AS CABLE operators, programmers and technology vendors convened at The Cable Show in Los Angeles last week to discuss the future of the cable TV business, more than 3,300 broadband video specialists gathered in New York at the Streaming Media East (SME) conference to talk about the same thing.
Technically, that’s inaccurate: The SME exhibitor floor displayed the latest wares from more than 50 streaming video vendors, and the conference sessions explored technical topics such as advances in adaptive bitrate technology and the long-term prospects of HTML5, Apple’s favored streaming format, versus Adobe’s well-entrenched Flash technology. But much of the conversation in New York focused on the same topic being debated in L.A.: the business and technical implications of making most popular television programming available online.
The notion of “TV Everywhere,” as narrowly defined by the cable industry, means using authentication technology to allow pay-TV subscribers to watch cable network programming on-demand on their computers or mobile devices. It doesn’t mean, however, allowing them to watch online shows on their living-room TVs, either through a companion connected device like a Roku set-top or broadband- enabled Blu-ray player, or a new “connected TV” with a built-in broadband hookup.
While such connected devices were all the rage at January’s CES show, cable operators are afraid that making TV Everywhere content available through these devices would damage their existing video-on-demand businesses and speed the way to eventual “cord-cutting”— subscribers dropping their pay-TV subscriptions and relying solely on broadband video, which cable operators may or may not be selling to them. Hulu, the ad-supported Web video portal owned by NBC, Fox and ABC, has taken a similar stance with the broadcast fare it offers by allowing its programming on PCs and laptops but not on connected TVs.
The impact of broadband video and connected devices on cable TV’s future was tackled at SME with panels like “Cutting the Cord on TV: Will Online Video Lead to Cable’s Demise?” The good news for cable was that most streaming video insiders see cable’s TV Everywhere initiative as a positive step and don’t predict a rash of cord-cutting anytime soon, despite the projected rapid growth of connected TVs.
“I think the concern shouldn’t be cord-cutting,” says Boxee CEO Avner Ronen, whose company makes free software that allows Web video to be viewed on a TV by connecting it to a computer or other companion device. “It’s going to be more competition on content aggregation.”
But others warn that rumored plans by Hulu and Apple to launch new subscription-TV services for connected TVs could put near-term pressure on cable operators and perhaps force more radical changes than TV Everywhere.
“There’s no question that Apple could change everything in the blink of an eye,” says Richard Bullwinkle, chief evangelist for digital navigation firm Rovi. “They do that pretty regularly.”
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