Sidereel: Your Dial Tone for TV
It’s a great time to be a cord-cutter. Thanks to Internet companies like Amazon, Apple, Boxee, Google, Hulu, Netflix, and Roku, it’s getting easier every day to cancel your cable or satellite TV subscription without giving up on your favorite TV shows. There’s just one problem. If you do cut the cord—as I did two years ago—it gets a lot more complicated to figure out where to watch your shows, and when new episodes are available. These are things that your DVR usually handles if you’re a cable subscriber—and for better or worse, there’s no equivalent (yet) of a universal DVR for Internet video.
But there is help. The best service I’ve found for locating and tracking my favorite shows comes from a San Francisco startup called Sidereel. At the Sidereel website, you can search for your favorite shows, add them to a personalized calendar, and sign up for e-mails that will notify you when new episodes are out. There are also handy links to all the places online where you can watch the shows. For example, my current favorite show, Fringe, is available on Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, and Xfinity TV, and a Hong Kong-based site called Megavideo (who knew?). Last week, Sidereel also came out with an iOS app that lets you do most of the same things from your iPhone or iPad.
Sidereel isn’t a household name like YouTube or Netflix, but the angel-funded, 35-employee startup says it’s the world’s largest independent TV site. It attracts a million users every day, and over 10 million per month (the average user comes back once every three days). Unlike Apple or Hulu or most of the other players in the Internet TV space, Sidereel isn’t in bed with—or at war with—any particular TV network or media conglomerate, so its advertising-driven episode guide and tracking service can afford to be all-inclusive. With 9,200 shows in Sidereel’s catalogue, you’re pretty sure to find the shows you like.
I wanted to find out more about this unusual and under-recognized startup, so I headed over to Sidereel recently to spend some time with founder and CEO Roman Arzhintar. Right off the bat it was clear that Arzhintar isn’t your typical brash SoMa/Silicon Valley CEO—he’s more John Hodgman than Master of the Universe. He came to startup life only after abandoning careers as a lawyer and a globetrotting novelist. He says it’s “almost the story of my life” that “things end up being great but for all the wrong reasons.”
Arzhintar got interested in media at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where he was a protege of the college president, former CBS president Arthur Taylor. But he took a roundabout path into the media business, getting a law degree, spending three years as a corporate attorney for a technology firm, realizing that “not only was I a bad lawyer but I also hated being a lawyer—there’s no interaction with people,” then spending a while writing fiction while touring France, Spain, Argentina, and Chile.
He finally ended up in San Francisco working for Guba, a startup that had created a search tool for Usenet, the vast Internet discussion system that predates the Web itself. Among the troves of data users had uploaded to Usenet were videos—home videos and much else, all allegedly copyright-safe—and Guba organized those files in a way that made it into a kind of “Flickr for video,” Arzhintar says. The difficulty was that you had to download the video files first, then find the right software to play them. Unfortunately, this was around the same time—2005-2006—that another video startup came along with the idea of transcoding users’ uploaded videos into Flash so they could be viewed in a Web browser, with no downloads. That startup was YouTube. “That was the killer app,” says Arzhintar. “So we got buried.”
Arzhintar and colleague Bart Myers left Guba at the end of 2006 to start something new. “We thought the Web was going in a different direction,” Arzhintar says. “Not only was video being watched on the Web, thanks to YouTube, but that was the first point at which people started devoting significant resources to producing Web video content. On top of that, you started to see the TV networks making available some of their shows and clips. We decided the people really needed a personalized online directory of all the stuff worth watching on the Web.”
If this doesn’t sound exactly like my description of Sidereel up top, it isn’t—the idea still had a little more evolving to do. “People back then were enamored by Wikipedia—the concept that you could throw a site out there and users would contribute to it,” Arzhintar says. So Sidereel started out as a giant wiki, with links to Web video series and TV shows and their latest episodes added by users. But just as with Wikipedia itself, it turned out that most users weren’t there to contribute. They just wanted to find a particular show. So the startup pivoted, creating a Web crawler that grabs episode data from around the Internet and a content management system that presents the data on a calendar customized to each users’ preferences.
Users are still involved—there’s a discussion board for every episode of every show, and users also help Sidereel’s moderators clean up episode metadata or spot missing shows or episodes. “It was vital that we had a user-contributed site, and to this day we maintain a close connection with our usership,” says Arzhintar. “On the other hand, we had gone overboard about that [with the wiki], to the point where users were also the main curators of content. It’s really hard to predict what will work.”
Today, the typical Sidereel user is an 18-to-34-year-old (average age 29) who comes to the site to figure out which episodes of his favorite shows are available, and where to watch them. The site includes episode previews and recaps, and lets users keep track of the episodes they’ve already seen by clicking on a “watched” check box. Sidereel also creates some of its own video content: showing right now, for example, is a preview of new TV shows joining the midseason lineup, and the site is planning weekly news segments on individual shows like the CW’s Gossip Girl.
Sidereel competes in the entertainment guide sector with TV.com, Fancast, and Clicker. But TV.com is owned by CBS, and Fancast was recently absorbed by Comcast’s Xfinity. So neither site points users to as many Internet-accessible shows as Sidereel or its Los Angeles-based competitor Clicker (which lags well behind Sidereel in the Web traffic statistics).
Clearly, companies like Apple, with its recently revamped Apple TV appliance and its large catalog of TV shows on iTunes, are angling to provide the Internet equivalents of the DVR, that is, one-stop shops for Internet TV viewing, with new episodes available for rent or purchase as soon as they’re aired. In that world, there might not be a need for sites like Sidereel. But no one company has yet scooped up the licensing rights to every show on every network—and Arzhintar doesn’t think this will ever happen.
“There will continue to be chaos, for one reason: greed,” he says. “The content producers have figured out that through the purposeful stratification of license rights—’windowing,’ they call it—they can make more money. So you are going to pay to watch at the movie theater, on cable, on Netflix, and on the iPhone and iPad and Android, and then you’ll buy the boxed DVD set.”
That means there will always be a need, he says, for an independent third party, a service that gets video consumers where they want to go. “Mark Pincus [founder and CEO of Zynga] has talked about this,” says Arzhintar. “He said if you look in the future, you should expect to have a dial tone for everything. Facebook is going to be the dial tone of what your friends are up to. Zynga is supposed to be your dial tone for games. It may be the apex of triteness, but Sidereel would like to be your dial tone for TV. Just pick it up, look for the information you want, and watch.”