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Corporations, cable, consumers, and the broadband conundrum

Invite the gang for a Downton party. Photo: © pbs

In the craven new world of entertainment on demand, a strange landscape stretches before us. And it isn’t just the idea that in the not-too-distant future we’ll be accessing our preferred movies, narrative video series, and music via virtual reality goggles and — Holy Frankenstein! — implants in our heads.

TIME-SHIFTED VIEWING

A few hardy souls are out there with their antennas and hopes of acquiring a decent broadcast signal. They are an increasing rarity. Beyond basic broadcast, the choices are abundant and myriad. We know that the DVR and the prevalence of on-demand cable TV options have rewritten the rules of television ratings, thanks to the concept of time shifting. People want to watch late-night television at more convenient hours, or don’t want to miss a favorite show that is being transmitted while they’re out for the evening, or being aired at the same time as another preferred program. They still watch via DVR or on-demand, just at another, more convenient time. In the wake of this transformation, TV ratings services are adding this time-shifted viewing to their numbers.

EXPENSIVE CABLE PACKAGES

Such changes are ongoing, advances in technology and delivery systems continue, and the economics are in flux. Communications giants are trying to offer phone, cable, satellite, and broadband service in various combinations, sometimes from within and sometimes through mergers. Cable packages include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime; tiered pricing has long hinged on the number of channels available; and the occasional pay-per-view event ranges from a streaming movie-on-demand, a televised concert, a theatrical presentation, or a boxing match. It’s been standard operating procedure. But the rise of one-stop single-provider shopping has resulted in cable TV bundling deals that force consumers to take stations that they don’t care about to get those they do covet. And exorbitant deals with dedicated channels and sports teams building their own TV networks are resulting in outrageous fee increases.

Case in point: Even a Giants fan has to feel for the poor chumps trying to follow the Los Angeles Dodgers who were paid such an obscenely high rate by Time Warner Cable for rights to air all Dodger games that the charge for viewers is beyond burdensome. Making matters worse, Time Warner only covers about 30 percent of the homes in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the company is demanding so much cash from other cable providers to air the games that the competing companies have refused across the board. Thus, in roughly 70 percent of the team’s geographical market, its devotees have no television access to its games. Essentially, Time Warner and the Dodgers are holding the games hostage unless and until someone coughs up the ransom money. How long before this model finds its way to San Francisco?

SLINGBOX, BITTORRENT, AND BROADBAND

What if people decide to just say no, and instead find new pathways to the cultural diversions they seek? Actually, it’s been happening for quite a while.

The consumer-versus-corporation conflict that bubbled under the surface of the digital broadcast revolution is be
ing waged in earnest using broadband Internet weaponry. The Slingbox and the use of BitTorrent technology have been circumventing the usual channels to acquire the sort of programming desired by individuals who aren’t in the right place geographically for said shows or would rather not fork over increasingly high payments to the cable and satellite companies.

This may have the whiff of piracy. Regardless, more people than you might imagine are taking these alternate routes. A friend, a native of Ireland who lives in San Francisco, decried his inability to watch favorite shows from his native land, especially Irish sports matches. Then, a few years back, he learned about the Slingbox — a TV streaming media device that encodes local video for transmission over the Internet to a remote device that could be, theoretically, anywhere in the world. Using a Slingbox allows a user to control their cable, satellite, or DVR system in one location and then view it from a remote Internet-connected PC, smartphone, or tablet anywhere they happen to be. My friend set up a Slingbox at his parent’s house in Ireland, and he enjoyed whatever it accessed there from the comfort of his San Francisco home.

Those who might want to catch an episode of, for example, the high-end British period soap opera Downton Abbey, months before PBS decides to run it in the States, have other ways and means. They can download a BitTorrent client or a comparable computer program to implement a protocol that allows remote file sharing with like-minded peers — in this case, video files that are listed on various websites. There are lists of shows with links to specific episodes that when accessed enable the file data to be sent over the Internet in bits from a variety of sources and then recombined on a specific hard-drive. Initialized and downloaded in full, one’s chosen show can be watched via a media player on one’s laptop, desktop, or, with the proper connections, a big-screen TV monitor. (Invite the gang for a Downton party!)

There are legal strictures involving copyright and distribution-for-profit that can result in BitTorrent users facing hefty fines and worse if singled out for violations. Movie piracy via BitTorrent is a real problem for the film industry that needs addressing. But scores of people who want to see the latest series of the U.K. crime drama Line of Duty or the creepy French zombie thriller The Returned with no expectation of a timely American dissemination will risk using BitTorrent. And some viewers, who think they’re being pushed around, fleeced or disregarded by the cable or satellite companies, might think of going the broadband route in toto to pick and choose all of their home viewing..

Desperate times, desperate measures. And count on the corporations to strike back in more proactive fashion if legitimate viewing numbers continue to appreciably shrink and the pirates grow in number. What else? It’s strictly business.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at GABnet.net and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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