Last week, AT&T made a bold new step toward the future. They announced that, through a partnership with MobiTV, they would begin streaming television channels over the internet -- available for a small fee of only $20/month. It's an interesting concept, and one that could be really excellent if done well.
Oh, if only.
I signed up for their free trial to give it a shot. I do not subscribe to cable television, but I do subscribe to MLB.TV, which is a similar content delivery system. This, I thought, could be quite exciting. I eagerly logged on to see what tiny portion of the normal cable lineup would be available via the internet only to find out that it's not normal at all.
Here's the lineup: The Weather Channel, FOX Sports, Bloomberg Television, History Mobile, A&E Mobile, Biography Mobile, The Mic Hip Hop, Mobi Reggaeton, V40 Top Hits, SHIFT Alternative, CHAOS Extreme, Rewind 80s and 90s, Fashion TV, Comedy Time, Oxygen, Crime & Investigation, Toon World, Military History Channel, Blip TV, and Maxx Sports.
I've heard of a few of those. Sorta. And boy was I excited to see Oxygen on that list. Who is the target audience here?
Listed as Coming Soon: Union Sports, Here!, and History International.
Oh, and FOX News is available only if you have AT&T DSL (due to "licensing restrictions"). Great. I'm actually a little glad I couldn't get that one.
It is possible that I'm a trifle picky -- it's probably the major reason I don't subscribe to regular cable television in the first place -- but I feel like I'm being reasonable on this one. This lineup is like getting Marshmallow Mateys when you really want Lucky Charms. It looks the same, and the ingredients are similar, but when you sit down and dig in, it's just not.
Not that the channels don't have some merit. The Weather Channel is handy -- though a little less so without your local weather scrolling across the bottom of the screen -- but then, if The Internet is Everywhere, what's local when you're online?
If you combine The Mic, Reggaeton, V40 Top Hits, SHIFT Alternative, CHAOS Extreme, Rewind 80's and 90's and Fashion TV you sorta have a classic 90's era MTV product, which is kind of cool, except that those channels combined for 40% of the avilable channel lineup on this service. And that leaves you with... yeah. History, A&E, Biography, etc. You know. Those channels. The ones you flip through on your way to what you're really looking for.
The television industry's consumers are clamoring for a new delivery mechanism that allows them greater control over what they're getting. Cable a la carte, while remaining a possibility to the FCC, has been shot down by the cable industry continually based on the difficulty of redesigning the entire cable licensing and delivery system.
But this should have been a no-brainer. There are a three dozen ways to do this well and none of them involve packaging the channels that people watch at 3:00 AM on Saturday mornings when they're trying to get rid of the spins before going to bed.
Nor do they involve a "boss" button so that when I'm blatantly watching Crime and Investigation at work, I can instantly flip over to a fake "Annual Net Usage Statistics" spreadsheet. I don't even use spreadsheets for forecasting at work, and if I did they would look a hell of a lot better than that.
Instead, why can't we see a service where we can subscribe to specific channels via the internet for a small fee per month? If I can get the MLB Extra Innings package for $15/month (during the season), why can't I get Comedy Central, or ESPN, or The Cartoon Network for $5/month each or something like that?
They don't need to take them off of television, they don't need to repackage them or make an interface that looks like a TV. They don't need to make anything fancy that allows me to change channels as if I had a remote control, or even skip through the commercials, they just need to throw a feed on a computer with an internet connection and charge me to log into it. It's supplemental income. It's more money for everyone! Why don't they want to make more money?
I'm not going to pretend I know the economics behind the television industry. I don't know the budgets involved and how much the revenue produced by MTV really does pay for TV Land. But I do know that it seems like it should be an easy decision to provide the same content you already produce to more people via a different medium.
What's the worst that could happen?
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.20.06 @ 9:34a
Well, you can watch a large percentage of popular shows via iTunes, completely a la carte. Most of them are time-shifted -- you have to wait 'til the day after they air on regular TV -- but you get them sans commercials, which is worth something, right? Plus, Apple just recently doubled the resolution on all their shows (TV, music videos and -- brand new! -- feature films) to 640x480, which is the resolution of almost every regular (non-HD) television. You can also purchase a Season Pass, which (like with TiVo) automatically downloads each new episode for you.
