Aggressive initiatives bring shows to internet

Cable’s major players are making a big push to boost their presence online, moving aggressively with several initiatives that will allow their paying customers to watch their favorite shows on the Internet at no additional charge.

This movement was the central topic of discussion last week as the captains of cable industry convened in D.C. for the Cable Show, a traditionally wonkish confab put on by the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. Time Warner and Comcast Corp., two titans of the cable field, are pursuing separate initiatives designed to crack the broadband conundrum for cable programmers.

The cable biz is feeling the pressure from consumers to make more programming available online, something the industry has resisted out of concern that people would eventually drop their cable or satellite TV service if the programs were readily available online. Cable operators, in particular, have frowned on alternative distribution options for original cable skeins.

But now the biz is grappling with concerns about piracy, and that consumers will seek out pirated copies of shows unless cablers provide a legal alternative.

Broadcast networks have already made their wares largely available online for free, albeit with commercials, through their own websites and online ventures like Hulu (jointly owned by NBC Universal and News Corp.) and CBS’ TV.com. Younger viewers have been quick to embrace the on-demand revolution.

There was a lot of talk during the NCTA confab about TV Everywhere, an ambitious Time Warner-led initiative being aggressively hawked in the weeks leading up to the confab by Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes. The plan would give cable, satellite and telecom service subscribers a password that would enable them to watch shows online from any computer, but the password-protection would ensure that they were still paying customers.

To test the concept, Time Warner has been quietly conducting a trial of what it calls HBO on Broadband in Milwaukee, with Time Warner Cable subscribers able to watch all of the pay cabler’s shows online. At the Cable Show last week, Bewkes unveiled the next generation of the product, HBO GO.

“The big risk we have is, if we don’t offer this programming to (consumers) the way they want it, they’ll turn to piracy,” said Time Warner exec VP and chief strategy officer Peter Stern, during a panel sesh at NCTA.

There’s a nice correlation between two worlds that cable hopes to blend, because surveys show that nearly all U.S. consumers who have broadband service also pay for cable or satellite service.

For TV Everywhere, Time Warner is in discussions with Viacom, Disney, News Corp., NBC Universal, Rainbow Media and Discovery Communications, as well as major cable, satellite and telecom providers, to allow viewers to stream programs from HBO and myriad other channels on various Internet distribs, including Hulu.

Technologically, how this all works — or how operators expect to keep the system from being abused and hacked — remains to be seen.

“To be honest, we’re still working it out in terms of the user experience,” Stern says.

And not everyone is on board with the idea as it stands. Disney, for one, makes a number of its cable offerings from Disney Channel, ABC Family and other Mouse-owned cablers available for free online.

“Preventing people from watching any shows online, unless they subscribe to some multi-channel service could be viewed as both anti-consumer, and anti-technology, and would be something we would find difficult to embrace,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said during an NCTA sesh.

Comcast has been developing a separate initiative, “On Demand Online,” which would add cable TV shows to the Fancast Internet video service that the cable giant already offers its subscribers. Comcast officials say this initiative might be compatible with TV Everywhere.

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts believes initiatives such as TV Everywhere and On Demand Online will not only allow cable and satellite providers to protect their subscriber bases by following them as they migrate to the Internet, but it will also allow cable channels to collect a bit more advertising coin.

“For programmers, it’s a new opportunity to try to monetize in this horrific advertising environment,” Roberts said, addressing the Cable Show’s opening session. “I don’t think we should put our heads in the sand. This is a great opportunity for us to find an additional revenue stream.”

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