In recognition of the need to bridge the gap to the Internet, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have now said they will make select programming available online to TV subscribers in the second half of this year. Comcast’s Karin Gilford promised as much in a recent interview with NewTeeVee about the upcoming “On Demand Online” service, and today Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes committed to a 2009 launch of “TV Everywhere” during the company’s quarterly earnings call.
The concept of having your cable service available anywhere you go has interesting implications for TV placeshifting. A vacation at the beach doesn’t mean a temporary loss of access to HBO. Waiting in an airport or a train station with Wi-Fi? That’s a little extra time to catch up on your favorite Showtime series. But even more interesting is the impact the new online model will have on traditional VOD. On the one hand there is currently a lot more flexibility in making content available on the Web. It’s easier to customize the interface and make large amounts of a wide range of content accessible quickly. On the other hand, the Web is still a small-screen viewing experience for the vast majority of consumers, and VOD gives you instant gratification on the big screen. Even more important, cable TV networks were designed to carry mass volumes of high-quality video, (relatively) free of interference, graininess, jerkiness, etc. The Internet, not so much. What trade-offs will consumers accept?
There’s also another interesting public perception issue at work here. Will consumers see the new online initiatives as free new features from their cable operators? Or as attempts to shift people away from the beloved (if economically impractical) model of free video on the Web? With premium channels like HBO and Showtime, I think the answer is the former. With other “basic cable” programming, I think it will come down to how well the experience is delivered and how well cable companies and content producers can make their case to the public.