It's time for the latest episode of the industry's best and longest-running soap opera, "Google, Apple and the Mission to Disrupt Pay-TV." New reports this week (here and here) suggest that the two tech giants are once again angling to get a piece of the pay-TV industry, which, despite already being under attack from all sides, appears to be holding its own.
As in the past, the current episode is based only on "people familiar" with the discussions Google and Apple executives are each having with pay-TV industry players. Google and Apple executives as usual are offering "no comment." The new episode features twists to keep all of us engaged. Apple is reportedly contemplating a "premium" version of its service that will allow users to skip ads, with Apple compensating TV networks for lost ad revenue (not to spoil the drama, but it's awfully hard to see how the math would add up on such a plan or why the networks themselves would go for it). And Google has reportedly even demo'd its product (shocking!), though no details on what it is or how it is different were released.
Four new actors in this episode are Intel, Dish Network, Aereo and Hulu.
Intel is playing the role of courageous pioneer, trying to break new ground with a startup nationwide OTT service dubbed "OnCue." Though struggling to close its own content deals and get into market for the 2013 holiday season, Intel is softening the ground for industry discussions with Google and Apple.
In this episode, Dish is playing the renegade bad guy. Its "Hopper" ad-skipping DVR is undermining traditional broadcast revenues letting Apple conversely position itself as an ally.
Then there's Aereo, which can be seen as a child actor - young and innocent-seeming, but carrying a sense of intrigue and foreboding that it could potentially upset other characters' equilibrium.
Last but not least there's Hulu, which might be seen as the wayward cousin who's still a power player in the drama (in this case because Hulu has exclusive rights to next-day streaming of 3 broadcasters' programs).
At least two other actors are playing important roles in this episode: Netflix and TV Everywhere. In past episodes, Netflix was nearly given up for dead, due to self-inflicted wounds. But as in any good soap, Netflix has re-emerged, stronger than ever, with tens of millions of paying subscribers and a fat checkbook. Meanwhile TV Everywhere is seeking to play a strong supporting role as the pay-TV industry's shield against disruption. "Supporting" is the operative word however as the industry struggles with various challenges to move it to center stage in the consumer's mind.
Meanwhile, all of the typical cliffhanger questions are once again being raised: "Will Google and Apple even be able to license content from reluctant networks, and on what kinds of terms?" "Would smaller, innovative subscriber bundles be possible?" "How would traditional TV work with current and future Google and Apple devices?" "What impact would new competition have on existing pay-TV operators?" and so on.
As with all of the best soaps, the melodrama of "Google, Apple and the Mission to Disrupt Pay-TV" leaves all of us wondering if and when something substantive is actually going to happen or whether we are destined to be strung along forever. Though I don't think even Google or Apple executives know the answer, I'm betting that we'll all keep tuning in. With the stakes so high, this is one soap that's just too good to ignore.