Monday, February 23, 2009

Hulu + Content Distributors

I spent a few hours last night fooling around with an application called boxee, which allows users to have a single point of entry into a wealth of online content via a sleek interface, as well as watching Dollhouse, the new show from Joss Whedon, on Hulu. I was actually driven to use boxee after I found out that it no longer allowed a feed from Hulu after their content providers told them to make the service inaccessible to Hulu.

The thing that attracted me to boxee was its intent to gather all of the streaming web content and put it in one place, controllable via Apple Remote or likewise. AppleTV or FrontRow for the web. It doesn’t do away with the ad supported nature of these services, and it shouldn’t. I’ve made peace with the fact that I can watch streaming web content if I sit patiently through a 30 second ad (I typically just -tab to a browser and turn my sound off but whatever). The terrible thing about these websites run by various content providers is that you have to navigate their awful interfaces in order to get at your content. And they’re all DIFFERENT. Like credit card machines at the grocery store. boxee to the rescue.

Until recently. The creators of Hulu were asked by their content providers to change their service so it wasn’t available to boxee users anymore. What has ensued is the typical cat and mouse game of hackers trying to get around the hacks that the service providers had to put into their pristine software to appease the suits.

Why did they do this? I’ve read many accounts of people making ‘boxee boxes,’ computers (Mac Minis, small form factor Linux boxes) whose sole purpose is to hook into an entertainment center and provide this amazing web content on the big screen. Also, this software runs on Xbox game consoles (hence the name) which are already hooked into entertainment centers, I don’t think this makes the content providers nervous, but it makes the cable providers nervous. They are well aware that they are a dying breed in this age of instant gratification. For example, when I went to MCBIOS this weekend I had TWO 30+ inch flatscreen televisions in my room and what did I do? I watched an episode of 30 Rock (on Hulu) on my 15 inch laptop screen. The TV had no digital cable menu, they merely left me a bookmark on the nightstand that indicated the channels. How quaint. Once I saw that I turned off the TV and put my laptop on the bed to watch me some instant, legal, ad supported Alec Baldwin. I have no interest in channel surfing and I’m not the only one.

This is the future of content distribution, and cable companies and content providers need to learn that its either this or piracy. Dollhouse is a good example.

Joss Whedon couldn’t catch a break with Firefly. It was brilliant, but not enough Nielsen Families watched the show or something so the show crashed and burned. I think Joss has learned his lesson, as evidenced with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. Hulu has already given a shout out to their viewers asking them to interact with Mr. Whedon, generating juice for the show. When Firefly tanked, the fans had to get vocal to get a movie created that wrapped up the story sufficiently. I hope that services like Hulu will tell the tale of the success or failure of this new show. I didn’t watch the premiere of Dollhouse, don’t even know when it comes on, but I cast my vote and caught up with the show at 1AM last night, at my leisure.

Websites can track site hits, how many times a particular show was streamed, and to what markets, and producers (money-lenders) can see all of this in black and white and see the true numbers of people watching these shows. Hell, they can even see the pulse episode to episode from the vocal minority right there in the comments. I imagine a world where twitter #hashtags are polled as a zeitgeist of public response. If only TV and film executives were listening.