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Outside Voices: Mark Glaser Tells CBS to Give Viewers More Freedom

(Amy Carr)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Mark Glaser, longtime freelance columnist and blogger at PBS MediaShift to share his thoughts with us. He has written about online media for the Online Journalism Review, online entertainment for The Los Angeles Times, and digital photography for The New York Times. Below, he asks a fictional CBS customer service agent to fulfill his wish for a completely on-demand video experience, and a total unbundling of CBS content online and on any device. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Mark:

Bully to CBS News for being more transparent and launching this CBS Public Eye blog, letting the public see how the news sausage is made. And more kudos are in order for CBS Digital and its new broadband video network, Innertube, and on-demand TV shows on CBS.com. Hip-hip-hooray!

But if only I could pick up a phone and call some type of all-powerful CBS Customer Service agent provocateur, someone not based in India but perhaps right in the beating heart of Black Rock with a voice like Edna Mode from "The Incredibles."

CBS Service Rep: Welcome to CBS. Whaddya want?!

Me: Let's see, where do I start? I get home from work much later than the starting time for "CBS Evening News." What I'd really like is to be able to watch "CBS Evening News" on demand through my cable system at the time I want to watch it. And while you're at it, can you make "60 Minutes" and "48 Hours" on-demand as well?

CBS Service Rep: Nice idea. You may or may not be aware that we do offer video on-demand at CBSNews.com, where you can even build your own video playlist to watch only the segments that interest you.

Me: Not bad. But when I'm watching long-form news shows, I'd prefer to watch them on my TV screen, which is bigger, and while reclining on my couch, which is more comfortable than my computer chair. Obviously I can set up my DVR or VCR to record the shows I want to watch in advance of airing, but what a pain that is -- and that requires knowing the subject of each show in advance.

Can you just set this up on my cable or satellite service so I can watch the episodes I want when I want to watch them? Better yet, how about a searchable database so I can find stories on subjects that interest me: the Iraq war, corrupt congressmen, blogswarms, etc.

CBS Service Rep: Blog-what? Sir, what you're asking us to do is just throw out our TV schedule that we've spent millions trying to market and perfect according to demographic skews and sweeps weeks. You're asking us to fundamentally shift the way we do business with our cable and satellite partners.

Me: Yes. I am only a humble TV viewer, and I don't understand (or care about) the particulars of how you operate your TV network. I only ask for the things that I feel are my right as a viewer and person who counts toward your Nielsen ratings. Isn't it time you started to treat me with respect, as a customer, as someone who is more important than your programmers, your business partners and your advertisers?

CBS Service Rep: Ah, all the signs of viewer rage. I've heard this before ... You got a TiVo box, you saw the light, now you think you can tell us when we should show programs. Next you'll tell us you want to watch whatever programs you want online or on any mobile device ever invented.

Me: Er, yes, that was just on the tip of my tongue. I know there are "business reasons" why you wouldn't want to do this, but why not give me a chance to download or watch streaming video of all your entertainment shows, your sports programming, your news shows through your Web sites? Not to put a virtual gun to your head, but wouldn't it make more sense to do this than to drive me to BitTorrent to download the shows I want to see? Why not make it legit, so I don't have to get all criminal and find the show elsewhere on the gray market?

CBS Service Rep: You must be one of those no-goodniks who's ruined the music business, and now has your mind set on destroying the TV and movie businesses next. Fun for you being in the vanguard of the digital revolution, while all the artists suffer and don't get paid for their hard work.

Me: Are the artists suffering, or is it the middlemen and -women who are suffering? But let's not get sidetracked on the legal issues. I'm making a suggestion, hoping you will take it seriously. Please unbundle your TV content -- whatever it is -- and let us see it through video-on-demand on our TV sets, or through streaming or downloaded video online, or through our smart phones. You can charge us what seems fair to you (and us) or put some tasteful advertising around the content. If anything, you'll be making more money from doing this.

CBS Service Rep: Good idea, I'll kick it upstairs. You know we had a lot of success making the March Madness hoops tournament free online. We didn't even charge you freeloader types.

Me: Yes, that was good. Now let's open it up beyond 200,000 people, and let us see the games we want without the local blackouts.

CBS Service Rep: I guess you really want us to piss off our local affiliates, huh?

Me: Not necessarily. The whole idea of local blackouts is very 1970s. Most of the money in sports comes from TV viewing, so why force people to attend over-priced games? I know there's a problem with affiliates when it comes to all the things I've mentioned: on-demand shows, streaming shows online, shows on mobile phones. Maybe you can cut them in on the action, and try to fund their own on-demand services and online projects. I'm not a big fan of local newscasts, but I have faith that they can become more hyperlocal and do more civic journalism, while toning down the "if it bleeds, it leads" stuff.

CBS Service Rep: Noted. You sure have a lot of ideas in your head. Anything else while I'm on the line?

Me: Let's get back to the copyright thing. I realize CBS is a business, and you're in it for the money. But do you really think you can tame the Internet thirst for viral video by sending take-down notices to YouTube? Once that video is out there, it's pretty hard to get it back. What do you really lose by having people "steal" the video to watch on other sites? Before the Web existed, did you actually make tons of money by selling videotapes of old news segments?

This is a feel-good story about an autistic high school student who overcame a handicap to succeed. Don't you want this story told far and wide -- damn the lawyers? How much good PR would you get just by letting this story go, making it a Creative Commons story, letting it out in the world without having to threaten people over intellectual property? If you really like YouTube, make a deal with them to upload your video there with an advertisement baked in, if necessary. The web is about sharing and mashups and open systems and democratization of media -- can't you deal with us on our own terms rather than setting down your own terms of engagement?

CBS Service Rep: That's a mouthful, sonny. Lucky you, Larry Kramer, head cheese for CBS Digital, has an open mind for these kinds of things. We'll see what we can do for you. The affiliates might be willing to play ball, and more VOD and streaming video and mobile content is a given -- but blowing off the lawyers on intellectual property, sheesh, that's a stretch!

Me: Thanks for listening. That's all I ask.

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