Boxee, NBC spar over Hulu

NBC is showing no love to Boxee, calling the Web video software illegal and prompting a fiery response from Boxee’s co-founder.

At a congressional hearing over Comcast’s proposed acquisition of NBC Universal, NBC president and chief executive Jeff Zucker reserved some harsh words for Boxee. The software pulls Web video into a convenient interface designed to run on television set-top boxes, but Hulu has restricted its content from Boxee at the request of networks such as NBC.

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Rep. Rick Boucher, of Virginia, asked Zucker whether Hulu indeed blocked Boxee users from accessing Hulu content.

Zucker’s response: “This was a decision made by the Hulu management to, uh, what Boxee was doing was illegally taking the content that was on Hulu without any business deal. And, you know, all, all the, we have several distributors, actually many distributors of the Hulu content that we have legal distribution deals with so we don’t preclude distribution deals. What we preclude are those who illegally take that content.”

Zucked added that “we’re always open to negotiations” from Boxee.

Boxee’s co-founder, Avner Ronen, issued a fiery retort on the company blog. He noted that Boxee uses a Web browser to access Hulu content, so the interface is essentially no different than Internet Explorer or Firefox. Furthermore, Boxee doesn’t copy videos or put ads on top of them, he wrote, it merely shows the videos running the same ads you’d find when accessing the site from a computer.

“There are now close to a million people using Boxee,” Ronen wrote. “When they watch shows from Hulu they are watching the ads and generate real revenues to NBC. We hope we will be able to work with NBC and offer more content and value to Boxee users as we believe a good number of our users will also be willing to pay one-time or subscription fees to access NBC’s content.”

If the Comcast acquisition goes through, the fate of Hulu isn’t clear. NBC owns a stake in the site along with Fox and Disney. Comcast said if it acquires NBC, it won’t try to lock the site behind a pay wall. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether set-top software, such as Boxee, will ever be blessed to access the content. Indeed, set-top boxes that access Web video, such as the upcoming Boxee Box, are a threat to Comcast’s cable business.

Ronen said he’ll try contacting NBC to bring more content to Boxee, on the chance that Zucker’s comments on negotiations are genuine, so maybe some good will come of this exchange.