For now, there seem to be happy faces all around the cable industry regarding these online premieres. Cable networks argue that online generates upfront buzz leading to higher awareness and ratings for on air. This in turn builds value in multichannel subscription services. This was the point that Bruce Campbell, Discovery's president of digital media made at the recent CTAM NY panel I moderated. Of course, networks are doing the right thing following audiences online, all the while continuing to proclaim that their traditional affiliates (cable and satellite operators) are their most important customers.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I doubt all these happy faces will prevail for long. My guess is that at some point next year the lights are going to go on in the cable operator community that the portals and other new distributors are getting access to programs that operators' monthly affiliate fees pay for in the first place. Of course gone are the days of cable exclusivity, but if and when operators flex their muscles and express their change of heart about online premieres, my bet is they'll stop.
Operators should know that, at some point, the law of "there's only 24 hours in a day" kicks in - so if someone caught the premiere online, they don't actually need to tune in for the on air debut. And of course, do cable operators really want to allow viewers to grow accustomed to seeing high-quality long form programming online and/or through portals?
I think we'll see lots more of this activity until the cable operators call "foul". In the meantime, operators would be smart to start getting some of these premieres on their own portals, to bolster their own online positions.