Oath officially becomes Verizon Media Group on January 8

A year and a half after giving birth to Oath, Verizon’s officially rebranding its media group as…wait for it…Verizon Media Group. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it says what it does on the package — and most importantly, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than “Oath.”

Division head Guru Gowrappan confirmed that the changes will go into effect on January 8 — just in time for the kickoff of CES. The exec says the change is aimed at “representing our strong alignment as a core pillar of Verizon’s business.” Contrary to some initial reports spurred on by the (since changed) art accompanying the announcement blog post, Verizon tells me the big, purple Yahoo “Y” will (thankfully) not be the catchall logo for VZM.

A spokesperson for the company confirmed that an official Verizon Media Group logo is launching alongside the official rebranding on January 8. Then we’ll finally see if the company is keeping the infamous Oath colon around.

Again, good.

The less brand confusion the better. “‘Oath’ rhymes with ‘growth,’ and that’s our job, to grow,” then CEO Tim Armstrong told us at the brand’s launch. Clearly, the AOL+Yahoo = Oath equation never really added up for a brand that was initially positioned to be largely internally facing. But even without the rhyming, one assumes growth is still on the docket here.

The rise of the Verizon Media Group is mostly just a rebranding exercise — the portfolio, which includes HuffPost, Engadget, Tumblr and, yes, TechCrunch should remain largely the same.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Mowgli’ offers a darker take on Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’

At first, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” might seem like an afterthought — or maybe a failed exercise in franchise-building.

This new take on the story of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” comes just two years after Disney’s version made nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Plus, it seemed a little strange for director Andy Serkis to say he’d respect the “darkness” of the source material — this is, after all, a talking animal story. And Warner Bros’ last-minute decision to sell “Mowgli” to Netflix didn’t exactly suggest that it had much confidence in the film.

But as we argue in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “Mowgli” is actually a lot more interesting than the Disney film. It certainly has its flaws, including a rushed ending, but the increased darkness and maturity is surprisingly effective, giving real excitement and suspense to the action.

And thanks to Serkis’ background in performance capture (he played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes films), the animals turn out to be the real highlight. Each of them seems to be animated by their actor’s personality — for example, Benedict Cumberbatch brings a sense of sly menace to the tiger Shere Khan — and the relationship between Mowgli (Rohan Chand) and Bagheera (Christian Bale) ends up being the heart of the movie.

Before our review, we also cover the latest streaming headlines, namely casting details for “The Mandalorian” and growth at Facebook Watch.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Apple is producing new content about Snoopy and other Peanuts characters

Apple has signed a deal with DHX Media that will see the Canadian broadcaster producing new shows, specials and short films about Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang. That includes exclusive short-form content for Apple starring astronaut Snoopy, aimed at getting kids excited about STEM.

Peanuts was created by Charles Schulz, who wrote and illustrated the popular comic strip for five decades, starting in 1950. The characters moved to television in the 1960s with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which was followed by a long list of specials. And they recently returned to the big screen in the computer animated “Peanuts Movie,” which grossed $246 million worldwide.

DHX acquired a controlling stake in Peanuts last year (the remaining 20 percent stake is still held by the Schulz family).

Apple, meanwhile, has been lining up lots of new, family-friendly content for its upcoming streaming service. That includes also enlisting Sesame Workshop to create original programming (not Sesame Street, which recently moved to HBO).

By the way, if you only know Peanuts secondhand, through Snoopy dolls or other merchandise, it’s worth revisiting the early strips (restored to print by Fantagraphics), which are among the finest you’ll ever read. There, you can fully appreciate Schulz’s art, as well as his ability to craft unforgettable jokes from Charlie Brown’s bleak outlook and constant heartbreak.

