The three largest U.S. cable operators — Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications — are laying the groundwork for “place-shifting” services that would allow subscribers to access their channel lineups on a PC, from anywhere on the Internet.
Unlike with Sling Media's popular Slingbox device, the MSOs are getting programmers' permission before flinging their content online. But given the complexity of lining up those deals, the cable operators may not be able to bring Internet TV services to market that rival the capabilities of Sling's device for several years — if ever.
The idea is that if a cable customer buys the linear service on their cable TV, they should be able to log into their computer and watch it there as well. In carriage negotiations with programmers, each of the MSOs is looking to obtain the rights to distribute the linear TV feed over the Internet.
“We are all working toward securing ancillary rights for video content that is carried on our TV lineups,” Cox senior vice president of programming Bob Wilson said in an e-mail. That will “enable subscribers to pay for content once and access it at-will from the device and location of their choice.”
Cable operators see an urgent need to extend their video services to the Internet. In general, they are fearful that their core TV services are in danger of being usurped by Web-based distribution (see “Breaking Free,” Nov. 3, 2008, page 12).
Now there's another, more specific Internet-TV threat the MSOs need to counter: Dish Network this spring is prepared to roll out a new digital video recorder that embeds the place-shifting features of Slingbox. That will give the satellite operator a leg up on cable for now, said Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of consulting firm The Carmel Group.
“Dish has the tiger by the tail — it borders on a killer application,” Schaeffler said. “This is going to be a must-have for a large segment of high-end, sophisticated subscribers.”
In mid-2005, Sling Media first gave consumers the ability to “sling” TV programming and DVR recordings over the Internet to a personal computer, and it has since expanded the product to be accessible from mobile devices.
EchoStar acquired Sling in late 2007, and at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Dish showed off the first “SlingLoaded” DVR, the ViP 922. (In a separate development, most of Sling's senior executives quit last week — see Coda, page 26.)
EchoStar executives have said they would like to provide the Sling-enabling technology to cable. But it appears the major MSOs are instead pursuing a more programmer-friendly route to “slinging” TV over the Web.
The cable operators refer to the concept of delivering cable TV over the Internet as “authentication,” underscoring the stringent security they're promising to provide. The service would be designed so that only authorized subscribers may view the programming over the Internet and that the content cannot be copied, shared or posted to other Web sites.
Time Warner Cable executive vice president and chief communications officer Ellen East outlined the operator's “authentication” strategy at the CTAM Summit last November. The MSO has already been testing the concept in Wisconsin, where subscribers to both HBO and its Road Runner broadband service have the ability to watch the premium network's content online.
In a similar vein, Starz Entertainment for the last two years has been pitching affiliates on Starz Play, which provides on-demand movies and access to the programmer's primary linear movie channel through a Web video player.
But so far, no cable operator has announced specific plans to launch an Internet TV service representative of subscribers' channel lineups. It's not clear which programmers have granted Internet distribution rights for their linear cable services to which MSOs at this point.
One deficiency with the “authentication” approach is that cable subscribers would not be able to access set-top DVR recordings, which is one of the Slingbox's key features.
On the other hand, programmers are questioning how Dish's Sling-enabled DVR will play into future carriage deals with the satellite operator.
“There are a lot of rights questions, and we have to sort through our relationship with Dish,” said Vivi Zigler, president of NBC Universal Digital Entertainment, in an interview at CES. “I think there will be a lot of discussion about this with Dish.”