Cable Television Disagreement Catches Internet Viewers as Collateral Damage

It looks like television programmers and distributors are going to war–and as they pulled on their helmets and manned the artillery, it’s Internet TV watchers who are getting shelled in the crossfire. The worst part of this action seems to be that the Internet TV sources that got hit didn’t have anything to do with the disagreement. Internet users, even those who happen to pay the companies in question for their cable, found themselves met with black screens on Monday.

According to the NY Times, this could be just the first salvo of this sort of blackout during these heated negotiations, but the damage done has taught both sides a little bit of a lesson.

In its continuing contract showdown with Cablevision, the News Corporation tried to extend its blackout of the Fox Broadcasting network to and to Hulu, the popular Web site for free TV viewing, on Saturday. Angry Cablevision customers reported being unable to watch episodes of “Glee” and “House” on Hulu.

The blackout caused shock waves because it had not been done before by a programmer. Though the shutdown was brief, the message was unmistakable: do not expect to be able to watch Fox online unless you are paying for Fox on TV.

Consumers already have a particular amount of scorn for paid-access television that still contain egregious mounts of advertising. “Free” online isn’t in reality, we still get to watch a series of commercials. The situation for delivery certainly seems like it’s a bit more complicated, but it’s always odd that the advertisements aren’t managing to pay for free Internet TV while attempting to aim for a value-added for-cost distribution that could offer full HD content or better sound quality.

While some investors lauded the actions of the News Corporation, pro-consumer advocates have found their reasons wanting. From the NY Times article, “’This certainly seems to be the first shot across the bow,’ said Corie Wright, the general counsel for Free Press, one of the groups that condemned the action. She asserted in an interview that ‘access to and is completely unrelated to Fox’s relationship with Cablevision.’” The broad swatch of the blackout hit more than just their intended targets, but—quick to their realization—the News Corporation discovered that they were also hitting Cablevision Internet subscribers who got their television from sources like DirectTV. As we well know, Cable and web don’t have to shake it up, since they can elegantly operate together; especially because Cable also delivers the Internet over which the Internet TV flows.

If nothing else, it looks more like they’ve flexed a muscle to show that they can bully their way into a position. Thankfully, after they discovered they’d hit a lot more than their intended targets, they quickly withdrew. The nuclear option in this context probably didn’t do them a lot of favors with their customer base.

Other outcomes from this strange embargo also raised the phantom of net neutrality from the settling dust. If a distributor can so easily disrupt the programming of people who aren’t affiliated with them should they be held responsible when they act unilaterally or are they to blame when their actions exceed their reach?

In his statement about the action, Mr. Markey called on the F.C.C. to “defend Internet freedom and consumer rights.” The F.C.C. has not yet intervened in the business dispute.

In another statement on Saturday, Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of the public interest group Public Knowledge, said, “We need to remember that the government’s policy is that consumers should have access to lawful content online, and that policy should not be disrupted by a programming dispute.”

Ms. Wright’s prediction for the next contract dispute: “Online video is going to be used as a weapon.”

If the tussle between programmers and distributors threatens to cross these sorts of borders again the FCC probably will have to become involved.