The latest high-definition flat-panel televisions, wall-mounted and elegantly designed, can resemble picture frames waiting for a painting. Toward that end, cable giant Comcast is using its video-on-demand (VOD) system to pump high-def copies of famous works of art directly to those televisions—creating a virtual HD art gallery in subscribers' homes.
The new service from Gallery Player, a small Seattle company, was tested by Comcast in Salt Lake City and Richmond, Va., last year and is being officially introduced nationwide this week. Gallery Player has licensed high-resolution still images from major museums, libraries, publishers and photographers, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Geographic magazine, which it compiles into 30-minute video segments for HD displays.
“It allows you to do something with flat screens when you're not watching TV,” says Gallery Player VP of Marketing Rusty Citron.
Comcast subscribers can access Gallery Player's images for free through the On Demand service as a 30-minute session. Each still is displayed for about a minute before a fresh image is switched in; the pictures are accompanied by music. “It's a pretty unique application,” says Page Thompson, Comcast senior VP/general manager of video services. “Basically, it turns an HD set into a picture frame.”
The eight collections available on Comcast, with more to follow, include “The Art of Leonardo da Vinci” and various photographic collections featuring nature and foreign locales. The most popular collections, according to the Rentrak software that Comcast uses to measure VOD, are “Space Spectacular,” which offers photographs and ultraviolet imaging from NASA; “Serene Beaches”; and “Autumn Splendor.”
The launch is part of a broader push by Comcast to expand its HD offerings. The cable operator introduced an HD on-demand service last month and has already counted more than 1 million views, says Thompson. It has 100 hours of such content, including movies from Starz, shows from CBS, and programming from Versus (formerly OLN) and Discovery Networks. HD content is also offered through Fearnet, Comcast's new horror-themed on-demand channel, and all six Star Wars movies are available in conjunction with Cinemax. Comcast plans to offer 150 hours of high-def VOD by year's end.
Gallery Player fits into Comcast's strategy of “making on-demand more than just a DVR,” according to Thompson, by using the VOD platform to deliver new services. Testing showed the art collection to be among Comcast's most popular HD offerings. “It's another way on-demand can expand the whole TV- viewing experience,” says Thompson.
Citron says that “PBS-style advertising,” which might consist of a sponsor mention at the beginning or end of a segment, will support the service. Gallery Player and Comcast intend to share ad revenues, although neither would disclose financial details. “The type of people who sponsor major museum exhibits could do the same sort of sponsorship here,” notes Thompson, “except now they could bring the exhibition out to the general public.”
VIRTUAL ART DEALER
Gallery Player continues to sign up image libraries and museums, which see the licensing fees as an attractive new revenue stream and trust Gallery's digital-rights-management and image-curating processes, says Citron. In addition to Comcast's service, Gallery Player is providing a round-the-clock program stream of HD images with WAVE Broadband, a small cable operator in Washington state, and is in talks with other cable operators.
Gallery Player, which sells images online and on DVDs as well, has also partnered with Panasonic to sell its HD images online for television display at 99¢ each. But that requires a computer to be connected to the plasma display, a stumbling block for consumers. Says Citron, “Not that many people have PCs hooked up to their big screen.”
The Comcast deal, on the other hand, appears user-friendly. Citron thinks the market for HD still images is strong, based on the popularity of nature-based programs and other image-intensive documentaries on TV. “When it comes to the people who are passionate about art,” he says, “we've got them.”
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