'TV Everywhere' May Shine Light on Cable's Weak Spot

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Jeff Bewkes is proposing a remedy for TV's woes with "TV Everywhere." But many cable networks may ultimately find the cure is as bad as (or worse than) the disease.

To paraphrase Roger Ailes, no one gets up in the morning and thinks, "Today, I'm going to watch some cable TV." TV is TV, and most people don't realize that part of their cable bill goes to the producer of "The Closer" in the form of subscriber fees.

Yet if Time Warner, Viacom, Discovery, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, and everyone else who's onboard (at least in principle) with the "TV Everywhere" concept have their way, consumers will get a quick reminder of the difference between cable and network TV. That is, they're paying each month for TNT, MTV and ESPN, whether they watch them or not, but not for NBC, CBS or ABC.

Under "TV Everywhere," websites such as Fancast, Hulu, Joost, and even YouTube would get access to cable programming if they agree to implement a security system where web surfers have to prove they pay for the networks as part of a cable or satellite package. This solves two problems for cable networks: It transports their profitable (and less-advertising-dependent) model to the web, and lets them reach new, younger audiences who are watching more on the web, and -- depending on who you believe -- may be dumping cable or simply not subscribing in the first place.

Yet the most successful video portals on the web -- YouTube and Hulu -- are successful because they erected no barriers between users and the content.

But even if the networks behind "TV Everywhere" can create a system that doesn't infuriate users and drive them to piracy, implementing it will bring into sharp relief for consumers that TV isn't just TV. Some shows they pay for more or less directly, and some they don't. This realization can't be good for cable networks and operators, which need to preserve their tiering system so those who, say, never watch sports, continue to pay $3 a month for ESPN.

Web distribution means cable and satellite lose their monopoly on the distribution of shows, and once that happens, the breakdown of that model seems inevitable. In attempting to preserve it on the web, the networks could hasten the day when consumers decide that they're really just not that into TNT or MTV and, well, they're just fine watching the free stuff.

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