Last year, when Vizio introduced its line of Internet-enabled TVs in a Super Bowl commercial, I wrote a short blog post—more of a conversation-starter, really—about my longstanding dream of a single, dedicated set-top box that can deliver all available streaming-media services. The technology is clearly there; the hold-up appears to be the fault of various content-holders and content-distributors, who are still staking out their respective territories. The consumer is left to choose between buying one box with a limited set of services, or connecting a tangle of boxes, wires, and laptops—complete with multiple subscriptions—to get access to everything that’s out there. And the situation doesn’t look to be getting any better, based on a trio of fairly recent developments.
1. The persistence of Macrovision
After I wrote about Hee Haw last month, I got a hankering to watch more than what’s on my A Salute To Hee-Haw DVD set, so I went to my TiVo and created a season pass for Hee Haw, which airs on RFD on Sunday nights and Monday mornings. Then I forgot all about it, until a couple of weeks later when I realized that no Hee Haws had ever appeared in my “Now Showing” queue. I assumed that they were being cancelled out by scheduling conflicts, but one Monday I went looking for something to watch while I ate lunch, and saw Hee Haw in the queue, with a flashing flag next to it. I clicked for more info and saw the following message:
“Due to policy set by the copyright holder, this recording: Can only be kept until today at 11:08 a.m. Cannot be transferred to VCR, DVD, or any other media device.”
The warning went on to inform me that since it was already 11 a.m., I could start watching Hee Haw immediately, but would only be able to watch about eight minutes before the program self-deleted. I went to the TiVo site to learn more, and read that TiVo works in concert with Macrovision, the company that became infamous in the ’80s among videophiles for developing a technology that prevented people from duping videotapes of popular movies. Lately, Macrovision has been working with Hollywood studios to make DVDs more difficult to rip, though advances in technology mean that most ripping software can stay a step ahead of any scrambler.
A quick Google search revealed that TiVo owners have been griping about Macrovision for years now. Since my Hee Haw problem was the first time I’d had a Macrovision issue with my TiVo, I’d hesitate to call this a huge crime against the consumer, but it’s definitely aggravating. If the people who own Hee Haw had a thriving digital market, offering every episode of the series, I could maybe understand taking steps to prevent fans from recording the show to watch later, for free. But that’s not what’s happening here. Instead, we’ve got a case where companies are working together to stymie the few people who are interested in watching their old TV show.
Mainly, as always, it’s the presumption of criminality that’s galling. If I were an actual pirate, and I thought I could make money distributing illegal copies of Hee Haw, I’m pretty sure I could work around any blocks. But if I’m just a guy who’d like to watch the show at noon, I’m treated like I’m trying to get away with something.
2. Apoplexy over the Time Warner app
A month ago, Time Warner introduced an iPad app that allows subscribers to watch live feeds of channels they get on their Time Warner cable systems, so long as they do so in their own homes. Outside the house, the app won’t work. Almost as soon as the company announced the service, some content-providers balked—specifically Fox, Discovery, and Viacom—claiming that TWC had no right to make their programs available on an iPad without permission. TWC pulled the disputed channels from the app, then last week struck some kind of deal with Fox and Discovery and restored them. But consider what the balkers were suggesting here: They’re arguing that people who pay Time Warner to see shows produced by Fox, Discovery, and Viacom shouldn’t be allowed to watch those shows in their own homes unless they’re watching them on a television. If TWC had introduced a promotion that hooked up two TVs for the price of one, undoubtedly that would’ve been fine. But if one of those TV is an iPad? Nix.
This isn’t like the TiVo/Macrovision case, because users of the TWC app can’t time-shift programs and have no real way of pirating them via the iPad. The issue here is that media conglomerates prefer to keep as tight a rein on their content as possible, especially when they’re uncertain of the value of what they’ve got. It’s the same reason why TV series that featured well-known pop songs when they originally aired arrive on DVD with all the music replaced. Rather than make a little money by re-licensing the songs for a nominal fee—or even no fee, operating under the reasonable belief that new exposure for the songs in question might boost sales—record companies overvalue the catalog and make nothing. It’s also the same reason why a couple of years ago, the Southeastern Conference announced a policy that bars ticket-holders from shooting home videos at a football game and posting the footage on YouTube, or even from Tweeting play-by-play accounts. Never mind that neither of the above activities impacts the ultimate value of what the SEC is selling; to the SEC, it sets a bad precedent to allow any fan to provide for free what they’re selling for top dollar to CBS and ESPN.
