Original Content podcast: Despite some odd choices, ‘The Undoing’ lays out a satisfying mystery

The HBO miniseries “The Undoing” wrapped up back in November, but the hosts of the Original Content podcast took advantage of the holidays to get caught up.

Based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, “The Undoing” tells the story of Grace Fraser (played by Nicole Kidman), a Manhattan psychologist whose husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is accused of a brutal murder. As the trial turns into a media spectacle, Grace tries to navigate how she feels about her husband and to discover who else might be guilty of the crime.

While Jordan had already watched the show as it aired, Anthony and Darrell were inspired to binge it thanks to an email from listener Michael Benedosso, who shared some amusing thoughts on Kidman’s wavering attempts at a New York accent — resulting in what he called “a world tour expressed via spoken word.”

We agreed that Kidman’s accent left a lot to be desired, and that her performance often felt a bit oblique (the latter, at least, was probably intentional).

We had other quibbles. For one thing, although the cast is relatively diverse, the story spends most of its time on the wealthy white family at its center, as their wealthy white friends. And there were perhaps a few too many red herrings that didn’t lead anywhere interesting.

Still, we were pretty satisfied in the end. With only six episodes and plenty of plot twists, there was really no time to get bored, and we were particularly impressed by Grant’s performance as Jonathan, as well as Noah Jupe as the Frasers’ adolescent son Henry and Noma Dumezweni as Jonathan’s steely lawyer Haley.

Before reviewing he show, we also discussed the recent launch of the Discovery+ streaming service.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

f you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:30 Discovery+ discussion
6:41 “The Undoing” review
20:40 “The Undoing” spoiler discussion

Original Content podcast: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ might be a beautiful mess, or maybe just a mess

“Wonder Woman 1984” was released on HBO Max on Christmas Day, where it quickly divided the hosts of the Original Content podcast.

Perhaps it was predictable that Anthony — a fan of clunky-but-ambitious superhero sequels like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” — enjoyed the film. Darrell, meanwhile, took the side of most critics, who found the movie exasperating and even, at times, mystifyingly bad.

The biggest surprise was Jordan, who disliked the first “Wonder Woman” and actually preferred the sequel, thanks in large part to Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of the villainous Cheetah.

Everyone agreed that there were plenty of problems, including some slipshod and confusing plotting, as well as a portrayal of Wonder Woman that’s defined entirely by her longing for Steve Trevor, the Chris Pine character who died at the end of the first film but returns here under mysterious circumstances.

But where Anthony found the overall arc of the film — rewriting the melancholy love story of “Superman II” as a parable about capitalism and climate change — and its big emotional moments to be surprisingly affecting, Darrell thought the entire final act was ludicrous, with some of the worst CGI ever seen in a big-budget film.

In addition to debating the merits of “Wonder Woman 1984,” we also discuss our top streaming picks from the past year.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Introduction
0:35 Best of the year discussion
16:23 “Wonder Woman 1984” review
30:05 “Wonder Woman 1984” spoiler discussion

HBO Max will finally land on Roku devices tomorrow

It took an unusually long time, but HBO Max is set to launch on Roku devices tomorrow.

Roku users make up a massive chunk of the cord-cutting market, so the absence of an HBO Max app for Roku nearly seven months after the service launched was pretty glaring. We’d been wondering where the Max app was for months, its launch seemingly tied up over the matter of where and how customers could subscribe.

With Wonder Woman 1984 set to debut on Max in just a few weeks, one can assume there was tremendous pressure all around to get the deal done. As part of the deal, Roku users will be able to sign up for HBO Max using Roku’s built-in payment system, Roku Pay.

This news comes about a month after HBO Max filled a similar gap by finally launching on Amazon Fire devices, and days after the announcement of a mega deal that will see all 2021 Warner Bros. films launch on HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters.

With this launch, HBO Max will have most of the key bases covered, with support on iOS, Android, Chromecast, Roku, Amazon’s Fire devices, PC/Mac, and all of the modern gaming consoles minus the Switch.

Original Content podcast: ‘The Vow’ offers a muddled look at the NXIVM cult

“The Vow” is a fascinating documentary, but we can’t quite recommend it whole-heartedly.

As we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, HBO’s new docuseries tells the story of NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), a self-improvement company that was subsequently revealed as a sex cult, with its leader Keith Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison.

The core story is both compelling and horrifying. And “The Vow” features an astonishing amount of footage showing Raniere and other high-level NXIVM members at work — for that reason alone, the series is worth watching for anyone interested in the NXIVM story.

However, it’s also hampered by some unfortunate storytelling choices. For one thing, by parceling the story out over nine hour-long episode, the series often feels unnecessarily drawn out and repetitive.

And by focusing on a handful of high-ranking NXIVM members who subsequently became important whistleblowers and critics (including Mark Vicente, the filmmaker responsible for a great deal of that behind-the-scenes footage), “The Vow” has also opened itself up to criticism that it downplays the stories of Raniere’s true victims and obscures the extent of his crimes (unlike the Starz documentary “Seduced”) .

In addition to reviewing the series, we also discuss the latest Disney+ growth numbers and the new season of “The Bachelorette.”

