The time for the networks to fish or cut bait on OTT video is fast approaching

Over-the-Top Video On one level, it’s neither surprising nor inappropriate that the broadcast networks would try to block Google TV from accessing their free streamed content at this point. Google is looking to build a new business for itself, after all, by leveraging the network’s content and it makes perfect sense that the networks would want to secure a piece of that action before getting with the program. Striking now, moreover, when almost no one has Google TV yet and there’s no risk of angering a large number of viewers with the black out, is simply smart tactics on the networks’ part. Their leverage with Google will only diminish with time and the growth of Google TV users.

Yet on another level, there is something fundamentally untenable in the networks’ whole posture. While it might make sense for the networks to want to carve out a piece of Google’s future TV ad revenue for themselves, their real issue with Google TV concerns their relationships with incumbent service providers. Cutting a deal with Google for a piece of the ad pie isn’t going to resolve that deeper problem.

With the networks all demanding steep new fees from cable and satellite operators for retransmission rights, allowing consumers to watch the same programming on their big HDTV screens in the living room for free obviously is problematic.  Yet as long as the networks continue to make their content available “on the PC” or “on the Internet”  it can be accessed by any device with a web browser. A device doesn’t need to be called a “computer” to contain a browser. All it needs is the appropriate circuitry to support one. That includes connected TVs and set-top boxes.

Blocking Google TV as the networks and Hulu are currently doing is not really an answer. Hackers have already figured out a workaround by resetting the user agent on Google TV’s Chrome browser. And with Logitech’s Harmony platform built into its Google TV implementation, streaming Hulu content from a PC or laptop to the TV via Logitech’s Google TV-enabled Revue set-top box is nearly as seamless as accessing the content directly (at least until they figure out how to block that as well).

One solution, of course, is for the networks to stop making their content available for free online, either by removing it altogether or putting it behind a paywall. That might mollify service providers but it isn’t likely to go down well with the FCC, which will want to know why “free” broadcast programming is now behind a paywall.

Another solution might be some sort of authentication scheme that required a current cable subscription to access the content, as pay TV networks are doing with TV Everywhere. That’s not likely to go over well with regulators either, however, who would likely see it as an effort to foreclose competition from online aggregators and distributors.

The bottom line is that the networks are trying to have it both ways, and neither the technology nor federal regulators will let them.  There is really no practical way, in the long fun, to allow content to be accessed by a browser running on a PC while keeping it inaccessible via the same browser running on a connected TV or STB. Sooner or later — and I’d bet sooner — the networks are going to have to make a decision.

The winner in all this, incidentally, could well be Apple. It’s app-based ecosystem of devices, including the new Apple TV, might provide a way out of the dilemma the networks have created for themselves. Unlike browsers, an app is a discretionary distribution vehicle. Apps can be installed on devices only if the platform provider enables it, which means deals can be cut and interests protected before the content gets to the device. Ironically, it could be Google TV that ultimately leads the networks to recognize the advantages to Apple’s model.

Further reading:

Nets Evaluate Putting Content on Google TV

Broadcasters Block Google TV But Can’t Stop the Future

A Tour of How Networks Have Blocked Google TV

So Long Hulu, It’s Been Good to Know You

Hulu Plus Take Two: How’s $4.95 a Month?