Suranga Chandratillake, founder of video search engine blinkx, likes showing off his new remote control. It can't change programs on TV, but this mouse-controlled tool will help users channel surf the Web.
Much like the on-air channel guides on cable and satellite TV, the blinkx tool provides a comprehensive list of network TV programming available on the Web. Then, it lets users call up a show-from virtually anywhere on the Web-with the click of a mouse.
The blinkx Remote service, introduced Apr. 18, is only the latest in a flurry of efforts by search engines, tech startups, and even TV networks to become the go-to portal for finding and watching professionally made online programming-in effect, becoming the definitive guide to Web TV. Among the contenders are companies as varied as Time Warner's (TWX) AOL, Microsoft (MSFT), and Yahoo! (YHOO). They are offering not only guides that direct users to network content on their own sites, but search bars that point to video on other sites.
And if anything needs a user's guide, it's the Web. Television networks are releasing myriad shows on sites scattered across the Web in hopes of reaching new audiences for content and generating more advertising revenue. The Internet is beginning to seem like on-demand cable television.
But unlike TV, which typically has one cable or satellite provider serving as both content portal and navigation guide, the Web has multiple sites vying to become the place for finding and watching what's online. Witness the flurry of content agreements announced in the last week alone by more than a dozen companies, from News Corp. (NWS) to NBC Universal (GE) to Comcast (CMCSA). "Content providers are negotiating all kinds of deals with competitive distribution platforms," says Todd Chanko, an analyst at JupiterResearch.
And the trick isn't just getting licensing agreements to put content on your site, it's indexing quality programming from all over the place-even if it means directing users to another company's site. They'll come back to you when they want to change channels, or so the reasoning goes. If all goes according to plan, they'll also watch your programming-and read your ads.
Some sites are better at becoming a universal remote than others. AOL has done well at both aggregating and guiding. The company has dozens of channels filled with network content such as Viacom's (VIA) VH1 channel and AOL's True Stories channel featuring HBO presentations.
It also offers full episodes of shows from the catalog of its parent company Time Warner and entire series that are no longer broadcast in prime time, such as Lois and Clark. Plus, it has a variety of distribution deals. It also has video search capability, acquired when AOL bought video search engine Truveo in January, 2006, enabling it to direct users to sites playing full episodes of shows on other sites.
Take Your Pick
On Apr. 18, AOL announced that it will also be featuring its own shows created in conjunction with television producers and studios such as DreamWorks Animation (DWA). "Our fundamental goal when we talk about what we are trying to do with AOL is very simply to solve the problem of helping users find and consume the video they are looking for," says Fred McIntyre, AOL's senior vice-president of video. "We intend to be a big player."
Other nonsearch sites are hoping to become major players by offering ways to interact with television content and discover new shows. NBC and News Corp., which plan to launch a joint site later this year, intend to add discussion boards to let fans congregate online to discuss plot twists and potential storylines. They also plan to develop a recommendation feature that suggests shows similar to the one being watched or enjoyed by other like-minded fans. "We are going to politely watch what our customers are watching and develop algorithms to recommend shows," says George Kliavkoff, interim CEO of the joint venture and NBC's chief digital officer.
What will, in fact, become the site, or sites, of choice could largely depend on who grabs the most viewers by offering the best interactive and content location tools. In the meantime, the Web won't just have hundreds of virtual on-demand channels. It will have dozens of choices for where to watch those channels.