Over-the-top boxes are still in their infancy and hold only a small fraction of the video on demand market. But each of the early players is jockeying for position with unique content offerings and experimental models. Arguably, Roku has been among the most interesting collections of niche content providers. The library includes classic and obscure media apps, some of which charge incremental monthly or annual fees to access their Web-based "channels" of content. This week the Sony Crackle app gets updated to bring ad-supported VOD to the platform. Sony also announced that its ad-supported film library would be available via the PS3, Bravia TVs and Sony Blu-ray players. We checked out the Roku implementation.
A modest library of recent and classic films and TV shows make up this initial library. Crackle says there are hundreds of flicks and thousands of episodes, but I see a good deal fewer than Netflix or perhaps even Amazon offer. Nevertheless, there are some recent features like "The Da Vinci Code" and "United States of Tara."
Ad-supported streaming, especially in full-length film material, can be tough to pull off well. We ran a couple of films and saw commercial breaks about every fifteen minutes. Alas, they don't always work. The first spot in "Ghost Rider" was an abrupt and seemingly arbitrary break in the action. The film cuts to a screen reminding you that this is ad-supported Crackle and that the film will resume momentarily. Then we get a buffering icon and the ad. On the upside, the ad itself seemed well pitched to movie-lovers, a promotion of Crackle owner Sony's Facebook tie-it to the upcoming "Priest 3D" theatrical release. On the downside, the rest of the commercial breaks were empty, although the flow of the movie was interrupted to jump to the interstitial screen and then back into the movie. A commercial break without the actual commercial: that is something you don't see every day. In other words, the in-stream ad serving mechanism is not quite ready for primetime.
Certainly, Crackle has access to enough premium assets to make a serious play in the space as a free alternative to the Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming subscription services. Some of the content in this library already echoes the titles that show up in the rival libraries. If Sony decided to push even more of its high value content into the ad-supported space, it could challenge the pay service pretty effectively.And there is an audience for this. According to Roku, in the week Crackle's new ad-supported film and TV streams have been available it has moved into the top five most installed and watched channels on the system.