Jason Hirschhorn raised a few eyebrows when he left his post as MTV Networks’ first chief digital officer in May 2006. Six months later, he resurfaced at Sling Media, maker of the Slingbox, the device that allows consumers to view their TV from any computer anywhere through a broadband connection. Hirschhorn heads up a new entertainment group, designed to forge relationships with content providers and distributors, many of which were skittish about what the “place-shifting” technology would do to their established business models. So far, Sling allows a person to watch—and control—a TV remotely via the Internet. At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the company is expected to unveil, among other things, a technology that allows viewing in the other direction. People can now watch Internet content on TV, or view in the bedroom content from the living room. Hirschhorn talks with B&C’s Anne Becker about the news, how people consume content and how the company avoids getting sued.
1 You’re announcing the “SlingCatcher” at CES. What is it?
We’ve done place-shifting very well, and now it’s about moving content to the TV. You’ll be able to bring your TV picture to other TVs within the house and bring Internet content to the TV. No content deals are being announced, but in the abstract, wouldn’t it be great to rent a movie and bring that directly to your television through your PC, with a great picture?
You’ve heard about these other products bringing the Internet to the TV: Media Center, Apple iTV. This is a product that will allow us to go with two boxes both ways and something that, given our install base, we think we have a head start on and clearly something for our future in terms of offering great content back on the television. I believe it will launch midyear.
2 But when will people actually start watching Internet content on TV and vice versa?
There’s a tipping point in terms of the started momentum, which Sling has already been the leader on in allowing the experience anywhere. There’s a lot of education that goes on, and the most important education is down on the salesroom floor.
These things are moving in Best Buy and Circuit City because this thing has been explained. For the mass marketplace, place-shifting specifically is a new kind of technology. I think the next 12-18 months is the tipping point where this goes beyond the early adopters. What we’d like to see is the Slingbox integrated into our partners at the cable, satellite and telco systems. We don’t have any ambition to try to be the box, so to speak. I don’t mind being inside a set-top box or a cable modem or a router.
3 And when will those deals get done?
Some deals will be announced this year, and it’s exciting. Liberty and EchoStar are backers in our company—and fans. This is a unique dance. I haven’t met a cable distributor who doesn’t think this a great technology that audiences would like. I think the concerns are around what is the business model and will content companies come to the table.
4 What’s in it for the cable companies?
If you look at traditional distribution businesses, they’ve not been the center-point of innovation. They’ve had this closed market. There’s not a lot of competition inside a local market or a region.
DirecTV and EchoStar brought competition in price wars. Now it’s competing on content and services, and now the telcos are in the game. So I think it’s actually a great time to start to see innovation not just in the pricing plan, but what kind of services and cool features these systems are going to have. We absolutely want to partner with every single one of the distributors out there.
When you have an innovative product come out, it scares people initially, but I was just out in L.A., and I ran into athletes, actors, lawyers, people at cable companies and every single one of these people have a Slingbox and absolutely love it.
5 When you were at MTV Networks, what were your concerns about products like Sling?
I came in a little naïve and didn’t care about other concerns of the business. I only cared about the future. You’ve got cable networks, print products, toys. They worry about partnerships with distributors and getting paid and how do you make sure this doesn’t usurp their value.
Listen, I came from the other side of the fence. I understand the worries the media companies have. If you look at the landscape today, the atomization of content is a reality. People are creating stuff and uploading it, but most of the traffic online is being created by stolen content uploaded to the Internet.
We are an interesting bridge and glue between content, cable, and the users with new functionality and guides and software applications that can allow all of them to work together in a different way.
6 And what should content companies do about that?
I’m very impressed with what the content companies have done, because they haven’t gone out and sued people into oblivion. They’re not doing a Napster like the record business did. They’re saying this is a reality and we’re going to turn it on its head and make it work with us, try to get deals done and work with some of these places and if not, then we can take the actions that we need to.
No matter how much you hear about user-generated traffic, [professional content is] really where the traffic is. Place-shifting is not only a reality, but on top of that, you have the content companies seeing these out-of-the-box experiences as great examples of the way they can make money.
They’re looking to get their content out to whoever they can get it out to and get paid for it and have new revenue models, and I believe, if the audience wants it, there’s a way to make money about it.
Sling’s been called disruptive. I think that’s the wrong word. It’s just a new way to distribute video content, and it really shouldn’t be looked at as any different from the current business models these companies are in. It’s just an evolution of what that product is.
7 Where do you stand on talking to content providers?
CES is where I’m doing a lot of initial meetings with some of the content companies. This is not easy stuff. Don’t expect this to go down immediately. There’s always people inside these companies like, ‘Oh my God. We’ve gotta do that.’ And then there are ones like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do that,’ and there are ones like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve gotta do that, but how are we gonna get it done?’
8 Why haven’t you been sued?
We are mindful of copyright issues. In many ways, I don’t know many companies that think we’ve done anything wrong yet. We are allowing someone to access their television in a one-to-one stream, not to share it.
It’s important for the long term for anyone allowing access to programming to not think about their business as tied to a room.
I would love to have one bill for my phone, Internet, music, content service, wherever.
People 15 to 20 years old don’t distinguish between platforms. They only know they want to watch something or listen to something.
That is ultimately going to be the majority of people, as they move from room to room and device to device, having a seamless experience with content and interfaces, where a change or addition made on one reflects on another.
I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but we’re going to be a big part of hopefully writing that direction.
Looking at the company long-term, we’d like to be the leader in video experiences in a seamless way across multiple displays and platforms.
Right now, we’ve done that on the PC and the laptop and the phone.