*CBS* Interactive is relaunching TV.com, hoping to transform the well-named site known for its TV-related community and user-generated content into a serious video destination, paidContent has learned. The full-scale relaunch with new content partners is slated for January but the cosmetic changes will start this week with a new look and logo, according to sources familiar with the plans. TV.com is among the assets CBS (NYSE: CBS) picked up with its $1.8 billion acquisition of CNET last summer. (The other notable non-brand domains: News.com, MP3. com and Radio.com). Despite having the ultimate url and folding in some video through agreements first with CBS and then with Hulu, CNET missed multiple opportunities to grab early advantage. Now it’s playing catchup with a number of competitors, including Hulu and newest challenger Sling.com.
More after the jump
While it’s being talked about by content partners and others as the CBS answer to Hulu.com, that’s not quite the way I think CBS sees it. Hulu.com, launched in beta in late 2007 and for real in March 2008, is a video destination with a solid video search engine and some community elements that have yet to really take off. Launched in 2005, TV.com has been a “digital water cooler” about anything and everything having to do with TV, drawing more than 16 million unique monthly visitors and boasting info about nearly 19,000 shows. As planned, the new version would blend the two by making TV.com into a real video destination, not a place where you happen to watch video, while continuing to build on its community strengths and its depth of content about TV. CBS doesn’t want TV.com to be Hulu — it wants to move beyond Hulu.
CBS execs aren’t ready to discuss — or even confirm — the project, which is still in product development (likely to be a constant state) and is being rolled out in phases. But CEO Leslie Moonves singled out TV.com for investors last week as “extremely exciting,” explaining “we think TV.com will become the destination, or certainly one of the leading destinations, for anybody who wants to watch TV shows or have a community around TV shows, see clips, play games, etc.” (The same day, flashing its user power, TV.com announced preliminary results for its Best of 2008 Awards — more than 70 million votes so far for favorite TV shows and categories.) He was careful, as are others, not to wave the CBS brand flag; CBS execs have insisted from the beginning that TV.com will remain agnostic and open to programming from a variety of sources. As for the value of online video so far, Moonves also said streaming episodes account for only 2 percent of revenue.
CBS was TV.com’s first syndicated video deal long before the sale and it dominates a lot in the current iteration. TV.com also signed on early as a Hulu distribution partner, even before the NBCU-News Corp (NYSE: NWS) JV had a name. CBS declined the chance to be part of Hulu or to be a syndication/distribution partner at launch and has stuck to that since, instead focusing on its own CBS Audience Network — a ubiquitous syndicator — and investing in Joost. Moonves said at the UBS Global Media and Communications conference this past week that he thought Hulu “probably” would have “our stuff” on it but, as far as I know, the two are not close to a deal. Will Hulu’s content be a part of the new TV.com? Nothing else would make any sense for an agnostic site. Without Fox and NBC, TV.com would have only one major broadcast network since ABC is likely to be a no show.
Until now, video has almost been a silo at TV.com — well viewed, but not well integrated into the overall site experience. I noticed it a couple of weeks ago when CBS Interactive announced a new HD Gallery with full video and clips — turned out it was actually the CBS HD Gallery — and I couldn’t find the HD video when I went to TV.com’s own show page in search of an elusive CSI: Miami episode. Until recently, its own boilerplate put video well down the list; that was switched in the last few weeks to highlight video. Plenty of people watch clips and full episodes on TV.com but it’s not cited as a video destination. Can Anthony Soohoo, the SVP whose responsibilities include TV.com, and his team change that? They’ve already made some strides, according to *Nielsen* VideoCensus numbers provided by CBS Interactive that show major percentage increases in unique viewers, video streams, total minutes streamed and streams per user — the kind of large increases that signal a start from small numbers. But the video and navigation experience will have to improve considerably to give current video destinations a real run for the money — and TV.com will have to deliver a compelling video plus experience, too.