On the rising problem of “disappearing content” from online video sites

December 11, 2008

Gotta give some props to Greg Sandoval (pictured at left) at CNET News who did a great piece this week on the seemingly random removal of content from Netflix and iTunes. (see TV has license to kill movies at iTunes, Netflix | Digital Media – CNET News).

If you’ve been reading my posts lately, you know that “disappearing content” is par for the course. One of my most read posts in the history of this blog is my piece on Why CBS Pulled The Mentalist From CBS.com. I also briefly covered how Sony Pictures apparently pulled certain of its films from Netflix only when viewed through the Xbox 360 (you can still watch them elsewhere). 

I know it’s easy to start throwing snowballs at these guys for not understanding the power of the online channel. I have a few of those snowballs in my arsenal as well. But I have to confess, I consider these stops and starts a good sign.

What? That’s right, this is a good sign. Because if the corporate heavies had their way, none of these movies or TV shows would be available on Netflix, iTunes, CBS.com, the Xbox 360 (you get the picture) in the first place. The fact that they threw too much up there, then realized they didn’t quite have full permission to do so and have had to retrench is a sign that they’re experimenting. Importantly, the fact that they only pulled a few and didn’t just rip the whole thing down is also a good sign. Remember, danger lurks in darkness of media executives’ souls. They’d rather not do the right thing. But the dynamics of the market are forcing them to. Huzzah for us. 

Let them have their fits and starts, let them figure it out as they go along, as long as they keep moving forward.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in.


Why Sling.com matters

December 8, 2008

It’s a question I’ve been getting from the press since Sling.com was first placed in private beta test. “Why is Sling trying to create a website when Hulu, Veoh, Joost and others have already cornered millions of visitors?”

It’s a sensible question, but it doesn’t take into consideration Sling’s ultimate strategy.  The first issue to raise is a simple one: this is not that expensive of a site to run. The content is hosted by the content providers (including Hulu.com) so there’s no cost there. The only money they give those people is the privilege of letting them keep the lion’s share of the revenue associated with the content Sling.com is passing through.

The real point to raise, however, has to do with Sling’s secret plot to take over the world. Yes, Sling has a secret plan: they want to make it easy for you to take content from anywhere and watch it anywhere. Diabolical, no?

First piece of their plan is letting slingbox owners — the few, the proud — access their slingbox content from any Web browser, rather than through a proprietary application. This is critical. This will mean you can check your slingbox from any IP device, including iPhones and T-Mobile G1 phones. Get it? That’s a critical feature to add.

The second piece is in enabling people to watch online content on their TVs. This is not for Slingbox owners, it’s for an even smaller group: Slingcatcher owners. But it’s a very smart step, one I’ll be writing about at Forrester in early Q1 as I consider all the ways you can put Hulu on your TV set. Because the Slingcatcher lets you share PC and online content to your TV, aggregating the best content on Sling.com just makes it that much easier for Slingcatchers to access the best of the Web on the TV. It’s a small step, but it represents big thinking. 

Big thinking because once Sling can show that it has the technology in its Slingcatcher and the content on Sling.com, it will then start calling Samsung and other TV and Blu-ray makers to say, “Hey, want an Internet-connected TV strategy that puts the best of the Web on your device quickly? Partner with us!” Sling licenses the technology, pre-connects Sling.com (through a proprietary UI) to the device, and boom, instant Internet-connected TV strategy without the hassle of knocking out content relationships. It’s the same motive that led both Samsung and LG to work with Netflix. 

It’s going to be the race to watch in 2009. I’ll be tracking it: who gets Hulu to the TV, then CBS, then ABC (because that will be the order in which it happens). And all of this makes it easier for you and I to watch what we want, when we want. See why Sling.com matters now?


Why CBS pulled The Mentalist from CBS.com

November 20, 2008

NOTE: This post is more than 4 years old but continues to get traffic, enjoy the read, though I shut down comments years ago because of spam, sorry. In the meantime, please check out my book, Digital Disruption, published Feb 2013 at forr.com/DDbook.

Original Post:

I’m catching up a bit here because I was traveling when this news item happened, but Download Movies 101 reported last week that CBS had mysteriously pulled full-length episodes of its surprise hit shows The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour from CBS.com, which of course means all of CBS’s syndication partners like AOL and Fancast are unable to show the episodes as well.

It’s especially confusing when it’s clear CBS is committed to full-length episode streaming. The site is full of hit shows like How I Met Your Mother which air full episodes online. Plus, CBS has recently extended certain full-length shows to YouTube.

It turns out that the fault does not fall to CBS, but to Warner Brothers Television. Not only is WBT behind the pull-down of The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour, but it’s also the source behind the removal of full episodes of Big Bang Theory, a hit comedy produced by, you guessed it, Warner Brothers Television.

