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Culture almost ready for its close-up

The maker of the Slingbox now has its own video entertainment portal.

Sling Media no longer wants to be put into a box--the theoretical kind, anyway.

Previously just a maker of hardware like the Slingbox, and related software, the company is now thinking bigger. With the official launch of fast approaching, the small Silicon Valley company--bought last year by EchoStar--is making a bid to be taken seriously as an entertainment company.

Currently in private beta until November 24, is a shiny new video portal that pulls in TV episodes, clips, full-length movies, and professionally produced Web videos to a single destination. The free content is provided by the NBC-Fox partnership Hulu, along with CBS (parent company of CBS Interactive, CNET's publisher), PBS, BBC America, and Web video sites like College Humor and, to name just a few. There are short ads before and during the videos.

Up until now, Sling had been mainly in the business of creating hardware and software that allow consumers to get their TV channels from remote devices.

The Slingbox, which allows owners to watch their own subscription TV channels remotely from a computer, marked the first introduction to Sling Media for many consumers. Then the company began releasing the SlingPlayer as downloadable software for Symbian, Palm OS, and Windows Mobile that lets Slingbox owners also get their TV channels on mobile phones. BlackBerry and iPhone versions are on the way. Sling Media
The player and page for Arrested Development on CNET

Sling then turned from just moving TV to the Web, and began pushing the idea of moving Web video to the TV with its SlingCatcher product, which started shipping last month.

Now, by creating a new Web destination, the company is turning the Internet into yet another destination for its customers to watch the channels they subscribe to along with a host of free, ad-supported content.

I was able to subscribe to the video feeds of shows currently on the air like The Soup and House, as well as recently and long-canceled shows like my personal favorites Arrested Development and MacGyver. The movie selection, which appears to be imported from Hulu, is limited, but Sling says all categories of video will expand in the future as it works with studios and other content providers.

There's also a social element to the site. Everyone gets his or her own profile, which displays a Facebook-like feed of activity on their own page. Profiles also show which videos, shows, and movies the person subscribed to or marked as a favorite. Users can also become a fan of other members.

But where Sling really adds value to a service that on the surface appears much like Hulu, is the integration of the Slingbox. Slingbox owners can access their own device through the site and watch live TV through a separate tab on the page.

Anyone can join once the beta opens in just over a week--ownership of a Sling product is not required.

"The reason for the portal is not to (sell) boxes," Sling Media Entertainment President Jason Hirschhorn said in an interview. Instead, the company is taking a broader tack. The goal, he said, is for Sling to be "a major player in how you access entertainment, regardless of service, codec, or device."