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Hulu Boxes Out Boxee

Last week, the popular TV-on-the-Web site Hulu unplugged some of its more avid viewers -- those using a free program called Boxee to watch shows on the site.

I trust you all are familiar with Hulu (surely its Super Bowl ad must have helped), but Boxee may need some explanation. This software provides a simplified interface for digital video, audio and pictures, much like Microsoft's Media Center front-end for Windows and Apple's Front Row for Mac OS X. Like those two higher-profile applications, Boxee -- available for Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5 (plus, with a little hacking, the Apple TV) and Ubuntu Linux, with a test version for Windows in private release -- also connects to a variety of Web sites to display their content.

And until the end of last week, Hulu was among them. But on Wednesday, Hulu chief executive Jason Kilar posted a note on the site's blog:

Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence -- bumps and all -- we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand-in-hand with content owners.

At Boxee's blog, chief executive Avner Ronen provided a little more background:

two weeks ago Hulu called and told us their content partners were asking them to remove Hulu from boxee. we tried (many times) to plead the case for keeping Hulu on boxee, but on Friday of this week, in good faith, we will be removing it.

Neither post identified the content partners or providers who specifically objected to Hulu's availability on Boxee -- though they can't be CBS or the WB, since links to those networks' shows still work in Boxee. Nor is there any clue as to what these faceless, amorphous partners or providers didn't like about Boxee. It's hard to imagine what that might be, since:

1) Boxee displays the same ads next to a video that you see when you visit Hulu in a regular Web browser;

2) Boxee, like a regular Web browser, doesn't let you download a copy of the video or do anything else special with it;

3) Boxee does, however, include a BitTorrent application, so if users of this program find themselves frustrated in their quest to watch a TV show legally, they won't have to work that hard to download an unauthorized copy from some other source;

4) Boxee's support of the Apple TV does make it easier watch Web-hosted TV shows on a regular set -- which might make a lot of broadcasters and TV service providers anxious -- but it's not the only way to do that. You can plug a computer into an HDTV and watch Hulu through any Web browser.

Even by the high standards set by the movie industry, cutting out Boxee seems like an extraordinarily dumb form of self-defeating control-freakishness. You've got willing viewers who have no problem watching your ads, and you send them away for no logical reason? As a worker in an industry that's facing its own shaky transition to Web distribution, I find that kind of conduct utterly mind-boggling.

Boxee's management would be justified in yelling "what is wrong with you people?!" but is instead taking the high road. The company has invited its users to help it write a pitch to whatever company or companies voted to boot Boxee off of Hulu, explaining why their use of Boxee only helps TV networks.

Are you a Boxee user, and if so, have you put in your $.02 worth into that pitch? And what's your own theory about what's happened here -- why would one or more TV studios or networks decide they didn't like the software you use?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 23, 2009; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  The Web , Video  
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The best explanation/speculation I've seen is at


Boxee was featured in an awesome New York Times article one month ago, with a picture of their product on a big-screen TV, and Hulu's logo clearly visible in the upper right corner. I can almost hear some lawyer somewhere in Hollywood screaming, "I thought Hulu was a WEB SITE! I do NOT see a WEB BROWSER in this PHOTOGRAPH!" at the sight of it. Boxee's blog post on the controversy says they heard from Hulu about this two weeks ago; I'd bet Hulu heard from that lawyer two weeks before that -- the morning the article appeared. Those calls are fun.


p.s. Any way of doing basic markup (bold, italic, strike) in comments?

Posted by: wiredog | February 23, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

I had already largely stopped watching TV, due to the puerile, contentless desert landscape the copyright holders like to call "programming." This just puts the nail in the coffin for me. If it's not on DVD, I won't be watching. Guess I won't see any advertising, either (I don't watch sports, so I've never seen the Super Bowl ads that everyone is getting all gushy about, either).

I imagine I'll have to make my purchase decisions based on product reviews on the Internet, and by reading the fine print on the packaging. Now *THAT* ought to scare the advertisers!