Why does Warner Brothers Television hate us so much?

Maybe a better question is, why do they hate themselves so much? Remember, this is one of the entities that was behind the removal of Gossip Girl from the CW web site at the end of last season. Says one commenter on the Big Bang Theory fan forum:

If Warner Bros is really the culprit then CBS should renegotiate. This show barely made it a second season, and without people like me being able to catch up online, this show is toast. I really like the show but since I missed last episode, it kind of turns me off from watching any more of them since I missed out on what happened last episode. … It is nice that they have a recap and some clips, but not being able to see the actual show online when I miss an episode may make me turn it off for good. I did the same thing to The Office on NBC last year when they weren’t showing the episodes online. Now I don’t watch The Office at all.

Note how the good-until date is prominently displayed. Smart.

Click to see full version and note how the good-until date is prominently displayed. 

I want to riff on The Office for a moment because this is one show that does it right. Because there are no rules yet for how many episodes a network should put online or for how long they should remain online. The Office resolves this dilemma for viewers by showing you exactly which episodes are available, when they aired and for how long they will remain available. Brilliant. You give the audience the rules of engagement and they can’t complain when the shows disappear because you gave fair warning.

Fair warning, of course, is exactly what CBS (and Warner) did not give viewers of The Mentalist or Eleventh Hour. So what’s going on?

I’m convinced it’s renegotiation time. And that’s not just between CBS and Warner (who are parnters on so many things that it’s unlikely they are suffering a relationship breakdown). It’s also renegotiation season for producers and the actors. Remember the writers’ strike? One of the issues that strike focused on was what share of online streaming revenues should go to writers. At the time I briefly consulted an entertainment law firm that represents producers and actors who were wondering the same question. I have a hunch much of this is being done to push Warner and CBS to realize they would rather renegotiate quickly than let their popular shows languish.

I could be way off on this, I’m not a Burbank insider so I can’t say what’s going on, but I will say this. Future TV deals are going to come with online rights completely sewn up. There will not be room for mid-season shenanigans in the future.


Joost goes flash

October 14, 2008

In yet another sign of the online video times, Joost today announced it would do Flash, Web-based streaming online at joost.com rather than relying on the proprietary, P2P client it launched back in early 2007.

My take: this is the right thing for Joost to do to match the friction-free experience sites like Fancast.com, Hulu.com, and nearly everywhere else is able to provide. Requiring that people download and run a separate application (not just a plug-in, as ABC.com requires) just isn’t consistent with the ease that online video has come to offer. Sure, it made sense in early 2007 when most top content wasn’t available online anyway. But that all ended when Hulu launched.

Furthermore: the days of the proprietary video player are gone. Sorry to Miro, Vuze, and the original Veoh player. There’s no need for a dedicated video aggregation application. the only chance for such a player is in the download for offline play world, which is where iTunes sits.

Adobe Media Player, a player designed to allow the downloading of streaming video for offline playback, is going to struggle in the balance for a while as people so excited about streaming don’t see the need for it yet. One of two things has to happen there: either people will eventually see value in offline playback, or wireless broadband will become so ubiquitous that we’ll never need untethered video playback. All depends on how fast Adobe can move the ball forward and convince big content providers to release their content for secure offline playback.


Cutting the cable cord, Part 2

October 13, 2008

This topic keeps coming up. I wrote about it recently and have been hearing more and more from people who do it about how they pull it off. The most common solutions are, in order:

  • Hulu + ABC.com + CBS.com. That covers most of what people watch on TV.
  • Netflix (especially if you have a Roku box, Xbox 360, or directly connect the PC to the TV)
  • iTunes (as one guy said to me, “I spend $10 a month there to get the few things I can’t get elsewhere, still way cheaper than cable”)

And now the newest member on the list, as I wrote recently, the SlingCatcher. (Brent Harrison of SmokeJumping blog agrees here.) By the way, I was surprised the press didn’t really pick that aspect of the SlingCatcher up.

We’ll see if Sling can sell enough in a down economy to have its promised impact.

What about you, what are you doing to cut the cord? If you’re not, why not?


YouTube joins the online TV game late

October 11, 2008

As widely reported yesterday, Google is now going to add full-length TV shows to YouTube. It’s about time. Finally, we can all watch what we really want: MacGyver. See the pilot episode below. Actually, this episode has been online for a month already, and has amassed a whopping 1,023 views. Let’s give MacGyver the Rodney Dangerfield award for Least Respect For An Online TV Debut.

(Note about above video window: this is the pilot episode of MacGyver. But YouTube embedding doesn’t seem to work for full-length episodes so you may get a message saying the video is no longer available, even though it is. Hmmm, YouTube is playing a little catch-up to Hulu.com.)

