forbes), who wrote profiles of Holmes; Theranos whistleblowers Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung; former Theranos employees Dave Philippides, Douglas Matje, Ryan Wistort and Tony Nugent; behavioral economist Dan Ariely; and Dr. Phyllis Gardner, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford University.
TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reviewedThe Inventor after its Sundance premiere.
The documentary will be available on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.
As you can see, we’ve been blessed with peeks at a few scenes that promise a climactic final season. The trailer includes dragons flying over Winterfell, Gendry, sinister Cersei, and a teaser for the battle fans have been waiting for: the fight between the living and the dead.
Season 8 premiers April 14, so folks who haven’t spent the last nine years living and dying by GoT have approximately six weeks to get their acts together and catch up to the rest of us.
The company announced other leadership changes at the same time: CNN head Jeff Zucker will become the chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports (which includes Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and AT&T’s sports networks, as well as CNN) and president of CNN. Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara is taking charge of a new kids and young adults business that will include Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang . (He’ll also be leading Otter Media and Turner Classic Movies.) And Turner International president Gerhard Zeiler is becoming WarnerMedia’s chief revenue officer.
“Adding Bob Greenblatt to the WarnerMedia family and expanding the leadership scope and responsibilities of Jeff, Kevin and Gerhard – who collectively have more than 80 years of global media experience and success – gives us the right management team to strategically position our leading portfolio of brands, world-class talent and rich library of intellectual property for future growth,” WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey said in a statement.
Richard Pleper, who’s been at HBO since 1992 and served as CEO since 2013, is leaving the network.
In a staff memo, Plepler didn’t offer specific reasons for his departure but said, “Hard as it is to think about leaving the company I love, and the people I love in it, it is the right time for me to do so.”
Shortly after the deal closed, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey held a town hall meeting where he said HBO would need to grow its subscriber base and the amount of time those subscribers spend watching HBO content (a recording of the meeting was obtained by The New York Times). In the memo, Plepler said he’s told Stankey — “who has been nothing but gracious since we spoke” — that he “would work closely with him to assure a seamless and organic transition.”
In fact, the one time I interviewed Plepler was in 2013, at a red carpet event for “Game of Thrones” (I’m still not sure what I was doing there). When asked to speculate about what the future would hold, he replied, “Maybe even a broadband-only HBO delivery system. Who knows? We’ll see where that goes down the road.”
Have you ever wanted to see one of your “hate-reads” stretched out to feature-film length? If so, you’ll want to watch HBO’s new documentary, “Swiped,” which takes a depressing, trigger-inducing and damning look at online dating culture, and specifically Tinder’s outsized influence in the dating app business.
The film evolved from journalist Nancy Jo Sales’ 2015 Vanity Fair piece, entitled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,” which was criticized at the time for its narrow focus on 20-something, largely heterosexual women in an urban setting. The piece had extrapolated out their personal dating struggles and turned them into condemnation of the entire online dating market.
But the VF piece was actually more memorable for Tinder’s response.
In a 30-tweet tirade (that’s still some of the best of the internet, mind you), the company lost its ever-lovin’ mind on both Vanity Fair and Nancy Jo Sales alike.
One sample tweet from the Tinder meltdown: “@VanityFair: Little know fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.”
Ah, take that! Right?! Right?
Despite the complete PR buffoonery, Tinder had a point.
The VF piece wasn’t representative of Tinder’s larger user base, only a sliver. And the complaints from a few users couldn’t be used to make a point about the entire industry.
Besides, what exactly was unique about those complaints?
Was it truly swipe culture to blame for the mistakes made in dating and sexual experimentation, when you’re young? Don’t you at least once or twice have to choose the wrong person, so you can begin to triangulate on what’s right?
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t fully correct the article’s problem in terms of its demographic samplings.
It still mostly relies on anecdotes told by (usually drunk) 20-somethings, which are then spliced up by the occasional expert commentary.
And the subjects are often really, really drunk.
There’s one scene where a young woman is so wasted, it’s hard to believe she gave the filmmaker informed consent to use her footage.
(Not the one below. But I’m pretty sure those Solo cups aren’t filled with lemonade.)
Meanwhile, the expert commentary has its highlights, too.
There’s one expert – April Alliston, a Princeton professor – who breastfeeds her baby on camera while giving her commentary on pornography. (Oh yes, please discuss rape porn while the baby suckles your breast, thank you very much.)
Look how cool and progressive we are! is the unspoken subtext, even as the film continues to subtly vilify casual sex among young adults, or act as if Tinder itself is somehow entirely responsible for the callous behavior of its users.
Unlike the magazine article, the film does slightly expand its cast of characters to include gender non-conforming and other LGBTQ people, more people of color, and – well, it’s Tinder! – a couple interested in threesomes.
But the general slice of the Tinder user base interviewed remains young, urban, and, in some cases, fairly vapid.
As for “Swiped’s” milieu, much of its action is in the city.
Specifically, scene after scene in the film is labeled, “New York, New York,” as if the experiences of people in this competitive and unique market – a place where leveling up to something better is a way of life – could somehow represent a universal truth applicable to all of Tinder’s estimated 50 million users.
