Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Media Infighting Over Your Money

Look out folks. Lack of any organized defender looking out for your interest is providing another opportunity for media conglomerates to pick our pockets. As with all these opportunities, things begin as internecine squabbling.

Big media has discovered "revenue distribution" problems derived from their own unregulated cross-platform ownerships. This is leading to the curious situation where a Viacom decision to make available complete episodes of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" on its Comedy Central web site and through Hulu has resulted in ruffled feathers at Time Warner Cable.

But before we explore this potential "dustup" in the biz, let's digress to refresh our memories with some background. The word "media" is the plural of "medium." In considering the singular, Dictionary.com lists 6 definitions giving context before it gets to how we use the plural (emphasis added):

  1. a middle state or condition; mean.
  2. something intermediate in nature or degree.
  3. an intervening substance, as air, through which a force acts or an effect is produced.
  4. the element that is the natural habitat of an organism.
  5. surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment.
  6. an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished: Words are a medium of expression.
  7. one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, as newspapers, radio, or television."

For further clarification, the "means" relate to the creative source expression which generally include the written word, audio which includes the spoken word and music, graphics and pictures, and video and movies.

In the past the "channels" (not those numbered things with call letters) included: print media such as books, magazines and newspapers; audio media such as radio, records, and compact discs; and video media such as theaters and television.

To further break it down, the "channels" for television in the past generally have included broadcast TV, cable TV, and satellite TV.

Now we have another "channel" - the internet - you know, those "pipes" that funnel into your home and office the written word, the spoken word and music, graphics and pictures, and video and movies - virtually all forms of media "means".

(It does get even fuzzier, like when your cell phone provider delivers a "wireless" signal through which you can interact with the internet and through which they can send you music and video.)

This brings us back to the Viacom - Time Warner Cable dispute. According to Wikipedia Viacom "is an American media conglomerate with various worldwide interests in cable and satellite television networks (MTV Networks and BET), and movie production and distribution (the Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks movie studios)." Until 2006, Viacom also included CBS (including over-the-air broadcasting), but the two were split.

Time Warner Inc., according to Wikipedia is "the world's second largest media and entertainment conglomerate" which includes "among its subsidiaries are AOL, New Line Cinema, Time Inc., Time Warner Cable, HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, UBU Productions, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Cartoon Network, CNN, and DC Comics." But now Time Warner Cable is being spun off which led to some interesting comments from its CEO in the Wall Street Journal about how to gain access to revenue.

What would Viacom and Time Warner Cable have to fight about over the Comedy Central web site? On the face of it, the dispute is simple. Time Warner Cable pays a subscription fee to Viacom in order to provide the Comedy Central channel to its cable TV subscribers who receive Comedy Central. If Viacom provides the most popular content from Comedy Central for free on the web, then Time Warner Cable internet customers get the content without any extra payment to Time Warner. Viacom's Comedy Central can derive ad revenue from The Daily Show web hits.

Oh my! A big potential fight. Yeah, right!

This would make sense in the abstract, but in the context of the real world the only concern here is how to get more money out of you and me.

First of all, we do not get the option of paying or not paying for Comedy Central. Cable TV is not a la carte. When we subscribe to the cable (or satellite) TV package that includes Comedy Central, we are forced to buy a group of channels most of which any one individual won't watch, though collectively we as small groups of viewers do watch. Viacom and Time Warner as cable channel providers insist on this - depending upon your social philosophy - "ripoff approach" or "access assurance approach." It makes them the most money.

Second, Time Warner subsidiaries have web sites that provide streaming content of current and past TV shows. Check out The CW Web Site or the new The WB.com. Are these Time Warner subsidiaries being assaulted in the press by Time Warner Cable executives? Not that I've seen.

So let's back up here a minute. In a Teddy Roosevelt "trust busting" world or a Franklin Roosevelt regulated utility world, we would have a regulated cable company that couldn't be in the media content production business. It would derive it's revenues from providing (a) cable TV signals for monthly subscription fees paid by you and me, (b) access to the internet for monthly service charges paid by you and me, and (c) telephonic communications services for monthly service charges paid by you and me. Their competition would be the regulated land-line phone companies, regulated satellite companies, and regulated "wireless" companies. These would be technology companies not in any way involved in TV channels nor media production.

Because the world isn't like this, Liberty Media Corporation which is in the cable TV business also owns DirecTV which is a satellite TV company and also owns cable TV channels and also is in media production. It's hardly the most obvious conglomerate which is why I used it as an example.

Let's look at a different example. In it's own effort to survive, Comcast which is a cable company previously only in the cable TV, internet service, and phone service businesses, is now delivering content through its own web site Fancast.com through which it delivers content from its partner Hulu (NBC Universal, New Corp. and now Viacom) supported by advertising. But Comcast issued a news release May 19 headed

Fancast.com to Stream Additional Programming from MTV Networks and BET Networks, Including COMEDY CENTRAL's "South Park," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" & "The Colbert Report"

Back to the real world. Time Warner Cable are the nice folks that on June 5 began testing its internet service pay-for-what-you-use system in Beaumont, TX. Subscription tiers are being offered that will range from $29.95 a month for relatively slow service at 768 kilobits per second and a 5-gigabyte monthly cap to $54.90 per month for fast downloads at 15 megabits per second and a 40-gigabyte cap, with overages being charged at $1 per gigabyte. Downloads and uploads will count toward the monthly cap and prices cover the internet portion of bundles that include tv and/or phone service. Remember, until this year it was the cable company of the Time Warner conglomerate. That conglomerate owns AOL which uses its own partnership with Hulu to promote itself. And if Time Warner Cable viewers get hooked on sites like Hulu or its partners, then the cable system capacity starts getting stretched. But with the tier system, it will become very profitable. But if it starts promoting Hulu-like use before it gets the tiered rates up and running nationwide, people might start getting testy about these speed and gigabyte limits.

So here's the big picture right now all you viewers out there. The media biz conglomerates are struggling a bit to be properly organized to get their hands on your money. And there is nothing new about how they are doing it.

The basic source, of course, is advertising (think newspapers and magazines) the cost of which is included in the price you pay for the products advertised. The other source is monthly charges - starting with newspaper and magazine subscriptions plus phone service and now for cable TV and internet service. Even pay-per-view is really a variation on buying one issue of a newspaper or magazine at the news stand.

I guess I have to figure out how to get in on this, or at least how to pay the least for the most.

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