Facebook Portal adds games and web browser amidst mediocre Amazon reviews

After receiving a flogging from privacy critics, Facebook is scrambling to make its smart display video chat screen Portal more attractive to buyers. Today Facebook is announcing the addition a of a web browser, plus some of Messenger’s Instant Games like Battleship, Draw Something, Sudoku, and Words With Friends. ABC News and CNN are adding content to Portal, which now also has a manual zoom mode for its auto-zooming smart camera so you can zero in on a particular thing in view. Facebook has also added new augmented reality Story Time tales, seasonal AR masks, in-call music sharing through iHeartRadio beyond Spotify and Pandora that already offer it, and nickname calling so you can say “Hey Portal, call Mom.”

But the question remains who’s buying? Facebook is already discounting the 10-inch screen Portal and 15-inch Portal+. Formerly $100 off if you buy two, Facebook is still offering $50 off just one until Christmas Eve as part of a suspiciously long Black Friday Sale. That doesn’t signal this thing is flying off the shelves. We don’t have sales figures, but Portal has a 3.4 rating on Amazon while Portal+ has a 3.6 — both trailing the 4.2 rating of Amazon’s own Echo Shows 2. Users are griping about the lack of Amazon Video support for Ring doorbells, not receiving calls, and of course the privacy implications.

Personally, I’ve found Portal+ to be competent in the five weeks since launch. The big screen is great as a smart photo frame and video calls look great. But Alexa and Facebook’s own voice assistant have a tough time dividing up functionality, and sometimes I can’t get either to play a specific song on Spotify, pause or change volume, or other activities my Google Home has no trouble with. Facebook said it was hoping to add Google Assistant to Portal but there’s no progress on that front yet.

The browser will be a welcome addition, and allow Facebook to sidestep some of the issues around its thin app platform. While it recently added a Smart TV version of YouTube, now users can access lots of services without those developers having to commit to building something for Portal given its uncertain future.

The hope seems to be that mainstream users who aren’t glued to the tech press where Facebook is constantly skewered might be drawn in by these device’s flashy screens and the admittedly impressive auto-zooming camera. But to overcome the brand tax levied by all of Facebook’s privacy scandals, Portal must be near perfect. Without the native apps for popular video providers like Netflix and Hulu, consistent voice recognition, and more unique features missing from competing smart displays, the fear of Facebook’s surveillance may be outweighing people’s love for shiny new gadgets.

 

Netflix is testing a new feature that lets you instantly replay scenes (for some reason)

Netflix loves to test new ideas, and its latest experiment is an odd new feature that lets viewers watch a scene again.

A selection of Netflix subscribers noticed the new addition, which serves a pop-up asking if they want to “watch this scene again” after certain ‘highlight’ scenes in a show.

The streaming giant confirmed the pilot to the Los Angeles Times, adding:

We’re trying out a feature which gives Netflix members the ability to rewatch favorite scenes and memorable moments with the click of a button. Right now we’re just looking to learn from it and may or may not roll it out more broadly in the future.

I can’t say I’ve ever had the urge to watch a scene again — and I spend a considerable amount of time on Netflix, often with kids — so this is a pretty curious test.

As you might imagine, early users haven’t been too impressed either. One anonymous subscriber took to Reddit to bemoan how it “devalued” the film they were watching. That person was watching ‘Dumplin,’ but even still it isn’t hard to imagine how frustrating multiple popups would be.

Other Netflix tests from the past have included video promos between episodes, and showing shows on the log-in screen. On the business side, it has experimented with bypassing in-app subscriptions and also a new mobile-only package to make its service more affordable in emerging markets.

But experimentation and thinking differently is often a key part of what makes a business successful and Netflix certainly knows a lot about the latter.

The company just broke new records on consumer spending in its mobile apps during November, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. It is said to have grossed $86.6 million during the month, a whopping 77 percent annual rise, with increasing revenue coming to Netflix from its international markets.

Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams are making a limited series for Apple

More than a decade after the end of “Alias,” J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner are teaming up on a new limited series for Apple.

The show, titled “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends,” will be based on the Amy Silverstein memoir of the same name, about how Silverstein’s friends supported her as she waited for her second heart transplant.

