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Comment: Is Fire TV Really Just Home Shopping Network in a Box?

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After more than a decade of talking about it, it looks like we’ll finally be able to buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater.

That’s because, after a couple years of speculation and rumors, Amazon finally released its set-top box, the Amazon Fire TV, last week. The announcement was almost as widely anticipated as Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, which is coming up in June. But once Fire TV was announced, the response was a resounding “meh.”

The disconnect between anticipation and response boils down to two points. The first is that all set-top boxes are merely minor variations on the same theme: there are differences in content and interface, but fundamentally they’re all just black boxes that help you get video and music from your ISP to your television.

Only so much differentiation is possible, and  while the Fire TV’s faster processor and video library queuing are nice (shows and movies in your library really do start playing back instantly), it’s not that different from an Apple TV or a Roku, both of which offer a broader selection of content, at least for the moment. The voice search works well, but it only works for Amazon content; in fact, if you're in the Netflix app and search for a title, clicking on the results takes you out of Netflix and right back in to Amazon Instant Video, which might be confusing for new users.

And since it sells for $99, and Amazon Instant Video is already available on the Roku, TiVo, and other devices (though not Apple TV), Fire TV will be a hard sell out of the box. That could change as Amazon adds more content partners and a rumored streaming music service. Unlike some pundits, I can see its gaming capabilities becoming a strong selling point. It'll never compete with Xbox or PlayStation, but it could present a middle ground between casual phone/tablet gaming and real game consoles; my 8-year-old daughter is already loving playing "Minion Rush" on it. But I don't think the Fire TV is really about video, or music, or games.

The second and more important point is that, for all of the talk about Amazon Instant Video as a competitor to iTunes or Netflix, Amazon is and forever will be nothing more and nothing less than the world’s largest department store. So it should come as no surprise that, even if Amazon didn’t spend much time talking about it at the launch, the Fire TV’s primary purpose is almost surely to sell us more stuff, whether that stuff is in digital form in the way of video, music, and games, or in physical form in the way of…well, just about anything else Amazon sells.

Essentially, Amazon has released its own Home Shopping Network. But instead of hiring hosts and producing its own 24/7 infomercial for the products it sells, it’s licensing and delivering Hollywood content to make the pitch. The hope, presumably, is that the Fire TV’s X-ray feature—which currently connects to IMDB on a companion to offer up information about movies and TV shows—will steer viewers toward buying related products from Amazon. It’s the realization of the promise made back in the 1990s that viewers would eventually be able to buy the sweater Jennifer Aniston was wearing on Friends.

“Imagine,” Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey told The New York Times, “I’m watching a Jason Bourne movie. He’s on the run through Europe. The movie pauses and lets you move into an interactive game with Bourne. Or maybe he goes through Vienna, and you always wanted to go there, so here’s how you could plan a trip or at least buy a book about it. Amazon will know who to offer these deals to because those people are already in front of it at that moment.”

To which journalist Brian Raftery Tweeted: “Are there people who would actually enjoy watching a movie this way?”

I’m with Raftery; I might—as I did recently—admire Kenneth Branagh’s shoes while watching Wallander, but I’m certainly not going to pause in the middle of a car chase to look up who makes that particular brand of brogue.

The explosion in content marketing, second screen apps, and so-called “native advertising” has already exacerbated the onslaught of product placement that Wayne’s World so effectively mocked more than two decades ago, and the Fire TV creates what amounts to the perfect storm of content, marketing, and retail. Raftery and I might be in the minority, but filmmakers and showrunners would be wise to keep in mind that there’s a sizable audience that vehemently objects to constantly being sold to.

Even though, hopefully at least, attempts to sell Amazon offerings on Fire TV will remain lean-in rather than lean-back—God forbid a chevron promoting shoes pops up during a movie or a TV show; getting pitches to buy Charmin when I'm fast-forwarding on TiVo is bad enough—the implications for content creators and viewers are potentially huge. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on your perspective—and the size of your wallet.

[A shorter version of this article will appear in the May issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Is That All There Is?"]

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