No one is saying this outright, but my assumption is that the TWC controversy boils down to this: Fox, Discovery, and Viacom each have divisions that are dedicated to developing their own apps and/or packaging their programs to sell to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or whomever else is getting ready to enter the stream-on-demand business. If you’re going to watch Jersey Shore on your iPad—even if you’re watching it in real time, with no ability to rewind or fast-forward—Viacom would rather you do so in a way that makes them money directly, or makes money for a company with whom Viacom has a deal.
This is the mentality that’s making my “one box” dream seem more and more like a fantasy. I got an Apple TV for Christmas, and for the most part, it’s doing what I need it to do. I can stream video and music to it from my iTunes collection; I can access YouTube and Netflix easily; and most importantly, I can take maximum advantage of my Major League Baseball subscription by watching the games on my big-screen TV. But unless I want to jailbreak the device—or until Apple adds an app store for the Apple TV, as has been rumored—I can’t get Hulu on there, or Amazon’s streaming video service, or ESPN360. And when a TV network sends me a link to watch one of its shows online, I still have to do it on my laptop. If all these companies could just finish dividing up who gets what, offer their services on any Internet-enabled device, and come up with reasonably priced subscription plans, they’d have my business. Instead, it’s looking increasingly likely that in about five years we’ll have 10 different major streaming-video services, with non-overlapping content, each asking consumers to pay 10 bucks a month and buy a dedicated box to access them.
Maybe that’s the secret goal: to prevent the rash of “cord-cutting” that’s turned services like Hulu into the unexpected enemy of cable companies. But if so, the objection to the Time Warner app makes even less sense.
3. Record companies to Amazon: “Boo, cloud.”
A few weeks ago, Amazon introduced its Cloud Player, an application that allows customers to store the purchases they make from the Amazon MP3 store “in the cloud” in addition to (or rather than) on their hard drives. The Cloud Player can be launched from a personal computer, or from Android-enabled devices, and should inevitably make its way to iDevices as well. (Though given Amazon’s tussles with Apple over the Kindle app and other issues, the introduction of a Cloud Player app may take a while.) Along with storing Amazon purchases, the Cloud Player allows customers to upload up to 20 GB of music from their own collections, for a nominal fee.
There’s only one problem: Amazon didn’t clear any of this with the music industry. And as anyone who’s followed the intertwining story of technology and the record companies over the past 10 (or 20, or even 30) years should know, label execs hate the idea of people listening to music without paying repeatedly for the privilege. “But I’ve already bought that album once!” is not a valid excuse for the music industry. If you bought it on vinyl, they don’t want you to tape it; they want you to buy a new cassette. They don’t want you to burn that cassette onto a CD; they want you to buy a new CD. They don’t want you ripping that CD onto your laptop; they want you to pay for new MP3s. So why would they be happy about you uploading your MP3s to the cloud?
I’m a regular customer of the Amazon MP3 store, so when I bought an album recently (Suzi Quatro’s As, Bs & Rarities, if you’re curious) and was offered a chance to download the Cloud Player and get a free 20 GB of storage to start, I took it. Frankly, I’m not wild about the interface of the application, and I’ve never gotten much use out of other cloud-based players like Audiogalaxy. But I recognize that this is the future of media, so I support Amazon’s willingness to get on with it, regardless on anyone’s protestations.
It’d be one thing if I thought that the various media conglomerates’ overprotectiveness was about making sure that artists and entertainers get what they deserve, or that consumers get a top-quality product. Generally speaking, I prefer to pay for my media. But once I’ve bought something, why must I keep on buying it if I want to experience it on different platforms? And why must it be yanked away unceremoniously? I am not a crook, or a freeloader. I’m a customer, with cash in my pocket, ready to hand it over to you if you offer me an attractive deal. This needn’t be so difficult.