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Introduction
0:45 Disney+ discussion
7:40 “The Bachelorette” discussion
30:48 “The Vow” review

Are subscription services the future of fintech?

Subscription services are on the rise. During the pandemic, Americans have been spending more time at home and more money on the digital products that make navigating our new normal easier.

More than ever, Americans’ lives are aided by companies like Netflix, Instacart and, of course, Amazon, which reported record-setting earnings from its 2020 Prime Day savings event.

A recent survey even found that spending on subscription services had more than tripled since March, with one in three respondents saying they’d purchased a new online subscription while quarantining.

Now, a new concern lingers: Is the market getting oversaturated? The question doesn’t just apply to streaming services and food delivery companies — it’s an issue financial technology businesses can’t afford to ignore.

As subscriptions become an increasingly alluring business model, fintechs will be forced to consider whether this proven strategy is worth the risk.

Fintechs should take note of subscription services

In the CompareCards survey, two-thirds of respondents said they purchased a new streaming service mainly for entertainment. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for fintechs to carve out their own space.

Bradley Leimer, co-founder of the financial consulting firm Unconventional Ventures, said he’s certainly seen more fintechs exploring subscription models. As Leimer explained, the financial services industry may have not fully embraced the idea, but it’s “starting to take notice.” Leimer, who has more than 25 years of experience in the industry, believes fintechs can learn a lot from subscription services — provided they’re willing to look in the right place.

One major lesson? Transparency. Subscription services give companies an opportunity to be upfront about their fees, as well as their benefits.

“When we talk about subscriptions, the more clear and more transparent we are, the better,” Leimer said.

Acorns is an easy case study. The microinvesting app offers three subscription levels — lite, personal and family — each with a clearly explained list of features. For what it’s worth, the company added more than 2 million users between March 2019 and March 2020, according to Forbes.

Leimer said fintechs should also take note of the way subscription services collaborate. For example, he pointed out how Amazon users can add an HBO subscription to their Prime Video account, essentially “bundling” two subscriptions into one. Fintechs, Leimer said, could stand to take a page out of that playbook.

“There are a lot of ways to sort of skin that cat — for a fintech company to generate income and for a customer to get value on top of that,” Leimer said.

HBO Max hits 28.7M subscribers in Q3, but few are over-the-top

AT&T painted a rosy picture of HBO Max adoption during the company’s earnings report on Thursday. Despite not being available on Roku, one of the top streaming platforms in the U.S., AT&T said new HBO Max activations more than doubled from second-quarter levels, reaching 8.6 million in Q3.

In total, 28.7 million customers were eligible to stream their HBO Max subscription by the end of the quarter, the company said.

Of these, 25.1 million came from “wholesale” agreements — meaning a pay TV provider of some kind, like Comcast, Charter, Verizon [TechCrunch’s parent], or AT&T’s own DirecTV, for example. But only 3.625 million were direct “retail” subscribers.

Combined, both HBO and HBO Max topped 38 million subscribers in the U.S. and 57 million worldwide. The 38 million figure put the company ahead of its previously announced year-end target of 36 million, the report said.

However, AT&T’s numbers alone don’t paint a true picture of who’s really watching HBO Max content.

AT&T touts its quarterly “activiations” without clarifying that only a small portion of customers are choosing to sign up for HBO Max directly by paying $15 per month for a subscription. A larger portion are simply becoming eligible to watch the streaming service through their existing HBO subscriptions — but many haven’t yet signed in and actually streamed.

In fact, some significant portion of these 8.6 million new “activations” may not yet even know that HBO Max exists — especially if the service is unavailable on their favorite streaming platform, like Roku. Or they may know it exists but can’t find it on Roku, so they think it just hasn’t launched.

Roku finally took this issue into its own hands, and is now working around the stalled negotiations by adding support for AirPlay 2 on its newer devices. This will give Apple customers a way to stream from apps that haven’t launched on the Roku platform itself.

AT&T also said it’s continuing to invest in HBO Max, having poured around $600 million in the service during Q3, bringing its investment to $1.3 billion for the year so far. And it’s on track for an estimated investment of $2 billion by year-end.

The company also said consumer engagement on the new platform was doing well, up nearly 60% from HBO Now levels. But it offered few other metrics of success, other than saying its “library” titles have been “performing incredibly strong” with its customer base. In addition, only 1 or 2 pieces of leased content have made it into the HBO Max top 10, but AT&T admitted it could have launched with a stronger slate of original programs.

On the product side, AT&T said it would be pushing out software updates every 45 days to improve the user interface and usability of the app. And it’s still on track to launch an advertising-supported version of the service (AVOD)  in 2021, as planned, and expand internationally.

“AVOD not only allows us to broaden the offering [and] the amount of content we put on the platform,” explained AT&T CEO John Stankey, “it allows us to hit a different price point and attract different segments of the market and as a result of that we think that will be an important market expansion capability for us,” he said.

 

 

 

 

WarnerMedia to discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, and select other South Asia markets

WarnerMedia will discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bangladesh later this year as the entertainment conglomerate struggles to find a sustainable business model in South Asian despite operating in the region for over a decade.

