Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Evolutionary Television Part 2 - The Studios Strike Back!

So remember how I was telling you all that stuff about the TV studios embracing Hulu (Fox and NBC sponsored the project), and how they had learned from the music industry's crippling Napster debacle? Well, that's only partially true. After a BANNER year, Hulu seems like it's becoming a victim of it's own success. Sometimes it seems like the site is overloaded, and even when using a fast internet connection, shows tend to "hang" for a few seconds while the stream from Hulu's servers catches up. Worse than that, the TV studios have somehow gotten it into their heads that they are losing some of their traditional TV viewers to Hulu. The reason they view this as a "bad thing" all boils down to one simple factor: advertising. Traditional TV advertising is literally the fuel for your favorite shows. Put simply, without commercials there would be no TV programming (PBS and Public Access aside). That is simply the American model. The Brits pay a TV tax and they get the BBC (which happily streams it's programming online to UK citizens), while we Americans rely on advertisers like Budweiser and Pfizer to interrupt our TV shows five times an hour with ads for beer and viagra. Unfortunately, the only advertiser that seems interested in buying time on Hulu is the Ad Council preaching about reckless teen driving. Mainstream advertisers just don't believe that it's worth the investment to buy online commercials. It's the same reason why newspapers can't seem to figure out how to make any money online. So, as Hulu has become more popular, the studios have gotten panicky about their content. Lately, whole seasons of shows have started to disappear from Hulu in the run-up to their release on DVD. It has quickly become clear that if masses of people begin to use Hulu as an alternative to traditional television, and TV studios can't monetize that audience, you can bet that Hulu's programming will dry up. But Hulu's audience will only grow so much, right? Only geeks like watching TV via the internet. Hulu will max itself out on the early-adopter crowd and then plateau out. Even if you plug your PC into a big-screen HDTV, who wants to click around with the mouse inside of a 42" giant web browser? Only geeks, right?

A few months ago, a few of these more progressive-minded geeks got together and created (I use that term rather loosely) an application called Boxee. All you needed to do was load Boxee onto an ordinary PC or Laptop, plug it into your big screen TV, and VOILA! You had yourself a set-top box that streamed internet TV. Plug in a remote control, and you didn't even need to get up from the couch! Boxee brought Hulu to the masses. It is an entertainment center platform allowing users to pipe internet radio, Picasa and Flikr photo-albums, and local hard drive content directly to their TV's for easy and intuitive browsing with their remote control. But the KILLER application was always Hulu. Literally, you could sit down on the couch, turn on the TV, select a show with your remote, and be watching the latest episode of The Daily Show in under 90 seconds. But you don't have to take my word for it:


quick intro to boxee from boxee on Vimeo.

Alas, it was too good to last.

A couple of months ago, the studios began to notice that Hulu was exploding in popularity, much faster than SNL Tina Fey clips could account for. It didn't take them long to figure out that Boxee adoption was the culprit. The studios delivered a swift and stern message to Hulu. "Pull your content from Boxee, or else." And about 30 days ago, Hulu did precisely that. Or rather, they ordered Boxee to quit pipelining their content. And Boxee complied, outraging their community of users. Today, a new version of Boxee is about to drop, and rumor has it that Hulu content is back in, although Hulu won't be able to officially verify that users are watching their content from within Boxee or within a regular web browser like Firefox or Internet Explorer. In the coming weeks, we'll see how Hulu responds. I hope they realize that Boxee is simply giving internet TV viewers what they want (a fast, intuitive interface), but maybe that's too much to ask for.

In the meantime, while the TV studios slug it out with the people who are trying to innovate on their behalf (the irony is killing me), the underground scene is JUMPING with Hulu competitors! I watched the Superbowl over on Justin.tv (with live chat!), and the NCAA Final Four on Ustream.tv. Those same sites, as well as one of my new favorites Joox.net, also have movie and TV channels that loop whole seasons worth of content. It may not be on-demand, but it's still pretty cool! But wait, there's more! Check out the full list of Hulu alternatives, carefully compiled and reviewed by the good people over at ZeroPaid.com (their motto is "if it's free, it's for me"). And I have a message of my own for the TV studios. Figure out your beef with Hulu and fix it fast before it dies. Because when some hacker figures out how to hook Boxee up to one of these other streaming TV sites, the genie really WILL be out of the bottle. And you guys will have learned NOTHING from the music industry's mistakes.
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