• Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Episodes Available Online Again; Viacom's Moves Are Bewildering

    The Viacom-DirecTV carriage dispute has taken another odd turn, as full, current episodes of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert are once again available at their respective sites and at Hulu. Given that digital distribution and its effect on Viacom's networks' linear ratings is a core issue in the negotiations, and that last week Viacom removed some of its networks' show from the web, the renewed availability of Comedy Central's stars Stewart and Colbert are hard to understand.

    In fact, if you want a good chuckle, see the screen grabs below - when each of last night's episodes play, there is a message across the bottom of the page that reads "DIRECTV HAS DROPPED COMEDY CENTRAL. DON'T MISS YOUR FAVORITE SHOWS. CALL DIRECTV AT 1-800-531-5000." Hello?? I'm not missing my favorite shows - I'm watching them right now online, just above this urgent message! And by the way, I'm getting them for free, just after they originally aired, and fully on-demand. Does this make sense to you? Right, me neither.

    In truth, Viacom's online distribution of Stewart and Colbert has always struck me as very strange. These are two of the company's marquee shows, and yet Viacom has made them freely available the morning after airing, along with a library of past episodes. For what purpose? Isn't this what TV Everywhere and authentication is supposed to be all about - putting shows behind the wall so that only paying subscribers can access them?

    Then there's Viacom's deal with Hulu, which has always felt awkward. It's one thing for prior seasons' episodes to be available for online through 3rd parties - but last night's? While Viacom clearly preserved the digital rights to do the Hulu deal, it had to rankle pay-TV distributors paying for linear distribution of shows that are increasingly time-shifted via DVR, making online access directly competitive.

    If I were in DirecTV's shoes, my position to Viacom would be, "Before we resume our negotiations, demonstrate that you're committed to our value as a distributor by not making some of your best product available online for free." If Viacom can't manage even to do this, how can it seriously be asking for rate increases?