• Hulu vs. Boxee is Litmus Test for Networks

    This week's drama between Hulu and Boxee shines the strongest light yet on all of the disruptive forces broadband-delivered video has unleashed: the fight for how video content will reach your living room in the broadband era, and who exactly will control the process. It is a litmus test for major networks in how they intend to transition from the orderly and closed traditional distribution world to the new, open and messy one.

    For those who haven't been paying close attention, this week Hulu's CEO Jason Kilar announced in a blog post that its content would no longer be available to users of Boxee, which is an open source media player that connects broadband delivered content to the TV with a friendly and social interface. Boxee has quickly become a darling of the early adopter and techie set (it's still in "Alpha" release, and only runs on Mac OSX and Ubuntu Linux).

    Despite not having a formal agreement from Hulu, several months ago Boxee was able to extend its product to enable Hulu viewing. Hulu promptly became Boxee's #1 content source, and according to Boxee's CEO Avner Ronen, it was recently generating 100K streams per week (note that this amount is still chicken feed relative to Hulu's 240 million monthly streams). Boxee doesn't interrupt Hulu's business model; Hulu's content and ads are shown in their entirety. One would have thought the calculation for Hulu and its owners would be pretty simple: more streams = more ads = more success.

    Yesterday I checked in with senior executives around the industry to see what's going on here. The picture that emerges is one of big media companies trying to reassert their control over how users access their content. In his blog post, Kilar says "our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes." According to everyone I spoke to, the unnamed content providers can only be Hulu's two owners, NBC and Fox.

    Embracing broadband delivery by backing Hulu was progressive thinking by NBC and Fox. And as long as its skyrocketing usage was perceived as a net positive for on-air distribution (research has shown no cannibalization, higher sampling, more awareness, etc.) and its usage was mainly computer-based, all was fine.

    But what Boxee did was extend the Hulu experience to sanctified ground: the TV itself. And that opened a real can of worms for the networks. Are they aiding and abetting "over the top" user behavior which could lead to "cord-cutting," in turn jeopardizing their highly profitable cable operator relationships? Are they undermining their own P&L's because Hulu usage on TV will cannibalize on-air delivery which carries higher revenues/viewer? Are they setting a dangerous precedent that any scruffy startup can distribute their prized programming without a formal relationship? And so on. These questions were too significant and Boxee's implications too profound to go unchecked. So Hulu's owners snapped its leash.

    There's just one problem here: what's the impact of the decision on Hulu's users and by extension, the Hulu franchise? A quick perusal of the comments to Kilar's post says it all: people are ballistic and they are deeply confused. They don't get the arbitrary logic of why it's ok to watch Hulu in lots of other ways, but just not through Boxee. And they raise the nightmare scenario that this decision will only serve to fuel piracy, an outcome networks were expected to avoid given the devastating Napster precedent their music industry brethren experienced.

    One can only imagine the anguish being felt by Kilar and the Hulu team. Having sweated every detail to create the best video experience out there, it is now watching that goodwill evaporate due to its owners' squeamishness. Better yet, one wonders what the folks at Providence Equity Partners, which invested $100 million in Hulu at a $1 billion valuation, are thinking? Did they sign up at this stratospheric valuation only to see NBC and Fox circumscribe Hulu's reach?

    I've been saying for a while now that broadband's openness makes it the single greatest disruptive influence on the traditional video distribution value chain. The Hulu-Boxee situation illustrates this perfectly. Once content providers embrace broadband they inherently give up some of their traditional control. And there's no going back; once the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, it can't be put back in. Hulu, NBC and Fox are learning this first hand. With everyone now watching for their next move, I'm betting a change of heart is forthcoming. Hulu will be back on Boxee in one form or another soon enough. Resistance is futile.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

    (Note: Hulu-Boxee is going to be outstanding grist for the Mar 17th Broadband Leadership Evening's panel discussion. Early bird discounted tickets are available through the end of today)