Creative, But Gentle, Disrupter?

Sling is happy to placate media's jittery giants

One very genial, very excited gadget geek—that pasty indoor pallor may be explained by the seven TVs in his apartment—is practically bouncing up and down in front of his laptop. As he watches a live basketball game on the screen, he records key plays on the fly and e-mails Web links to the video snippets to a pal. The glee is understandable; the technology cannot help but impress. Then again, he is adding weight to the cement shoes of those who'd prefer to keep TV more or less as it is.

The snip-and-clip guy, Jason Hirschhorn, spent years inside a traditional media company—his last position was chief digital officer of MTV Networks (VIA ), where his job was to figure out how MTV would survive in a YouTube-ing world. Today, he's president of Sling Media Entertainment Group.

Sling Media sells the Slingbox, which wirelessly beams programs from your TV to your laptop or cell phone via the wonders of broadband. TiVo, (TIVO ) and digital videorecorders like it, time-shift TV programming; the Sling Box and similar devices place-shift TV so you can watch local programming anywhere in the world. This, like many other recent developments, is good for overall TV consumption while being very, very bad for key parts of the TV equation. (For starters, local TV station owners and cable systems have business models built around hitting consumers in specific geographic locations.)

SLING UPPED THE ANTE during the annual January geekathon known as the Consumer Electronics Show by announcing two major developments: the pending release of the SlingCatcher, which makes Sling's technology two-way and lets Web video—from video clips to movie downloads—be viewed on your TV; and the Clip + Sling technology, the snippet-snatch-and-send function that had Hirschhorn so hopped up. Hirschhorn's job is to build out a Sling-branded video destination site and, most important, to convince the kind of people he used to work with that Sling is friendly, not fanged. That CBS CEO Les Moonves demonstrated Clip + Sling onstage during his CES keynote suggests the degree to which guys like Hirschhorn and gadgets like his are leading the way at this media moment.

Technology is busy blowing up your video (if I may recast a phrase first used by AC/DC) as it has done, or is doing, with virtually every other media form. This does not make Hirschhorn's charge easy. Sling may seek to be the next Apple—the disrupter with a friendly face. (Or since Steve Jobs has unleashed Apple (AAPL ) TV, which pushes online video to your television, a more apt metaphor for Sling might be the non-Apple—in the way that Democratic Presidential candidates jostle to be the non-Hillary.) But Sling is also trying to move from threat to partner without Apple's bona fides or Google's (GOOG ) omnipresence. For this, Hirschhorn's past helps. "I understand the paranoia media companies have about their content," he says.

His argument is that Sling can help them figure out how to thrive in the "click culture" of today. He suggests Sling's data on viewer habits will prove valuable if shared with media companies. (The most clipped parts of a sitcom, for example, offer a road map to which supporting characters on a show deserve a higher profile.) There's the potential for ad revenue-sharing on its upcoming video site, which will be built around the video streams that get Clipped + Slung—once, that is, ads and revenue are there. Its first big partner: Moonves' CBS, which will beta-test Clip + Sling.

It may or may not make sense for the networks to get in bed with Sling—which, by bringing Web video to the living room, threatens to further erode their monopoly on television. But, as with much else these days, the traditional players have no choice: The details of the victory are uncertain, but the gadget geeks are winning.

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By Jon Fine

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