Sling's Got a Shot (at Fame) at ad:tech
By Wendy McHale
Recently we had the opportunity to interview Jason Hirschhorn, President, Sling Media Entertainment Group.
For those of you who are not familiar with Sling, Jason's interview goes into great detail. We thought the name is original and wanted to learn what it means. We were told that the name Sling Media comes from "The idea that their Slingbox product and their technology is "slinging" content over the internet from a home video source (TV, DVD player, video camera, etc.) to other displays (computers, phones, handhelds, etc.) that aren't TVs."
Its raison d'tre is its ability to bring that familiar living room television experience to those other displays due to the fact that more and more of our time is spent in front of displays that aren't TVs. Little argument there!
The Editors were very impressed with both Mr. Hirschhorn and what they heard about Sling Media itself. They informed me of their belief that Sling may be one of the most innovative companies to be represented at the conference.
Therefore, I suggest you check out the Keynote Roundtable Panel: Content Is King! (Again?), April 25, 09:30AM-10:30AM to hear and meet Jason in person.
For those who won't be attending and/or those who don't want to wait, without further adieu, here's a transcript of that interview so you can see if Sling does have as good a shot at success as our editors think!
Journal: Thanks for meeting with us. Let's begin by asking you to tell us a little about Sling Media.
Jason: Sure. Sling Media is what we call a digital lifestyle company. We've built a unit that we've called the Slingbox. What it's done is introduced a genre of entertainment called "playshifting" where you could watch your favorite TV shows at any time you want. The whole idea that you have to go and watch your television at home is antiquated. The Slingbox attaches to your television and allows you to watch and control your TV from anywhere in the world via your Mac, your PC, your laptop or a phone. It replicates the exact experience that you expect from your television, the user interface, the remote virtually. It's an amazing product.
Journal: When you say a remote are you saying that you can just flick your keys and be able to change the channels wherever you are?
Jason: When you log into your television, your laptop will have an image of the remote that you have at home.
Journal: That's great.
Jason: You can check out some of these images on Slingmedia.com.
Journal: How's it selling?
Jason: Fantastic. We've sold a little over 400,000 boxes, pretty phenomenal and continue to build on our numbers every day. We're in 4,000 stores right now – Best Buy, Circuit City, Comp USA, Amazon, you name it really, fully distributed but we also have direct sales as a feature of our website.
Journal: Can you make them faster than they're selling?
Jason: We've had some issues on some of the more expensive boxes, specifically the pro HD version. It wasn't an issue of actually making it. It was an issue of we miscalculated how popular it was going to be and ordered too few but we are caught up now.
Journal: Are you showcasing any new advancements at ad:tech?
Jason: I've still got to figure out what my setting is there but I did debut a technology when I was at CES and I announced a partnership with CBS. One of the other things we'll be talking about what Slingbox does is that it allows you to take a clip from a TV show that your watching and then send it in the form of an email to a friend so they can see it just like you did.
Jason: Yes. For example, let's say your watching an episode from The Office and there's a scene you think is hysterical which you would like to show to your friends. Well, now you can have Slingbox clip the scene and have it send it to people in your life so they can see the scene just like you did. You no longer have to rely on just describing it to them like you had to do before.
Journal: Like Snag-It?
Jason: Yes, like a Snag-It for images but it's really tied into the software and it identifies the program and uploads it to the Internet and sends a link to whoever you want to go watch this clip. It takes the whole water cooler conversation that's around media and TV - from watching it - to sending it - to uploading it - to watching it again. It's the ultimate social networking tool or social networking catalyst because much of what people talk about are their favorite shows and things that they see on TV.
Journal: Is it in a linked form that a person receives one?
Jason: Yes. You receive it in linked form and then you can click on the link and you watch it on a site, which will be opening by the end of the year.
Journal: We have to believe the file size is going to really add up quickly.
Jason: Yes. It will be a good video signal quality but not HD quality. We are going to release our own site in the second half of the year and we'll be a big aggregation hub for our customer's clips of video.
Journal: Very Interesting.
Jason: Very cool.
Journal: Yes. Now is CBS your primary content partner?
