CBS Tries to Out-Hulu Hulu with TV.com

As was expected, CBS is revamping TV.com to be a video-viewing destination. The well-URLed site, which six months ago started featuring Hulu content, has added CBS shows, and Monday is announcing deals for shows from MGM, Sony, PBS, Endemol USA and Showtime, according to reports tonight.

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CBS is pitching the site as a video portal that’s already social. That’s because competitors like Fox and NBC’s Hulu, Comcast’s Fancast, and Joost are trying to build online communities from scratch, with none-too-impressive results. Not to say people don’t show up at those sites to watch video, they just don’t necessarily show up to chat with other video watchers.

CBS gained control of TV.com through its acquisition of CNET last year. Up till now, the site has been an information source and community for television fans. Personally, I’ve only ever visited TV.com to check out its show guides to make sure I was watching TV episodes in the right order. Not a terrifically social activity! But the site has millions of users — though, weirdly, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal disagree on how many unique visitors comScore said the site had in November; the NYT says 16 million, while the WSJ says 4.8 million.

Out of the gate, TV.com has a leg up on Hulu when it comes to CBS content, because TV.com already has Hulu content and Hulu has no reciprocal deal for CBS shows. But let’s not get too lost in those details. Parsing which site has full episodes of which shows is an all-too-complicated task for viewers and reviewers alike (see, for instance, our recent run-down of Viacom’s shows’ availability online). Networks and studios give different sites different deals — different selections of shows, different numbers of the most recent episodes and sometimes just clips instead of full episodes. Yuck.

Suffice it to say, none of the TV.com content stands out for me as something you couldn’t find elsewhere — for example, you can find the same clips (but not full episodes) of Endemol USA’s Deal or No Deal on TV.com, Hulu, Fancast and Sling.com. And there’s no way TV.com (or anyone else) could be comprehensive, because it doesn’t have permission to embed long-form TV episodes from ABC.com’s walled garden. But the “full episode videos” sections of ABC shows on TV.com are left blank, rather than linking out to ABC.com, as Hulu and other sites do.

But even if TV.com is imperfect, I think CBS’s move toward a comprehensive portal is a good one. Those networks who didn’t get in on Hulu from the beginning can never be as fully a part of it as NBC and Fox. And resentment or other complications stemming from that reality don’t serve the consumer well — unless folks like CBS take the Hulu example to heart and start trying their best to build comprehensive video portals as well. Someday, maybe, someone will get it right.

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