Here’s a good example of a technological disconnect. Mobile devices capable of displaying high-quality video streams are spreading rapidly, with close to half of U.S. homes expected to own a tablet in 2013. But the companies supplying the most coveted content for those devices -- TV networks and movie studios -- can’t seem to settle on a coherent approach to making their programs available online.
Instead, viewers have to contend with a confusing array of release “windows,” blackout periods and eligibility requirements. As a result, the most reliable suppliers of programming aren’t authorized outlets such as Netflix and Hulu, but illegal streaming and download sites.
That’s created an opportunity for middlemen who can keep track of what’s available when, to whom and for what price. A good example is Fanhattan, an iPad and iPhone app that launched last year. Fanhattan is a guide to the programming on multiple online video services, letting users search across service boundaries to find programs by name, genre, category or critical recommendation. Each search result is accompanied by links to watch the program (on the site supplying it), learn more about it or see recommendations for similar content.
On Tuesday, it announced the integration of four additional video sites or services -- HBO, Cinemax, NBC and the CW -- bringing its total to 14 sources of programming. The others include Netflix, iTunes, Hulu+, YouTube, Crackle, PBS, ABC and Lifetime.
The odd and unpredictable licensing arrangements that the networks and studios have made with various online video sites mean that it’s not enough for Fanhattan to sign up major aggregators such as Netflix and Hulu. It has to seek out individual networks’ sites too, and that’s a work in progress. Nevertheless, it’s off to a good start.
The addition of HBO shows that Fanhattan is also starting to support TV Everywhere, the initiative led by Time Warner and Comcast to give pay-TV subscribers exclusive access online to selected cable-network programs. The initiative lets those networks make shows available online for free to people who already pay for it, but not to those who don’t.
The other new feature announced Tuesday is a “Watch List” that lets users keep a list of the titles they want to watch, even if they’ve not yet made it to the Internet -- or even the theater. Fanhattan alerts users when programs on their watch list reach an online service or, in the case of new movies, when they hit the local multiplex. The advantage to Fanhattan’s approach is that it sends an alert as soon as the program hits any of the online services. By contrast, similar features from the likes of Netflix monitor content only on that one site.
“We will track when the content has entered a new service, leaves another one, enters a new one,” said Gilles BianRosa, Fanhattan’s chief executive. This is a particularly useful capability for TV shows, which are scattered across the Web in various release windows and at different prices. BianRosa cited as an example the confusion surrounding "Parks and Recreation”: four seasons of the show are for sale on iTunes, three seasons are available to Netflix subscribers and one to Hulu+ subscribers, and three individual episodes can be found on the NBC website.
The company’s next move is to create a Web-based version of Fanhattan, accessible from PCs and Macs. The windows and terms for online video content that’s available to computers is different from the ones for mobile devices -- witness the difference between Hulu and Hulu+ -- so Fanhattan will help users manage those variables as well. BianRosa said that version should be available in the fall; people who want to sign up for the early version may do so starting Tuesday.