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Amazon gets Fire’d up, puts lens on kids with FreeTime Unlimited

Amazon's new set-top box Fire TV has a wealth of apps and games and even a remote control with a voice search function. But what's making waves in the children's space is Amazon FreeTime Unlimited, which, along with content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street and PBS Kids, offers robust parental controls and customization options.
April 3, 2014

After weeks of anticipation and speculation, Amazon made its big announcement in New York on Wednesday. It wasn’t the free streaming service some had predicted – and Amazon had denied. No, it was a set-top box, dubbed Amazon Fire TV.

One has to wonder if the rumors of a free streaming service were stoked by leaks about Amazon FreeTime Unlimited, a US$2.99-a-month subscription program launching next month on Fire TV with an “all-you-can-eat” menu of TV shows, apps and games designed for kids.

Featuring content from Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, and PBS Kids, Free Time Unlimited will be offered alongside the free feature called FreeTime — a content-control system for Fire TV that enables parents to create custom profiles for up to four children, specifying the movies, TV shows, apps and games they can access. Parents can also set daily screen-time limits.

As for the Fire TV unit itself, news of its arrival has not set the world alight with awe and wonder.

Typical of a first-gen box, “it’s missing a lot of things,” says streaming and online video expert Dan Rayburn, EVP of StreamingMedia.com. “On Amazon’s website, they do a comparison chart between [Fire TV] and Roku and AppleTV, and under popular services they highlight all the ones that they get, like YouTube and Crackle. But they don’t show all the ones they don’t have, like HBO Go, Major League Baseball, NHL, Epix and Vudu.”

Amazon Fire TV does have Netflix, Showtime Anytime, Hulu Plus, AOL On, IHeartRadio, NBA Game Time, Pandora, Red Bull TV, Vevo, Vimeo WatchESPN and, of course, Amazon Prime Instant Video. The latter is growing its third-party kids content library at a swift pace, and Amazon Studios just this week announced two new children’s pilots are headed for full development.

Fire also has games available for download – lots of them – including SuperVillain Studios’ Endless Skater, Frogmind’s Badland, Jackbox Games’ You Don’t Know Jack and Fibbage, and numerous titles from Gameloft. Many of the games are free, and the average price of paid games is US$1.85.

There will be thousands of other apps and games from developers including 2K, AOL, Clear Channel, Disney, EA, Mojang, SEGA, Telltale and Ubisoft.

Customers who purchase the optional Amazon Fire Game Controller for US$39.99  get a free copy of Amazon Studios’ own game Sev Zero, which lists for $6.99, along with 1,000 (equal to $10 worth of) Amazon Game Coins, a new virtual currency for US customers that can be used to purchase eligible apps, games and digital in-app items.

On its web site, Amazon points out that the Roku 3 has less than 100 games, while Apple TV and Google Chromecast have none. And it has another thing that sets it apart from virtually every other set-top box on the market: voice command search built-in to the remote control.

For parents whose priority is streaming movies and TV shows, cost is probably the primary concern, and the Amazon Fire TV neither impresses or disgusts in this category with a US$99 price tag, which is on par with Apple TV and Roku 3.

Rayburn believes that Amazon’s business model for Fire TV is essentially the same as the one it had for the Kindle Fire tablet, which already features the FreeTime Unlimited feature and sold at cost in order to peddle more eBooks and movies to customers. A report released last December by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found that Kindle owners spent about US$1,233 per year on the site, compared to US$790 for Amazon members who did not own one.

“Even if Amazon is making a couple of bucks on the boxes, it’s not why they’re getting into the business,” Rayburn says. “The bottom line is this is a loss leader for selling digital content.”

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