The Next Big Battle: Cable TV vs. The Internet
from the grab-some-popcorn dept
Leading up to the New Year, I was inundated with submissions about the supposed “battle” between Time Warner Cable and Fox over fees. The quick background is that Fox wanted to get a cut ($1/subscriber) from Time Warner Cable and TWC claimed it wanted to fight it. Neither side was being particularly honest about what was going on, with TWC launching a hilarious website asking consumers to “vote” on whether it should “roll over” or “get tough” and if you voted for it to roll over, it told you that you were wrong, and asked you if you wanted to change your vote. I didn’t write about the whole thing because it was an exact replica of what happened a year ago in a similar dispute — and, just like in that dispute, the parties settled up just in time to keep Fox from being deleted from TWC’s lineup. Of course, at the same moment, TWC also raised its rates. Of course, this was exactly what everyone expected all along, and TWC knew exactly what it was doing. Now it can blame the rate increase on News Corp., even though it had planned to do that all along. Other similar disputes will likely be settled in short order as well.
Of course, I find it amusing that the at the same time that content providers are arguing for service providers to pay them to carry their content on TV, those same service providers are suggesting that content providers should pay in the other direction on the internet. All the “net neutrality” battles are about the very same TV providers using their broadband divisions to claim that content providers should pay the broadband providers more to “carry” their services to users. It’s just two sides of the same coin.
Still, the more interesting battle may be shaping up elsewhere. Some consumer groups are asking the Justice Department to investigate cable companies for their “TV Everywhere” effort, which they claim is almost certainly an antitrust violation of collusion to keep certain content from going on the internet. Not surprisingly, the cable industry and their lobbyists have hit back hard, claiming that the whole thing is ridiculous.
To be honest, I think it’s a bit early to worry about collusion here. From everything we’ve seen so far, the cable industry is doing a pretty good job screwing up TV Everywhere on their own, so it’s not like it’s a huge problem yet. They’re trying to turn the internet into cable TV with extra ads. Like the recording industry’s many attempts to create their own online efforts, it looks like they’re hamstrung by their own legacy view of the world. That isn’t to say that there may not be an issue eventually, but it does seem a bit early to be ringing the alarm bells.
There’s no doubt at all that the cable companies view “TV Everywhere” as an attempt to keep people from ditching their cable TV accounts and going internet-only. But if those efforts are stymied by terrible execution and implementation it won’t do much good. People are already learning how they can watch TV over the internet (without a cable or satellite subscription) and if the cable companies really succeed in blocking TV content from going online in other ways, people will simply route around those blocks and get the content in an unauthorized manner. We’ve seen this game before, and it doesn’t end well for the companies pretending to be gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean the Justice Department should be wasting money investigating them just yet.
Either way, both of these stories suggest a prime battleground for the next year: as the old TV businesses come to grips with the internet (finally). Just like other parts of the entertainment industry, it will be messy and annoying — and incumbent players are going to make a lot of really stupid mistakes. But, in the end, we should start to get some pretty cool stuff out of it — though, most likely not directly from the incumbent players, but from the upstarts and innovators on the margins.