Why Hulu is clashing with potential partners

February 23, 2009

Two news items from last week are worth commenting on in the same post:

  1. Hulu insisted that Boxee pull its Hulu player from Boxee. For the un-nerdy, Boxee is the open-source media player software that I put on my Apple TV a few weeks back. Until last week, it allowed you to access Hulu online videos direct to the TV without the help of a PC. 

    The Boxee/Hulu experience is tremendously satisfying. Plus, it preserves all the advertising that Hulu needs to sustain itself. However, by making it super easy (some might say, convenient) to get online TV shows to the TV, Boxee is a threat to Hulu’s content partners, many of whom are still petrified about cannibalizing linear TV shows. So while those partners may be willing to support PC-based viewing, the moment Hulu is easily accessed on the TV, they get creeped out. Never mind that 5 million PCs in the US are currently connected to TVs for exactly this kind of experience — far more than AppleTV or Roku will ever have.
     

  2. Hulu pulled its content from syndication partner TV.com. TV.com is a CBS-owned TV fan site that previously focused on chat rooms and clips, but as of a month ago announced an online TV player strategy designed to monetize its 5 million viewers more effectively. The secret sauce was access to Hulu content (Fox + NBC) as well as CBS content, delivered through a player experience that was remarkably Huluesque.

    Design infringement aside, it’s hard not to see this one as an effort by Hulu to persuade CBS to allow CBS content to join the Hulu experience. If it’s not such an effort, it should be. Hulu is eager to allow syndication partners like Fancast and IMDB to succeed, but it doesn’t really want to enable CBS to have all the benefits of Hulu content without having signed up to be an official part of the system. Seems fair. Honestly, the only reason CBS wouldn’t want to do this is it would mean acknowledging that its costly and time-consuming solo syndication efforts were not enough. 

What’s going on here: Hulu is getting more and more powerful every day. And not just because it managed to get Alec Baldwin to promote it during the Super Bowl. It’s because Hulu gives people the thing they want most: easy access to top TV shows. But with great power comes great responsibility, at least in the mind of TV execs who suspect that Hulu will eventually erode their TV business (which has been steadily eroding anyway, not on an overall basis, but on a per-show basis).

With ad dollars tightening in a recession — across the board, mind you, not just in online video — TV execs who never liked the idea of online video in the first place are going to claw their way back into prominence inside their companies and start arguing for more restraint. We’ll see more removals of TV shows like The Mentalist, more announcements like that from SciFi about postponing Hulu streaming of  Battlestar Galactica until 8 days after broadcast.

All of this is part of something I call the coming online video backlash. It’s going to take this whole year, and it’s going to inspire a lot of hasty moves on the part of TV executives to pull previously available content. And consumers are going to hate it.

I don’t envy Hulu’s position in this. It has to keep the lines of access open to the providers of top TV content, but it has to make good on its promise of serving viewers. So far, it has done a great job, but at some point, it’s going to be forced to do something that will begin to tarnish its brand. I don’t personally think the Boxee removal qualifies — only a few tens of thousands of us are nerdy enough to have hacked our Apple TVs — but sometime soon, somebody at Viacom or Fox or Sony Pictures will recall content that was previously available. Expect it to happen around sweeps weeks or the season finale weeks. It’s gonna get ugly.


Roku’s next steps: Hulu, then Yahoo TV Widgets

February 12, 2009

If you read this blog often, you know I’ve been road-testing a lot of set top boxes for the past two years. I do this because I cover video, but also because it’s a disruptive moment in the history of the video and if there’s lessons to be learned about disruptive innovation, this market provides ample opportunity to be tutored. (All props to Clay Christensen at HBS, by the way, for defining the way we all look at disruptive innovation. That’s worthy of a separate post at a later date.)

After spending significant time with the Roku box during some recent sick days, I have concluded that the Roku is still the box that delivers the most punch, especially considering its price. That’s why the Roku box won our Convenience Quotient analysis on set tops last summer and it’s only getting better as the Roku team adds more content. 

The Roku is the only box that I want more than one of — one for the living room and one for the family room.

But it still has a long row to hoe if it’s going to end up in a million homes. In particular, I see a threat in the form of connected TVs. I’m writing a piece for Forrester on that topic right now, should be out in a few weeks, but the conclusion is pretty optimistic: thanks to supply-side energy, the Yahoo TV Widget space is making it likely that connected TVs will be in more than a million homes by year-end, possibly two million.  

So here’s my prescription for Roku to stay in this game. I haven’t discussed these things with the team there, but I’ll make them a matter of public record so that if I’m right or wrong, at least I’ve been bold.

