If you’ve gotten used to watching Fringe and Glee online the day after they air, without a cable subscription, you’re going to have to get more patient, or pay more money. Starting Aug. 15, Fox will restrict free online viewing of their shows to viewers who don’t have cable or satellite; unless you can provide verification that you pay for TV service, you’ll have to wait eight days to stream your shows for free.
There’s probably a snarky phone-hacking reference to be made here (Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), but don’t expect it to be alone in this kind of move for long. This decision is pretty bluntly aimed at discouraging TV viewers from “cord-cutting”—discontinuing cable or satellite—and other media conglomerates have been talking about doing the same sort of thing; Fox’s move only makes that more likely.
Bottom line, this is not just the price we pay for TV entertainment—it’s also the price we pay for the increasing entwinement of the ownership of programming (networks and studios) and the ownership of its distribution (cable and satellite).
Dish network is the first provider to sign on with Fox’s plan, meaning that (until other companies sign on) the only legal way to stream Fox shows the next day will be with a password from Dish. (Correction: The original version of this post indicated that News Corp. owned a stake in Dish; it does not, though it has pay TV holdings such as Sky TV internationally, and previously held a stake in DirecTV.) Very likely, though, Fox’s move is aimed at pleasing the other cable operators who carry its shows, from whom Fox has negotiated fees to carry its broadcast shows—and who are getting increasingly testy at the idea of networks letting viewers end-around their services. And Fox is hardly the only giant media company with an interest here. Why do you suppose cable provider Comcast bought NBC? (Nor do I exempt my employer, Time Warner, from working to tie online programming to cable fees.)
I can’t exactly argue for the moral right to watch a show free online the day after it airs. (For starters, the private cable and phone lines over which people get Internet service are different legally from the public airwaves.) And as a viewer, I don’t begrudge someone who makes a show trying to make money from it. Good TV is not made by the good TV fairy; the audience needs to pay for it, whether through watching advertising (if that generates enough money) or direct payment.
What bothers me about this kind of deal is the potential for companies to use media cross-ownership and corporate alliances to dictate and limit the way people pay for programming—trying to guarantee, essentially, that cable gets a cut whether you actually use cable or not. As we have more ways to watch TV, it would be better to have more ways to pay for TV—online subscriptions, downloads as on iTunes, &c.—not fewer.
Hopefully that will stay the case here; according to the New York Times, Hulu Plus (Hulu’s paid online viewing service) will not be affected by the change, though Fox has been noticably quiet about publicizing that option. And, incidentally, Fox is a part owner in Hulu. Will networks that don’t own a piece of an online streaming service be as flexible in the future? That may make the difference in whether future viewers have the option to cut the cord or get tied down by cables.