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Editorial: Place Your Bets

Video providers are spreading themselves increasingly thin as they try to cover their bets onwhere most people will be consuming their product in the digital age. The FCC could give them a little help.

Content must now be on cable, satellite and mobile platforms as well as traditional broadcast TV. It may feel to some like an episode of Million Dollar Money Drop, only it is their own, and their stockholders’, bundles of cash they are betting.

If there were any doubts about that, the FCC and the Obama Administration should have erased it. The FCC has as much as said that broadband— and particularly wireless broadband—is going to be the one medium to unite us all. The commission is proposing to turn TV sets into broadband media players to help drive its broadband deployment strategy.

And in its conditions on the Comcast/NBC Universal deal, the FCC helped promote the new acronym—as if we needed yet another one—of OVD, or online video distributor, and signaled that it expects OVDs to become competitors to traditional multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).

Meanwhile, the White House last week stumped hard for broadband build-out as central to the president’s economic agenda. But that means the government has to decide what regulatory status it’s going to accord those online video services. Broadcasters and ivi TV, for example, are in a legal battle over retrans payments for streaming TV station signals, while a company called Sky Angel is still waiting for the FCC to rule definitively on whether its online lineup of programming is sufficiently like a traditional cable operation to allow it to petition the FCC for carriage by Comcast under the commission’s program carriage rules.

Last week, Fox signaled it was ready to put its content elsewhere if stations don’t pony up some of their retrans bucks so the network, not just its owned stations, can reap the benefit of the vaunted dual-revenue stream.

In the old days, the balance of power between affiliates and networks was that stations needed that high-production-value, primetime content to draw viewers to their local newscasts, while networks had to have the stations for national distribution. National distribution is now a click away, and kids in their undershorts—or citizens organizing a revolution—have the power to assemble, or deliver, mass audiences online.

While it has decided on that OVD acronym, the commission has so far deferred a larger decision on how it will treat online video distribution systems. Unless it wants to be responsible for some business model roadkill, it needs to make the call before those piles of money start dropping.