Trying to keep free Web TV off the actual TV

Hollywood is finding itself in a bit of a jam. By and large, it wants to get television shows out onto the Web, giving people who spend most of their time watching video on PCs — legally and illegally — another option to find their content. Thus we have Hulu, TV.com, SouthParkStudios, and the ability to watch full episodes on most network sites.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the entertainment biz is not ready for consumers to get Web video on their televisions. Because that would undermine the current business model that brings in billions in cable and satellite subscription revenues, along with the higher ad rates they get per program on TV vs the Web.

That’s why Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes, for instance, is pushing his plan to restrict Web TV shows to consumers who are cable or satellite subscribers or pay a separate subscription fee — Specifically to cut off the people who are using video game consoles or set top boxes or the increasing number of Internet-enabled TVs to watch Hulu et al from the living room.

Technology, however, has a way of undermining Hollywood’s business models. The music biz learned that the hard way from Napster and various P2P networks and now it’s TV’s turn.

Boxxee
The latest scuffle comes over Boxee (pictured left), the Web app that access all the major video websites from one interface, making it incredibly easy to get any TV show that’s online, on-demand, on a TV screen. You don’t have to worry about typing in URLs, which of course can be a pain in the living room.

No surprise then, as CNET News and others are reporting, that Hulu, and its network owners NBC and Fox, are trying to box out Boxee. First Hulu was directly integrated into Boxee. Then Hulu put a stop to that. So Boxee started tapping directly into Hulu’s RSS feed, publicly available information that anyone with an RSS reader can use to figure out what’s on the site and link directly to it. The Hulu found a way to block its RSS feed from Boxee on Friday. And on Saturday Boxee found another workaround. And so the dance continues.

As Boxee explains on its corporate blog, it’s such a mess that there’s a separate status bar on the program that indicates whether Hulu is working at the moment.

Say what you will about Hollywood and its “old media” ways, but the folks who run Hulu have to know that this struggle can only be temporary. When there’s a will on the Internet, there’s usually a way. Networks can make it more difficult to access Web video on TVs for short periods of time, but they can’t prevent Boxee and the many other companies out there from making it possible if enough users want it. Which means, whether via Bewkes’ plan or something else, they’re going to have to come up with a business model for Web video in the living room that’s attractive enough to consumers they won’t flee to illegal options, but doesn’t destroy the economics of TV production, which a straight translation of Hulu as it currently stands would do.

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