For years, people have been speculating about the day when viewers would go "over the top," cutting their cable or satellite connections and getting TV online. It hasn't really happened, since even with Hulu and Netflix, there was no viable Internet alternative—no way to watch Girls or Game of Thrones, for example, because HBO Go is only available to people who get HBO through cable or satellite. The first suggestion that this might be changing came last summer, when a top analyst, Craig Moffett, reported that US cable and satellite companies lost more than 300,000 subscribers between June 2012 and June 2013. But in the past two weeks, it's started to look as if the television networks themselves might cut the cord:
- Two weeks ago, on March 3, Disney—which owns ABC and ESPN—announced a deal with Dish Networks to offer its programming via Internet, not just to Dish's satellite subscribers but as part of a separate, over-the-top subscription service. As part of the deal, Disney agreed to let Dish deploy its AutoHop ad-skipping feature on shows three days after they're broadcast. Disney had been suing Dish over AutoHop; now the litigation has been settled, leaving CBS, NBC, and Fox to cut their own deals. The three-day window protects the Disney-owned channels during the period advertisers are actually paying for. Still, as Michael Wolff observed, "Finally, a major network has bent to the obvious—people expect to be able to skip ads." His conclusion? "The sky is falling."
- A couple of days later in the UK, the BBC announced its intention to stop broadcasting BBC Three—the digital channel whose shows include Being Human, the series that inspired the Canadian remake that's shown in the US on Syfy—and relaunch it online. This was billed as a cost-cutting move, but it makes sense for a channel whose target audience is people 16 to 34.
- Last Tuesday, the head of CBS, Leslie Moonves, threatened to take his own network over the top if the networks lose their court battle against Aereo, the startup that wants to stream broadcast channels to subscribers without paying the channels. "If the government wants to give them permission to steal our signal, then we will come up with some other way to get them our content and so get paid for it," he told CNET, the CBS-owned online news service.
Moonves may well have been bluffing, but taken together, these developments suggest that the long and increasingly troubled relationship between the television networks and the cable and satellite providers that carry them may finally be nearing its end. Not that they'll be getting a divorce, exactly—but a separation would be good for all concerned, us viewers in particular.
If there was a defining moment here, it was probably last summer's battle between CBS and Time Warner Cable over the fees the cable company would have to pay to carry the network. Time Warner Cable, seeking an edge in its negotiations, dropped not only CBS but Showtime and the other CBS-owned channels as well in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas; CBS retaliated by blocking Time Warner customers from its Web site. When Time Warner Cable caved a month later, two things became apparent: First, that the television networks hold all the cards; and second, that with carriage fees going up indefinitely, the cable providers might eventually be better off getting out of the television business altogether and focusing on Internet access.
So, what if that really happens? What would TV be like? What would the Internet be like?