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.

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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.