Battle Breaks out Over Online Video Content

My boss likes to say, “The trend is your friend.” And then he often makes it even simpler — as I’m slow, even dim-witted at times — and adds, “Go with the flow…man.”

So when it comes to reading the tea leaves of the past few weeks, it’s good to have a guiding principle to follow. And as my boss is a smarter man than me, I’ll just borrow his.

In the last three weeks, we’ve seen headlines in the online video space that highlight the race to be the premium hub of content and capture the online advertising dollars is far from over. And, to be clear, this isn’t just about how to get premium content onto your PC, but moreover how it gets there and who serves it up.

First on the Hulu front, there was the foot-stomping and legal-wrangling between Hulu and TV.com, which CBS Interactive owns since acquiring CNET. CBS relaunched TV.com as a television portal and was, for a time, streaming Hulu content as part of TV.com’s offering.

Hulu, whose owners include NBC Universal and News Corp., claimed this violated provisions of their contract and it was within their “contractual rights” to yank the content. CBS Interactive countered: “[it] is well within its rights to stream Hulu video content on TV.com under its agreement with Hulu. We are evaluating our next steps at this time.” And now it’s with the lawyers.

At the same time, Hulu also had Boxee, an open-source media center for Apple TV, remove its content. This time Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, in a blog post, said the move was prompted by the online video portal’s content owners. Though Boxee’s user base is small, this move actually ruffled more feathers than the TV.com brouhaha because many came to view Boxee as, in essence, a browser. It’s a browser that works on TV, but a browser nonetheless.

Critics interpret Hulu’s move as a move away from providing premium content when, where, and how a person wanted. Moreover, the ads that were being shown alongside Hulu content were still appearing, only now instead of appearing on the PC monitor they were appearing on the TV via Hulu and Boxee.

A third piece of this crazy puzzle of content provider, access, and consumer entered the fray when Comcast announced it will begin offering cable television content online. There’s a bunch of caveats, like if you go over its 250 GB monthly cap it will cost you money, and it will offer cable content, which is good if you’re an F/X or TNT junkie. But you’ll still be looking to Hulu for your “30 Rock” fix. Also, you would need to be a Comcast customer to participate.

What does this all mean? It means the fight for your attention is heating up. As each of these players, Hulu, TV.com, Comcast, and even Boxee vie for your time and attention, they can then sell that time and experience to advertisers. Expect to see a lot more jostling and legal wrangling as the fight to have a seat at the premium online video table has begun in earnest. Game on!

And, oh yeah, TV.com just launched an iPhone app.

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