A Tour Of How Networks Have Blocked Google TV From Their Web Content

After less than a week since its release, three of America’s largest television networks have started blocking Google TV users from watching video content on their web sites. Sort of. While ABC and CBS keep Google TV viewers out, as does Hulu, NBC actually still seems to let them in. Below, a visual look at the blocked world of Google TV.

Google TV & Network Content

Before doing the blocking tour, I think some basics are in order. For one, none of the networks are blocking Google TV users from accessing broadcast television. You can still go to ABC, CBS and NBC directly to watch over-the-air broadcasts through Google TV just fine. Instead, what’s being blocked are some full-length episodes of TV shows that the network provide on their web sites (some short video clips are not being blocked)>

Next, it’s important to understand more about how Google TV displays video content from the web sites of major networks. The answer is easy. There’s no difference between using Google TV or your computer to reach these web sites.

Google TV isn’t stripping the video off the sites. It’s not inserting its own ads into the content. It’s not knocking down firewalls, eating small children nor sacrificing animals. It’s simply letting you use a web browser, exactly as you’d use a web browser on a Windows or Mac computer.

For example, here’s Google TV listing content for the current season of 30 Rock:

If I select a particular show, such as the first episode of the current season, I’m told places where I can view it. Below, I’m told that the first episode is available at NBC.com, as well as pay-per-view options at Amazon:

This is virtually identical to the web video listing service that’s run by Clicker, which none of the major TV networks block. If I do a search for 30 Rock at Clicker, I eventually get online viewing options for the first episode of the current season:

With either Clicker or Google TV, I’ll be taken to the web site with that content, using my computer’s browser. Here’s exactly how it looks when I arrive at NBC from Google TV:

You can go to this exact page on your own computer and compare to the screenshot above. You’ll see that they are identical.

Whether you’re on your computer or using Google TV, you’ll still see the same original ads that NBC puts in the video:

In either case, you can use the controls that NBC itself provides to make the picture fill your entire computer or TV screen:

Blocking At ABC

Yesterday evening (Wednesday, October 20 around 8pm Pacific Time), I visited all the major networks using my own Google TV system, to see what was happening.

Over at ABC.com, I was blocked immediately, as I tried to watch the current episode of Desperate Housewives:

Notice the message on the screen:

The operating system or Web browser you’re using is not currently supported. For a list of recommended operating systems and browsers, please see the help section.

Curious, I went ahead and clicked to reach that help section. There, I got this:

This page says nothing about the real reason why the video isn’t “supported,” which is that ABC wants an agreement of some sort with Google. It’s just says you need to have certain browsers, such as Chrome 3.0 or later. Google TV has that, by the way. It uses Chrome 5.0, with the necessary Flash playback.

Technically, ABC isn’t lying in that another requirement isn’t met. Google TV is running the Android operating system, and that’s not listed as a supported system. But it’s not a technical problem with Android that prevents the content from playing. It’s a licensing problem.

Blocking At CBS

At CBS.com, initially I was able to watch the current episode of CSI without issue:

However, when the first commercial break happened, the video stopped playing. I couldn’t get it to resume, so I reloaded the page. This time, I got a blocked message:

The message reads:

The video you have requested is not available on this device.

No further explanation about why is given. Similar to ABC, CBS doesn’t tell visitors to its web site what’s really going on.

Blocking At Hulu

Hulu is a company backed in part by both the parent companies of NBC and ABC, as well as Fox. Prior to Google TV’s public release this week, it was already known that Hulu would block Google TV, until some type of agreement was reached. That was certainly true when I tried to reach Hulu two days ago. I got this screen:

The message says:

We notice that you are trying to access Hulu from your Google TV. It’s not available, but we are working hard to bring our Hulu Plus subscription service to Google TV! Stay tuned for updates.

Credit to Hulu for being specific that Google TV won’t work with its service, unlike CBS and ABC which don’t get into specifics. On the downside, the $10 per month Hulu Plus service that’s mentioned isn’t even on sale to the general public yet. So don’t feel too optimistic about that message.

Blocking At NBC?

Supposedly, NBC is now blocking Google TV. If it is, the network is doing a poor job of it. I was able to reach NBC.com two days ago and view an episode of 30 Rock without any issues. Yesterday evening, after the news of the supposed blocking came out, I tried NBC again. I was able to watch two different episodes of The Office and have them play for several minutes:

I didn’t watch the entire episodes because I’ve never watched the American-version of The Office, so I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Someday! However, I later watched two entire episodes of 30 Rock through Google TV without any problems.

Life’s Good At Fox

Surprisingly, with Rupert Mudoch having demonized Google so often over the past few years, Fox is the only major network that’s not officially blocking Google, though apparently it is considering this. Over at Fox, I was able to watch an episode of The Simpsons:

Midway through, the episode stopped, but that was due to a browser glitch with Google TV, not because of blocking. I was also able to watch an entire episode of Family Guy.

