Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Internet Eclipsing Television Networks: Toto, We’re not in Kansas Anymore

Internet start-ups can be said to profit, at least potentially sometime in the future, by leveraging the commons, or public space, even enlarging it in the process. Companies founded on the scarcity paradigm of privateness and even public policy based on a de facto privatized tenet have accordingly gone on the defensive. Although Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions would suggest that the old guard must die off before the new paradigm can come into its own, the internet revolution has shown a remarkable yet subtle persistence in “seeping through the cracks” into the “light of day.” 

Faced with a burgeoning digital landscape, traditional commercial-television networks had already established a “rear-guard” mentality wetted to the status quo by the time the Aereo case hit the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014. At the time, rather than paying a cable fee, that company picked up television signals on the public airwaves and sent customers the signals over the internet (charging for use of the receptors).[1] Before the advent of cable television, “television” was free, being paid for by the same kind of television commercials that many networks still profited from as the Court heard the case’s oral argument; and yet, the default assumption had (conveniently) morphed into the tenet that viewers should pay for television (including the commercials!), which implies that the public airwaves had somehow been privatized. "You can't take our signal. You just can't," said Les Moonvies, CEO of CBS, as if he were some rejected child-actor.[2] Imagine if a network CEO had made a similar exclamation in the 1960s. "They're my airwaves, Mine!" Although copyright law deserves protection, the networks’ use of the law to protect a “transformed” privatized ethos of what are still public airwaves even as those companies continue to sell and run commercial ads evinces a slight of hand that just does not meet the smell test. Perhaps trying to get away with having something both ways goes along with leaning too much on the status quo for support.

Also associated with the rear-guard mentality is the lobbying strategy of erecting legislation as an artificial bulwark that can buy some additional years of profit. For instance, the ad- and cable-based television networks could seek to “fortify” copyright law based on the assumption of de facto privatized air-waves. Indeed, this assumption has kept the American people from questioning the requirement that political campaign ads must be purchased. If the airwaves are public and broadcasters enjoy licenses to use the commons at a profit, then the notion of purchased political ads could be the outlier; the licensees could legitimately be required to run the ads gratis. Already, when the U.S. president wants to speak to the nation, he does not pay for airtime.

Ironically, the U.S. president who had run on the banner of “real change” (and refused public financing, which, by the way, presumes privatized airwaves) backed the old guard in the case, American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo. The forces with a vested interest in the status quo are without doubt formidable. However, the internet was already transforming the entertainment industry even before Aereo came along. So, the significance of the case should not be overstated. On the day of oral arguments, David Frederick, the attorney for Aereo, observed, “The cloud-computing industry is freaked out about this case.”[3] Regardless, the cloud industry could still anticipate a promising future. Stepping back from the particular firms party to a dispute takes some of the airs out of the old tires of the tired default.

Indeed, just as the stolid broadcasters were doing battle with the fresh upstart from another era—that of the twenty-first century—Netflix announced plans to increase prices for new subscribers. Citing a “burgeoning roster of paying customers and profits that exceeded expectations,” the managers of the internet-based provider of shows and movies had decided to take their sleek operation out for a spin to see what it could really do.[4] Even without the new content, such as the award-winning series, House of Cards, the managers were well within their proper purview in raising prices out of a sense that the “burgeoning” market would bear it. That is to say, the company legitimately stood to gain from having essentially formed a new industry, with all the risks one would expect. Antithetically, the defense being playing at CBS and other television networks has the distinct odor of weakness befitting an old antiquarian who refuses to retire.

In short, industries could not but change dramatically given all of the computer-based change unleased from the 1990s and well into the next century. The fate of one company (i.e., Aereo, or Napster before it) pales in comparison to the sea-change would all-but-certainly make the second half of the new century very, very different from even its first two decades. Admittedly, placing bets on the commercial winners and losers is fraught with ambiguity; even so, we ought to know which team not to root for—and, even more pathetically, to be on.

[1] Michael Wolff, “The Battle Over Aereo Will Shape TV’s Future,” USA Today, April 21, 2014.
[2] Christopher Stewart and Merissa Marr, "High Noon for Diller's Aereo," The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2012.
[3] Richard Wolf, “Aereo, Broadcast TV Collide in High Court,” April 23, 2014.
[4] Mike Snider, “Pumped-Up Netflix Raises Its Fees,” USA Today, April 22, 2014.