November 24, 2010

How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks

Greetings. You're stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie. The in-laws just noticed a shiny Google TV box -- such as the Logitech Revue -- sitting over by your big screen.

"Let's watch Hulu!" they all yell in unison. You scowl. As I've explained in The Stream of Fear: The Real Reason They're Blocking Google TV and various linked postings, Hulu, CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and a growing list of other TV networks are selectively, obnoxiously, and inappropriately discriminating against Google TV buyers by blocking the online versions of their full shows -- both free and pay -- from Google TV units. Yet the shows will play just fine on a conventional PC sitting on the other side of the same room.

Since this blocking is apparently based on the Flash player ID embedded within Google TV itself, there is currently no reasonable direct way to "trick" services into treating Google TV in an appropriate manner -- that is, just like any PC running a browser and Flash.

But -- and this is the good news -- there is another approach to watching these "forbidden" services on GTV, and while it isn't free, and won't be appropriate for everyone, it is remarkably quick and simple to set up, and extremely functional -- assuming you have a reasonably powerful Windows-based PC available somewhere on the same LAN.

The goal is to let a local PC be the "official" client that is "viewing" the network TV service, then to have that PC pass the data along to Google TV. It's somewhat roundabout, and wouldn't be necessary if the networks weren't hell bent on treating potential viewers so badly, but a useful approach that works for the time being is the goal at this point. While it's not impossible that this method will also be attacked by the networks, the "use your own computer to transcode" technique presents some interesting challenges to blocking from both a technical and legal perspective.

There are various software packages -- free and pay -- that can provide transcoding (conversion) between different audio and video formats, then stream the results to playback devices, including in some cases smartphones.

In the Windows world, Orb, TVersity, TVMOBiLi, even venerable VLC and native Windows 7 itself have various capabilities in these regards, some providing compliance (more or less) with the DLNA media sharing protocol, which also provides for sharing of locally-based media (e.g. local video and audio files) across various devices.

But in my testing of the packages listed above in conjunction with Google TV, they all failed my tests in one respect or another.

So I was very pleased to discover that one package/service in particular -- PlayOn -- not only passed my testing regime with flying colors, but far surpassed my expectations by providing a user experience specifically tailored for Google TV. See below for a video demo.

By running PlayOn, the Google TV user can access full-length Hulu programing, plus the programming of most of the other blocked networks (either directly through PlayOn provided interfaces and scripts/plugins, or via the PlayOn transcoding of Hulu itself, which carries programming for many networks).

At least in my tests, display quality on Google TV via PlayOn was generally very good. There were variations and occasional glitches related to the source video/audio quality, Net traffic conditions, and things that go bump in the night of course -- and not all programs appear to be accessible at any given time. But both 4:3 and 16:9 video displayed fine, with program access via a quickly traversed series of menus.

Random access video seek capabilities of the current PlayOn system are limited, but I didn't find this to be a troublesome issue in normal use. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that PlayOn also was able to transcode and stream to Google TV virtually every video file in my collection, across a very wide and somewhat eclectic range of formats and encoding rates.

It takes a fair bit of computing horsepower to pull this off successfully, since the video transcoding is all being done on the local PC, which essentially becomes a local Web server for Google TV to access. Network programming flows from the Net to the PC, is transcoded, then feeds directly to Google TV. On my 2 Ghz dual core system, typical transcoded streaming seemed to take about 20-40% of CPU while viewing was in progress and didn't represent a strain.

Setup of PlayOn was a snap. After hassling in various ways with the other packages I tried, PlayOn was a breath of fresh air -- though while I could view the program menus directly via the Google TV (in this case Logitech Revue) Media Player, I was unable to access video in this manner.

Not a problem. Simply use the Google TV Chrome browser and head over to, and a Google TV interface appears that provides direct local access to network video streams and your local video files -- clean and neat.

The list of devices beyond Google TV that reportedly work with PlayOn is a long one -- Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iPhone, iPad, and various others, including specifically Android coming up soon I'm told (I have not yet tested PlayOn under Android 2.2 Froyo using the standard Flash player).

Anyway, PlayOn is working like a charm with Google TV on my Logitech Revue. And suddenly most of those blocked networks just ... well ... aren't really blocked anymore.

PlayOn has a two week free trial, then is either about $20/yr, or an alternative one-time fee of about $60. (These are apparently sale prices in effect until November 30, after that subscriptions go to around $40 for first year -- $20 for following years -- or about $80 as the alternative one-time payment).

Is PlayOn worth these various prices? That depends on your estimates of how long the blocking battle between Google TV and the networks will continue, the value of PlayOn to you both for Google TV and perhaps for streaming to other hardware as well, and your guesstimates as to the potential for network blocking of PlayOn and the longevity of PlayOn itself. If nothing else, if you're interested, at least consider giving the free trial a try. If it works for you, it's hard to see how you can go far wrong with a $20 subscription for a year (if you buy before the end of this month) even with the rapid rate of change we're all facing.

If you do decide to trial PlayOn with Google TV, here are a few operational suggestions based on my testing with the Logitech Revue Google TV unit.

On the General Settings page of PlayOn, I recommend unchecking the "Resuming Playback" Enable box. If this is left checked, the server may continue transcoding of a stream after you are no longer watching, in the hope that you might want to continue later. Since this can result in unnecessary load on the PC if this isn't your typical viewing procedure, unchecking the option will avoid this behavior.

Also, be sure you leave the Google TV Chrome browser User Agent at its Default setting. If you've changed it, the site may not recognize your configuration properly.

Finally, when backing "up" the menu tree, I obtained very consistent results in most cases using the Google TV keyboard dedicated "back" key rather than clicking on the backarrow present as part of the PlayOn pages.

Again, this should all be utterly unnecessary of course. While PlayOn provides a host of capabilities beyond streaming to Google TV, it should be possible to watch whichever network you choose on GTV just like anyone at an ordinary PC.

But for now, PlayOn does appear to offer a practical approach that works. And in today's Internet video world, that's definitely not a trivial accomplishment.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Posted by Lauren at November 24, 2010 10:29 PM | Permalink
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