How Sezmi stacks up
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If digital cable and Verizon’s FiOS are version 2.0 of pay TV, then Sezmi is version 2.5. It’s a step in the right direction, but still a work in progress.
Sezmi is a hybrid of over-the-air, cable and online television services, combining more than 50 local stations in Los Angeles and Orange counties with 23 cable networks, hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows (most of them available on a pay-per-view basis), YouTube and video podcasts. The local stations and cable channels are broadcast over the air to a customized indoor antenna that Sezmi supplies. The rest of the programming is delivered through a broadband connection, although the company plans to do some combined broadcast and broadband transmissions to boost picture quality (more on that later). Some of the local stations and on-demand programs are available in true high definition, while the cable channels and online video seem to be in various grades of standard definition.
Unlike Boxee, Sezmi doesn’t try to bring much of the online video universe to the TV screen. There’s no Hulu, no Revision3, no Netflix streams. But also unlike its ‘over-the-top’ rivals, Sezmi tries to deliver a full-fledged alternative to cable at a much lower price. And it succeeds, albeit with some important caveats.
I’ve been a Sezmi subscriber for the better part of five months, signing up for the company’s free trial in late December and staying on when its official rollout began in Los Angeles County on Feb. 18. The service still feels a bit like a beta product, but a recent software upgrade eliminated the most glaring kinks. One weak spot remains the limited selection of cable networks (23 in all), particularly those devoted to movies and sports. There’s no HBO or Showtime, no ESPN or regional sports networks. On the other hand, for $20 a month, Sezmi provides an ample supply of entertainment from broadcasters, pay-per-view services, YouTube and podcasts. In fact, Sezmi sells a $5-a-month package that includes everything except the cable networks. The $20 service seems like a great value to me, but if you’re the sort of viewer who can’t survive without a particular set of channels or programs, you’d better be sure Sezmi offers them before you sign up.
Because of the service’s reliance on local broadcasts and Web-based programming, it’s available only to homes that have reasonably good over-the-air TV reception and a high-speed Internet connection. That broadband connection has to reach each Sezmi device in the home -- you’ll need one per TV set. The receiver, which is available at Best Buy for $299, has a 1-terabyte hard drive. It’s programmed to record just about every series its owners watch, plus a host of similar shows. It also creates unique profiles and collections of recordings for up to four different members of the household.
It took me just a few days to amass a huge selection of recorded programs. The Sezmi receiver ‘is really an automated DVR,’ explains Dave Allred, a Sezmi senior vice president for marketing. ‘You can basically leave it on and it captures just everything.... After a week, it’s got most of the content you watch.’ It also grabbed programs similar to the shows my family had tuned in to see, except the ones we told the box we didn’t like. (The feedback options allow for no subtlety; if you want to rate a program, the only choices are love or hate.) The box has yet to confuse my 7-year-old’s tastes with mine, saving two sets of shows with very little overlap.
To augment the over-the-air and cable channels, the Sezmi box can order and download movies rented or purchased from Sezmi’s online store, which offers more than 1,800 titles from five of the major Hollywood studios (Disney is the exception) and selected independents. Viewers have to wait a few minutes after starting a download before beginning playback, especially with high-definition titles; otherwise, the movie will pause again and again to buffer. When my family decided to watch ‘Cats & Dogs’ -- not Jeff Goldblum’s finest work -- the delay was eight minutes, and the playback was stutter-free and in near-DVD quality. I started watching ‘In Bruges’ after a similar delay, but the lovely high-definition images were spoiled by frequent pauses. Internet congestion, not a problem on Sezmi’s end, was the most likely culprit. Still, the experience reminded me that titles downloaded from the Web require more patience than those offered on a cable video-on-demand service.
The charge per movie is in line with other online video stores -- it typically costs $3.99 to $4.99 to rent and $14.99 to buy a new release, with older titles costing less. TV episodes from NBC and a dozen cable networks are available on demand too, often at no charge, but the selection is not nearly as extensive. Finally, the box can subscribe to podcasts, with a vast array of programs available from traditional broadcasters, cable networks and Web-based creators.
The starting point for a Sezmi user isn’t a channel guide showing what’s on now, although there is one available. It’s the ‘My Sezmi’ list of personalized recordings and on-demand programs. When I turn on my TV, I’m typically greeted by a screen divided in half vertically, with a menu along the left side offering links to recorded shows, on-demand programs, the guide, search, Web video and something called Sezmi Zones. On the lower right side is a downsized video window displaying the program or channel I last tuned to; above it is the corresponding entry from the program guide.
Sezmi Zones offer another way to browse programs that are available on demand. The initial version includes 16 zones, each presenting shows from a single channel. In essence, a zone turns a network’s linear programming sequence into a grab bag of episodes available on demand. It also gives networks and advertisers an additional way to promote themselves. The zones provide an interesting vehicle for discovering new programs, but in their current state they don’t offer me much more than the personalized recordings do.
Sezmi is so focused on changing the way people approach TV, its remote control doesn’t even have number buttons. But while the interface works well for recorded programs -- according to Allred, only about 15% of the video viewed by Sezmi customers is live TV -- I found it irritating when all I wanted to do was plop down and tune in something being broadcast at that very moment, such as a Laker game. Conceding as much, Allred says the next version of the Sezmi remote will have numbers.
A bigger drawback for me was the picture quality of the cable networks, which are in standard definition, not the glorious high definition of the major over-the-air networks. The software update improved the images on those networks, but on a large living-room screen, fast-moving images are still noticeably blurred. That’s not a problem in dramas and sitcoms as much as it is in sports, action and adventure programming. On my 50' screen, the Laker games on TNT occasionally sink to the quality of VHS tape.
Allred said Sezmi was too aggressive initially in compressing cable programs, which are transmitted by local broadcasters over unused portions of their channels. The recent update improved the encoding of those programs, and the service plans to upgrade the encoding again later this year. In addition, Allred said Sezmi is working on new, broadband-assisted delivery mechanisms for cable networks that will improve their pictures, and it plans to offer more high-definition programming via broadband within a few months.
Sezmi also intends to add more Web-based channels and cable networks, although the company has been vague about which networks and what impact they would have on prices. It would be a welcome development if Sezmi let customers decide whether to add networks like ESPN for a separate fee, rather than adding them to the general cable lineup and raising its price. The closer Sezmi stays to a la carte pricing, the more it distinguishes its value proposition from cable’s bundled-pricing model.
The software update also fixed a few annoying functional problems, most notably how unpredictably the Sezmi box performed when fast-forwarding, rewinding or skipping through a recording. It’s easier to leap through commercial breaks now, although the picture quality while doing so leaves something to be desired. The remote also feels sluggish at times when browsing through Web-based content.
Sezmi’s premise is that by filling up a big hard drive with programs that people have shown a taste for, and by offering movies on a pay-per-view basis, it can provide a more economical home-entertainment service than cable that will satisfy a significant number of viewers. I think the offer would be more compelling if it were bundled with a subscription video service such as the one Netflix offers. But if you’re accustomed to making weekly trips to the video store to rent films, Sezmi’s online store offers much more convenience for the same price. Down the road, the company promises to take greater advantage of the records’ broadband connections, enabling subscribers to order programs and schedule recordings via a PC or smartphone. Its vision is a cloud-based programming service attached to a stripped down version of conventional pay TV, which truly would be TV 3.0. Sezmi isn’t there yet, but it’s off to a good start.
-- Jon Healey