Peter Kafka

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Boxee: Big Media “Gets It,” but Not Fast Enough. So Here’s a Hulu Hack.

larry-the-cable-guyLast month, Hulu yanked its content off of Boxee, the buzzy start-up that makes it easy to get Web video from your PC to your TV. Today, Hulu’s stuff is back on Boxee, but without Hulu’s permission.

That’s because Boxee has rolled out a software upgrade that lets users grab most any video that’s syndicated via RSS. So as long as Hulu, a joint venture between GE’s (GE) NBC and News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox, pushes out its content using that open feed, you’ll be able to get it onto Boxee. (News Corp. is the owner of Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)

A victory for technology in the battle against dated business models and walled gardens? Sort of. But not a resounding one.

The point of Boxee was to make getting video to your big screen easy and seamless, and this RSS end-run doesn’t do that. If Boxee is going to succeed as a mass-market play, it needs to be plug-and-play simple–otherwise, there are plenty of other clunky ways for users to get Web video on TV.

The good news, says Boxee CEO Avner Ronen in a blog post, is that big media are not a faceless monolith that hate their customers:

“While we don’t come from an entertainment or cable background, we are learning quickly. It is a complex business. our meetings with Hulu and their content providers reinforced that point. The fact that it’s becoming easy to consume Internet video on a TV brings into question many of the industry’s business models that developed before the Web. That’s part of the reason why Hulu asked to be removed from boxee. Our meetings over the past week weren’t able to change that. But the people in the industry ‘get it’. They are users. They read the blogs. They talk with users. They are trying to adjust to a new reality, but they need time.”

The bad news: The TV guys aren’t in a hurry. For them, Boxee is bit player in a much more important drama–high-stakes negotiations that pit TV and cable networks against cable operators.

Right now, for instance, NBC Universal is renegotiating its carriage agreements with Comcast (CMCSA), the country’s biggest cable operator, which will determine how much Comcast pays NBCU for the rights to its programming. (Answer: A lot).

I certainly don’t get the impression that Comcast is terrified of a wave of Boxee users dumping their cable subscriptions to watch TV via broadband. But they’re certainly happy to use Boxee’s existence as a bargaining chip with NBC, which may or may not be why Hulu ended up pulling its stuff off of Boxee.

Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hulu/Boxee situation left unresolved until NBC finishes up its talks, which could take a while.

But if I were the TV guys, I wouldn’t wait too long: The longer they keep their stuff off of legal Web services, the more incentive they give Web surfers to try out illegal ones. Just ask the people who made pirate site the 10th most popular video site.