Warner Bros sheds light on UltraViolet

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A recurring theme of the FT’s Digital Media and Broadcasting conference was how to recapture some of the magic of buying a film or album on a physical disc.

On Thursday, Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros’ home entertainment unit, spoke of having to “change the definition of what ownership is”, echoing remarks the previous day by Tesco’s entertainment director, Rob Salter, about consumers’ sense of ownership of media becoming “challenged” by the advent of iTunes.

Both are concerned that shelf space for DVDs and CDs is being squeezed out of mass-market retailers, undermining the lucrative market for impulse purchases.

“Consumers have had to choose between buying and renting,” Mr Tsujihara said. He admitted the industry hadn’t done a good job at catering to consumers’ desire to buy something once and play it on any device, from Blu-ray players to iPads.

Warner hopes to address that later this year with UltraViolet, a pan-industry brand that promises to give buyers of physical discs instant access to a digital version of the same TV show or film in the cloud.

Although it was given a fresh push at January’s CES, UltraViolet has been years in gestation. “It’s been harder to launch innovative new things across the industry than I thought it should be or is necessary given the pace of innovation out there,” Mr Tsujihara said. “It’s hard to get consensus around the table with your competitors.”

The next step in that shift in ownership rights will be movie fans’ existing DVD libraries, he promised. “People need to be able to access their library in a different way.”

As CD collections have moved from shelves to iTunes, “we need to do the same thing on the movie side… We have to take the friction away from that ownership model.”

He said this was part of a wider effort at Warner to “really focus on the consumer… [to] work backwards from the consumer”.

But recent moves to tame the beast of Netflix did not prove immediately popular with some subscribers to the popular DVD rental and online streaming service, who complained earlier this year when Warner renegotiated its deal. Under the new terms, Warner gave Netflix a larger catalogue of older movies for streaming and a new 28-day delay for posting out DVDs after they first go on sale.

“We have reevaluated how we want to work with them on the physical and the digital side,” Mr Tsujihara explained. Putting too much content on an unlimited streaming service such as Netflix made it harder to sell in other places, he said. Meanwhile, he sung the praises of Amazon, Netflix’s newest competitor.

“You have to be careful about what you do… The game isn’t over yet. You are seeing a much more thoughtful approach to how people are licensing.”

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