Thursday, October 16, 2014

Over-The-Top video: HBO and CBS crack open the door

Yesterday, HBO announced that it plans to launch an over-the-top (OTT) Internet video service next year that will be available to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection, even if they don't subscribe to cable, satellite or IPTV services. HBO didn't announce any specifics about which shows will be available, if there will be live streaming or Video-on-Demand (VOD) only, and how much the service will cost. Then, today, CBS announced CBS All Access, which will provide nationwide VOD access to current CBS shows and classic shows from the libraries of CBS, Paramount and Desilu, for $5.99/month. Subscribers living in 14 major cities will also get live streaming from their local station 24 hours a day.

In the course of 24 hours, the competitive landscape for OTT video in the U.S. changed from Netflix and a bunch of smaller content companies to a field including the #1 pay television service and #1 broadcast network. Both HBO and CBS will be "canaries in the coal mine" for the other broadcast and cable networks. The right price points and assortments of live and VOD content are experiments in progress, and we're likely to see lots of different combinations as other companies enter the market. These announcements are also likely to impact existing OTT services--especially Hulu. Fox, Disney and Comcast own Hulu, but Comcast is not allowed to exercise any control due to restrictions that it agreed to in order to get regulatory permission to acquire NBC Universal. Fox in particular has put severe restrictions on when its shows are made available to Hulu and for how long. With CBS effectively opening the floodgates, Fox may either have to loosen the restrictions on Hulu, or as I suspect, launch its own Fox-branded OTT service that's much closer to CBS All Access. Disney, which already has an extensive web and mobile app presence, is likely to do the same, but with several services:

  • Sports, which will offer ESPN's channels
  • Family, which will offer Disney's family and children's channels, and possibly ABC Family
  • ABC, which will offer ABC's channels
Other cable networks and groups that are candidates to offer their own OTT services include:
  • Starz, which has already announced an OTT service for international markets
  • Time Warner, which in addition to HBO could offer services based on CNN and its Turner cable networks (it already offers a large collection of classic movies and TV series through its Warner Archive service)
  • Fox, which in addition to its television network, can offer services based on FX, Fox Sports, Fox News and the National Geographic channels
  • Discovery, which in addition to its namesake networks could stream Animal Planet, OWN, Science Channel, TLC, Velocity and others
  • A+E Networks, jointly owned by Disney and Hearst, which could stream such channels as A&E, History and Lifetime
  • Viacom, which could stream movies and TV shows from Paramount Pictures and cable channels including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and TV Land
  • AMC Networks, which owns AMC, IFC, Sundance TV and WE TV
Comcast may be forced to make NBC Universal's broadcast and cable networks available for OTT as a condition of its merger with Time Warner Cable, but I think that it's unlikely that the company will offer its channels for streaming to non-cable subscribers any time soon.

That brings up a possible "unintended consequence" of HBO's and CBS's announcements: They'll make it much more likely that the FCC will allow OTT services to be classified as Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs), the same as cable, satellite and IPTV operators. After all, if content providers can offer exactly the same programming over the Internet that they offer through MVPDs, why shouldn't an Internet-based program distributor be allowed to do the same thing?
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