• The Cable Industry Closes Ranks - Part 2

    An article in Friday's WSJ "Cable Firms Look to Offer TV Programs Online" outlined a plan under which Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the nation's 2 largest cable operators, would give just their subscribers online access to cable networks' programming.

    A Comcast spokesperson contacted me later Friday morning to explain that the plan, dubbed "OnDemand Online" is indeed in the works, though a release timeline is not yet set. The move is part of the company's "Project Infinity" a wide-ranging on-demand programming vision that was unveiled at CES '08, but oddly has not been messaged much since. Meanwhile, thePlatform, Comcast's broadband video management/publishing subsidiary also called me on Friday to confirm that - unsurprisingly - it would be powering the OnDemand Online initiative (thePlatform's CEO Ian Blaine explains more in this post).

    The idea of cable operators setting up online walled gardens for their subscribers alone was first signaled by Peter Stern, Time Warner's EVP/Chief Strategy Officer on the panel I moderated at VideoNuze's Broadband Leadership Breakfast last November. As I wrote subsequently in "The Cable Industry Closes Ranks" my takeaway from his and other cable executives' recent comments was that the industry was poised to collaborate in order to defend cable's traditional - and highly profitable - business model. Under that model, cable operators currently pay somewhere between $20-25 billion per year in monthly "affiliate fees" to programmers whose networks are then packaged by operators into various consumer subscription tiers.

    It should come as a surprise to nobody that both cable networks and operators are mightily incented to defend their model against the incursions of free "over the top" distribution alternatives. Indeed what's surprising to me is why it has taken the industry so long to act forcefully when the stakes are so high and the market's moving so fast? I mean cable operators themselves are the largest broadband Internet access providers in the country, and they have watched for years as their networks have been engorged by surging online viewing, courtesy of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and others. While they've made some tepid moves to push programming online (though to be fair Comcast's Fancast portal has evolved quite a bit recently), overall their broadband video distribution activities have been underwhelming, evidence of broadband distribution's lower priority status vis-a-vis TV-based video-on-demand.

    Meanwhile Friday's article triggered plenty of hackles from the blogosphere that those evil cable operators were up to their old monopolistic tricks, this time moving to control the broadband delivery market and choke off open access to premium video. While it's indeed tempting to see these plans that way, I think that would be the wrong conclusion.

    Rather, I look at the Comcast/TWC moves as both welcome and likely to spur more, not less, consumer access to broadband-delivered programming. That's because, if the cable networks are smart in their negotiations, they will gain from operators the approval to push more of their programs onto both their own web sites, and even to distribute some through others' sites. With net neutrality agitators hopeful in the wake of Barack Obama's election, Comcast and TWC need to tread carefully in these negotiations. Yet another part of the model I foresee is archived programs, which have been locked up in vaults due to programmers' concerns over operator reprisals if they leaked out online, becoming much more openly accessible.

    The Comcast/TWC hecklers need to remember one simple fact: to make quality programming requires solid business models. And in this economic climate, solid business models are far and few between. Despite having lost a total of over 500,000 video subscribers during the last 6 consecutive quarters, Comcast still owns one of those few sold models. And don't forget it is now investing to increase its broadband speeds, pledging 30 million, or 65% of its homes, will have 50 Mbps access by the end of '09 (a rollout which incidentally is all privately financed, without a dime of federal bailout money or other assistance).

    In the utopian fantasy of some, all premium content flows freely, supported by a skimpy diet of ads alone. For some that works. Yet for cable networks accustomed to monthly affiliate fees this is completely unrealistic and uneconomic. One needs look no further than the wreakage of the American newspaper industry (including bankruptcy filings recently by the Chicago Tribune and today by the Philadelphia Inquirer) to understand the damage that occurs when business model disruption occurs in the absence of coherent, evolutionary planning.

    Someday, when broadband video business models mature (as indeed they ultimately will), there will be lots of cable and other programming available for free online. For now though, getting Comcast and TWC to finally pursue an aggressive broadband distribution path is a welcome evolutionary step in unlocking this exciting new medium's ultimate potential.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

    (Note: we'll be diving deep into this topic, and others, at VideoNuze's Broadband Video Leadership Evening on March 17th in NYC. More information and registration is here.)