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Building on Hulu

December 10, 2008 | 10:54 am

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Time Warner Cable Chief Executive Glenn Britt has been grumbling publicly about TV networks streaming their programs for free online, evidently unhappy with the thought of customers dumping their $50-a-month cable subscriptions for the free feeds from Hulu and ABC.com. I think his anxiety is premature (unless, of course, his complaints drive down the fees cable operators pay networks for retransmission rights), given that only the earliest of early adopters are equipped to pipe the full gamut of online TV streams to their living-room TV. But two new video-streaming sites, First on Mars and TVLoop, show why Britt has reason to worry. Joining Sling.com and Veoh, they're early examples of a new breed of aggregator that combines Hulu with other legal sources of online TV into a browse-able package, much as Time Warner Cable combines broadcast and cable networks on a single wire.

The flurry of activity around TV streams doesn't yet match the innovation unleashed by the record labels when they began licensing their content in earnest to online music services. But it's getting there, aided in no small measure by Hulu, which makes a huge amount of TV available to third parties. First on Mars and TVLoop take Hulu and the networks' feeds to the next logical step: Rather than streaming the content from their own servers, they layer features on top of the embeddable players that Hulu and other sources provide. They look like video services, but they're really more like search applications with social networking features (especially in TVLoop's case).

Tuhin Roy, chief executive of FoM, described this approach as the path of least resistance. Instead of devoting an enormous amount of energy to obtaining the rights to content -- something Roy endured in his last two gigs, at the late, lamented Echo Networks online radio service and the Digital Rights Agency -- FoM has tapped into the embeddable players provided by more than 60 networks' websites. That's allowed FoM to focus on creating a better user interface for online TV. "If we're successful in adding value to consumers in finding the content they want, then it's going to be a fantastic business because the margins are very high," Roy said. "We're not paying licensing fees, and we're not hosting." In addition to selling advertising on its pages, he said, the company hopes to license its technology to set-top box manufacturers, cable operators and satellite TV services.

FoM users choose channels, programs and episodes by clicking on icons with logos or screen shots. They can also browse through programs by mood or style -- for example, clicking on "Gritty" brings up icons for 22 shows (e.g., "Bones" and "Jericho") and 11 networks, each of which provides links to more shows in roughly the same vein. Unfortunately, you can't refine the moods by combining, say, "Gritty" and "Artful." These directories can help you build a list of favorites, which in turn influences the program links you're shown on the FoM home page and the various mood pages. That's because the site also personalizes the interface with a preference engine that considers the user's behavior on the site, among other factors.

Fom_screen_grab_2 The site has an unfinished feel to it, and is missing some important pieces. There's no way to search for shows by name, at least not that I could find. Instead, you browse through alphabetically, as shown at left. And when you find what you're looking for, there's no information about the shows other than the season and episode numbers. So if "S01 E08" doesn't tell you what you need to know about that particular offering from "The Clone Wars," you're out of luck. (For a much more info-rich approach, see Sling.com. But then, Sling doesn't have "The Clone Wars.") Finally, the main social feature on FoM at this point is the ability to send alerts to other people about what you're up to on the site.

TVLoop, by contrast, is all about social features. Its creator, Watercooler Inc. (like FoM, a Bay Area start-up), had previously developed applications for Facebook and other social networks that enabled people to join fan groups for TV shows. The new site goes two important steps further: combining all those groups into one index and adding on-demand, full-length episodes for some of the programs (using feeds from Hulu).

Tvloop_screen_grab_2 The site surrounds the Hulu player with viewers' comments, their ratings of the show, pictures, a listing of other episodes (with a tally of the comments made on each, which gives a pretty good idea which ones are worth watching) and bulletin boards. It's a bit overwhelming, but if you're a fan of a show, maybe it feels more like a well-stocked buffet.

TVLoop provides pages for shows even when there are no streams available (e.g., "The Sopranos"). That's important, because there are a lot of gaps in TVLoop's on-demand capabilities. And it personalizes the highlighted episodes, quizzes, quotes, photos and other features on the site's home page, based on user's choice of favorite shows. TVLoop isn't the best way to find streamable content online, but it may very well be the best way to find and join a fan group for a particular show.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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