• TheWB.com Launches Public Beta - Nice Execution, Fuzzy Strategy

    TheWB.com's curtain is finally going up, with the site set to officially open for public beta at 11am Pacific Time today. Along with fellow analysts and press, I was given a sneak peek at the site and so I'm able to offer some initial impressions. At first blush, and after having some of my specific questions answered by a WB spokesman, my reaction is that the site is executed well, but that its strategy seems fuzzy.

    As many of you know, TheWB TV channel went off the air in September, 2006. In April, 2008 Warner Bros. Television Group announced that it would launch TheWB.com as an online network. The new site contains a mix of about 20 classic WB and Warner Bros. programs and a slew of forthcoming original web-only programs created by big-name talent. Many of the classic programs have cult-like followings and will no doubt find an ardent online audience.

    In addition, TheWB site has some nifty features such as a mashup capability called "WBlender" powered by Adobe Premiere Express, video search powered by Digitalsmiths (including full scene-by-scene indexing of all programs which allows search at the dialogue, character, location, episode, session and series level) and a pretty deep Facebook app allowing users to share content back and forth.

    While these features all will eventually raise the bar for other sites, certain aspects are not yet fully implemented. For example, WBlender today only offers users a paltry 30 or so pre-selected clips and just 6 soundtracks to mash. Later this year the selection will widen when the WBlender is married to the video search feature, allowing all scenes from all shows to be mashed together. It's not clear whether users will be able to clip specific segments themselves from favorite episodes or not.

    Overall, the site's execution is solid except for a few minor personal quibbles that aren't worth spending time on here. I believe a far bigger issue is the site's fuzzy strategy. A WB spokesman told me that "TheWB.com is not meant to be an archival library of every episode of every show ever made, but rather an entertainment destination that gives our viewers a lot of great entertainment, along with a reason to come back again tomorrow." This is meant to give "our programmers the ability to create themed programming blocks that mesh with our audience's sensibilities."

    Yet how TheWB.com actually translates this strategy into which programs and episodes are available on the site at any given time is where I think it's going to generate considerable user frustration, not to mention a lack of competitiveness with its own syndication outlets.

    Three shows "Friends," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" illustrate the point. With "Friends" just 7 episodes are currently available on the site, inexplicably from 7 different seasons. If there's a thematic thread, it is neither stated on the site, nor intuitive to me. If I want to watch a specific episode from a particular season, I'm out of luck. Meanwhile TheWB.com shortchanges "Angel" and "Buffy" fans by offering just the first 5 episodes of each, while Hulu, as one example, already offers 22 and 34 episodes each program, respectively.

    I think it will quickly become evident that TheWB.com's strategy to "program" its online network is at odds with the on-demand desires of users seeking unfettered access to the full catalog of all programs. Here we see legacy linear TV thinking being grafted onto a high-potential online platform, with the result being a confusing sub-par user experience.

    I know I've said this before, but I continue to believe that Hulu is the reigning broadband video user experience king. Having cracked the code on how to deliver fast growth and user loyalty, TheWB.com would be wise to go to school on Hulu and borrow liberally from lessons it has already learned and acted on well.

    Still, in fairness, this is still just the beta of TheWB.com. There's a lot to be excited about here, but getting the site's strategy aligned with user expectations is a key building block to eventual success.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.