ZillionTV: What's wrong with this picture?

March 05, 2009 8:23 AM EST

Hollywood has finally figured out how to merge the old media of TV and movies with the new media of the Internet. It's called ZillionTV, and if you're anything like me, you may want to run screaming as fast as possible in the other direction.

[UPDATE: I've spoken with the ZillionTV founders, and have some corrections and clarifications to what follows. You can find the new info here.]

Like Netflix Watch Instantly, ZillionTV is a video on demand service that streams content to a box connected to your TV set. Backed by the biggest studios in Tinsel Town, ZillionTV claims it will "deliver on the promise of personalized TV." But from reading the description of the service, what Zillion really seems to be delivering is you, on a platter, to its advertisers.

By year end, Zillion plans to offer some 15,000 free movies and TV shows from Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox Television, Disney and others. Of course, "free" is a relative term. You'll still need to pony up an activation fee of about $100, and some material may only be available for rental or "buy to own." As for the rest, you'll be forced to sit through commercials that can't be skipped or fast forwarded.

When Zillion says "personalized TV," it's really talking about personalized ads. The service is based on the dubious premise that most people won't mind watching commercials, as long as they can pick the types of ads they have to see. Ads may be 30 seconds or as long as three minutes. Yikes.

(Outside of the Super Bowl spots, and any commercials featuring the Swedish Bikini Team, I try to avoid watching ads whenever possible. I know I'm not the only one.)

But wait, there's more. From the press release:

Viewers will have interactive and t-commerce options, including the power to request information and purchase products directly from their television. ZillionTV will offer a distinctive loyalty program, rewarding viewers for simply watching programming they love and interacting with advertising from categories they've personally selected.

See something you like in an ad? You may be able to click a button on the ZillionTV remote and - hey presto - a few days later FedEx shows up on your doorstep with the widget you just bought.

What's most troubling to me about the service is that, while you're watching ZillionTV, it's also watching you. It knows what programs you've watched, what commercials you picked, and what products you've bought, and will use that data to deliver targeted ads. To wit:

The ZillionTV Service also allows advertisers to target audiences by geography, demographics, consumer preferences, and viewing behavior, resulting in guaranteed engagement, better brand alignment and more comprehensive audience response reporting.

Does ZillionTV automatically marry all this data to your name and credit card info, or do you have to actively opt in to the "loyalty program" first? That's the 64 Zillion dollar question. You can't really reward people or deliver goods they purchased without knowing who they are and where they live.

Zillion says it will "give viewers notice, choice and control over the type of personal information that is collected, used and shared." Which is good, but the devil is always in the details. What kind of notice? Used how? Shared with whom? It would be nice to know that my viewing habits and commercial preferences remain anonymous until I say otherwise. The site's Privacy Policy, while not bad, isn't explicit about that.

Of course, it's not sporting to slam ZillionTV without seeing it in action, and it's still in a limited beta. Like any new product the service deserves a fair trial (following by a hanging). But from how ZillionTV Corp describes the service, it seems like something built to serve advertisers, not consumers.

I already have a TiVo that lets me avoid commercials and watch programs when I want to, not when the networks want me to. If I miss a program, I can go to Hulu or Fancast, though I may have to suffer through some ads. Netflix Watch Instantly streams movies and old TV shows to my Roku box, though the selection is still funky and performance has been a bit spotty lately. Then again, it's free with my Netflix DVD subscription (which I also use to watch TV shows sans commercial interruption).

So why do I need ZillionTV? I don't.

In fact, there's only one reason I can think of for using the service, and that would be if Hollywood pulls its content from other online providers and makes it available only via ZillionTV and its cable/satellite partners.

In other words, in a few years the studios that own ZillionTV might try to force consumers to use it to the exclusion of other online video sources - essentially doing what Hollywood always does, trying to control the entire process from content creation to distribution.

I'm not saying this will definitely happen, or that such a scheme would even succeed, but I wouldn't be surprised if they tried it.

You might even call it a classic Hollywood ending. But not a happy one.

When not playing couch potato, Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.