British TV fans have long been jealous of Hulu.com. Granted, the BBC’s excellent iPlayer offers lots of on-demand programming for U.K.-based online video fans, but it only serves up shows from the last seven days, and it doesn’t have any content from the BBC’s competitors. Enter Seesaw, a new online video site for TV content that opened up its beta test to UK viewers a few days ago.
Seesaw rose from the ashes of a previously-planed online video platform codenamed Kangaroo, and it aims to be something like a U.K. version of Hulu. However, its licensing structure is unusual, and its catalog is fairly small. With these limitations, how does it fare against Hulu? We decided to give Seesaw a ride.
Seesaw’s unlaunched predecessor, Project Kangaroo, was jointly funded by the BBC and its competitors ITV and Channel4, which announced the cooperation in late 2007. Commercial competitors didn’t quite like the idea of three public broadcasters joining forces, so they asked U.K. regulators to step in. The U.K.’s Competition Commission sided with the complaint and banned Kangaroo from jumping launching for five years. Rather than waiting it out, Kangaroo’s funders decided to sell, and British telco infrastructure provider Arqiva stepped in to buy Kangaroo’s assets.
Arqiva spent about half a year retooling the service and striking licensing agreements with the BBC, Channel 4 and Five. Notably absent is former Kangaroo partner ITV, as is more current BBC programming. Seesaw licensed the Beeb’s shows from its commercial arm BBC Worldwide, which means that users still have to go to the iPlayer to catch up on most recent BBC shows.
The site did start its beta with 3000 hours of programming, including shows like Doctor Who, The IT Crowd and the UK’s version of The Apprentice. However, the lack of content is painfully obvious in many areas, including the sports section, where Seesaw currently offers just one full-length soccer match and Olympic content from 2006. Yawn.
The shows themselves are displayed via Flash with three different bit rates (500kbps, 800kbps and 1500kbps), and Seesaw automatically uses a light-box effect to dim the page once you start a video. Seesaw serves up pre-roll ads before each video, and I actually got to see two in a row a few times — something that’s unheard of at Hulu. Commercials can’t be skipped. However, once you’ve done your pre-roll duty, you’re free to jump back and forth anywhere in the video. Hulu and other US sites tend to segment videos, forcing you to start off with the next ad break if you happen to jump too far ahead.
Seesaw seems to pay a lot of attention to content ratings; I was repeatedly asked to confirm that I’m 16 or 18 to watch content that was deemed violent or sexually explicit. Compare that to Hulu in the U.S., where violence is served up without much of a warning, but users have to register an account to watch some of the few shows that happen to show bare breasts.
Speaking of accounts: Seesaw is currently lacking any social features. You can’t embed videos on third-party sites, there are no rating or comment features in place, and you won’t find any Twitter or Facebook buttons either. That makes Seesaw much more of a lean-back TV experience — and it makes you wonder how it will fare once Hulu finally does enter the U.K. market.
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