This is one of those full-circle moments. Remember when the press erroneously labeled Hulu.com (before it was even called Hulu.com) a YouTube killer? This article I dug up from Reuters from March 2007 stopped short of saying “killer” but definitely pitched them as rivals. I went on record in that article disputing that idea:

“It’s not actually going to take away from YouTube because it’s as much about the social experience as the video. So YouTube is going to be fine,” said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research.

I stand by that statement. Clearly, at 5 billion videos a month, YouTube is doing just fine, responsible for 44% of all videos streamed in the US (according to that NYT article above, but probably closer to 25% of minutes, given the short nature of its clips).

But with the tremendous growth of Hulu.com, ABC.com, and the rest, it’s no surprise YouTube would finally give in and put full episodes on; in higher quality than normal YouTube fare; and with ads before, during, and after (what good are those? as Michael Eisner said on stage last week, “Those aren’t commercials, those are credits”). 

The question I got Friday from a major news outlet was: Can YouTube dominate the online TV space? It’s a valid question but the answer is this: No. 

Certainly not as long as CBS and its properties are the primary TV content featured. It’s not a knock — CBS content can rock — but CBS content is everywhere. You can see it on Joost, you can even come across it on IMDB when searching for “MacGyver” (which I’m sure you do nearly daily).  Oh, yeah, and on CBS.com.

The answer is still no even once other network content shows up there — which I’m sure it will eventually, remember Hulu.com offered itself to YouTube from the beginning, an offer which Google CEO Eric Schmidt smugly declined.

There’s little reason for people already on YouTube to interrupt the site’s social, clip-focused experience to watch a full-length episode. And if you hit the Web knowing you want a particular TV show, you’re as likely to go to its home page as you are to go to YouTube.

I’m not saying YouTube won’t stream millions of TV shows. It will. I’d guess at least 25 million in the month of December, roughly half of what NBC.com or a similar site streams in an average month. But it won’t dominate. So put it this way: YouTube won’t be a Hulu.com killer…

Add your thoughts: will you watch full-length episodes on YouTube? (Other than MacGyver, of course, which we know you’ve already watched there).


SlingCatcher – the first true cable-killer

October 9, 2008

If you follow the video space, you have been waiting for Sling Media’s SlingCatcher for more than a year now. First announced at CES of 2007, it was hard to tell whether the SlingCatcher was going to be more Apple TV or more SlingBox. It was reannounced at CES of 2008, and now it has finally arrived.

My verdict: This baby was worth the wait.

Sling CEO Blake Krikorian came by the office to demo the box a few weeks back. I was surprised he made the trip out to Boston just to demo the unit. Until I saw the demo. That’s when I realized why: in this case, seeing really is believing.

The SlingCatcher looks like the rest of the Sling family

No, it’s not the Darth Vaderesque unit itself that impresses. It’s the fact that this is the first over-the-top (OTT) set top box that can compete directly with cable. As I’ve recently written, the whole OTT set top category is very challenged. If you have a DVR and a DVD player, you have the killer combination that gives you access to and control over most of what you want to watch. Why get a box like this?

The SlingCatcher answers that question. As I wrote in my OTT ranking report, the number one thing that these boxes need to do to stand a chance is call CBS.com, ABC.com, and Hulu.com and set up deals for content distribution (sorry, CW, I, uh, didn’t have room to include you). With those deals in place, any OTT box would jump light years ahead of the pack and provide the first serious threat to cable at a time when people are already starting to consider cutting the cable cord.

The SlingCatcher does one better: If you have a computer in your home, you can use the SlingProjector software to sling anything from your computer to your TV without Sling having to cut a deal. And as you know, you can find just about everything you like, ad-supported, on your computer these days — prime time shows, classic episodes, even more and more movies (see recent Netflix-Starz deal). For everything else — by which I mean HBO — there’s iTunes, which, guess what, you can also sling to the TV.

For the increasing number of people who watch video on their laptops at home, this is a content boon that is not only rich, but elegant. The SlingProjector software can automatically identify the video image on your screen, so you don’t have to worry about PC menus or the taskbar showing up on your TV. Want to zoom in on just a portion of the screen? Go ahead. Want to play an online game on the big screen? You’re not limited to slinging just video.

Yeah, it’s that innovative. and yeah, this is going to change the game. At $299 (look for it on Amazon), the Catcher is not for everyone, even though it’s cheaper than putting an extra PC in the living room. But the real point is that this SlingCatcher system is ripe to be plucked from the box and embedded in TVs, DVD players, and even game consoles (Wii, anyone?). I expect the phone to be ringing at Sling once Samsung, Philips, and LG figure that out.


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