Another case of disappearing content: Hulu cuts popular TV show

January 15, 2009

In an unusual — and very welcome — case of transparency, Hulu CEO Jason Kilar this week posted a frank blog entry apologizing for removing several seasons of episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This FX Networks’ comedy was pulled down at the network’s request, presumably because it hopes to build some momentum for it’s official Sunny site where many episodes can still be seen. Hulu viewers complained, Hulu asked FX for an extension, and FX granted it. (It may help that FX and Hulu are both connected to Fox, which owns the former and has a hand in the latter). The episodes are now back on Hulu through the 25th of January.  

Two quick things to learn from this experience:

1 – We’re still making this up as we go along. FX, Hulu, and the viewers are all still very new to this idea of watching TV online. FX changed its mind half way through the season, Hulu is required to comply, and viewers are left picking up the pieces. Kilar’s approach — the frank apology — is as disarming as it is astute. That kind of transparency is helpful when negotiating the tricky bumps in a relationship. It doesn’t ultimately solve the problem, however, that content has been disappearing from sites for the last several months as content owners continue to change their minds about their strategies. 

2 – Consumers feel like they hold the ultimate trump card: piracy. If you read the comments from Hulu viewers on the Hulu blog post, you’ll find that most of them — although pleased with Kilar’s openness — are more than willing to threaten piracy as a solution to the problem. This is the same kind of response I get from commenters on my blog when these issues come up. It’s hard to say whether they represent most of us — as I posted before, we know that only 10% of US adults have ever pirated video via bittorrent. But we also know that online piracy will only get easier (and better) until eventually the US will have to contend with it they way some other markets (like Korea, China, etc.) already have. 

The comment I added on the Hulu blog is fairly direct: isn’t threatening piracy akin to telling your spouse that if he/she doesn’t want to be intimate with you that you’ll just sleep with someone else? I have a feeling it doesn’t encourage the behavior you really want! I have been in meetings with studio copyright lawyers when they hear of threats like that and it just blinds them to their more strategic alternatives. This may be one of the reasons that Netflix is succeeding in getting more and more content approved for its streaming service. The subscription model satisfies the studios’ desire to get paid and the consumer’s desire for a convenient, uninterrupted experience.

Is there a future Hulu subscription model hovering on the horizon? What do you think?

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I hacked my AppleTV…and I liked it

January 5, 2009

With obvious homage to Katie Perry, my title today refers to my escapades over the holiday dusting off my Apple TV (which I wrote about last week, confessing that it had remained unplugged since early 2008 — in fact, I lost the mini-remote and offered my kids $3 to scour the TV room to find it).

That’s right: I plugged my Apple TV back in, hacked it, and have used the Apple TV more in the last two weeks than I ever did even back before I unplugged it. 

The hacking was done thanks to the folks at Boxee.tv. Boxee is a little company that has been flying under the proverbial radar for some time but has recently made a splash since its open-source video player was ported to the Apple TV. Boxee tells me that they have users in the six digits and that they believe roughly half of them are Apple TV users. That means two things: a) this software solution is hot, and b) it solves the Apple TV problem for owners like me who felt like a $329 box to watch VOD was a bit silly if it couldn’t also play a few other things.

Boxee’s software player essentially aggregates online video feeds from a variety of sources, including Hulu, YouTube, Comedy Central and more. It then channels those feeds into an interface that can be put on Macs, Unix boxes, and most recently, the Apple TV. So with a high-speed connection, you essentially have the most comprehensive online video library available on your TV. It navigates easily, you can even log in to Hulu to pull up your playlists and recently viewed list. 

We spent some serious time watching TV shows like 30 Rock and The Simpsons on it the other night. Because it doesn’t boot like a computer or require a keyboard, it was more convenient than trying to hook up one of the family’s laptops to the TV, something we do from time to time but not often because of the hassle of getting a powercord, dealing with screen savers, etc.

That all assumes you can deal with the hacking part. It was potentially painful, although it worked well for me. But most people don’t want to do that. Part of my purpose in going to the trouble is to goad Apple into providing this kind of content by itself. Yes, the Boxee solution is great — and Boxee is likely aiming to get its player loaded onto many different devices which I would look forward to — but from Apple’s perspective, isn’t it time they considered an ad-supported model? I know advertising has been a no-go for Apple, but when you see how much behavior it drives at Hulu and even TV.com, it makes you understand the future for Apple TV lies in a combination of ad-supported and paid content. If not from Apple directly, then through an App store, like the iPhone has.  

