Tuned In

Watching TV Without Cable? Fine. But You May Have to Pay for Cable Anyway

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The cord-cutting era may be getting cut back itself. According to a report in the New York Post, the online video outlet Hulu (a joint venture of NBC, Fox and ABC) is considering requiring that its users prove they have a cable or satellite subscription in order to watch video at the site.

It would be a while before the change happens, if it ever does; this may be a trial balloon or a preliminary idea that won’t pan out. But whatever comes of this, there has been a trend for a while now toward “authentication”: that is, one way or another, requiring people to have cable or satellite in order to stream shows online. Theoretically, networks and producers can deliver you programming through services like Hulu, but they’re in business with cable companies, who do not want you to cut the cord.

In other words, as some companies envision it, consumer choice for TV viewers is great—as long as every choice involves you giving money to a cable company.

(Disclosure, btw: TIME’s parent company, Time Warner, is like other media companies involved in various efforts–such as TV Everywhere–to link cord-cutting forms of viewership to cable or pay-TV subscriptions. I just have to ask you to take my word for it that, as a TV critic, it is not my job to worry about the business interests of the company that owns the company that owns my magazine.)

OK: TV shows cost money to get made. I get that. And I support the people who make it. I want the actors and producers and crew who make the shows I love to make a living. (Even the TV executives!) Be it from ads or cable fees or subscriptions or some combination, money has to flow to them. If someone expects me to pay to watch live coverage of sports that I can’t get on TV, fair enough; to watch a show that a network and studio put money into making, I’m willing to open my wallet.

But what we’re talking about here is a system in which a middleman, your cable TV or satellite provider, gets guaranteed a cut when you watch TV, even when you do not use their service to do it. Even, in fact, when you use the likes of Hulu to watch shows that are broadcast free over the airwaves. Essentially, it’s a step toward changing your cable or satellite bill from a physical service–that is, an actual data connection bringing TV signals to your screen–to a kind of License to Watch TV, a sinecure in perpetuity.

Say you have cable TV service but DSL Internet, like me. Fine. You don’t have to use cable to watch TV if you don’t want to, goes the thinking. You just have to pay a cable or satellite company for the right to watch shows delivered to you over someone else’s infrastructure. It’s as if I had to pay a fee to the Ford Motor Company every time I went somewhere by train. (Nor is Hulu’s prospective deal the first example of this. I pay approximately a zillion dollars a month for a Time Warner Cable package that includes HBO, yet cannot watch HBO on my iPad with HBO Go, because I don’t also get Internet service from Time Warner Cable.)

Personally, I would rather my cable company instead worked on perfecting the art of keeping a functioning cable running to my house. But as it is right now, much of the money that pays for TV shows (and flows to big media companies) depends on payments from cable and satellite companies, which means those companies have a lot of leverage in forcing networks and online streamers to stop enabling cord-cutters. (And, of course, there are cable companies like Comcast that also happen to own networks like NBC.)

And the problem is, it’s no simple thing to just transition from one complex business model to another. There are, thankfully, more legal ways to watch TV than there used to be–besides Hulu, you can buy individual shows on iTunes or Amazon, for instance. But it’s not going to be so simple for consumers to cut the cable cord until it’s much easier for TV show makers to cut that cord too.