Online TV could be better, yes, but it will never be free: Peter Nowak

The problem isn't paying


Of all the great things the Internet has given humanity, I didn’t know that an inalienable right to all television content for free was among them. But that seems to be the crux of a recent op-ed piece by Open Media director Steve Anderson.

In articles on both the Huffington Post and Open Media websites, Anderson relates a tale of how he recently tried to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart online, only to be thwarted by Bell Canada’s requirement that he subscribe to the company’s television service. That’s not how it should be, he says:

I’d much rather use online services than deal with a prescribed menu of channels on TV. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason why I should subscribe to multiple telecom services when at this point everything (voice, video, text) should be available through one open platform: the Internet.

It looks like the word “open” is being conflated with “free,” in that everyone should be able to watch The Daily Show without having to pay for it. You could apparently do that before, so why the clamp down now?

I hate to sound like the heavy, but TV shows cost money to produce and license. Putting them online for free simply doesn’t recoup those costs. Rights holders can try to make revenue by attaching ads to those shows, but that may not even let them break even. This is why a great proportion of content – notably HBO programs – has never been available online for free.

These aren’t exactly new arguments – they have in fact been taking place since the days of Napster. The difference is that other media have found new revenue models through the likes of Netflix, Spotify or even Next Issue that both producers and consumers seem to be happy with. It’s worth noting that all of those services have subscription costs.

Television producers have been trying something similar with their joint venture Hulu, with mixed results. Hulu Plus – also a paid service – has had some success in the United States, but the effort is a non-starter internationally. Canadians can’t get it without performing IP gymnastics and the company recently announced it was selling off its operation in Japan. Clearly, the model for TV online still hasn’t been properly figured out yet. As in the case of Netflix, it may take an outsider to come along and do it for the industry.

Fortunately, there are several good, market-driven counters to the problem in the meantime. First, there are a plethora of virtual private network and geo-unblocking services that can be subscribed to – usually for a small fee – that provide workarounds to restrictions like Bell’s. And then, of course, there is file-sharing through the likes of BitTorrent.

Should Canadians have to resort to such tricks to get access to the content they want without having to pay for sizeable cable subscriptions? Obviously not, but if the rights holders aren’t going to deliver the goods then such methods will only become increasingly popular and they’ll be left without revenue or viewers.

Piracy and workarounds led directly to the rise of consumer-friendly services such as Netflix and Spotify, and they will also inevitably result in something similar arriving for television content in Canada and abroad. It will likely be cheaper and better than a cable subscription, but it certainly won’t be free.

UPDATE: I missed this in his Open Media post, but Anderson did modify his article in response to readers who also took it as a call for free content online (others on Twitter also had the same reaction). He says he supports Bell charging a fair fee to watch online or supporting such content through ads as it has in the past. The Huffington Post version is still unmodified as this writing.