It looks like Rabbit TV is growing up and hopping over into new territory. The TV-equivalent of the MagicJack with “Free access to 5,000 TV stations” is cutting that bright red USB stick loose. You know, the one that you would’ve seen on late night infomercials, and then again in line at your local Walgreens or Walmart for $10. Instead, Rabbit TV is now going to live solely in a web browser, maintaining its own implication as a mecca for live TV — no hardware required — and only for content that is readily available online. It’s got a new home, but it’s still doing the same thing: prowling the web for online video and serving it up in a TV Guide-style buffet that lets people pick and choose what they want to watch.
So just to be clear here: A Rabbit TV subscription doesn’t give you access to anything you can’t already get for free on the Internet. It just aims to make finding what you want to watch easier. And now, it will even fold in movies and TV shows from Netflix and Hulu plus, if you have a subscription.
The Rabbit TV USB stick will still be sold until they are liquidated, but no new sticks are coming behind those. If you’ve got one, it will still help you get up and running, but you won’t need to plug it in anymore. Now that it’s being replaced by a web-based streaming platform called Rabbit TV Plus, a simple registration and login is enough to get started. It’s still designed to aggregate and simplify access to streaming TV shows and movies from existing (and legal) websites, and even throws in 50,000 Internet radio stations to boot. The cost remains at $10 for the first year of service, with a $10 annual subscription required to re-up after that. The best value looks to be the three-year Platinum membership at $20.
It folds in movies and TV shows from Netflix and Hulu plus, if you have a subscription to those services.
Does the change of address shed the image of misleading advertising that some attribute to it? Or is it a shrewd move that complements the likes of Netflix and Hulu?
FreeCast, the company that owns Rabbit TV, claims that it has simply aggregated live content that already exists on the web to offer its customers a bundle of popular U.S. networks and international programming. These live broadcasts include networks like, The CW, PBS, Ion, Univision, Telemundo, This and MeTV (all of which can be found over the air with an HD antenna), as well as news and shopping channels like Bloomberg, MSNBC, QVC, and HSN. The service has also added several international channels such as Europsort, RT, and ZDF, among others.
All told, it currently has 200 live channels with a 24/7 schedule. Those channels that aren’t from the networks mentioned above are collections of pre-recorded content and shows delivered in a live channel format. Users can also create their own, filling up their playlists with whatever they feel like (no nudie stuff, of course). Some, like the Retro Game Show Channel, for instance, appear to be collections of old episodes that have been posted on YouTube, with quality that ranges from poor to passable.
The live channels are actually powered by FilmOn, an IP-based TV provider that licenses and streams about 600 channels from around the world. Only about 100-150 of those are accessible through Rabbit TV, and only in standard-definition, since FilmOn charges $15 per month to stream HD quality channels from its own site. If you do have a FilmOn subscription, you can access those HD channels directly from the Rabbit TV interface. The same is also true of Netflix and Hulu Plus.
FreeCast’s aim to forge a “network” intended to bring together niche content providers and networks from around the world to create hundreds of 24/7 scheduled programming channels through Rabbit TV’s web-based guide. The company got a head start on acquiring content at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show in April, which saw it making deals to link to the programming from providers that met its criteria:
- Programming that is unable to make it on major networks
- Niche special interest content seeking a launch-pad
- Aged premium content looking for a second life on the web
The new shift was an interesting turn for a company that began as a simple aggregator, but is looking to become something more. It was also part of the move to the Rabbit TV Plus, aggregating not just the online video and full episodes freely available on the web, but also live TV and user-generated content channels as well. FreeCast’s position, even in light of Aereo’s defeat in the courts, was that the networks would inevitably move online themselves to take advantage of the 10 million web users who don’t subscribe to cable. It wants to position Rabbit TV as a universal aggregation point for all live, video-on-demand and PPV content available over the web globally.
Doing this required a neater and more streamlined interface for Rabbit TV Plus, and the one currently in use takes design cues from YouTube, Netflix and Hulu, among others. The menus better distinguish between what are “channels” and what are categories, including the visual treatment of thumbnails for all the shows and movies that you can get to. There are no pop-ups, but ad banners do appear squished within the layout, making it look a little less refined than some of the other streaming sites it’s emulating.
