Yesterday The Unofficial Apple Weblog and other sites spread the news that web video provider Hulu.com forced the developers of the media player boxee to remove Hulu’s content from their app. Hulu’s CEO gives his version of the story on the hulu blog, and boxee’s developers explain it on the boxee blog.
In case that means nothing to you: Hulu.com is a website owned by NBC Universal and Fox that streams TV clips and full episodes, as well as some movies, from those two companies and its subsidiary studios (and a few outside affiliates). Boxee is an application that aggregates local video, music, and picture files along with sources from internet sites like CBS.com, ABC.com, Netflix streaming, and (formerly) Hulu. There is some social networking stuff added (you can see/mock what your friends have been watching), but it’s a safe assumption that the main draw of boxee for most of its users has been access to various web-based video sites under a consistent interface. And most importantly: the interface doesn’t require a mouse and keyboard, so it’s good for watching video on a television; and it’s an open platform, so it’s been ported to various devices that can easily be connected to a television. It’s pretty painless to install it on an Apple TV, which means you can watch recent episodes of TV shows in full screen on your home theater with minimal ads.
Everybody — including, ostensibly, Hulu’s CEO himself — is dismayed by the development, but of all the comments I’ve seen, only Christopher Breen at MacWorld seems to see through the self-serving nature of that Hulu blog post. The CEO talks about “hard decisions,” and how it all comes down to pleasing “the content providers.” But Hulu is owned by NBC Universal and Fox, who are the providers of all of the content, with very few exceptions (e.g. Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog). For him to refer to them “content providers” is like a high school kid referring to his parents as “the couple I live with.” It’s just an attempt to deflect the blame at some mysterious, unreachable Tight-Ass Suits Up In Corporate, without having to acknowledge that no, your bosses told you to do something and you did it.
boxee still includes ads just as if you’d watched via a web browser, so it’s not a question of removing a revenue stream. What it suggests is that somebody at NBC Universal or News Corp has seen the licensing deals for Netflix boxes, Netflix streaming over Xbox 360, rumors of TVs with iTunes pre-installed, and the like, and are wanting to keep pushing their vertical integration. They want you watching their content on equipment they sell (or from a manufacturer who pays them plenty to license their content). That completely violates the idea of starting a website with all your content in the first place — and spending millions to advertise that website during the Super Bowl — but nobody’s ever accused “content providers” of understanding what customers want. Which is exactly what that Hulu blog tries to take advantage of.
So what everybody must be wondering is: how does this affect Chuck? As it turns out, not as much as I’d initially thought. Hulu support on boxee has always been pretty weak, to be frank. Stuff would show up on the hulu site without showing up in boxee’s main interface unless you did a search (and doing searches with a remote control is painful). Pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding has been unpredictable at best on the main site, and is even worse in boxee. Support for other sites — Comedy Central, CBS.com, and ABC.com — has been more solid; Hulu was a weak wrapper around the website’s interface, with the only advantage being that it had tons of content.
And what’s that content? “Heroes,” which has gone past enjoyably bad to just bad. “Saturday Night Live,” which would only include about 15 minutes’ worth of clips. “Monk,” which is ending soon. “Psych,” which is a genuinely good show, but not necessarily anything I couldn’t wait to see on its eventual DVD release. “30 Rock,” which I’m already getting on iTunes because I want to “vote with my dollar” instead of watching it for free. And “Battlestar Galactica,” which is ending soon, has kind of gone downhill, and is pretty near unwatchable streaming because the space scenes and all the dark gray corridors all become a jumble of pixels.
So the internet can rest assured that I’ll be okay. What’s clear is that whoever at Hulu/NBC Universal/Fox made this decision just don’t understand how new media works, and — even worse — are convinced that they do. What’s interesting is how users will react: this can easily be interpreted as the usual “we used to get it for free” whining, and some people will undoubtedly threaten piracy. Which is a shame, because this is exactly the kind of use scenario the whole valid side of the DRM argument hangs on: emphasizing the value of content, instead of the manner in which that content is distributed. This isn’t the case of stealing something I’d normally have to pay for. If I can watch something for free full screen on a web browser, then the studios aren’t adding any value by “letting” me watch it on a television.