Jason: We are talking to every single television network that broadcasts on cable or broadcasts in essentially America. There's no channel we're not talking to about licensing the content, and obviously are knee deep in deals with film studios, sports leagues, cable channels and broadcast channels
Journal: Is your site going to be accepting advertising?
Jason: Yes. The advertising is the big model. Not only video advertising but display advertising and the inventory will be controlled by the media companies who license the content.
Journal: A hardware company selling advertising!
Jason: Well, I come from running MTV Networks' digital business for many years so I'm about personalization, I'm about branded opportunities. The future of television or video in general is really about personal experiences. The shows that I want to watch are here. The shows that you think I should watch are there. Brands like MTV or A&E say, "Here's what we think you should be watching" because you are a part of a certain group. Clearly ROI does come into play as a filter but we want to be more personal about that. The more personal you can get with learning about people's needs and wants respective to their video tastes, the more you'll be able to target ads more.
Journal: How is Nielsen going to measure users using content in this new way? How are they going to track viewing outside the home if you will?
Jason: They have an initiative, called Anywhere Anytime that they are working on. I've had brief meetings with them but we don't think we're in the television business, just like NBC doesn't think they're in the television business. They're in the audience business, which they reach through media and entertainment and it doesn't matter what screen it's on. So a lot of these things are going to be cobbled together but we're a unique situation because we are attached to the television. We know when you're watching, and it's really an extension of your viewing of your television at home from a remote place that we can work with a company like Nielsen. We can report that the shows being watched through a Slingbox are getting the Nielsen credit.
Journal: So can that can be a revenue stream?
Jason: Sure. Other competitors to Nielsen have approached us. We have hundreds of thousands of boxes out there. It's a very interesting concept.
Journal: Tell me about how you think Sling Media is improving lives?
Jason: We are all about solving consumer problems through technology. Sling feels that video is very varied on your TV, on your computer, on your cell phone. The experiences are different, the offerings are different, the user interfaces are different, and the one experience that all of America is comfortable with is their television. They know how to work it, they're comfortable with it. With the remote they can handle it like a marksman handles a gun. What we wanted to do was bring that familiarity and that ease of use of your television to the Internet and to your phone and we've done that with the Slingbox. For me I am a media junkie. I love television. I get a lot out of it. I think television is at a high that it's never been at right now thanks to things like HBO and Showtime raising the bar on what production could be and there's so much good TV on, and before play shifting and time shifting it was basically an appointment-based environment. I had to be there or else I couldn't watch it. Now with my DVR and my ability to hook it up to a Slingbox I can watch when I want, when I want to watch it, where I want to watch it and that allows me to take my time to do other things and it improves my life.
Journal: You may have touched upon this but are you going to be building a DVR into your system?
Jason: We've thought about the functionality, it's not hard to do. It's all about priority in our business and picking things at a rate in which the users can digest them and right now they like their DVRs at home and we can control them. We're always revisiting that.
Journal: Okay, is the issue of improving people's lives different than a desire to make money?
Jason: The founders of the company wanted to watch a program that they couldn't get access to because they weren't home. So like any good entrepreneurs usually money is not the first idea. It's "can you come up with a really cool idea"? One you would like and you think others would like, and you largely find the business model after the fact. They certainly do cross but I don't know that I've ever been in business – and I've built companies and sold them and ran big companies and now at Sling – it's always creative and audience first and business second. We've never backed into a development decision for business reasons. It's always been the other way around.
Journal: On a macro level how does our industry technology change, improve, affect people's lives?
Jason: It allows them to either do more of what they like or carve out time to do other things because they have the ability to access and control what they want. If you think about certain mediums like a record, years ago you'd buy your CD, you'd buy an album, and largely you were buying an album for one or two songs and you got a product that you did not want to get. You did not want all those songs because you were buying something that was completely untested and unheard. What technology has done with mp3s and the inventions of itunes is allow you to really get at the music that you want to get and the idea of having to buy a product that you don't want is a wonderful thing.