The film does, however, cover nearly everything that’s awful about dating apps – from young men ordering girls to their door as if it’s a meal from Seamless, to the overwhelming sense of dread and the depression that results from being on dating apps – or really, the internet itself – for too long.
There are also scenes touching nearly every Tinder trope:
The sending of dick pics; men posing with fish in their profile photos; that supposedly happy couple “looking for a third” (spoiler alert: they’re not happy and are broken up by end of film); the “DTF?” come-ons; and basically every other reason people delete these apps in the first place.
Where the film is somewhat stronger is when it talks about the very real psychological tricks Tinder and other dating apps have adopted to keep users engaged and addicted to swiping.
Tinder, it’s pointed out, uses gamification techniques: Brain tricks like intermittent variable rewards that are proven to work on pigeons, no less!
You see, if you don’t know when you’re getting the reward – a treat, a match, etc. – you end up playing the game more often, the psychologists explain.
One of the better quotes on this topic comes from Tinder co-founder and CSO Jonathan Badeen, where he essentially compares the act of using Tinder to doing drugs or gambling.
“We have some of these game-like elements, where you almost feel like you’re being rewarded,” says Baden. “It kinda works like a slot machine, where you’re excited to see who the next person is, or, hopefully, you’re excited to see ‘did I get the match?’ and get that ‘It’s a Match’ screen? It’s a nice little rush,” he enthuses.
Of course, these are concerns that extend beyond the online dating app industry.
Apple and Google, for example, have just launched screen time controls aimed at giving us a chance at fighting back at the dangerous dark patterns and brain hacks these apps use. (Apple’s toolset is only arriving in iOS 12 – which is just now getting to the public.)
It’s certainly fair to criticize companies like Tinder and Bumble for bringing these gamification tricks into delicate areas like those where the focus is supposedly on forming real human connections or “finding love.” But it’s disingenuous to act as if this is something unique to Tinder (et al) and not just, generally, the god-awful state of the tech industry as a whole at present.
The only other worthwhile part to “Swiped” is where the film points out that no one knows if any of these addictive apps actually succeed in helping people find real relationships.
Dating app companies don’t have any data on how many lasting relationships result from their app’s usage, “Swiped” finds. It’s odd, as tech companies are usually data hungry beasts. And success rates would seemingly be the exact kind of metric a company claiming to solve issues around relationship-finding would want to track.
Though everyone today seems to know someone who “met on an app,” it’s unclear what portion of the user base is actually finding long-term success with those relationships. The dating app companies have no idea, either, the film proclaims.
Asked how many people who met on Tinder got married or ended up in committed relationships, Jessica Carbino, a sociologist at Tinder, tells the filmmaker: “we do not have that information available.” She then adds she’s “inundated with emails” from Tinder users getting married and having babies.
(She also hilariously defends casual hookups as something that people go to church to pursue, too, so don’t blame Tinder for that! I mean, sometimes this film is just comedy gold, I swear.)
Of course, with a user base in the tens of millions, a good handful of happy emails should be expected. It’s definitely not evidence that Tinder is any better than the alternative – bars, blind dates, introductions through friends, etc.
The film then drives this particular point home by citing user studies by both Tinder and the more relationship-focused dating app Hinge, which seem indicate that swiped-based dating doesn’t work.
“80% of Tinder users are looking for a serious relationship,” says one Tinder survey. The text then fades, and the next statistic, this time from Hinge, appears.
“81% of users have never found a long-term relationship on any swiping app,” it says.
By the end of the film, it’s clear you’re expected to delete Tinder and all the other dating apps off your phone and get on with your life.
However, as with Facebook and social media, backlash doesn’t mean abandonment.
Tinder’s swipe culture is the new normal. It’s right to hold it accountable in areas it can do better – reporting and abuse, for example – but it’s not going away anytime soon.
That’s a long cycle to complete a transaction, but this is a complicated one that sees AT&T take control of Time Warner, as well as HBO, Warner Brother’s film studio and its Turner channels. That’s likely to create a complicated web of conflicts, as both media distribution and content creation come together under the same parent.
“The content and creative talent at Warner Bros., HBO and Turner are first-rate. Combine all that with AT&T’s strengths in direct-to-consumer distribution, and we offer customers a differentiated, high-quality, mobile-first entertainment experience,” Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T, said in a statement. “We’re going to bring a fresh approach to how the media and entertainment industry works for consumers, content creators, distributors and advertisers.”
The deal is vital for AT&T. The firm said it expects to save $2.5 billion in “synergies” and return to significant revenue growth within four years. For a snapshot, AT&T’s new look business — which will include Time Warner and Turner — generated some $31 billion last year alone.
This week’s court decision followed a government antitrust suit to block the deal on the grounds that the vertical merger — a term for when companies that provide different or complementary offerings join forces — could harm consumers, particularly on price. The deal was dubbed the antitrust case of the decade, and it was the first time a court has adjudicated over a vertical merger since cell phones were invented, and thus changed the media and distribution landscape.