Lawyers and TVs and Tubes, Oh My!
The business models surrounding video delivery to consumers are sure evolving rapidly, aren’t they? And in sometimes surprising ways.
Time Warner Cable (TWC) has been sued by Viacom (VIA) over an iPad app it recently released. The app allows TWC subscribers to watch live TV on their iPads within their own home, effectively turning the iPad into a TV. It streams channels wirelessly to the iPad, typically from a router attached to the subscribers’ internet cable modem.
Cablevision (CVC) has released a similar app, although because it streams directly from the cable box (plus wireless adapter add-on), this one does not require cable subscribers also to be internet customers.
Broadcasters such as Viacom are claiming that TWC and Cablevision have “no iPad video streaming rights.” Time Warner Cable, for its part, insists it can send TV to any device in the home.
Meanwhile, ESPN (DIS) has taken another tack, releasing their own app that lets properly identified subscribers from Time Warner Cable, Verizon (VZ), or Bright House, to stream its live content to an iPad from any location. This is an example of the “TV Anywhere” initiative envisioned by the likes of TWC and Comcast (CMCSA) among many others.
And on another front, startup company Zediva is being sued by all 6 major movie studios over its service that “rents” DVDs to consumers and then streams them over the internet. Each customer has exclusive use of a DVD disc and a DVD player. Again, the studios are claiming copyright infringement, calling Zediva’s business model a “gimmick”. All Zediva is really doing is putting a DVD into a player, pressing play, and then sending the customer the output signal directly. They just happen to be using the internet instead of a wire.
[Next, I imagine, it will be illegal for me to stand outside my neighbor's house and watch a DVD on his TV through the window.]
Logically, Zediva and the cable providers seem to be on reasonably solid ground. Legally, who knows?
Regardless, the notion that this has anything to do with distribution or copyrights is beside the point. What’s really being fought over is the ability to make money in new ways by using the Internet. Or as the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska laughingly called it, “a series of Tubes.” Time Warner Cable’s app does in fact use IP to move video around, though it is exclusively on its own cables. And while Zediva uses the open internet, there is precedent in the form of virtual circuits to think of that transmission channel as being private and dedicated.
In a way, these links are functionally no different than wires. Perhaps Senator Stevens was more right than his detractors thought. Companies are using the internet just as if it was a series of private pipes, or tubes. So why wouldn’t these distributors have the right to send video this way?
Because it interferes with the content owners and networks from getting two things they dearly want: (1) unfettered control over using the internet to sell content directly to consumers, and (2) ownership of customer information for marketing (read: monetization) purposes.
Every movie Zediva rents and shows is one that a studio can’t derive its own rental income from. When people watch Mad Men or Survivor from the dining room on an iPad, that’s one more episode that can’t be monetized through iTunes or Netflix (NFLX), or viewed on ad-supported Hulu.
What’s worse, when an iPad, smartphone, or netbook is used to view video streamed through a cable or satellite provider, the content sellers have no information about the end user. If they could sell or rent directly, they’d gain valuable demographic and other information that could be used for marketing purposes or monetized via ad networks.
They know that content is not king; the customer is king. Networks and studios would love to be able to eliminate the middle man if they could. And they don’t want to be beholden to Apple (AAPL), the way music publishers are now and magazine publishers are quickly becoming.
In 1993, Nicholas Negroponte (the founder of MIT’s Media Lab) made a prediction that became known as the “Negroponte Flip.” He said, in essence, that what was wired would become wireless, and vice-versa. When you consider that our phones are becoming wireless, and over-the-air TV is increasingly via cable or fiber, Negroponte seems to have nailed it. We have a similar flip occurring with centralized mainframe computing moving to distributed (PCs) and then back to centralized (the “Cloud”).
Could it be that just as we’ve reached the point where most TVs are flat, and no longer have tubes, we are moving to a time when the “tubes” are what’s important, and video is no longer watched on TVs?
Disclosure: I hold no position, either long or short, in any stocks mentioned here.