1 – Get going on Hulu. This might mean starting with CBS (which is dramatically more open to radical syndication moves, as evidenced by the YouTube relationship) or Viacom, as a way to show Hulu that this is the way things are moving. The sooner ad-supported TV shows up on Roku, the sooner it’s a must-have $99 box for everyone.

2 – Become the first set-top box to implement Yahoo TV Widgets. I cannot get this widgets solution out of my mind. It’s such an elegant way to open the market to innovation and I like innovation. From what I’ve learned from the people in charge of the Yahoo TV Widgets strategy, the code to accomodate the widgets should be relatively simple to put on the moderately powered Roku box. But the beauty of having widgets on the Roku box is it would immediately relieve Roku of needing to strike separate content deals with every possible content provider. Instead, it can just let content providers develop whatever they want for the platform, making the box more valuable with each passing day. 

The fact is, every box, DVD player, TV, and game system (Wii Widgets?) will eventually implement Yahoo TV Widgets. (I know that’s music to Yahoo’s ears, but when you do the right thing strategically, it tends to work.) So Roku better hurry. 

Last thought: once these steps have been conquered, it’s time to start courting HBO and other pay TV providers to discuss delivering subscription-based content to the Roku. Not something HBO wants to do (not something Comcast wants it to do), but it’s where things are heading. And as long as HBO is priced higher on the Roku than it would be through Comcast, which is certainly what HBO would have to do, it might be feasible by 2010. 

What do you think?


Yahoo! TV Widgets are the Belle of the CES Ball

January 8, 2009

Yahoo! has surprised me. Back in August it announced a new TV development platform called the Yahoo! Widget Engine. Developed together with Intel, this Widget engine was billed as the way to get Internet content and functionality to the TV set.

I’ll admit I was skeptical. We’ve heard so many announcements about getting Web content to the TV that my response was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Today I’ve seen it.

yahoo-widgetsNot just a demo of proposed functionality as is so often the case. But I’ve seen a line of partnerships on the device and content sides that backs up Yahoo!’s claims. And though it will be hard for average viewers to grok why, this is the most important TV-related announcement to come out of CES.

Why, you ask? Because most CES announcements are specific to one device or service. A new video editing software suite, a new portable media player, a new 3D television. Even the announcement from LG that it would build Netflix into a line of TVs is a single-device announcement. Interesting, innovative, and pointing us in the right direction, but ultimately limited by the reach of that single device.

Yahoo!’s announcement, on the other hand, is already having a broad impact. Check yesterday’s press release for more detail if you need it, or better yet, see the whole scenario by visiting the Yahoo! Connected TV site, but here’s the list of TV makers who have signed on to build Yahoo! Widget capabilities into their TVs: Samsung, Sony, LG, & Vizio. Three on that list are hungry market share grabbers who are rising rapidly. Sony is a long-established player whose inclusion on the list teaches us something about the future of the connected TV.

In the old days (read: 2008), connected TVs were built around walled content gardens that required the TV maker to strike content deals and figure out how to promote the content to the viewer. TV viewers are notoriously routine-driven so breaking into their routines was particularly difficult to do. Hence, connected TV activities on HP and Sony devices have been modest to date.

In the new world, TV makers will simply provide access to a common platform, the way a PC does. Think about it: when you buy a PC from Dell, you aren’t limited to the software that Dell has programmed, or even software that Dell has chosen to license to you from 3rd parties (the way the iPhone app store works, hmmm, how old fashioned, eh?). You buy a PC from any maker, it runs software from any developer.

That’s the promise of Yahoo!’s TV Widget Engine. As long as sufficient TV makers adopt it, it will become an open standard for putting content on the TV. Open standards, once adopted, enable content innovation.

What content, you say? Here’s a list of people beyond Yahoo! itself developing TV Widgets so far, a list which is likely to increase by a factor of 10x as soon as a million people have Widget-capable TVs: Flickr, eBay, MySpace, CBS, The New York Times, Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster, Showtime, USA TODAY and Twitter. All major names whose inclusion is likely to tempt others to fall in line. 

I’m meeting with Yahoo! at CES to talk about the future later today. For the first time in a long time, I see Yahoo! playing a significant role in the future of interactive content. Bully for them. It’s just a question of how long until Google decides to jump in and whether TV makers will want to support multiple widget or application systems on their TVs. Plus, I wonder what the long-term payoff to Yahoo! is for building this open system. We’ll talk all of that through. 

This is yet another example of how the software and Internet community is innovating ahead of cable. TV widgets are something cable and satellite have been toying with for years. But they develop too slowly and reach too few customers with their trials to have had an impact. We’ll see how quickly Yahoo!’s Widget Engine can make us forget cable’s attempts to add interactivity to the TV screen.