NOTE: Life has since become less good. See The Networks vs. Google: Fox Now Blocking Google TV Too

The Negotiations

Our other story, Networks To Google TV: Talk To The Hand, covers the news about how the blocking from the three major networks came to light today. The story continues to develop (watch Techmeme here for updates), with Google in talks to restore access.

Presumably, the networks want something from Google, though exactly what isn’t clear. As Google doesn’t alter their ads, they continue to benefit directly from the viewers the service sends to them, in the same way they benefit from those using computers. However, they may fear that some type of ad substitution might come, or that down the line, Gogole might place additional ads around their content. If so, they’d likely want some type of protection or a slice of any revenues generated.

The networks may also fear that if Google TV (as well as similar services such as Boxee or Roku) become popular, people might be more inclined to shift away from watching live or recorded TV — with its still lucrative advertising spots — and instead view online content where ad revenues seem generally much less. If Google’s going to enable this shift, the networks may seek some type of licensing agreement.

The Wall Street Journal also notes that the networks may seek ways for Google to better block listing unauthorized copies of their content from showing in Google and Google TV listings:

Some, including Disney and NBC, were also concerned about Google’s stance on websites that offer pirated content, according to people familiar with their thinking.

Disney executives, for example, asked that Google filter out results from pirate sites when users search for Disney content, like “Desperate Housewives.” But they were unsatisfied with Google’s response, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Ironically, Google TV is one of the best ways to prevent this. By default, the service gives preference to authorized copies of content, only providing a web search option if all else fails. It is designed to route you to official places, especially given that at those places, your viewing experience will be much better.

What If They Block Your Mac?

I’d love to talk to the networks about their views, but I don’t generally have contact with them — and when I’ve tried on the rare occasion in the past, I usually don’t hear back. Talking with Google is much easier, but I haven’t yet followed up with them in more detail about this. It’s late, and they’re pretty much only putting out a canned statement, at the moment:

We’re in the early phases of Google TV and already have strong partnerships with Best Buy, Logitech and Sony, among others. We are excited about the opportunities our new platform creates for both established media companies like Turner and HBO, and tens of thousands of content creators large and small. Google TV enables access to all the web content you already get today on your phone and PC, but it is ultimately the content owner’s choice to restrict users from accessing their content on the platform.

So, no having heard the viewpoints from other side, I’ll give you my take, for what it’s worth. I’m pretty annoyed with the networks that are blocking. Google TV is simply a computer. If the networks have a problem with people using computers to watch the content they already offer on their own web sites, then stop offering it to everyone. Targeting a particular platform is worrisome.

For example, it’s pretty easy to hook up a computer to a television these days. What if the networks next decide that they want agreements with Microsoft and Apple for their platforms, Windows and Mac OS? Say Microsoft agrees but Apple doesn’t. Could those using Apple computers find they’re blocked, just as Google TV is being blocked?

It’s possible. Google TV has practically no one using it right now, so the networks have a lot of power to hold over Google’s head without the threat of millions of angry people. Google TV is also especially vulnerable. If it can’t deliver people to online content, it loses much of its appeal. It’s unlikely they’d want to anger millions of “regular” computer users by similar blocking. But it’s possible.

In the end, it seems crazy that using a browser on a laptop is OK but using a browser through things like Google TV is not. The only difference is the size of the viewing screen, pretty much. I understand that there’s a threat of viewing habits changing, of the “big screen” of the living room becoming more computer-like, with computer-like behaviors. But hit-and-miss blocking feels like a new play on failed copy protection and other schemes in the past.

To understand more about how Google TV works, I recommend reading my tour from yesterday, Life With Google TV: My First Day Review & Impressions.

Postscript - Further blocking has happened since this was written. See:

Also see How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks from Lauren Weinstein on how to use PlayOn as a way around the blocking.

Related Topics: Channel: Video | Features: Analysis | Features: Life With Google TV | Google: TV | Internet-To-TV | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • shively

    Thanks for these two articles. Talk about the bleeding edge…

    Can the user agent of the TV be spoofed, or does that not even make sense in this type of device?

  • eborg9

    Maybe corporate payback is a bitch?

    It makes no sense that these content providers would block access depending on what device you use and I will not pay for commercialized content…if that’s what they are thinking, the networks need to stop smoking crack.’You either charge me for the content or force feed me commercials…you don’t get both.

    But maybe given the history of content providers and Google regarding unauthorized music and listing pirate content sites in it ‘s search results…basically supporting criminal activity and copyright infringement…maybe this is some form of corporate payback.

    Like I said, I have no problem paying for the content that I want to watch, but if that is going to be the case…turn off the commercials. They can’t have it both ways.

  • avid2000

    I have a Mac Mini hooked up to my 42″ plasma in my living room and watch Hulu and network shows frequently. Blocking content from GTV is just another case of paranoia from an industry that still does not understand how and why they are on the decline. Pure stupidity.

