If you’ve been thinking of ditching your cable service, your local provider is hoping a new online streaming TV service in the works will leave you feeling like Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III—“Every time I try to get out, they keep pullin' me back in.”
The TV Everywhere service—offered exclusively to subscribers, free of charge—will stream cable TV shows and movies to your computer from nearly two dozen content providers, including HBO/Cinemax (the first time viewers can catch shows such as True Blood and Entourage online) and CBS. The effort, proposed by Comcast and Time Warner, is a way for cable companies to remain relevant even as more viewers look online for TV shows and movies.
While Comcast and Time Warner are spearheading the initiative, it’s not exclusive, and could eventually be offered by any subscription-based TV service provider, including other cable companies, DirecTV and Dish satellite, and Verizon and AT&T as part of those companies’ TV services. And at some point, it's likely the TV Everywhere concept could be expanded from computers to mobile devices, such as smart phones
Comcast will be rolling out a national technical test of its service, called OnDemand Online, in the next few weeks. The trial, which will test the system’s authentication technology required to authorize access by subscribers, will involve about 5,000 randomly selected subscriber households across the country.
Assuming the test is successful, Comcast will roll out the service to all its customers by the end of the year. Subscribers will log into either Comcast.net or Fancast.com, Comcast's ad-supported video aggregator site, to view the online programming. Comcast tells me that the video subscriber’s stream will count against their Internet bandwidth cap of 250GB per billing period.
Time Warner Cable’s plans are less firm, though the cable company, which recently split from Time Warner Inc.—owner of HBO/Cinemax, TBS, TNT, CNN and Cartoon Network, among other properties—is actually already testing its own service with subscribers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s likely the company will have more to say once additional distribution partners, particularly satellite companies, sign on to participate.
Earlier this week, the TV Everywhere service received a boost when nearly two dozen new content partners came into the fold. In addition to Time Warner’s HBO/Cinemax, TBS, and TNT properties, plus Starz and CBS—the first broadcast partner—the service will include programming from A&E, AMC, BBC America, DIY Network, Fine Living Network, Food Network, Hallmark Channel, HGTV, History, IFC, MGM Impact, Sundance Channel, WE tv, E! Entertainment, The Style Network, and G4, plus Comcast’s own Fearnet channel.
While a good number of broadcast network TV shows are already available online, this is the first time that many cable offerings will be available on the Internet. An issue has been whether the typical ad-based approach, used by sites such as Hulu, can generate enough revenue to support online video. By tying online content to pay-TV subscriptions, cable networks are hoping to maintain the fees they receive as pay-TV operators, while helping them retain subscribers who might look elsewhere for online content. It will be interesting to see if streamed programs include the ads that ran when they were broadcast, and whether more targeted ads can be substituted within the video streams.
Some activist groups, including Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, have expressed concern about deals that restrict content to paid TV services, even if that content doesn't currently exist on the web. Public Knowledge said it would ask several federal agencies, including the FCC and the FTC, to review the initiative to determine if its anti-competitive. —James K. Willcox