Making money from user-uploaded video: Auditude, MySpace, and MTVNetworks

November 3, 2008

This is an important announcement, but it’s one that’s hard to understand if you don’t follow this business every day — I found that out last week when trying to speak to reporters who were having trouble with this. One reporter who gets it is Jessica Guynn of the LA Times. Her piece on Auditude, quoting me, ran today

The basic explanation goes like this: A viewer captures a clip of a Colbert Report segment and posts it to MySpace. Auditude’s system checks the clip against a massive database of clips and properly identifies the video as a Colbert Report segment from Thursday, October 30. Auditude checks that content against MTV Networks’ list of content that can be monetized, finds it is approved, then matches an ad to it based on who has paid to sponsor the Colbert Report. When that video gets viewed on MySpace after that, viewers see the clip, with an overlay from MTV Networks promoting the show’s website and airtimes, this is followed by a brief “sponsored by” overlay from the advertiser. MySpace gets to please its visitors, MTVNetworks gets promotion for its popular show, an advertiser gets an interested viewer, and some money greases everybody’s palms, from MySpace to MTV Networks to Auditude. Win, win, win and win.

The prior solution didn’t work. It involved trying to discourage posting of copyrighted materials by taking them down quickly but also by providing the same content in high quality directly from the content owner. For example, Tina Fey’s hilarious interview with David Letterman on October 17th to talk about Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation, was posted by CBS the day after. It has since earned 156,339 views. But the presumably illegal posting from a random viewer of the same interview went up the night before (the same night as the interview) and has since generated 588,934 views, nearly four times as many (with a much lower quality clip).

Taking those successful videos down means they don’t do anyone any good. Making money from them is a better idea. 

This is really needed for the user-posted video market which up until now had no hope of every making real money. I say real money because advertisers don’t want to touch all the video genuinely created by average people, because: 1) it’s often inappropriate, and 2) no one knows how well it engages viewers. In contrast, professional content like the MTV Networks clips that often make their way onto MySpace are advertiser-friendly. Once we can monetize those millions of video views, there’s a chance that revenue will rush into that vacuum, helping the market hit its online video advertising goals

Long-term, this becomes a standard approach. More networks will sign on to work with MySpace, they do all their learning and experimentation. A few will also work with YouTube (probably CBS, which has always had a cozier relationship with YouTube than the rest) in the meantime. At some point, best practices evolve and YouTube lawsuits get resolved and this becomes a standard practice.


CBS tests online group viewing…wait, haven’t we seen this before?

October 2, 2008

Today we read from TechCrunch that CBS Labs has built a social online viewing experience — you can watch with other people, share comments, and generally engage each other during the show.

Cool idea, but also not a new one. I know of at least two others who have been testing this for two years now! The first one I came across from Lycos Cinema, which has been offering these kinds of social experiences since at least early 2007 when I first saw it. 

Here’s a screenshot of Michael Moore’s Slacker Uprising, which was having a slightly unsocial social screening this afternoon when I joined the last ten minutes of it (which was as much of Michael Moore as I could stomach at the end of a long day).

 

Not a lot of partying going on during this social viewing experience.

Not a lot of partying going on during this social viewing experience.

You can go there right now and start your own social viewing experience with strangers or invite your friends. Another ambitious example of this is also about two years old, it’s from MTV Networks, The N, which is MTVN’s network targeting girl tweens. This site is chock full of award-winning social features wrapped around video (one worthy of its own post some day, called Vomments), including social viewing parties The N calls Screening Parties. I’ve pasted in a bigger screenshot (you can click on it to see it full-size), so you can see the cute little avatars that pop up along the bottom of the screen so you can chat with your fellow viewers. 

The point here appears to be that what CBS is doing isn’t that new. But the real point is this: this has already been going on for two whole years and you haven’t heard about it until now!

That says a lot about the potential success of this kind of viewing. Not that people won’t do it — The N’s Screening Parties are very hot among their visitors. But then, anything that lets 13-year old girls dress up little avatars and chat with friends is a good fit for that market. 

For now, though, most of us are so darn happy to have the ability to watch online video on demand that we’re not left wanting more viewing options and features. We’re pretty satisfied. Give it some time, though. There will be some applications for this. I like to watch Heroes with my family even when I’m on the road. This way, we could watch together. In fact, one of the keys to this kind of viewing experience will be when it gets ported to the TV so that TV-PC social viewing can occur. Though it’s sad to imagine: me, in a hotel room, hunched over my laptop screen watching Hiro Nakamura save the world one cheerleader at a time while my family sits back with some kettle corn in the living room and watches the same show on the bigscreen. What would I possibly have to say via on-screen chat? Pass the popcorn…