As reported in Variety and elsewhere, the series will be produced by Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television. Karen Croner will write and executive produce (she previously wrote “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” which Garner starred in last year), Garner will serve as both star and executive producer and Abrams will also be an executive producer.

“Alias” first aired in 2001 — Abrams created, wrote and directed, while Garner starred as double agent Sydney Bristow. The show helped make Garner a star, while also landing Abrams his first gig as a feature film director, “Mission Impossible III.”

Garner recently returned to television on the HBO series “Camping.” Abrams, meanwhile, has remained involved in TV despite his commitments to Star Wars, but usually just as an executive producer. Earlier this year, Apple was reportedly bidding for “Demimonde,” the first series that Abrams co-created since “Fringe,” but it lost out to HBO.

YouTube Music turns its Top Charts into playlists

Earlier this year, Apple Music launched some of its top charts as playlist series. Today, YouTube is doing something similar. The company announced it’s making its YouTube Charts available as playlists in YouTube Music to users across the 29 markets where the music service is live. Each market will receive five of these “charts playlists” – three specific to their country, and two global lists, the company says.

The Top 100 Songs and the Top 100 Music Videos will be offered both as local and global playlists, while the Top 20 Trending Songs will be offered as a local playlist.

This latter playlist is updated several times per day in order to offer a real-time view into current music trends in a specific country. It’s also the first “dedicated external signal of the country’s most-viewed new music on the YouTube platform,” Google explained in a blog post this afternoon.

The other Top 100 Songs and Music Video charts are calculated differently and updated less often. The Top Songs is based on the overall performance of a song on YouTube by view count, which includes counting all the official versions of a song – meaning, the official music video, the user generated content that uses the official song, and lyric videos.

The Top Songs chart is updated weekly, according to YouTube’s documentation on how the charts are calculated.

The Top 100 Music Videos ranks the official music videos by view count in the previous week. It’s also updated weekly.

By comparison, YouTube Music’s Top Songs and Music Videos charts seem to have the potential to be staler than those on rival services. For example, when Apple announced its Top 100 Songs chart would be available both as global and local playlists, it said it would update them daily at 12 AM PT based on Apple Music streams. Spotify’s top charts are also available both as daily and weekly charts.

“The charts, currently topped globally by Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” are the most accurate reflection of what’s happening in music culture and based purely on the number of views from more than 1 billion global music fans on YouTube each month,” noted the post, which does speak to YouTube Music’s strength.

Apple Music and Spotify are both fighting to break into the triple-digit millions in terms of paying customers, while Spotify is nearing 200 million total actives. But YouTube has a billion-plus users to generate its data from. That’s not insignificant.

The new charts-turned-playlists are now available in the YouTube Music app. The playlists will appear on users’ home screens and be surfaced through search, says YouTube.

‘The Mandalorian’ cast includes Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano … and Werner Herzog

Lucasfilm has released an initial cast list for “The Mandalorian,” the live-action Star Wars series that Jon Favreau is creating for the upcoming streaming service Disney+.

Pedro Pascal, who had a brief-but-glorious run on “Game of Thrones” as Oberyn Martell, will star in the title role — Lucasfilm describes his character as “a lone Mandalorian gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy.” (In the Star Wars universe, the Mandalorians are a group of warriors that includes Jango and Boba Fett.)

Pedro PascalThe cast also includes Gina Carano, Giancarlo Esposito, Nick Nolte and legendary director Werner Herzog. Sadly, it appears that Herzog will only be acting in the series, not directing any episodes.

However, there will be some impressive names behind the camera, including Dave Filoni (the creative force behind the recent Star Wars animated series), Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi.

So far, “The Mandalorian” is looking like it will be the marquee title for Disney+ when it launches late next year — a New York Times report over the summer suggested that the series could cost $100 million for a 10-episode season. There will also be at least one other live-action Star Wars series about Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) from “Rogue One,” as well as a Marvel series with Tom Hiddleston returning to the role of Loki.