Cable TV: Moving to the Internet?

An article on Sunday in Multichannel News reported on the plans of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cox Communications — the three largest US cable companies — to allow “place shifting” of their services. The idea is simple; you have a subscription for cable TV service. Why should you be constrained to just watching that programming on your television? Why shouldn’t you be able to take advantage of that service on your computer connected to the Internet as well? And for that matter, why should you even have to be at home? Shouldn’t you be able to use your cable subscription anywhere that you can connect to the Internet?

This is essentially what Slingbox has been providing for years, but the cable companies want to get permission from their content providers first. And therein lies the rub. The providers are exploring Internet plays of their own, and it may be difficult to get them to go for extending cable services onto the Internet. The cable companies are working to develop systems that will allow only subscribers to access the content, and to protect the content against being copied and redistributed by users. As a result, it could take years to work out the rights negotiations with all the various networks.

The news here is that this is a smart move by the cable companies. Just as Netflix is moving from physical disc to electronic distribution of rental movies over the Internet, it makes sense for the cable companies to do the same. It will be hard for a new subscription-based Internet TV service to get started in this country (several have tried and failed), but starting from an established subscriber base — as Netflix is doing — makes great sense. In the future, there may not be any more cable TV as we now it today; you’ll simply have a very highspeed broadband connection coming to your home, and you’ll get your “cable” programming over the Internet. This will also make it possible for you to “record” favorite shows on the cable company’s servers which you can then watch any time and anywhere you want. And ultimately, cable companies could become national in scope, allowing you to subscribe to the programming for the regional market of your choice.

I hope that the major networks have the foresight to see that this move to Internet distribution is inevitable, and that they don’t throw up too many roadblocks for the deals required to make this happen. The record industry has apparently managed to find a balance on downloaded music (without copy protection, by the way), because neither side has been too greedy in the negotiations. A cable company that can launch a Netflix-style Internet access to your existing subscription TV service should have a winner on its hands, and be in a stronger position to shift with the changing demands of the US TV viewers.