TV Everywhere: The Ball Gets Rolling

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The cable industry’s first crack at “authentication” is supposed to kick off next month, when Comcast offers a trial group of 5,000 subs access to TNT and TBS episodes, and eventually other programming. (See Comcast, Time Warner Inc. Try To Blend Online TV Models.)

Today’s announcement has already raised several questions:

Why did Time Warner Inc. start with Comcast rather than Time Warner Cable, which after all only spun off from its parent a few months ago?

My guess: Comcast was ready to roll with On-Demand Online through its existing Fancast infrastructure, while TWC didn’t have anything deployable on the front-end to provide a way to access or find TV Everywhere content. Recall that Time Warner Cable has been engaged in a trial with HBO in Wisconsin for more than a year.

How will cable TV customers be authenticated?

Time Warner Inc. characterizes this as a minor technical hurdle, but it’s not trivial. Initially Comcast will ensure the people accessing On-Demand Online are paying cable TV customers because the service will be only available on its broadband network, so Comcast can verify eligibility through its own subscriber-management system.

How will Comcast authenticate users who access TV Everywhere content on TNT.tv or TBS.com, as the companies have promised? Matt Strauss, Comcast’s SVP of new media, says that hasn’t been determined yet. TWC’s Peter Stern, meanwhile, said at the Cable Show ‘09 in D.C. that his company has “embraced” the Liberty Alliance standards for online authentication.

Why is Comcast buying in to the TV Everywhere concept, which is supposed to allow access from multiple Web sites over any broadband connection (including from non-Comcast providers)?

Because Time Warner Inc. and other programmers were going to do that anyway with Comcast’s satellite and telco TV competitors. Comcast would have been at a disadvantage if it insisted on funneling everybody through Fancast.com or Comcast.net. Moreover, Time Warner Inc. may have required Comcast to agree in principle that the MSO would provide a means for subscribers to access TV Everywhere from the programmers’ sites as a precondition for getting the distribution rights to the content.

How much content will be available through TV Everywhere/On-Demand Online?

Unclear. Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeff Bewkes said “we’re aiming toward a place where we can get the entire schedule online” for the “current viewing period,” adding, “We’re not sure exactly how many weeks [of episodes] that will be.” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, meanwhile, said the model allows programmers to offer content at any point before or after broadcast.

Why isn’t HBO in the mix, especially given that it has been testing this with TWC?

It will be. A source familiar with Comcast and Time Warner Inc.’s plans says it was an issue of near-term timing.

Doesn’t this violate Net Neutrality principles or something? Or reinforce the power of the biggest media companies at the expense of smaller ones?

There shouldn’t be any objections on the Net Neutrality front, as Comcast will be treating On-Demand Online usage toward the 250-Gbyte monthly cap (which should comfortably allow for viewing several hundred hour-long episodes). As for whether this gives the biggest networks a leg up, you can expect the dynamics with TV Everywhere-type deals to be similar to other distribution agreements. In other words, the big guys have more clout.

Why not charge a premium for this?

When I asked Bewkes this, he responded, “Well, again, we don’t think it’s needed or particularly beneficial to consumers to worry about what screen they’re using to watch their favorite network… If you’re a subscriber to TNT you’ve already paid for it.” He added that a good portion of the revenue for cable networks is advertising “so you don’t want to limit the views.”

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