Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cable Nets Riled Up by Time Warner App Allows subs to stream video content to iPads

TV rights holders this week have unleashed their legal eagles, warning Time Warner Cable that its new distribution scheme is for the birds.

Network legal reps are issuing a flock of heated missives to the nation’s No. 2 cable operator, calling for an immediate halt to a new service that allows subscribers to stream video content to iPads and other tablet devices. Although Time Warner Cable introduced the free app just 24 hours, a number of cable network groups have already made it abundantly clear that they had not signed off on any such distribution arrangement.

While the initial barrage consisted of warning shots––programmers dispatched carefully worded reminders that such distribution pathways are not authorized by existing affiliate agreements, but stopped short of threatening immediate legal action––this is the latest salvo in the long and bloody war between rights holders and operators. A similar barrage was leveled at Comcast after the cable giant demoed its new Xfinity TV app on Jan. 5.

TWC is actually a bit late to the game, following on the heels of Comcast, Cablevision and DISH Network. The satellite-TV company introduced its iPad app on Dec. 1, 2010. 

While TWC is concentrating on in-home tablet streaming––iPad users can only stream recorded content within spitting distance of their primary set-top box––content owners argue that the portable wrinkle is not explicitly sanctioned by existing carriage deals.

“Distribution via any sort of third-party app is not addressed in our carriage deals with Time Warner Cable or any other operator,” said one affiliate chief. “There is going to be a messy dissection of what the rights are but our position is that [this sort of distribution] is not authorized by our affiliate agreements.”

TWC CEO Glenn Britt has cautiously navigated the syntactic rapids, offering carefully worded assessments about the nature of the service. “Certainly all the business structures with the owners of copyrights are not fully in place, but you can begin to see a very exciting future for this set of industries and for the American consumer,” Britt said last August, after announcing plans to bow the iPad app. “There is great potential in all these devices ... But it’s also a complicated process.”

During a demo of the iPad app, TWC vp of web services Jason Gaedtke let slip that the operator may be looking to extend the range of app beyond the front porch. “We’re enabling the direct experience between the user and the content they love,” Gaedtke said in a conversation with Britt and TWC chief technology officer Mike LaJoie. “If you’re on the road, on a train perhaps, maybe you can stream to that device, start watching an episode or a news program.” 

The TWC app allows subs the option to stream content from as many as 32 cable networks on their iPads. Among the more popular channels on the menu are A&E, Bravo, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, E!, MTV, Nickelodeon and USA Network.

Although CNN is also on the roster, none of the Turner Broadcasting entertainment networks (TNT, TBS, truTV, Turner Classic Movies) are as yet available for streaming on the iPad. Earlier this year, Brain Roberts said Turner would be on board for his company’s iPad service. The Comcast CEO in January specifically mentioned that TNT’s The Closer will be available for viewing on iPads and Androids “hopefully very soon.”

That Turner seems to have sat out the first round of its former corporate sibling’s mobile streaming initiative is a bit curious, given how vocal Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes has been about the promise of “TV Everywhere.” Speaking to investors last autumn, Bewkes said advertisers were particularly enthused about agnostic media, as the spot loads in the C3 window remain consistent, no matter the platform.

Comcast and DISH Network have also been on the receiving end of written complaints from the networks, which argue that such streaming apps are not expressly covered by standing carriage agreements. In a December filing with the FCC, Discovery Communications said DISH Net was not granted permission to deliver its content via the tablet app. (On the other side of the table, it can be argued that tablet distribution within the home is covered by fair use.) 

While no network affiliate/distribution execs would speak for attribution, a handful of programmers have acknowledged misgivings about the various tablet scenarios now in play. That said, one affiliate chief acknowledged that streaming to gizmos within a limited range of hearth and home may be “less of a threat” than the networks are letting on. “There’s the worry that you’re letting our content out the front door, and then there’s the reality that, right now anyway, none of the MSOs are going that far with it. So, yes: Our reaction is somewhat informed by our wanting to give ourselves a little more leverage down the road.”

If nothing else, the tablet fracas may only serve to make the negotiation of new carriage deals even more contentious a process than it already is. “If it’s not the portability issue, there’s the ad-insertion issue,” the exec said. “There are a lot of things to be wary of when someone starts moving your stuff around.”

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