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Sling.com redefines a TV 'feed'

December 2, 2008 | 11:51 pm

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After making its public debut in March, the NBC Universal-News Corp. joint venture Hulu quickly raised the table stakes for online video sites. Its videos were not just free and abundant, they had a Hollywood pedigree. Yes, it lacks the holy-moly-that's-awesome! power of YouTube, but its signal-to-noise ratio is far higher than any user-generated-video site's.

But Hulu reflects its broadcast TV roots. It's not much of a step beyond a robust cable TV video-on-demand service -- there are programs, comments by users and (as of today) a recommendation engine. Sling.com, the new video site from the makers of Slingbox, is more of a Web 2.0 creature. Officially launching this week although still in beta, Sling is Hulu with a Facebook-like layer of social networking on top, along with a heavy dose of opinion from the staff. In other words, it's not just TV, it's about TV, albeit in not-so-obvious ways....

...Sling_screen_grab Much of Sling's most recognizable programming comes from almost two dozen networks and studios that Hulu supplies, but it supplements those feeds with content from about 100 additional cable networks, online TV channels and independent studios. It's an overwhelming amount of stuff, which is where the social layer of Sling comes in. Like Hulu, you can banter on comment boards about particular shows or episodes. But you can also create an electronic trail of commentary for others to follow. The Facebook News Feed analogy applies here: By becoming a fan of other Sling.com users, you'll be able to monitor the feeds they create of ratings made and comments posted. (For privacy reasons, the feeds don't include a list of the programs you watch on Sling, said Jason Hirschhorn, president of Sling Media Entertainment Group.)

The feeds provide a starting point for a journey through Sling's programming, which is particularly helpful for clips-oriented channels such as Break.com and The Onion. More important, they give Sling.com the feel of a user-generated content site. Although Sling users can't upload clips, they can help curate the massive quantity of material supplied by Sling's partners.

The aforementioned features can all be found in similar form at Veoh, which has even more content than Sling because it does allow user uploads. (Veoh also has links to ABC's programs -- e.g., "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," all of which play in a separate ABC-branded window -- and Sling doesn't.) What makes Sling different is that it augments the guidance provided by users with plenty of tips from the Sling staff. (A recommendation engine is on its way too, Hirschhorn said in a recent interview.) In addition to suggested programs and channels, the staff compiles playlists, or collections of themed clips. Examples include a series of videos featuring Elvis impersonators and a string of celebrities singing on Sesame Street. But for now, at least, the playlists are hidden on the site -- there don't appear to be any links, so you have to know the URLs to find them.

Sling.com's videos are advertiser-supported, and the number of commercials inserted is significant on the site's full-length movies. The ad load isn't as noticeable on the shorter clips, and seems to vary from channel to channel. The site doesn't have to generate truckloads of cash to be valuable to Sling, though. It also supports and promotes the parent company's hardware products, such as the Slingbox, which pipes TV programming from a cable or satellite TV receiver to a laptop or smartphone. Sling provides a Web-based interface for Slingbox transmissions, eliminating the need for Slingbox owners to download special software onto their computer or phone. Those customers, in turn, give Sling.com a built-in audience.

I ran into a few glitches on the site in recent weeks, with some videos refusing to play on Firefox and others crashing on Internet Explorer. In short, it was standard beta-release stuff. On the whole, Sling.com struck me as an appealing alternative to Hulu with a promising approach to the needle-in-a-haystack problem caused by the proliferation of video programming online. It's got a ways to go before it catches up to the sheer volume of content and the dense communities on Veoh, but it's a slick start.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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