Sunday, March 23, 2014

Live TV Everywhere? (Part 2)

Last time, I talked about how a deal recently inked by Verizon and Intel may pave the way for getting rid of my clunky Verizon FiOS cable boxes, letting me stream cable TV over the Internet to all my TV screens, computers, and handheld devices.

Now, the downside. Powerful interests just don't want "a virtual cable service that would sell a bundle of television channels to subscribers over the Internet," to borrow the words of a New York Times article I cited last time. Among them is the nation's biggest cable TV outfit, Comcast, which is currently trying to get federal approval to buy the next biggest cable outfit, Time Warner.

Only the satellite TV companies DirecTV and Dish Network serve more customers than Time Warner Cable does, per the Wikipedia article on "multiple-system operators," or MSOs. However, the satellite companies each serve fewer customers than the top cable dog, Comcast.

All the cable-oriented MSOs are, by definition, companies that own a number of local cable TV outfits. I'll refer to them as cable TV "behemoths."

Cable TV behemoths such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable have lucrative contracts with the cable channel owners, paying them copious quantities of cash for the rights to carry bundled groups of channels.

For example, Disney owns the various ESPN sports channels and insists that cable companies like Comcast pay for the less popular ones, such as ESPN Classic, if they want to carry the most-watched sports channel, ESPN itself. Meanwhile, Disney gets revenue from selling ads on all the channels in its ESPN group.

That analysis comes from a Forbes article on the so-called "cable TV business model." And here's a New York Times article that discusses why MSOs are making life difficult for potential "cord cutters": cable customers like me who'd like to escape from the clutches of the cable TV behemoths entirely.

As an aspiring cord cutter, I'd like to ditch my current Verizon cable boxes and get every channel I want

  • online
  • on every screen I own
  • in my home or on handheld devices on the road
  • with all of my channels paid for à la carte, not bundled

Plus, I want a "cloud DVR," à la Aereo, the recent startup that sells online access to local over-the-air broadcast channels without the need for a cable or satellite TV box. My review of Aereo is here.

What I want to know is: can my wish ever come true?

* * * * *

It can't come true if the cable behemoths get their way. Afraid of cord cutters, they apparently have been pressuring channel providers to refuse to sell access to the likes of Intel. Yet Verizon has existing contracts with channel owners already. Moreover, Verizon is not, strictly speaking, a cable behemoth, since its FiOS network uses fiber-optic transmission, not copper wire.

My ultimate wish is for what techies call "over the top" (OTT) TV.

"Over the top" is geek talk for online access to the likes of ABC, FOX, ESPN, CNN, and AMC, right alongside the likes of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox, and Hulu Plus. OTT would use one seamless and easily navigable interface which disguises the fact that the first group of content sources is made up of erstwhile over-the-air/cable channels, while the second group comprises content sources that have always resided online.

By its very nature, OTT delivery of video content could put all channels — note that Netflix, Amazon, etc. would become "channels" under this scheme — on every device and screen that can connect to the Internet. The connection can come in any broadband form:

  • wired hookups such as Ethernet cables
  • WiFi wireless, or
  • any 3G/4G cellular network, such as the one Verizon already has in place.

A column at talks about how my OTT wish almost came true with Intel's OnCue Cloud TV platform project. The column mentions several kindred attempts to unify live TV with other entertainment content:

But the Mashable columnist, lamenting the demise of Intel's in-house OnCue project, says, "OnCue was the holy grail of television."

The columnist, Christina Warren, writes, "The problem wasn't so much getting the content providers to agree to offer content to Intel, but instead, the cost of that content." The cost of licensing content for OnCue, also once referred to as Intel TV, would have come to "hundreds of millions of dollars."

That number came from a Reuters article, "For Intel, Hollywood dreams prove a leap too far." Intel, the article says, "could not afford the distraction and expense" of developing OnCue at a time when its "massive" core business, the manufacture of computer chips, is "flagging."

Intel, says Reuters, "has struggled to manage the transition from traditional personal computers to mobile devices. … [and] it has little experience selling consumer products, much less television programming." Because its core revenue generator has been underperforming, it now wants to refocus on what it does best. Hence the sale of OnCue to Verizon.

But, the Reuters article suggests, OnCue would not have fulfilled my dreams entirely. For example, OnCue would not have offered TV channels completely à la carte. Channels would ostensibly have been "bundled right"  — the less-popular channels would likely have been "sliced off" — but they would still have been bundled.

What's more, OnCue would have centered on hardware, not content: a "black box" not unlike today's omnipresent cable box. It's not clear how big and clunky the black box would have been, but it seems to me that anything bigger than today's Apple TV or Roku, each not much larger than a hockey puck, would be too big.

Another OnCue problem, according to Reuters: "Viewers streaming previously aired shows from some networks would [not have been] allowed to fast-forward through commercials."

Boo hiss to that constraint.

Anyway, OnCue seemingly wasn't going to be my cord-cutting Holy Grail ... but perhaps Verizon's eventual take on the same OTT dream will turn out to be everything I wish for.

Stay tuned for more on cord cutting ...

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