There’s an online TV storm a brewin’

March 27, 2009

I wrote earlier this week about how Hulu is now streaming as many views as Comcast does via VOD. But what I didn’t take time to include is the dark side of online TV shows. The fact that many networks are pulling down some of their top shows (e.g., The Mentalist and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.), and how the ads on these wildly popular shows are not all selling.

So I took the time to compile all the evidence that an online TV show storm is brewing and did an analysis for Forrester clients that was published earlier in the month. The great news is that Forrester recently recognized its 10,000th Twitter follower and to celebrate, they let him choose a Forrester report to make available to all of Forrester’s Twitter followers. This individual (@jpthomp on Twitter) chose my report about the coming online TV show backlash. That means good things for all of you, go to the following link to register to get a copy of the report (thanks, jpthomp!). http://snipurl.com/emg3g 

When you get a hold of the report, you’ll see that I envision a lot of experimentation with online show availability throughout the rest of this TV season and possibly even throughout the rest of the year. And with online TV shows failing to sell out their ad inventory, some naysayers inside the major networks are going to be arguing for much more aggressive anti-online measures. We think it will take some time, but online TV can be brought back around again as the recession matures and as executives realize that online TV is not a separate kind of TV, it’s simply the extension of existing TV experiences across multiple platforms. In the report, we sum up the call to action this way:

OUR PLEA: INTEGRATE ONLINE TV INTO THE TOTAL VIEWER EXPERIENCE

If you expect us to end with a summary of all the reasons that online TV shows are the future of TV and a plea to preserve this threatened species, prepare to be disappointed. We said online TV was the most important thing to happen to the video industry not because it was the future of TV in and of itself but because it would help move us quickly into the future of TV, something Forrester calls OmniVideo; this is a state in which consumers can watch TV shows and movies on any platform they want, controlling what, when, and where they watch. In this future, not only will consumers be satisfied, but producers and distributors will make more money than they do today. That’s why we now plead with the industry to quickly learn from the mistakes they’re going to make in the next few months and get back to fully supporting online TV shows — not as a separate business but as an integrated consumer experience that complements and enriches traditional TV.

Check out the report yourself, see what you think. Let’s buckle our seat belts and see what happens over the next few months.

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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.