Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Cable Guys Plan Their Own Hulus: Anyone Interested in “Authentication” or “Entitlement”?

larry-the-cable-guyWhat’s better than Hulu, the video service that lets you watch your favorite TV shows on your laptop? A service that lets you watch even more TV shows on your laptop–if you’re a cable TV subscriber.

That’s the thinking behind plans some of the big cable TV operators and cable networks are drawing up. But while it’s tempting to describe these offerings-to-be as Hulu 2.0, it’s not nearly that simple.

Both Comcast (CMCSA) and Timer Warner Cable (TWC) want to give their subscribers Web access to more shows than they can currently get–at least legally. But the two companies have competing plans, based on different technologies and philosophies. Here’s the latest info I have on the offerings-to-be, which The Wall Street Journal first wrote about last night:

  • Comcast, which is referring internally to its plan as “Authentication” (ugh), wants to beef up its Fancast Web site, which is currently an also-ran behind Hulu in the video portal competition. But Time Warner Cable, in conjunction with Cox, is offering a different take, powered by the same technology it used when it offered HBO to some broadband customers in a Wisconsin test last year. The cable provider’s plan, which it has dubbed “Entitlement” (double ugh), doesn’t call for a single portal. Instead, each cable programmer that signs on would distribute its programming via its own site.
  • Comcast would eventually like to syndicate its Fancast-on-steroids site to other cable providers. But don’t expect to use the souped-up Fancast if you’re a Time Warner Cable customer–the company has no interest in letting someone else control its subscribers’ Web video experience.
  • Most of the major cable networks have been talking to cable providers about both plans, and most have offered up some degree of enthusiasm, including GE’s (GE) NBC, Viacom (VIA), Time Warner (TWX) Discovery Communications (DISCA) and Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI).
  • Notable player not involved in discussions, at least so far: Disney (DIS). Which means you shouldn’t expect to get full access to Disney channel or ESPN programming on your laptop for some time to come.
  • Comcast plans on a trial run of its service this summer; Time Warner Cable had originally planned to launch its trial in the first quarter of 2009, but has pushed back its launch to the much-vaguer “sometime this year.”

But while the strategies and specifics of the plans are different, the underlying philosophies are the same. Both plans are meant to keep customers from defecting to TV services offered by the satellite companies and telcos. (And Time Warner Cable has been specifically warning its programmers of the danger of “cable cutters” by touting a test in Texas where up to three percent of its cable subs have dropped the service in favor of free TV from the Web.) And both plans are meant to impress upon customers that someone, somewhere has to pay for the TV they watch.

Will any of this work? It’s easy to assume that it won’t, since it involves slow-moving cable providers linking up with protective cable programmers to produce compelling Web services. But that’s the sort of thing that all of us geniuses said about Hulu, and that JV between NBC and News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox has worked out great, at least from a technology and user perspective. (News Corp. is the owner of Dow Jones, which owns this Web site.)

And regardless, the tension between broadband providers, content providers, and consumers who don’t care who pays for their programming as long as they can watch “Heroes” whenever they want wherever they want, is going to make for interesting stories for a long time to come. We’ll be revisiting this one frequently.

Meanwhile here’s a clip reel from HBO’s excellent new “Eastbound & Down” series, which literally kept me from canceling the pay service this week. But as soon as it’s done, so is my subscription. There’s just too much good stuff out there on the Web for me to justify the extra cost. NOTE: This clip has a lot of swearing. If you want even more swearing and a little bit of nudity, there’s a much better clip here.


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