The Future of Free?

I wasn’t too concerned about missing the Opening Ceremonies from the Vancouver Winter Olympics, as I figured I could catch it online afterward.  NBC was keen to showcase its cool new Silverlight plug-in by streaming a considerable amount of the Beijing games in 2008.

But when I tried to watch Part 1 of the Opening Ceremonies, up came this message, along with a sign-in screen:

“You have selected a premium video (e.g. live stream or full-event replay).”

So I played along, and selected my HOME provider as Comcast.  Unfortunately, I had audaciously canceled my cable subscription a few months back, because (a) I wasn’t watching that much TV; (b) My $10 antenna was pulling basic network channels in pristine HD; (c) I could stream Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. to my PS3 via an inexpensive add-on called PlayOn.

I still pay $100 a month for internet and phone, but that wasn’t enough for Comcast, or NBC.  “It appears you don’t have a Comcast Video Subscription” declared the passive-aggressive pop-up.  Thanks to IP blocking, I wasn’t able to watch any of the Canadian broadcast coverage online from CTV.  So I was relegated to the lame highlights reel.  As one blogger commented: “Those whom don’t pay for cable — SOL.”

I’ve been saying this for months, but now it seems to be coming true: the powers-that-be do not want the web to disrupt the lucrative world of cable fees.  Hulu is next: I predict you’re going to need a cable subscription to watch content on this still-free streaming video site.  Advertising (“digital pennies”) isn’t enough to cover the costs of big-budget broadcast’s production and distribution (“analog dollars”).  NBC owns half of Hulu, and Comcast will soon own NBC — do you see where this is going?  And what does this mean for the future of free broadcast TV, which we’ve had since the 1940’s?

Obviously, we should acknowledge that these are for-profit companies that need to monetize their content.  NBC has had a stranglehold on the Olympics for years, delaying coverage into prime time in order to maximize its massive payout to the International Olympic Committee (it’s said the network will lose $250 million on the Vancouver games).  As I write this, we’re watching NBC (on TV) as it plays up the drama of Apolo Ohno’s race for the gold in 1500m speed skating (pre-recorded), while Ohno has already declared his feelings via Twitter about how things ended:

Wow…historical night for me…I have absolutely NO REGRETS…thank you all for supporting me…I’m on cloud 9…skated a brutal hard race!

The Internet is clearly harder to control, hence a recent, increasing propensity for platform “lock-up” (’s use of Facebook Connect), and potentially the next chapter in the story of the web with the emergence of a new order in dominant players (what is Apple’s iPad but a really sophisticated, consumption-friendly content appliance?).  The Wild West of the Internet is quickly becoming suburbanized.


  1. I like that line — “The Wild West of the Internet is quickly becoming suburbanized.” For a couple years, I benefited from Hulu and other free online TV content and went without cable. While writing a Web Strategies for Storytelling paper on the business models of Hulu, Comcast’s TV Everywhere and other on-demand video services, I came to the sad conclusion that my free ride was going to be over soon. Now that Comcast is in control of NBC, yep, it’s definitely going to be over.

    I’ve also been complaining quite a bit about the NBC tape delay of the Olympics. It’s frustrating to not be able to watch a major live event that’s happening just three hours away. A friend replied: “NBC is just showing how out of touch it is. First Conan, now this.” True, but they still hold so much of the power.

  2. We may have seen the high water mark of Free. The signs are everywhere – NBC’s success at keeping the West Coast from watching many Olympic events in real time; the New York Times announced intent to begin charging for some content. The Empire is striking back. While mainstream media titans are staggering they should not be counted out. The financial incentives to keep free at bay are enormous.
    The example of I-tune is instructive. While music piracy remains rampant, through an easy to use interface, vast selection, elegant integration with hardware Apple has succeeded in getting millions to pay.
    The video world remains in disarray. It’s remarkable that there is not yet a single box which allows the viewer to connect to anything she wants on the internet to view content. There are barriers to complete access through any one device. There is a compelling business model for the company that rolls together the best qualities of all the current device in an easy to use hardware package for a reasonable price.

  3. What will happen to American culture if free broadcast TV ceases to exist? It seems like TV is one of the few remaining common threads that Americans share. I don’t mean to make us sound shallow and vapid. It’s just that our society is so fragmented and divisive right now, sometimes the only thing we can share is what we can experience together through TV. Also, there is still that random chance that as you flip through the channels, you may encounter something that may change the way you think.

    How would America be different if Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech never aired on TV sets across America, if there had been no looping footage of the Twin Towers falling, or if millions of Americans didn’t gather every year to watch the Superbowl?

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