That takes care of your entertainment.
CNN offers its Pipeline service for a nominal fee (you can get a day pass, or up to a year) that lets you choose from four streams of live (or archived) newscasts.
That takes care of your news.
If you're looking for streaming weather information, just buy yourself a damned weather radio at Radio Shack. Don't you have better things to do than wait for the rain to fall?
You gave MLB.tv the shoutout; I've no idea if other sports do the same, but unless you're stuck at the office, you're gonna want to watch sports on a real TV, with a real beer and real nachos, not squinched up in a little window that's constantly getting covered by pop-up IM windows.
9.20.06 @ 9:57a
Okay, so with iTunes you pay $2/show. So, if I download every Daily Show and Colbert Report in a month that's ~$64.
The Season Pass does present a fairly significant savings ($10/month/show), but that's still $20/month for two shows.
What about all the rest of the programming? What if I want to watch South Park? Or maybe just zone out to some shitty stand-up comedy after coming home from the bar?
It's all on the same network, but now I'm paying.. what.. $40/month for 4 shows? (And do they even offer the shitty standup? I doubt it.)
Why not just stream the channel and let me tune in?
Incidentally, MLB.TV is the only live, streaming sports I've been able to find. You can download games after the fact, but by then it's too late - I already know who won.
9.20.06 @ 10:01a
And if you don't IM you don't have pop-up windows. And with baseball on the laptop, we can watch it in the kitchen.
9.20.06 @ 10:04a
Yeah, actually - we watch almost every game on the laptop, at full screen - the quality isn't that bad.
9.20.06 @ 10:36a
I know exactly what you mean about the advantage of variety and extra money. The premium channels surely have noticed an amazing rental/download increase to some of their episodic shows.
It seems like a no-brainer: give the people what they want and make money.
I, for the record, do not want to watch things on my computer. But a laptop in the kitchen is, indeed, like having a tv in the kitchen.
9.20.06 @ 11:17a
If you're so diehard as to need to watch Stewart & Colbert every night, why aren't you just in front of the TV? When I want to watch something, I'm really not interested in multitasking, at least not if it's something I'm truly tuned in for.
If you just want the TV for background noise, there's always radio. I hear (your local sports team) has its own (local broadcast affiliate).
I don't wanna watch TV while I'm cooking. That's how you end up pouring boiling pasta water on your shoes instead of into the colander. If you wanna watch while you're eating, get a set of TV trays and schlep it into the living room.
I'm all for downloading what I want to watch...but I don't need to have my TV follow me from room to room. If I want to zone out, I go to the couch, flip on the thing, and zone out. If I want to zone out on the computer, I'll play Snood. Or Civ. Or whatever.
9.20.06 @ 11:34a
He doesn't have cable.
9.20.06 @ 2:00p
I'm looking for an alternative, not a supplement.
9.21.06 @ 12:21a
Local weather? Look out the window.
Being a news junkie I watch CNN, MSNBC, HN, FoxNews, most local news, flipping channels often. I used to pay for Naked News on-line, $9.99 a month. Same news, nudity a plus. Other than Toon World most of these don't excite me. The music is nice, but not if it takes 40% of what is offered.
I think the designers of this project need to rethink their target audience. It's a nice idea in the making, but needs more work.
9.21.06 @ 1:31p
That takes care of your news
Incorrect, mon frere. That takes care of most headlines and maybe 1/3 of actual news. Or rather, 1/3 of the 'situations' as those imaginitive folks at Time Warner like to refer to them.
See the Melos above, news requires many, many, many sources.
9.22.06 @ 8:27a
Since we have cable plus DVR plus HBO and Max and Showtime, you can tell we're TV and movie junkies. We would no more watch films or TV on our computers than we would watch Fox News at all. The whole subject is moot, therefore, with us. If we're not at home and are, therefore, working or shopping or otherwise engaged in something, or have not DVR'd it, I doubt there's any reason for us to "watch" it at all. I record the stuff I can't live without, so if I fall asleep or aren't home at the time, I don't miss it. I've got some stuff on "record the series." (You can't do that with Daily Show or Colbert because then it records the same thing four freeking times a day. Or is it three? Too many, anyhow.) I hope the marketing wonks figure it out better for you guys who do want such a thing, but don't hold your breath.