Jason: There are also times where technology is not great on a personal level. I see me and many like us on our Blackberry's constantly and what that's done is it's made the work clock longer. Regardless of whether you're at work or not you're always on and it has a positive and negative effect. I think everybody should unplug once in a while and walk away from it, but technology has been enlightening from an educational standpoint. You can go on the Internet and if you have a question about something you can likely find the answer or a definition of something. If you have views about political issues or creative issues or you're into sports you can find like minds to argue with and that's all for technological purposes. I am a gadget fanatic and I love media and entertainment and the new experience has largely been driven by technology, the creative always being a constant.
Journal: Is this the first time Sling has exhibited at ad:tech?
Jason: I've been to ad:tech before. I've just done it as an attendee more than anything else. I don't think Sling has been at ad:tech. The division that we're creating, the entertainment group, is very much a media and advertising business.
Journal: What is your specific job function there? What are you managing?
Jason: I'm the president of the Entertainment Group and we are building out a video destination built off of the ability to take clips off of live television that thus creates inventory online for the media companies to sell so from a consumer standpoint it's a video entertainment destination and from a business standpoint it is an advertising model.
Journal: When does it launch?
Jason: Second half of this year.
Journal: That's very exciting. Are you getting any base deals where companies are committing up front?
Jason: I'm shown potential clients the technology. They absolutely love this because they want to put their ads against high value content and not necessarily user generated content. II imagine when we're ready to go we will get commitments and certainly we'll participate in the up front season in 2008. .
Journal: Okay, next year, not this year.
Jason: We really have to wait and see. We'll have many of our media deals done and I think that those companies that are licensing content will probably commit some of our inventory up front.
Journal: Interesting. What's your advice on how technology companies should illuminate the personal side of what they're offering?
Jason: At the end of the day every action the user takes is a piece of data that lends to learning something about them. Ultimately if you work with companies like Sling who are taking in an infinite amount of information and activity through our user base and put that into a palatable form, then done correctly, the advertising will be more like programming. As a marketer, I don't want to show an advertisement to someone who is probably not interested in that product and depending on the medium it's very different.
Journal: No one does but 95% of the media companies who rely on advertising would go bankrupt if they were only paid on targeted consumers. Inefficiency is the main way they make profits.
Jason: I don't think that they would go bankrupt. I think that they would do smaller buys for bigger money and ultimately have more clients. What I'm concerned about is the cost per click, the cost per action . That is not a model I would move to and the reason being is if you don't control the creative, you should not be penalized for it.
Journal: Are you going to see data mining and e-mail based vendors at ad:tech. Do those kinds of companies have partnership opportunities for Sling?
Jason: Absolutely. Not only is it from a programming perspective, the question is, "How do we deliver content to users in a fashion that is more likely to be the thing that they use?" Data for data's safety is nothing. We want to know what to do with it and how it can help enhance and target our ads, and how it can help enhance and target our programming.
Journal: Is there a permission element that you guys have to be aware of?
Jason: Yes, as it relates to certain things there are laws around permission and target ability. It's more about the information that you give away. We don't need to have permission to necessarily watch what you're doing on the site and then push you other kinds of advertising and programming.
Journal: Right, just make it contextual.
Journal: Last question, how long have you been involved in the industry? Tell me about your career to some degree.
Jason: I started building websites when I was 21-years-old in college and continued to build them just as a hobby and then turned it into a little bit of a business. One day I received a call from Sony who wanted to buy my company. I hired a lawyer and it went into play and I was one of the lucky guys that got bid up and Viacom ended up buying my business in March of 2000. I was 28 years old and I went on to a long career at MTV Networks.
Journal: What are you most excited about out at ad:tech?
Jason: I want to see technologies that allow me to really put ads in front of people that they're more likely to want to see and will use and even how do we use that technology to target them with programming, and I personally am looking for serving and infrastructure solutions for ad sales and sales solutions.
Journal: What do you mean by infrastructure?
Jason: Meaning I need a serving technology to serve our ads, not only displaying video or Double Click or Microsoft or Google.
Journal: So you're going to be looking at it as a shopper to some degree?
Journal: That's great. No doubt many of our readers who provide those services will be very excited about that! Thanks for chatting with us.
Jason: My pleasure. Enjoy.