Startup puts streaming TV on campus

Company aims to adapt to the new ways students watch TV

New York TimesFebruary 3, 2013 

COLLEGES CABLE TV

Tuan Ho, left, and Nick Krasney, co-founders of Tivli, which lets students watch television shows over school wireless networks, at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Jan. 17, 2013. Tivli is an attempt to adapt to the ways young people increasingly want to watch TV while keeping the existing cable ecosystem intact. (Peter DaSilva/The New York Times)

PETER DASILVA — NYT

At Harvard, resident students do not have to borrow their parents’ HBO GO passwords to watch “Girls” and “Game of Thrones” online. They can log in with their own college credentials, getting in the habit of having a cable subscription at an early age.

This ability, provided by a startup called Tivli, may be part of the answer to a conundrum for the television industry.

Young people watch less TV than they used to, and some say they do not see the point of an expensive cable or satellite subscription. That could chip away at the profits of cable companies like Comcast and programmers like HBO.

But Tivli is an attempt to adapt to the ways young people increasingly want to watch TV – through a computer or tablet or video game console – while keeping the existing cable ecosystem intact.

Residents at Harvard and, as of last month, Yale, can use the service to stream local TV stations, a couple of dozen cable channels and the universities’ own in-house channels to their devices anywhere on campus. The service is free for the students, since it supplements the university’s existing cord-in-the-wall cable system.

Tivli will need to sign up dozens if not hundreds more universities to make a dent in television consumption.

But Tuan Ho and Nick Krasney, its two Harvard-educated founders, and the company’s 10 employees have a vision for how so-called TV Everywhere systems could be rolled out in environments like campuses, hotels and hospitals.

“We think people just want TV delivered to them in a convenient way, whether it’s in their dorm or on computers, tablets and mobile,” said Christopher Thorpe, the company’s president. “People who are getting what they want won’t cut the cord.”

To date, the promise of TV Everywhere – that paying customers could stream live and on-demand TV shows to all manner of devices – has only partly come true, because of technological challenges, conflicts over contracts and concerns that online viewing will come at the expense of the old-fashioned TV set.

It can be hard to log in to a TV Everywhere service, and even harder to know which channels allow what shows to be streamed.

When GfK, a market research firm, surveyed 1,000 paying cable customers last September, 64 percent said they were aware of the TV Everywhere services supplied by programmers, and 52 percent said they were aware of the services supplied by cable companies. But only a third of those customers have actually streamed something by logging in.

Knowing the user names and passwords is “one of the biggest barriers,” said David C. Tice, who oversaw the research for GfK.

Some programmers, like HBO, which is owned by Time Warner, are further along than others. HBO GO, a streaming website with a companion app, is widely considered the best in its class, making the company’s cooperation a coup for Tivli.

Historically, HBO “hasn’t been available as widely as we’d like” in dorm rooms, said Bernadette Aulestia, its senior vice president of domestic network distribution.

New media habits

Most universities outsource their wired cable systems to the local cable company, a satellite provider or a reseller. By and large, the distributors have not come up with ways to authenticate TV Everywhere apps for students, though many are trying.

This has given rise to password sharing by families and – worse, from HBO’s perspective – pirating of shows.

“Gone are the days of the cachet of ‘I have a TV in my room,’ ” said Aulestia. “These students now have mobile devices instead.”

With them, they are forming new media habits. So HBO was intrigued when it took a call from Tivli about eight months ago.

“From a technological standpoint,” Aulestia said, “it’s very impressive what they’ve been able to develop.”

Tivli links up with a student’s university ID and Facebook account, making the login process somewhat smooth.

Its interface is a channel guide much like that of Aereo, the much-talked-about service backed by Barry Diller that pulls local stations’ signals out of the air and repackages them for Internet viewing.

Aereo is being sued by several station owners that claim the service is illegal because it does not pay for the right to retransmit the signals.

Tivli takes a different tack: It carries the channels that a university already provides, then adds content like HBO.

Along with Yale, tests of the service are now under way at the University of Washington and Texas A&M.

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