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Oopsie! Zucker Caught Fibbing To Boucher About Hulu Blocking Boxee

February 4, 2010 , , , ,

My momma always taught me that fibbing was a no-no. My daddy, a lawyer and law professor, would always add that it is real stupid to do so when testifying — especially when you know that so much evidence exists that you are lying that your pants are likely to spontaneously combust under cross examination. So I am somewhat boggled that NBC President/CEO Jeff Zucker would tell Rep. Rick Boucher (D. Va) one thing when he said something completely different in an interview last May. Oopsie!

I guess a CEO's gotta do what a CEO's gotta do. So when House Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher asked NBC President/CEO Jeff Zucker about Hulu blocking access to Boxee users last year, Mr. Zucker decided the truth (“We will do whatever it takes to prevent over-the-top video from threatening our existing business model“) was not an option. So Mr. Zucker told Mr. Boucher a little fib. Zucker claimed that the decision was made by “Hulu's management” because Boxee was “illegally taking the content that was on Hulu.”

First, for those not clear on what Hulu does, it serves up content for free to anyone who has a browser. As NBC owns a chunk of Hulu, and provides a fair chunk of its content, Zucker presumably knows what Hulu is and how it works. At heart, Boxee is a fancy browser optimized for finding and playing video — indistinguishable from any other browser I might use to access Hulu. If neither IE or Safari is “illegally taking the content,” then neither was Boxee.

But what about the part where Zucker claims this was a decision of “Hulu management,” with the implication that he — as part owner and major content provider — had nothing to do with the decision and that it certainly had nothing to do with trying to leverage content to preserve existing business models and therefore there is absolutely no reason to worry that the combined NBC/Comcast would try to squash emerging over-the-top internet competitors like bugs? And here is where we get to the “please do not tell lies that anyone with a browser could prove are big fat lies.”

The morning Hulu started blocking Boxee, Hulu CEO Jason Kilar wrote this blog post explaining why Hulu was doing what it was doing. Let's parse through this shall we:

“Later this week, Hulu’s content will no longer be available through Boxee. While we never had a formal relationship with Boxee, we are under no illusions about the likely Boxee user response from this move. This has weighed heavily on the Hulu team, and we know it will weigh even more so on Boxee users.

Ummm….Mr. Zucker, that does not sound like a man trying to stop someone from “illegally taking the content.” Why, that sounds like someone genuinely regretful that they are being forced to cut off access to valued visitors to Hulu. But who could have forced Hulu management to block valued customers from legally obtaining the content you give away to the entire world for free!!!.

“Our content providers requested that we turn off access to our content via the Boxee product, and we are respecting their wishes. While we stubbornly believe in this brave new world of media convergence — bumps and all — we are also steadfast in our belief that the best way to achieve our ambitious, never-ending mission of making media easier for users is to work hand in hand with content owners. Without their content, none of what Hulu does would be possible, including providing you content via Hulu.com and our many distribution partner websites.”

Oh! It was demanded by Hulu's “content providers” — on pain of yanking all the cool content that Hulu needs to survive. Well, that certainly does not in the least contradict Mr. Zucker's statement that it was made by “Hulu's management” with the implication that it had nothing to do with him unless, of course, NBC were on of Hulu's major content providers. Oh wait . . .

But hey, it's not like Jeff Zucker gave an interview last May where he said that this was a business decision by himself personally as part of the overall strategy to keep Hulu off TV screens and on limit it to computer viewing only, right?

[Kara Swisher]: “Hulu is making it harder to watch Hulu on TVs via software like Boxee. What’s up with that?”

Zucker: “Right now we’re committed to Hulu being an online experience, and that’s where our vision is today, and I think that will continue.”

So given that Zucker flat out told Kara Swisher of All Things D back in May 2009 that he personally was forcing Hulu to keep its programming as an “online experience” and that we have a blog post from Hulu's management saying “we soo didn't want to do this” and that there is no way Boxee could illegally take content you are distributing for free, what on Earth possesed Mr. Zucker to tell such an obvious whopper that anyone with a browser could prove was a big fat lie in less than ten minutes? I have to imagine that he and his handlers must have gamed this out as the best answer to give if the subject came up. “Tell 'em that you didn't do it, and throw in the piracy stuff. Members of Congress will believe anything if you claim it's about protecting your programming from pirates.” Combined with the woeful ignorance of most members of Congress (“relax, they probably think “Hulu” is the latest version of the Dancing Baby“), Zucker probably figured it was worth the risk.

It does make you wonder what else in their public statements and FCC filings might also be stretching the truth just a shade, doesn't it?

Finally, lest one think this is one of those wacky public interest conspiracy theories with no basis in reality other than links to actual primary sources, you can see other folks putting the same pieces together — including Mr. Zucker's utterly inconsistent positions on Hulu blocking access to various streaming sites that make it too easy to view video content on TV and undercut the traditional business models here and here.


About Harold Feld

Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”