Posted by: guyfawkes1 | February 23, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Super Bowl what? I haven't watched a Super Bowl game in years. So what is Hulu for those who do not watch Football.

Posted by: jdbassjr1 | February 23, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it was a lawyer in Hollywood, I think it was an executive in Philadelphia (Comcast's HQ). For all the reasons you suggest, Internet TV is the future and a great thing for the content producers, it gives them a direct, efficient relationship with the viewer and cuts out the middleman. From everything I've seen they are embracing it. NBC Universal has a whole digital media division that's actively looking for more places their content can be viewed. The culprit here is the middleman that's getting cut out, the cable, satellite and local affiliates. "over the top" internet tv content is at best less profitable for them, and more often cuts them out entirely.

Check out Comcast's response and read my comments for a between the lines look at what they are saying. If you think about it, it makes complete sense that Comcast, et al would fight this tooth and nail, and they are, overtly (and you can guess covertly too).

Full disclosure, I have a stake in this game, my company makes a box that brings Internet TV to the TV (including Boxee ). Although this recent move didn't shut off Hulu for our customers, clearly we're a threat to traditional TV distribution too.

Posted by: JoeBorn | February 23, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

@wiredog: Thanks for pointing me to that link. I thought Marc Hedlund a generally clueful individual when I talked to him about Wesabe last year, and this post confirms that finding.

About basic HTML markup--I used to be able to strikethrough text, but now it looks like only the bold and italic tags work.

Posted by: robpegoraro | February 23, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

The sad irony is that with boxee I had quit recording shows I could catch on hulu (why take up the disc space, deal with filtering out reruns, etc.) I'm now back to recording them which of course also means I'm skipping the adds.

I agree that this is cable companies not TV studios. Boxee + Hulu provides the a la carte access to "content" that customers have been demanding and cable companies have consistently refused to provide. This really does go hand in hand with throttling down bandwidth.

Posted by: foxn | February 23, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Not having used hulu, let alone boxee, can someone explain (or e-mail me explaining) what hulu is/does/whatever, and why I should be concerned about boxee? I obviously am not a computer geek or whatever (heck, I've just about mastered sending attachments to e-mail and using word processors) so layman's English would be appreciated.

Posted by: Dungarees | February 23, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Too bad about this (hopefully temporary) glitch in Boxee's Hulu support. However, there's no doubt that some day soon, most -- if not all -- of our video entertainment will be streamed from the Internet via devices like the BoxeeBox, AppleTV, etc.

Posted by: deviceguru | February 23, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Hulu has a serious flaw that nobody seems to pay attention to. This is that people who use this service on their website are abandonding most of the planet -- since Hulu has only limited interest in providing its service outside the United States. Many other nations, it simply refuses to serve.

It's good enough for showing stuff on the web inside the US, but if you want to attract business or viewers from a wider sphere than that, use YouTube or some other services. Hulu ain't ready for you yet.

Posted by: kunino | February 24, 2009 5:22 AM | Report abuse

@kunino - The geographic restrictions work both ways. I can't get full episodes from the BBC web site. The reasons are obvious - the sponsors in Britain don't gain anything from presenting a commercial to me, an American. I imagine it is the same with Hulu. If there is a business case for an international internet video site, I think would think we would see one in development.

Posted by: gte945v | February 24, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Here's a good explanatory post from our Public Knowledge site:

Fox and NBC are behind the pulling of the programming and, as Hulu observes, consumers are the losers.

Posted by: artbrodsky | February 24, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I think the reason for barring Boxee on Hulu is that those ads are being sold as Internet ads. The ads sold as television ads are longer and are sold for much more money. The consumer watching via Boxee on a television set is not being counted in television ad views, costing the content provider money.

I don't use Boxee because it is a buggy mess that kept crashing my MacBook Pro. I wasn't about to let it near my AppleTV, though some people hack the device to use it with Boxee.

Posted by: query0 | February 25, 2009 3:26 AM | Report abuse

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