Saturday, February 21, 2009

The New Battleground for IPTV

The battle over net neutrality has always been, first and foremost, a battle about who gets to provide video services over the Internet. As such, I think that what just happened between Hulu and Boxee could have significant implications for the future of telecommunications in the US.

Spurred on by the massive success of YouTube, online video has made huge strides in recent years. We're now seeing multiple competing sources for online movies and TV. One of the last remaining hurdles for these providers to overcome is to make the move from consumers' computer monitors to their televisions. One potential route for this to happen is through gaming consoles. Another route is through dedicated hardware, basically a set-top box that connects to the Internet and serves videos. Boxee makes one such device. The key to commercial success for any such device is access to content, and Boxee had until recently been planning to get content from, among other sources, streaming video provider Hulu. Hulu carries content from numerous TV networks, including Fox, NBC, Comedy Central, PBS, and Sci Fi. One could imagine Boxee, with support for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and various other sources posing a legitimate threat to traditional cable and fiber video services (e.g. Comcast or FiOS).

The emergence of such a free-standing IPTV service would be an important development that could break the video content market wide open and end the stranglehold that the big cable companies and telcos currently have over it. So it is disturbing to see that the powers that control Hulu (Fox and NBC) nixed Hulu's deal with Boxee. I assume that the scenario played out more or less as Marc Hedlund describes in the article. But it's not entirely clear what the motivation of the content providers is here. I think Hedlund is probably right that the advertising contracts probably work differently for online viewing that for traditional TV viewing, and the the networks have some profit incentive to protect their TV advertising. But this should be a temporary limitation--as new contracts are entered or old contracts are renewed there is no reason why fee structures shouldn't be adjusted to reflect the new reality that Internet video may be viewed on TVs as well as computer monitors. And to that extent, one might think that the networks would have some interest in seeing Boxee get off the ground and build some viewership so that the networks would be able to turn around and sell access to those viewers to potential advertisers. Instead they seem inclined to strangle Boxee in the cradle.

It's possible this is just a negotiating tactic and the networks want to squeeze a few dollars out of Boxee before they acquiesce in the Boxee-Hulu deal. But it's also possible that there are greater philosophical differences at work. It could be that the networks are cozy with cable operators and the telcos (or are frightened of them) and don't want to rock the boat. Or that the networks are concerned about their future in a world of IPTV. There's really no such thing as a "channel" on IPTV. And what, exactly, is a television network with no channels? Ultimately I do think there would be an important role for the networks in an IPTV environment, something more akin to what movie studios do: picking potential projects, then financing, producing, and marketing them. But it would be a big change, and if we've learned anything from the struggles of old content industries on the Internet so far it's that big incumbents are extremely resistant to embracing change. Additionally, even though the networks will still be important in an IPTV universe, they will certainly be subject to new competition. It would be far cheaper and easier for independently produced content to gain an audience via IPTV than it is in the traditional video market.

In any case, if the networks are inclined to fight IPTV, they are in position to set back its progress considerably. Without major network support, IPTV is likely doomed to being a supplementary service to traditional video rather than a direct competitor with it. This would be a bad result for consumers and a bad result for both the telecom market and the video content market, but sadly I'm not sure that it is irrational from the standpoint of the networks. I'm also not sure, at this point, that there is much that can be done from a regulatory standpoint to push the networks towards IPTV, but we should be on the lookout for opportunities to do so.

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