Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Microsoft Puts More TV in Your Xbox — As Long as You Keep Paying for Cable

Microsoft is readying a long slew of announcements for tomorrow about new features it will cram into its Xbox, according to people briefed on the company’s plans. Of interest to many of you: The ability to use the game system as a cable box/streaming video service.

Which sounds cool!

But let’s be clear about what this is: An extension of the “TV Everywhere”/“authentication” concept that lets cable subscribers watch programming via alternate delivery systems.

And let’s be clear about what this isn’t: A tool for cable cord cutters or cord shavers.

Bloomberg laid most of this out last month in a story previewing tomorrow’s announcement. Steve Ballmer has been “promoting the Xbox 360 console as a way to switch easily between games, DVDs and pay TV” — not as a way to ditch cable. Which is why cable providers and programmers like Comcast and Verizon are working with him.

Another way to think about it: Look at the iPad and iPhone apps we’ve already seen from the likes of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and ESPN. They let subscribers watch some (though usually not all) of what they can get from their various cable packages on a different device. The Xbox deals should work the same way.

A more direct analogy: This will be an extension of deals Microsoft has already put together with the likes of ESPN, which gives some cable subscribers access to the network’s ESPN3 digital channel via their game boxes. (UPDATE: Readers note that the ESPN3-Xbox deal doesn’t require a cable subscription, but a broadband Internet subscription from particular providers. So it’s theoretically possible for an Xbox owner to get Comcast broadband — but not cable — and still get sports beamed to his TV.)

There’s always a miniscule chance that one of Microsoft’s partners will stray way outside the reservation and actually offer cable-like programming without requiring a cable subscription. One day, for instance, I could see Time Warner finally giving its HBO unit the go-ahead to start selling a la carte subscriptions to the pay service, at the same rates that it’s charging the cable guys.

The cable guys wouldn’t like it, but they didn’t like when HBO, et al, did the same with the satellite guys in the ’90s. There’s not much they can do about it.

But given that Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is the chief proponent of the cable-protecting “TV Everywhere” plan, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

More tomorrow, once Microsoft makes it all official.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald