Where’s Our TV Guide for the Web?

There’s a lot of free video on the Internet these days, and you don’t need to go spelunking on BitTorrent to find it. But it’s not always obvious where to get high-quality versions of TV shows and movies. Between Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and many, many more sites, it would be nice if someone would come along and lay out our options in clear fashion.

This week, I talked to a couple newly launched and relaunched video discovery sites, so today, on the sad occasion of John Hughes’ death, I put a few of these sites to work to find where I could watch his generation-defining films online.

locatetvFirst up, a fellow from PayTV software provider NDS came by our office to show off a new web project. LocateTV, which just relaunched a couple weeks ago, is a free online interface that analyzes TV listings, online DVD stores and legal web stream databases so that users can track when their favorite shows, movies, actors and the like will be appearing in a format accessible to them.

LocateTV actually works quite well, though it’s a little odd that it’s so TV-centric and comes from a TV company, yet doesn’t actually hook up to your TV so you can do things like tell your DVR to record something right from the web. The site is informational only — you can’t comment, connect to friends or watch streamed content. And it completely ignores YouTube, BitTorrent and other good sources of content that are perhaps not so organized or clean. But the site, which originally launched in Oct. 2007 and has yet to take off, does seem to be very good at what it does. When I searched “John Hughes,” my top result offered a compendium of material from the “producer, scriptwriter, director, actor, executive-producer” himself. And I saw that I’d only have to wait until tomorrow to watch 16 Candles on Encore in HD. Or I could pay $9.99 right now to download it from Amazon.

speedcine Next up, I checked on SpeedCine, another new service whose creators I’d interviewed this week. Founder Reid Rosefelt bragged that the site was built by him and one other fellow in their spare time, with the main expense being a $15 per month server fee. Well, cheap isn’t necessarily good — and the site only offers search by movie title, so it spit the words “John Hughes” right back at me. It didn’t know what 16 Candles was either. (Turns out the official title is actually Sixteen Candles, but SpeedCine didn’t know to resolve that for me.) Ferris Bueller’s Day off is there, and I can either watch it instantly or download it from Amazon, the site says. Rosefelt says more content is coming soon; SpeedCine has signed an affiliate relationship with iTunes.


I recalled that CastTV, a site we’ve written about in the past, seemed to be especially good at organizing different versions of content you can find online, so I checked over there. Now this is an improvement! The results come from all over, and are pre-sorted for me. There are 47 John Hughes-related full-length TV and movies, no news videos (I’d guess that will change soon), and 635 short videos. I can elect not to see user-generated videos if I want, but leaving them in is cool too (the other two services don’t even give me the option). Some of the YouTube-type videos are irrelevant (John Hughes isn’t that obscure of a name), so I have to use my brain a little more when parsing through the results.

If a listed video costs money, CastTV shows me exactly how much, so I can comparison shop. And best of all, when possible, the videos play right inline, so I don’t have to leave the page.

Since CastTV has been around for a while, we can get a better idea of the demand for such a service. According to Quantcast (which should be fairly accurate since CastTV is registered there), the site gets a respectable (but by no means massive) 1.9 million visitors per month from around the world. Quantcast also makes reference to the “CastTV Network,” which has 4.9 million monthly visitors, and would seem to indicate that the company is white-labeling its search for a larger site (or more than one). In the past CastTV had been signed to power search for TVGuide.com, but that’s no longer the case, so it must be somewhere else.

Do you have a better automated TV guide for the web? Let us know.

Hey, Mr. VC, Meet Pretty Mobile Things @ Mobilize 09 New ideas and new contacts. 1 day. $595 regular / $395 discounted »

Masher Media Gets Funding For Virtual World For Kids

Masher Media, which is developing a virtual world for kids aged 6 to 13, has raised $300,000 of a $1 million round, according to an SEC filing. The startup raised the funds from California angel investor network Tech Coast Angels, according to CEO Sherry Gunther. Gunther is a former TV producer who has won Emmies for her work on Rugrats and the Simpsons. Masher’s game, MyMiniPeeps, will be Gunther’s second. She previously launched ZooKazoo.com. The new game is expected to debut in fall 2010.

Reuters Gets It

Chris Aheam, president of media at Thomson Reuters:

I believe in the link economy. Please feel free to link to our stories — it adds value to all producers of content. I believe you should play fair and encourage your readers to read-around to what others are producing if you use it and find it interesting.

I don’t believe you could or should charge others for simply linking to your content. Appropriate excerpting and referencing are not only acceptable, but encouraged. If someone wants to create a business on the back of others’ original content, the parties should have a business relationship that benefits both.


Borrell: Some Newspapers Will See Modest Rebound In 2010

The imminent demise of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated, says Peter Conti, an SVP at local media analyst Borrell Associates. Despite all the fears of bankruptcies, default and closure, Conti sees some cause for hope next year. After another decline in 2009, newspapers in 2010 will show a 2.4 percent gain. And by 2014, newspapers will be up a total of 8.7 percent over the ‘09 figures, to slightly more than $39 billion. This is still down after a peak in 2001, but at least it seems the worst could be over and, as Conti writes, a long way from extinction.

Conti’s more sanguine view of newspapers is based on the notion that because newspapers were the first industry to be negatively impacted by the internet, it will also be the first medium to adjust. And that much of the pain felt by the loss of classified and retail revenue has been borne by the larger companies. Those larger companies will continue to struggle with costs and layoffs, but in smaller markets, the newspapers that survive the tough times will stabilize. Other reasons include newspapers improved sales systems, the end of recession and the additional growth of newspaper websites. More details on Borrell’s blog here.


URL Shorteners Help Track Links, Take Heat for Framing

If there's any doubt that an online titan can be easily overthrown, look no further than the URL shortener Tinyurl.com. For years, it was the most popular of its kind and the dominant (and default) URL shortener for Twitter. Then a few months ago I began to notice that it had all but disappeared from my own Twitter feed.

With the prevalence of micro-blogging and character limits on posts, the URL shortener field has quickly expanded into a vibrant marketplace, with big players and individual sites creating their own shorteners. The industry has even faced controversy recently when Digg's Diggbar, what many had considered a URL shortener, began redirecting users to Digg's front page. Though this wasn't the first time the issue was brought up, it left many questioning the permanence of such links. Would a shortened link you created still exist in its original form a year after you posted it?

Lasting links

Andrew Cohen, general manager of bit.ly, stressed that users should be aware of all these things when they're choosing which shortener to use.

"A lot of the players in this space have been one or two person companies, very small players," he told me. "What we wanted to do was set a very high standard for reliability. So it was really important to us that our short URLs always redirect, and so we engineered multiple layers of redundancy...so even if there was a disaster, the bit.ly short URLs would still redirect."


Cohen explained that shortened URLs often mask the real web address, so there's a need for underlying transparency. Because of bit.ly's API, certain Twitter applications allow users to see the real URL when they hover over the link, and the service has also incorporated spam protection to try to warn users when they've clicked on a suspect link.

"Another important thing is permanence," he said. "So we never recycle a URL. I believe that a couple other small URL shorteners reuse the hashes they generate. We don't believe in that for a couple reasons. We feel the full credit for the link goes to the publisher of the underlying content, so we can only use one redirect. We also don't want to allow any kind of bait and switch scheme, for instance someone who has fabulous content on the first click and then switches out to malware so when you return it'll take you to that."

Of course, what bit.ly is most well known for is its real-time metrics, something that Cohen said is much more difficult to maintain than the URL shortener itself. Not only are individual users able to track how many people click on their links, but the company counts the clicks on all its links in a given week. Back in May, it was averaging around 100 million clicks a week; now it's up to 230 million.


One of the things bit.ly purposely avoided was so-called framing -- when a URL takes you to a page that contains a bar at the top from a website other than the one containing the content. The DiggBar caught a lot of heat for this, with critics saying that it punished the original content creators by masking their URLs. But Ryan Holmes, the CEO of Invoke, the company that owns the URL shortener ow.ly, said that he decided to use framing because it enhances the user experience.


"We kind of looked at what the people's issues were with it, and we addressed all those issues," Holmes said. "The biggest complaint was around search engine optimization. So we addressed a lot of the issues. We give full attribution to the content owners so Google will reward the original content source. It's got a benefit for the person who creates the URL, because their avatar is on the page. In the social bar people can see who originally created it. For the actual content owner there's a great benefit of having the bar on the page, because we see a doubling of URL clicks. We've tried testing with and without the bar, and with the bar you'll see maybe twice as many clicks because of the built-in retweet functionality."

He explained that ow.ly grew as a product to complement Hootsuite, a service described by its website as "the ultimate Twitter toolbox." I asked him how the tool's analytics differ from bit.ly's.

"Bit.ly has some metrics but you have to be careful of bit.ly because all your analytics are exposed to the public, and not a lot of people know about that," he said. "So the risk there is if I'm HP and Dell is using a ton of bit.ly URLs, I can go and look at the Dell shortened urls on bit.ly and see what's getting the best clickthrough, what time of day, what specials resonate well, and learn a ton about my competitor, and that's a big risk of bit.ly."

Custom shorteners

Though most people use these more general URL shorteners, a few sites have created their own custom shorteners to promote their content. If you click on the Twitter link on a Gawker Media blog post, for instance, you'll get a pre-written tweet with the headline and a shortened URL using Gawker's domain. I spoke to Thomas Plunkett, who heads Gawker's engineering, and was surprised that the function wasn't even originally created for micro-blogging, but for email.

"The problem we were facing several years ago is that people were trying to send our links via email, and one of the common problems that URL shorteners try to address is that the URLs would sometimes break, get cut in half," he said. "So what we introduced was switching them around. So effectively we've had the URL, gawker.com-slash-whatever you want to bring up. It has been working for three years now since we first did it."

Gawker didn't introduce the URLs into its tweets until about two months ago, and since doing so Plunkett said he hasn't noticed any direct increase in traffic because of it. But he said there are likely plenty of indirect benefits. For one, it improves Gawker's branding, because its URL is included in the links. It also gives users at least some idea of what they're about to click on, whereas most shortened URLs give no indication.

When Digg introduced its DiggBar, it reportedly saw as much as a 20% increase in traffic to its own site, indicating that there are benefits to creating your own short URLs, especially ones that use framing.

I reached out to Digg for an interview and only got this statement:

The goal of DiggBar and Digg short URLs is to enhance and streamline the Digg experience for our users. If folks are sharing stories via Digg and the DiggBar, we want users to have the ability to view comments and related source content on Digg.

I didn't get a chance to ask about the criticisms Digg has faced about how it redirects its traffic, but the company has made several changes since launching the tool to appease critics.

Monetizing Shorteners

But how do these URL shorteners plan to monetize these tools? For bit.ly, Cohen said that the key to monetization is the click metrics. With all that data, he said, he is able to see news stories gain traction well before the mainstream media begins to cover them. He didn't go into too much detail, but he outlined to me an ad-supported site that would rank stories by rising attention, a kind of Digg-like aggregator.

"We're seeing more than a billion clicks in the course of a month," Cohen told Wired recently. "Looking at that volume of data, we can see the most interesting and the most important content that is being shared across the whole of the real-time web. Sometimes that's humorous stuff -- the other day, the most shared video we saw on the web was William Shatner performing a dramatic reading of Sarah Palin's farewell address."

As for ow.ly, Holmes described it as simply a tool that would help in selling the larger HootSuite package, making the URL shortener a kind of loss leader to bring in more customers.

Of course, sites like Gawker and Digg are already monetizing their sites. For them, creating their own URL shorteners are simply a means to get a bigger piece of the micro-blog traffic pie. As Twitter receives millions of new users every month, it's a tool that web publishers can't ignore.

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and associate editor for MediaShift. For more about him read his blog or contact him at simon.bloggasm@gmail.com

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».