Broadcast TV's Internet Strategy: If We Can't Block You, We'll Sue

Last Updated Nov 11, 2010 11:13 AM EST

Want to know the broadcast network's Internet strategy? It's got two parts: block access to any distribution partner that upsets you, and when you can't, sue.

Though the networks have done things like this in the recent past, two events from this week neatly encapsulate the strategy:

  • Fancast, the streaming video site owned by Comcast Interactive Media, has now blocked access to Google TV, following in the footsteps of ABC, CBS (BNET's owner), NBC and Hulu (which is jointly owned by Disney/ABC, NBC Universal and News Corp.
  • ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC have sued Filmon.com, one of a handful of services that are streaming broadcast signals over the Internet. The Berlin-based site's owner, Alki David, claims that U.S. copyright law does not prohibit such a thing. (If the name Alki David sounds familiar, he's the British billionaire who also recently offered $1 million to anyone willing to strip naked in front of President Obama. After someone did, he refused payment unless the White House would confirm it -- which, duh, it hasn't.)
OK, you can see it takes all sorts to create this whole broadcasting-TV-over-the-Internet industry, but it's worth wondering whether simply impeding any outside attempt at broadening distribution for broadcast signals is the right strategy. It's pretty obvious by now that the networks' strategy concerning Google TV -- which attempts to integrate TV and the Internet on what is usually the best screen in the house -- is to make the product itself a non-starter. If you can't access the broadcast nets over it, than why bother?

But the networks would be wise to remember that Google knows, like nobody's business, how to make money from advertising. One of the "threats" of Google TV is that it could -- if traditional media players would just let it -- finally make TV advertising far more targeted, which, theoretically at least, would make it higher-priced. Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? Well, not if you're in traditional media for this reason: it's different -- and if readers of this blog have learned anything over the last few years, it's that traditional media doesn't like different.

As for Filmon.com, you could ask why the broadcast nets would take such a poseur seriously. On the other hand, the broadcast net's suit is the easier of the two attempts to strangle Internet TV to understand since it hijacks their signals. Filmon.com, like ivi TV -- which made hay out of its service during the recent Fox/Cablevision retransmission war -- charges a low monthly subscription fee for the service. Ivi, at least, does apparently pay the networks, through licensing fees set up by Congress.

But here's the thing: suppose that the short-term strategy for Filmon, and services like it, is to prove there's an audience for what they deliver. If you were a broadcast TV network -- faced with increasing competition -- why wouldn't you want to increase distribution, as long as you got a good cut? Better yet, you could charge the retrans fees that TV networks are demanding of more traditional distribution channels, like cable and satellite TV.

Filmon owner David claims he's in settlement talks with two of the plaintiffs. While that claim is dubious from a man who says he'll pay people to strip in front of a sitting president (and then doesn't), the broadcast nets should be looking at these alternative distribution channels more seriously. As media channels, proliferate, it's all about distribution.

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