What: Major cable operators Comcast and Time Warner intend to offer broadband access to cable programs for the first time, but they have provided few specifics to date, thereby creating a swirl of confusing interpretations. This post seeks to clarify their plans.
Important for whom: Cable networks, other content providers, cable operators, consumers
Potential benefits: Flexible access and first-time online availability of popular cable programs.
Since the WSJ reported two weeks ago today that Comcast and Time Warner Cable plan to offer online access to cable TV programming to their subscribers, there has been a significant amount of confusion and misinterpretation about what these companies are actually planning to do. Absent official statements from either company, there has been an ongoing debate about whether cable operators, who want to defend their traditional model, were moving to choke off the largely open access to broadband video that users have grown accustomed to.
Things got more confusing this past Monday when AdAge ran an interview ("TV Everywhere -- As Long As You Pay For It") with Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner Inc. in which he elaborated on a company initiative dubbed "TV Everywhere" that major cable network owners such as Time Warner Inc. Viacom, NBCU, Discovery and others are said to be collaborating on. Bewkes outlined a broad online vision including the idea that cable programming could also be available on sites like Hulu, MySpace, Yahoo and YouTube as well, provided that users were paying a fee to some underlying service provider (cable/satellite/telco).
A wrinkle in the interview was exactly whom Bewkes was speaking for, since Time Warner Inc. (or "TWI" which owns the cable networks CNN, TNT, TBS, etc.) plans to spin off as an independent entity Time Warner Cable ("TWC"), which operates cable systems serving 14 million subscribers. After the split, set for next week, which of these companies would actually be sponsoring the "TV Everywhere" vision?
The NYTimes' technology reporter Saul Hansell then picked up on the interview and wrote a piece on the paper's widely-read "Bits" blog entitled "Time Warner Goes Over the Top," which provocatively began, "Just as soon as Time Warner has divested itself from the cable business, Jeff Bewkes, its chief executive, is preparing to stab the cable industry in the back. That's what I read in an interview with Mr. Bewkes in Advertising Age..."
Saul went on to describe his interpretation of one particular Bewkes comment as implying that Time Warner Inc. would offer its networks directly to consumers (or "over the top" of cable operators), thereby setting off a domino effect in which others' networks did the same, all of which would ultimately lead to the destruction of the cable industry business model.
The attention all of this received, particularly in the blogosphere, prompted a fair number of people to contact me and ask what's really going on here.
Time Warner's Plans
Yesterday I spoke with Keith Cocozza, TWI's spokesman, who said that Bewkes's comments do represent both TWI and TWC. Their mutual vision is to have cable programming offered not just at TWC's RoadRunner portal, but also at various third-party aggregators (Hulu, etc.) so long as they subscribe to any multichannel video service (whether from TWC, Verizon, DirectTV, etc.). They do envision offering a streaming-only service for those that don't want the traditional cable subscription, but it would only be available in their geographical footprint. All of that means that there's in fact no over-the-top threat involved here at all. TWI and TWC are "agnostic" about third-party aggregator access to the cable programs, because they recognize that people want to go to whatever sites make them most comfortable. And they do not plan to charge subscribers extra for online access.
From a consumer standpoint, all of this is quite enlightened. But from an operational standpoint, it feels incredibly complex. For example, I asked Keith about how a remote user, seeking to watch programs at a third party aggregator's site like Hulu, would be authenticated as an actual customer of a video service provider? While acknowledging it's too early to have all the answers, he said a test TWC has conducted in Wisconsin with HBO has shown this not to be a big technical problem. I don't agree. It's hard enough for companies to do a bilateral account integration (e.g. tying a user's Amazon account to a user's TiVo account); the idea of doing multilateral account integration (the numerous combinations of potential aggregators and service providers) is fraught with complexity and seems highly daunting.
Then there are financial issues to address. With no incremental subscriber payments, online program delivery needs to be sustained through ads alone. This would be quite workable if it were just cable operators and networks involved (they could split the ad avails proportionately as they've traditionally done with linear delivery), but by allowing third-party aggregators in too, a third mouth now needs to be fed. That will trigger a whole new negotiating dynamic, as each aggregator lobbies for a different share. And it's questionable whether there's even enough ad revenue for three parties to begin with, though Keith believes there is.
Conversely, Kate Noel, Comcast's spokeswoman, told me yesterday that while it's still early to say anything definitive about Comcast's plans for distribution through third-party aggregators, their first priority is distribution of cable programs on their own sites (e.g. Fancast, Comcast.net) and the networks' own sites. Comcast seems to have more of a "walk, before you run" approach. It recognizes that protecting subscribers' privacy in any account integration is crucial so it plans to proceed carefully. I tried to pin Kate down on whether Comcast intends to charge for online access. Again she felt it was too early to be definitive, but it sounds like they're leaning toward a no-charge model as well. The timeline is to begin rolling out access in the 2nd half of '09.
Clearly there are a lot of moving pieces involved with these companies' plans. In general Time Warner has a more aggressive, yet I believe far less pragmatic, plan. They're trying to get all the way to the end zone right away, when just advancing the ball further downfield would be real progress for today's broadband users seeking improved access to premium content. Time Warner's "TV Everywhere" seems like a great vision, but it would take years to fully implement. Comcast's plan is probably achievable in a year or less. Either way, major cable operators finally seem to have the ball rolling toward broadband distribution of cable programming. As I pointed out last week, this can only be viewed as a positive.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
(btw, if you want to learn more about all this, come to the Broadband Video Leadership Evening on March 17th in NYC, where we'll dig deeply into these issues with our top-notch panel)