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Dead Tree Alert: Law & Order: DVR; or, Confessions of an Ad-Skipping Thief

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A scene from CBS' The Good Wife. Soon, the networks may have their day in court as they try to squash a technology that lets viewers bypass their ads.

My latest column in TIME (now free from the paywall!) is about the uproar in broadcast TV over Auto Hop, a new feature on Dish Network DVRs which takes commercial fast-forwarding one step further, allowing viewers to automatically skip past ads in recorded primetime shows. And it begins with a confession:

Broadcast Networks of America, I can hide my shame no longer. My name is James Poniewozik, and I am a thief.
Well, not legally. But I have a thief’s heart. My crime: I watch TV without ads… [read the rest]

Practically the second the magazine went to press, the story moved forward, as yesterday Fox, NBC and CBS all announced they were suing Dish over the feature—which they claim violates copyright—and Dish countersued.

As I say in my column, I am not a lawyer; I merely watch The Good Wife. I do not claim to know which party has the law on its side here. And network executives do not literally consider people like me who have DVRs to be thieves for fast-forwarding through ads.

Well, at least they’ve learned not to say that out loud, anymore. In 2002, Turner executive Jamie Kellner charged that any time you zip through an ad, you are “stealing the programming.” The networks have stepped back from that rhetoric, or at least resigned themselves to reality. Now, 40% of TV households have DVRs, and yet the networks are projected to yet again increase their advertising take in this year’s upfront. But they’ve never been too comfortable with the thought of us out there, badoop-badoop-badoop-ing through the commercials with our Tivo remotes.

Now they’re trying to draw the line with Auto Hop. And while I see their motivation, protecting the ad money that’s still the basis of their business, in the big picture, this is a bad attitude to take toward a technology that their audiences clearly want. Rather than say, “How can we figure out a strategy to give consumers this technology they clearly want?” their answer is, “How can we squash this convenient technology forever?”

Forget the fact that the music business has showed us that trying to fight feasible, desired technologies is a losing game long-term. The bottom line is: a business that adopts a basically adversarial attitude towards consumers is a bad business. (Possible exception: the airlines. But how often do you fly now if you can avoid it?)

Think about what broadcast TV was when it first started. These companies were employing a brand-new technology that people wanted to take advantage of: the ability to transmit live and recorded video nationwide, into people’s homes. Then they built a business model that took advantage of the particular attributes of that technology: embedding advertisements into those highly desired video broadcasts. People may not have loved commercials, but they loved TV, and for decades the business went along swimmingly.

That’s what successful new technology and media companies do, whether it’s CBS or Facebook. They give people something they didn’t have before, and figure out how to make money off it. What do dying companies do? They identify things people want more, and try to prevent them from getting it, by legal means if necessary, to protect business as usual. (Disclosure: I am well aware that my own business, print media, is not immune to this either.)

That seems to be where the broadcast networks are now. And it’s not just Auto Hop: see the various plans to restrict online video streaming to viewers unless they have a cable subscription—even if they don’t use that cable subscription to stream the video to their devices.

I don’t think people are entitled to watch TV for free. As someone who writes about this stuff, I know how expensive an hour of primetime drama is to produce. Someone has to pay that bill. In the past, that has been almost totally advertisers. But in the future, that’s going to have to change. There are still people who are glad to watch TV the old-fashioned way, live with ads. But there are also people who want to stream, to download, to record and skip ads.

Those people have just as much obligation to pay the parties who produce the shows. (As they already pay, handsomely, distributors like cable companies and Netflix.) But they want—and a good business would provide—many more ways of paying, if not with their eyeball attention to ads, then with money. (There’s the possibility, for instance, that networks could raise fees to networks like Dish that offer ad-zappers, which fees could be passed along to those who ad-zap, to replace lost ad revenue.) People want to be able to buy episodes, subscribe to shows, watch on their own schedule, and bypass ads they don’t want. In the process, the relationship of people to TV networks will change: right now, networks’ true “customers” are the advertisers, because they’re the ones who pay money.

The TV business is changing from one with a single main revenue source to one with a lot of them; the transition is bound to be painful for the networks. But quashing an option your consumers want is the wrong way to forestall that pain. You can’t pull the plug on technology forever, and if that’s your best response to change, it’s your own fault when consumers start tuning you out.