Finding your favorite television show online can be a daunting experience, particularly to viewers accustomed to the same-time, same-channel model of TV consumption. In recent years, a handful of Internet television guides have sprung up promising to simplify the search by providing links to all the places online - Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, network destination sites - that a show can be found.
Last week, two of those guides were acquired: CBS bought Clicker.com and appointed its CEO and co-founder, Jim Lanzone, head of the CBS digital media division; and Rovi, an entertainment metadata and copyright protection firm, bought SideReel. Terms of neither deal were disclosed.
The twin acquisitions instantly shifted the fault lines in the Internet TV guide space, where independence versus network affiliation is suddenly a cause for bragging rights.
"The only independent online TV guide," touted a blog post from Yidio, another player in the space, immediately following the acquisitions.
"When you're owned by CBS, there's going to be some sort of favoritism going on," said Adam Eatros, chief operating officer and co-founder of Yidio, in a telephone interview, "whereas we can be the independent voice of consumers and really display what consumers want to see rather than what our corporate overlord would want you to see."
CBS immediately sought to tamp down speculation that the network would game Clicker.com to favor CBS content. “Then nobody would use it,” Lanzone told the New York Times.
But Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost and Sullivan, agreed that it was unlikely CBS would let Clicker.com remain network-neutral.
"Does this mean over time Clicker will no longer index content that is not on CBS?" he said. "Probably not, but will it highlight their content more? Probably."
The acquisitions could also have an effect on the other dividing line between Internet TV guides. Some link to pirated content, some don't. Clicker.com does not feature illegal links, whereas SideReel does.
It should come as no surprise that CBS chose to align itself with a site that doesn't drive traffic to illegal streams of its content (the company made a point in its press release of calling Clicker.com "the first comprehensive and structured guide to legal broadcast programming on the Web.") But some have speculated that even Rovi would now pressure SideReel to stop featuring illegal links.
A SideReel spokeswoman said no one was available to comment. CBS did not reply to a request for an interview.
Yidio is also among the guides that do not feature pirated content - a decision Eatros said was based at least in part on a desire to be a good partner to the networks and studios.
"If you can provide the right model, then they can work with you," he said. "They see that they have to play in this space, and they don’t want to make the mistakes the music industry made."
Eatros said that Yidio had been courted as an acquisition target as well, though declined to provide specifics.
Of course, the biggest change caused by the acquisitions could be that these guides cease to exist as independent entities at all. Rayburn, of Frost and Sullivan, says he suspects that CBS is more interested in Clicker.com's technology than its brand.
"The real question is what did they acquire it for? The technology or the brand?" he said. "My guess is that CBS might simply take the technology and use it across all the other sites on the backend and do away with the front-end, consumer-facing portion of Clicker over time."
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Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.
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