The company said it will end HBO and WB TV channels in the aforementioned markets, where a cable subscription costs about $4 to $5 a month, on December 15. In India, for instance, it costs less than 25 cents to subscribe to both HBO (in HD) and WB atop a monthly cable plan, which costs about $2.

While HBO is a household name in the U.S. and several other developed markets, in India and other South Asian nations, its audience size remains tiny. Times Internet’s Movies Now, Star Movies, and Sony Pix had a considerably larger viewership than HBO in India last month, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s ratings agency.

Warner Media cited a dramatic market shift in the pay-TV industry for its decision. It said it will continue to offer Cartoon Network and Pogo in India, and distribute CNN International in the country.

“After 20 years of successes for the HBO linear movie channel in South Asia and more than a decade with the WB linear movie channel, this was a difficult decision to make. The pay-TV industry landscape and the market dynamics have shifted dramatically, and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for further change,” said Siddharth Jain, SVP and Managing Director of WarnerMedia’s entertainment network in South Asia, in a statement.

HBO also maintains a content syndication partnership with Disney’s Hotstar in India. So the streamer will continue to offer HBO’s shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — hopefully without any censorship — in the country.

“WarnerMedia has a strong interest in India and are committed to assessing optimal opportunities to serve valued customers here,” said Jain.

The new Chromecast adds a remote and the new Google TV interface for $49

It’s been a while since Google gave its Chromecast line a proper bit of love — perhaps not surprising for a fairly mature device now marking its seventh year. At today’s big Launch Night In event, however, the company’s bringing the popular TV dongle a much-needed refresh by way of Chromecast with Google TV.

The new version of the streaming product looks pretty similar to its predecessor, though the perfectly circular shape has been stretched out in something more oblong, dangling off the end of an HDMI cable. The biggest change from a hardware standpoint is the addition of — reportedly — the product’s most requested features: a remote.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Long and slim (perfect for wedging between the couch cushions), the remote features a navigation wheel surrounding a selection button up top and devoted buttons for YouTube and Hulu. There’s also a Google Assistant button and a microphone flanked by the power and input buttons, which allows for voice control. It runs on a pair of AAA batteries, included in the box.

The other big addition here is Google TV. I’ve detailed the offering here, but the short version of it is that it’s a new interface from the company designed to offer a more streamlined viewing experience. It pulls together into a single spot movies, TV shows and live television programming — similar to what you get with something like Fire TV and Apple TV.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new dongle can support 4K HDR video at rates up to 60 frames a second. It also supports Dolby Vision, the company’s image optimization format. The system supports 6,500 apps and live and on-demand TV from 85 networks, as well as key streaming services like Disney+, HBO Max, Netflix and, of course, YouTube. Peacock support is on the way — as is support for Google’s Stadia gaming offering, which is set to arrive in the first half of next year.

The dongle is available for sale in the U.S. starting today, priced at $50. Customers in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the U.K. can pre-order it today, as well.

Check out this never-before-seen clip from HBO’s The Perfect Weapon

At Disrupt 2020, we got a chance to see some never-before-seen footage from HBO’s upcoming documentary The Perfect Weapon.

The documentary, which was executive produced by John Maggio, is based on the book by the same(ish) name written by David Sanger, Washington correspondent for the New York Times.

We got to sit down for an interview with Sanger where we discussed the cybersecurity threats the United States faces, the definition of an appropriate response, and in general, whether or not we should be worried.

You can check out the full interview below, as well as a never-before-seen clip from the upcoming documentary.

The conversation was an excellent lead-in to Zack Whittaker’s interview with the NSA’s Cybersecurity Chief Anne Neuberger, which you can check out here.

VCs and startups consider HaaS model for consumer devices

I’ve been following consumer audio electronics company Nura with great interest for a few years now — the Melbourne-based startup was one of the first companies I met with after starting with TechCrunch. At the time, its first prototype was a big mess of circuits and wires — the sort of thing you could never imagine shrunk down into a reasonably-sized consumer device.

Nura managed, of course. And the final product looked and sounded great; hell, even the box was nice. If I’m lucky, I see a consumer hardware product once or twice a year that seems reasonably capable of disrupting an industry, and Nura’s custom sound profiles fit that bill. But the company was unique for another reason. A graduate of the HAX accelerator, the startup announced NuraNow roughly this time last year.

Hardware as a service (HaaS) has been a popular concept in the IT/enterprise space for some time, but it’s still fairly uncommon in the consumer category. For one thing: a hardware subscription presents a new paradigm for thinking about purchases. And that is a big lift in a country like the U.S., which spent years weaning consumers off contract-based smartphones.

That Nura jumped at the chance shouldn’t be a big surprise. Backers HAX/SOSV have been proponents of the model for some time now. I’ve visited their Shenzhen offices a few times, and the topic of HaaS always seems to come up.

In a recent email exchange, General Partner Duncan Turner described HaaS as “a great way to keep in contact with your customers and up sell them on new features. Most importantly, for start-ups, recurring revenue is critical for scaling a business with venture capital (and will help appeal to a broad set of investors). HaaS often has a low churn (as easier to put onto long-term contracts).”