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Media advocates target TV Everywhere

January 5, 2010 |  4:52 pm

Washington watchdogs are in a lather over the media industry's reluctance to give content away for free online.

In particular, TV Everywhere, an industry initiative created last year to ensure that only paying cable or satellite TV subscribers get access to cable network shows online, is catching heat from Free Press and other media advocacy groups. 

Although the TV Everywhere effort is barely off the ground, Free Press says it amounts to collusion among media giants to snuff out consumers' ability to bypass cable TV and instead watch that same programming for free on the Internet. The advocacy group has asked the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the initiative on antitrust grounds.

There may be other agendas at play here. The request from Free Press, made in a letter accompanied by a research paper critical of cable industry practices, comes just as the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast, begins pushing its deal to take control of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal through Washington regulators. Free Press has already come out against that deal, saying the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal "would have a powerful motive to starve competing online video sources by denying them access to vital content."

Free Press' 40-page analysis of TV Everywhere and the current media landscape (I was miffed to see only one footnote for a single story of mine in the report, but no matter) that says, among other things, cable operators pressure program suppliers to "limit the number of episodes they make available online." 

Of course, Free Press hasn't exactly uncovered a big secret. Distributors -- cable operators, satellite broadcasters and telecommunication companies -- pay networks such as TNT and MTV fees in return for carrying their shows. As a result, distributors are wary of programmers putting content online for free, fearing that subscribers will then drop their service, thereby cutting out their role as the middleman. 

Hence, backers contend the purpose of TV Everywhere is only to verify that people who watch cable TV shows online have already paid for them. That doesn't mean the TNTs and Lifetimes can't offer their shows for free online or even for pay online, but the Time Warner Cables and Comcasts of the world will probably try to cut the fees they pay for that programming if it pops up elsewhere and they don't get it exclusively.

Free Press is also concerned that Comcast's version of TV Everywhere is only available to Comcast subscribers and that Time Warner Cable's version is only available to its subscribers. They should compete against each other, Free Press argues. Because the plan is for consumers not to pay any extra for a TV Everywhere service beyond what they pay for cable, we're not quite sure what the rationale is for that.

To be sure, not every cable network is jumping on TV Everywhere's bandwagon. Comcast's version, known as Xfinity, for example, does not carry content from Disney, parent of ABC Family and Disney Channel.

The reason Disney has steered clear of TV Everywhere won't make the folks at Free Press sleep any better at night. Speaking on a recent earnings call, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger said, "some of what we've heard about TV Everywhere suggests that interest in charging the consumer for greater access is not necessarily a priority, and we believe it should be."

If that's the case, Free Press might have to add a few more targets to its hit list.

-- Joe Flint