Let’s continue the conversation we started on the value of the Apple TV. Apple TV fans and foes alike, do you think ad-supported streams make the device better or is it already good enough? Are you playing with Boxee either on the Apple TV or off it? If so, what do you think?


Why I don’t use my Apple TV anymore

January 2, 2009

This is an important post, one that will set up a few more posts in the next few weeks. The small question is why I don’t use my Apple TV anymore, the big question is why the overall category of Digital Media Adapters (DMAs, as people in the biz call them) has failed to take off.

Let me start with the small question: Why has my Apple TV been unplugged for the last six months?

I was a very enthusiastic buyer for the Apple TV back when it debuted in early 2007 (so long ago, eh?). I had spent much of 2006 buying TV shows on iTunes. I have all the Battlestar Galactica episodes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (short-lived though its witty repartee was), and the first two seasons of Lost. The Apple TV seemed the ideal way to bring those shows to the TV yet still have them on my laptop while traveling. I not only bought an Apple TV the week it was released, I publicly predicted that the Apple TV would likely sell a million units. 

Then something amazing happened. All the shows I was buying on iTunes became available for free via online streaming. I could spend less, watch more, all without managing precious hard disk space. I stopped buying iTunes episodes altogether. My Apple TV suddenly became a very expensive way to watch family photo slideshows. I tried to watch YouTube on it, but that’s terribly annoying (look for a new post later this month on the question of watching YouTube on the TV screen, I’m still waiting for an explanation of why we would want to do this more than once).

So I unplugged the HDMI cable from the Apple TV and moved it to the Roku box which we watch a ton more than we ever watched the Apple TV. Apple TV has not, to my knowledge reached my original goal of a million units. Though I believe they have sold between half a million and 800,000.

That answers the small question. Now for the bigger question: why is this category not taking off? I’ve addressed this question many times, starting with a whole Forrester report in which we found — using our convenience quotient methodology — that over-the-top set top boxes (what I prefer to call DMAs) suffer from some stiff competition. Namely,  your DVR and DVD player. If you have both, which 30 million households do, you can do most everything you would want to do with a DMA for a lot cheaper. 

But even that powerful duo of DVR+DVD is about to get challenged by an up-and-comer: online video, delivered to the TV set. That’s what the story of 2009 will be. And it’s already happening more often than you think. I have a whole Forrester Report planned on the topic, due in February, so I’ll share more data soon, but suffice it to say that about 5 million homes already watch online video on their TV sets a month. That’s much more than have bought or will buy a DMA. It also suggests the path that DMAs must take. More on that later. 

What do you think? Do you have much use for your Apple TV or other DMA?

(Note, read the January 5 follow-up to this post about hacking the Apple TV to watch Hulu on it)


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.


Next up: online video sites start programming

December 10, 2008

Programmers. It’s a word that broadcast and cable networks use to describe themselves. They don’t just deliver video, they “program,” meaning they select the content to fit the audience, and they arrange it in just the right order to satisfy. 

Programming also happens to be what online video sites need next. Sure, letting me search for content is a given, but what about tailoring the content options so they feel like they have been “programmed” just for me?

This is a great intro for a new weekly feature I’ll be adding. Beginning this week, I’ll be embedding the New Media Minute from Daisy Whitney at TVWeek on a regular basis. I like much of what Daisy has to say — she’s often focused on some of the online video production and management topics that I don’t get to, so her content will be a great add. Plus, Daisy gets it, so her point of view is worth sharing.

From her this week: 

What if online video was more like Amazon or Netflix? Imagine video-centric sites like Hulu or NBC.com actively recommending videos just for you…The future of online programming could get a lot more personalized as video sites develop the brains to predict and serve up shows tailored for an individual viewer’s tastes, reports the New Media Minute. For details on what this future might look like, check out this week’s edition. You’ll also hear from YouTube documentarian Chuck Potter about what it takes to be a Web star.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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.