Clicker's guide to the unlimited-channel universe
One testament to the popularity of online video is the growing number of sites that serve as Internet program guides, helping people sort through the billions of available items to find something they might like to watch. The latest, Clicker, has its official launch at 10:30 this morning (it had been conducting an invitation-only trial since mid-September). Unlike most of the other guides, which direct users to videos available on their own sites, Clicker exists to help people find programming around the Web, including such sources as Hulu, YouTube or Revision3. And it directs users to legal content only, eschewing bootlegs and snippets posted on user-generated sites in favor of full-length content from the most convenient source. The goal, said CEO Jim Lanzone, is to be "the TV Guide for the next generation of television, whatever that evolves into."
Clicker's focus on full episodes means that its search engine is more likely to turn up what you're looking for than, say, Google's video search would. Another strength is how well Clicker organizes information about the programs in its database. Searching for "NCIS," for example, brings up a list of links to episodes of that CBS program in reverse chronological order, followed by links to "NCIS: Los Angeles" episodes and clips from a variety of talk shows (online and off) that discussed either the TV programs or the real-life Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The results can also be sorted by popularity or date, and can be filtered to show only TV episodes, Web originals, music videos or movies.
It's fast and powerful, and it should grow in utility as visitors use the site's wiki features to elaborate on the programming notes. Another nice feature: In addition to free content, it indexes movies and TV shows that Amazon provides on a pay-per-view basis and Netflix makes available to subscribers. And rather than ignoring shows that aren't available legitimately online, it tells you when content providers are withholding them (that means you, HBO).
By excluding unofficial and unauthorized material (as did Modern Feed, the online guide Clicker acquired when it started its development work in January), Clicker isn't as comprehensive as Google or OVGuide. Lanzone said the company was taking the long-term view, and that means respecting copyrights -- and not irritating content providers. "We want to be the de facto standard source of navigation and discovery for the next generation of television. I just don't see how we could do that if we play with illegal content."
At launch, however, discovery isn't Clicker's strongest suit. It offers a few staff recommendations and some great tools for thumbing through programs, including a Trends page to see what other users have been checking out and the most comprehensive list of categories and subcategories I've ever encountered. (The company has divided its database into more than 1,200 subcategories, including 47 types of comedy, 33 types of documentary and 28 varieties of "health and lifestyle.") But there's no preference engine to suggest shows a user might like. Nor are its social tools as well developed as on sites such as TVLoop and First on Mars. Clicker enables each user to build and share a playlist of programs they find on the site, and to send links to shows via Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. That's about it for now, although Lanzone said that more is on the way, including Topics pages that assemble links to programs related to a hot news item or buzzed-about subject. He also said that social curation is "the next big feature that we're working on," with an announcement likely after Christmas. He offered few details, other than to say the feature was inspired by the way the original Napster enabled users to discover music by browsing through the songs collected by other people with similar tastes.
Because it doesn't host many of the programs in its database, Clicker often sends visitors away from its site to watch the videos they find. Lanzone argued that this approach gave his site an advantage over the likes of Hulu and Sling.com: It indexes (authorized) videos from all across the Internet, rather than trying to push users to the ones it hosts locally. Still, directing people to other online destinations limits Clicker's ad sales, and that's the company's main source of revenue today. Future sources, Lanzone said, may include payments from online services for providing leads to new customers and a paid version of the site that provides access to more features.
Incidentally, Clicker is developing versions of its guide that will work on other devices and other screens. First up, Lanzone said, are implementations for Boxee, a platform for online video that's designed for living-room TVs, and the iPhone.
-- Jon Healey