Live channels are actually powered by FilmOn.
Even with Rabbit TV Plus, it’s still unclear how much the company has actually matured. While it calls its new network a host for original content, a quick glance at its partnerships seems to reveal that the content it has acquired is little more than a collection of links to programming already hosted on the web, right in line with the majority of the content it already hosts.
Millennials might not be impressed, but the tech-savvy among them are a minority within Rabbit TV’s 3 million subscribers. The primary audience is made up of the 30-65+ age group that doesn’t know where to look or doesn’t care to try looking for all the content. It was initially targeted at anyone — including grandma on a PC or Mac laptop or desktop that she barely knows how to use — to help them easily access streaming TV content through simple selections. Piracy also wasn’t an issue because all of the content links are legal, so grandma doesn’t have to live in fear that the Internet police will break down her door and arrest her (since that happens all the time, right?). And since there is nothing to actually install, the simple register-and-log-in process made it even clearer.
This should theoretically extend to overall access, too. Though Rabbit TV originally started out by limiting compatibility to Windows PCs and Macs, its move to a browser-based platform means that it can work on a Chromebook or Linux machine. There are also apps for iOS and Android — albeit with a twist: The apps aren’t standalone streamers, they require the Puffin mobile browser to playback video because of the Flash-based content available through the guide. The full version of Puffin is $4.00 and the free one only allows for Flash streaming during “off-peak” hours between 8AM-4PM. Since Rabbit TV is merely a guide, and not a true host, FreeCast has no control over what third-party content is in Flash and what isn’t. That said, Puffin is pretty efficient, but isn’t immune to lag and dropouts, which means there’s work to do to improve the mobile experience.
Rabbit TV’s detractors have been quick to judge it a scam, mainly because it doesn’t offer much — if anything — that isn’t already freely available on the web. The sentiment is understandable, but the criticism is still a little off the mark. If it were a scam, it would either not work as advertised at all or have extra hidden costs that quickly erode the notion of anything actually being “free”.
Other naysayers might also not like that the service doesn’t offer unique access to content that wouldn’t otherwise be available – at least beyond its fledgling network. It obviously doesn’t help that the company’s ads have been higher on rhetoric and vague references than actually explaining how the thing works. Not to mention they gloss over the fact it’s a $10 annual subscription after the first year’s up. But the bottom line is that it does do what it’s supposed to in that it brings streaming content from a number of sources onto a web browser.
There are, of course, some notable caveats to consider. Since Rabbit TV can only show movie content which is already freely available on the Internet, the selection is less-than-enticing. To get a feel for what you can expect, go visit Crackle and have a look at what it offers. Also, local TV station access from across the nation isn’t delivered as promised. There’s precious little available from New York, and Oregon isn’t represented at all.
Local TV station access from across the nation isn’t delivered as promised.
Despite the gaps, Rabbit TV is still an aggregator, and is being positioned as a complement to other services. With HBO and CBS announcing plans to offer their content to online subscribers, FreeCast issued a press release where FreeCast CEO William Mobley weighed in.
“A lot of people see Netflix as some sort of new medium, because it’s different from what existed previously, but it’s just another channel. You pay for access, and then you can watch their content. The only real difference is that it’s delivered on-demand via the web and not in a scheduled format on cable TV. But now that HBO and CBS are going over-the-top too, that distinction between Netflix and other channels will disappear as other networks follow suit,” Mobley explains.
Reading between the lines, Mobley is talking about the simplicity of on-demand, which is key to the Rabbit TV’s success. But has it been able to shake off its shady reputation among some users? We’ll leave that for you to decide, but we do think it could stand to be more transparent in explaining how it actually works to aggregate and deliver the content. Vague advertising notwithstanding, the Rabbit TV seems to be worth the price of admission for those who wouldn’t know how to get to the streaming content that’s already out there, and have no interest in learning.
Check out our hands-on video below to see what using the Rabbit TV is all about.
[This post has been updated to reflect an upgrade to The Rabbit TV, April 29, 2014]