Hot Seat—Hulu’s CTO talks about the challenges of live TV

In addition to launching its live TV service, Hulu has undergone a massive UI redesign in recent weeks. (Hulu)
Tian Lim

Hulu is barely two weeks into the launch of its new live TV product and CTO Tian Lim says that so far, so good. But the process of building the service, taking on all the challenges associated with live TV and redesigning Hulu’s platform has been extremely challenging.

After his keynote address at Streaming Media East in New York, FierceBroadcasting sat down with Lim to talk about the new UI, wrangling an unwieldy world of metadata and getting programmers and broadcasters on board with a new way to present live TV.

FierceBroadcasting: How nerve-wracking was it to launch a virtual MVPD, especially considering all the growing pains similar services have experienced?

Tian Lim: It was definitely a daunting task. We spent a lot of time doing due diligence, reassessing the space and trying to figure out the best, fastest, safest way to deliver it. But you just get into a groove with a big project.

FBC: What have been the primary challenges with integrating a new virtual MVPD into Hulu’s existing on-demand platform? Did you really have to rewrite Hulu?

Lim: Almost everything is new for the live service and the services that power the browser experience and the UI.

FBC: Was the new UI because of the live TV?

Lim: No. We were about due for a redesign and this was the perfect moment to do it. We really believed our mission in life was to redefine television. Adding live was the perfect inflection point to execute on that.

FBC: You’ve said that Hulu wanted to build up the maturity of the virtual MVPD industry. Can you elaborate on how Hulu is doing that? What are lessons you learned from other virtual MVPDs?

Lim: I’m not sure I said mature. I think I meant foster more innovation and growth. Basically, until we pushed hard on the experience, going radically different with the experience, we didn’t really understand all the different impediments to delivering on that experience, from a business or a technical perspective. For example, we just don’t have the rights to create clips, which would be a great way to merchandise content. On the technical side, the state of metadata in this industry is just not there and ready for us to do things like innovate with the advertising experience.

FBC: Was a lot of focus on metadata and streamlining that process while building the Hulu live TV service?

Lim: The way to think about it is, we lead with the experience and as we were building out the experience we discovered we needed more metadata, better metadata, more reliable metadata. That’s when we began to find the issues and the gaps in the state of metadata in the industry.

FBC: And metadata is something Hulu can help streamline and make more useful for other services and providers?

Lim: I don’t think Hulu can actually drive this. It needs to be an industry effort. It’s fragmented. There are different ID spaces for content, split up by different vendors or content providers, and they have to agree to begin to work toward a common specification for more than just the sorts of things that are currently being tracked.

We discovered that we needed to understand much deeper relationships between content such as sports games, leagues and championships. But the one that really surprised us were things like original air date. Sometimes I can’t tell if a game is a replay or not. I don’t want to waste the users’ time looking at a game they’ve already seen.

FBC: It seems like live sports was a humongous challenge for Hulu live TV. Do those challenges include managing concurrent streams?

Lim: I don’t think we’re large enough yet to have run into some of the issues that others have with concurrent streams. I do think we have a strategy that will allow us to deal with that. That is why we deployed a lot of our infrastructure into the cloud. It gives us a lot of push capacity to avoid some of the classic pitfalls that you might run into as you scale users.

The challenges for us with sports were about the metadata and correctly enforcing blackouts. Those things were very new to us.

FBC: Hulu’s live TV service doesn’t have a traditional content grid. Did it take some convincing to get programmers and broadcasters on board with that?

Lim: It definitely surprised them as we showed them the user interface. A lot of these content agreements and deals with content providers specifically talk about electronic programming guides and, well, we just really didn’t want to have one. Certainly it was jarring to us internally at first as well, until you start realizing the ways in which the EPG has confined your discovery.

If you think about it, the EPG is this massive grid that goes out two weeks into the future, but you’re only seeing a really tiny window of a few channels and a few hours ahead. But by completing repivoting how we present content using richer metadata, we can dramatically drive discovery for things you didn’t even know were on different channels.

For example, the movies collection. For me, that was when it really clicked. Even before we went to private beta, we started using live and upcoming in the movies collection to discovery “Holy cow, there’s so much stuff on FXM, on Freeform, on TBS” that you just didn’t expect. That was truly magical. And then my usage case became, I would go through, add each of them to my stuff, and every weekend I would have a new slate of movies to watch on-demand.

As we discovered different ways to present discovery, we got pretty comfortable with the approach.

FBC: You said Hulu’s on-demand service is a big differentiator. Is that also in terms of the user experience for on-demand as compared to some other MVPDs?

Lim: Exactly. I think there’s so much on-demand stuff that comes through the MVPD VOD, but our library really complements [live TV] well and really fills in a lot of gaps.

FBC: Aside from on-demand, live local broadcast will also be a big piece for Hulu. How would Hulu like to address technology integration with network affiliates who aren’t well equipped to handle streaming?

Lim: It’s not actually our job. For the owned & operated stations, the networks could work with the stations to implement whatever they need to deliver OTT and conform to whatever metadata needs the network needs. For the stations groups and non-O&Os, that’s a different conversation and I have very little visibility into it.

However, everybody’s pushing to get all those guys onto the internet and we’re lighting up channels every single week.