  • http://news.netapex.org NetApex

    For the record, you can chance your Google TV to read as a regular web broswer, it was done initially to bypass Hulu’s issue so it would go to figure it would work with the networks as well. Not to mention since it does run on Android there will be apps that make it even easier to “spoof”. Now is a time the companies should be playing nice before the developers get forced into things. We all know that developers take this kind of situation personally and would immediately work on ways around it.

  • http://www.highrankings.com/seo-services Jill Whalen

    If the networks think they can stop the trend towards viewers watching what they want, when they want, they are sorely mistaken.

    Anyone who’s ever started using Roku or any other instant download source will never go back to watching network television during prime time exactly when the networks want you to. It’s doesn’t fit with today’s lifestyle of choice.

    Rather than trying to fight the inevitable, those that embrace it (like Hulu originally did) will be in the best positions to monetize the new medium–whatever it might end up being.

  • mnkyhead

    Between this and your first impressions article, all I can say is what a bummer. I don’t have cable, and do a lot of internet watching on the networks sites and hulu, so I was really excited about gTV. No more connecting my laptop up to the tv, and I could finally have control over the program(pausing etc.) with out going to the laptop…guess I will have to wait a little longer. I just hope these issue get worked out before they kill the GoogleTV.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Shively, as NetApex says, there is a way change the user agent which was used initially by some to access Hulu — but Hulu caught on. If this continues, perhaps we’ll see more aggressive options to cloak Google TV.

  • http://richardlawler.blogspot.com richardl

    NBC.com is now working for me on my Sony GT1.

    CBS.com and ABC.com sill seem to be blocked to the device.

    Hey isn’t Steve Jobs on the board at Disney which owns ABC. Maybe the guys at Google could ask their friend Steve… Oh wait. Hmm…

  • Charbax

    Technically, the Browser can be set as “User Agent: Generic”, it has to then be the “Flash plugin” which Adobe has proprietary control over, and even though they claim it to support “everything that you get on your PC” on Android and Google TV, still, for some reason, Adobe must be signaling websites that it is “User agent: Flash for Google TV” which thus allows all these websites to block Google TV.

    You are the tech expert, and you may know how Adobe and Google thinks vs Old Media, so let me ask you this.

    If negotiations between Google and Old Media does not advance, shouldn’t it be logical that Adobe will side with its partner Google in allowing the user to edit Flash player user agent in the Google TV settings as well?

    Google doesn’t want to piss off Old Media too much yet at this point, so it will negociate as much as is required to try to get a deal. But if Old Media continues to try to block Google TV users, for reasons such as being scared of Google taking over control of the $70 Billion TV advertising business and scared of becoming irrelevant when viewers are one click away from the worlds On Demand TV contents and YouTube, then I expect Google and Adobe will allow for “User Agent: Generic” on both Browser and Flash plugin, and this should make blocking technically impossible.

  • Charbax

    Also, I see no reason BitTorrent apps can’t be run directly on Google TV. Imagine such an app that integrates with Google TV search, when you search for a tv show or movie name, there is an option to simply download it using BitTorrent to your external USB hard drive. And if you want faster or untraceable encrypted BitTorrent service, you will be able to use Seedboxes which there are thousands of such services around the world available for $5 per month for unlimited 1gbit/1gbit seedbox usage, thus download any movie and tv show in seconds and stream using encrypted untraceable stream to your Google TV.

    Unlike Apple’s pihlosophies, Google is not going to block this use.

    Solution is copyright reform, where industry wide subscription plans or taxes are paid by all to access all contents as much people want p2p fashion or direct stream and piracy instantly becomes legal and content creators are paid directly based on their quality and popularity without need for the old intermediaries.

  • http://cellar.org Undertoad

    The network people think they’re in control. Ha! Ha! It’s so quaint!

    The execs at music companies suffered from this same delusion. They refused to play by the rules. They refused to be part of the conversation. They had to have their industry DECIMATED before anyone got a clue.

    Remember a few years back, when we had otherwise intelligent execs busily suing YouTube and removing their acts’ content from it…. never realizing that the rules had changed and a band not on YouTube is a band ignored. People who used to PAY radio to get air time spent years actively denying online “air time” for their bands. They were so scared, trying to protect their phony-baloney jobs, all they did was to massively accelerate the process, and in the process alienate their bands and their fans.

    The same happens to television soon. It is inevitable if they continue down this same path. Sure, make it hard for us to get your product. See how well that works for you. Morons.

  • IronAtlas IronAtlas

    No Android user should use HULU plus at all, if they are going to block content they they should be blocked as well.  As the Senior CIO at my company I have blocked Hulu, abc, cbs, nbc and Fox.  While I know it is just small beans to the networks if all Tech’s started blocking the networks they might finally get a clue. 

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