Web television has matured significantly in 2009; we’ve seen the introduction of the Streamy Awards, Dr. Horrible seized control of the Emmys, and the launch of more internet TV-related startups than we can count. TV-over-IP is starting to hit television sets thanks to set-top-boxes, TVs, and disc players with built-in streaming capabilities, and like print media before it, traditional broadcast television is beginning to grapple with the inevitability of an Internet-driven future.
Here are several companies that believe they are well-positioned for the transition — big and small, old and new. This isn’t a complete list by any stretch, but these samples will give you an idea of where the industry is headed in 2010.
Along with TV networks’ own websites, Hulu has been one of the de facto destinations for users seeking network television programming on the web. It’s a joint venture between NBC, FOX, and ABC, and while it still isn’t profitable, it’s arguably the best example of giving users what they want from a site that streams professional content.
At the 2009 Digital Hollywood conference NBC executive Mark Graboff said, ‘Hulu is basically an anti-piracy move.’ If you’re a major TV studio, it’s better that viewers are getting the content from you with minimal advertising than from BitTorrent and RapidShare pirates with no advertising at all.
In addition to shows from participating broadcast and cable networks, Hulu distributes some programming that originates on the web. You can’t be sure where Hulu is ultimately going to go — though premium subscriptions have been discussed — but at the moment it’s a strong proof of concept.
Never mind the fact that the Apple TV set-top box has been a niche success at best, iTunes is the world’s largest online distribution platform for pro-quality videos. You’ll only beat its variety of programming by subscribing to cable or satellite television.
The downside is that it’s expensive — $2.99 per episode if you watch in HD. But insiders have said that Apple is approaching TV studios to sign them up in a new plan: $30 per month for an all-access pass. If you have a set-top box or home theater PC to watch all those HD shows in your living room, getting cable or satellite for twice the price suddenly seems pointless. Oh, and you’ll be able to watch those shows on your iPhone or iPod, too.
If Apple succeeds in convincing the producers of content to cooperate, it’ll be a red letter day for Internet TV.
Boxee doesn’t produce video content, and it doesn’t distribute anything on the web, either. Instead, it provides an interface for watching the stuff other people have made and distributed on your television set. Boxee software is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux home theater PCs, and you can run it on an Apple TV box too.
Using Boxee’s media center, you can browse videos from all over the Internet in an interface that is usable several feet away from the screen with a remote. Boxee also offers social networking features; you can rate everything you watch and recommend stuff to your friends.
Getting web TV into the living room is critical for the medium’s future, and Boxee is near the front of the line.
At launch, web TV guide Clicker indexed 400,000 episodes from 7,000 TV shows. It lists content from distribution channels like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, and numerous smaller sources. There’s not a better place to search for professionally produced content to watch online and the company has also partnered up with Boxee.
The size of the database isn’t the only draw — Clicker also provides tools for browsing shows without typing in text searches; that will be a big deal when and if the service makes its way to tablets and other mobile devices. The database is organized by network, genre, and several other tags. The idea is that you can go to Clicker thinking, ‘I’m in the mood for a science fiction comedy produced by the same people who made that other show I like,’ and find something to satisfy your craving.
5 & 6. Revision3 and Next New Networks
The Revision3 network was founded in 2005 by several TechTV alums, including Digg founder Kevin Rose. The network produces, distributes, and markets several shows for niche audiences. (Most of them are tech-related talk shows.) Just over a year ago, Revision3 began distributing and marketing shows produced out-of-house.
Next New Networks launched in 2007, and it operates several websites that each push out videos on specific themes. For example, Barely Political focuses primarily on politically satirical music videos, and Indy Mogul runs several film-themed programs.
These two ventures are included here as examples of bona fide TV networks on the web, delivering regularly scheduled programming just like NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, or The CW do. Both Revision3 and Next New Networks employ a super-distribution strategy — that is, they send their content to as many outlets as possible, including BitTorrent, YouTube, iTunes, and numerous others.
Revision3, Next New Networks, and other networks produce shows for niche audiences that mainstream television can’t afford to reach due to limited over-the-air shelf space. The New York Times thinks that might be the strategy that will win the race.
7 & 8. Mutant Enemy and Gary Sanchez Productions
Some Hollywood celebs are trying their hands at this, too.
Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy Productions was behind the broadcast TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. It’s listed here because of just one web project: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. From the Hollywood camp, the three-act show starred Doogie Howser and Barney Stinson himself, Neil Patrick Harris. Opposite him was Felicia Day, Internet-famous as the creator and star of the web TV series The Guild (though she has appeared on TV, including an 8 episode stint on Whedon’s Buffy).
Dr. Horrible won seven Streamy Awards, became a minor pop culture phenomenon, proved that people are willing to watch long-form content on the web, and — as we mentioned earlier — briefly took over the Emmy Awards ceremony when Neil Patrick Harris hosted.
There’s also Gary Sanchez Productions. The company is owned by Saturday Night Live alums Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Their flagship product, Funny or Die, is a site that streams short comedic videos made by recognizable names like Judd Apatow and Zach Galifianakis. Users vote ‘Funny’ or ‘Die’ when watching each video, and the videos that get good reviews inevitably go viral.
Mutant Enemy and Gary Sanchez have demonstrated that figures from traditional TV media can make a big impact on the web. We’ll see how many more celebs successfully follow in their footsteps.