If you’re a Cablevision subscriber, you haven’t had access to Fox 5, My 9 and any other stations under News Corp.’s umbrella since Saturday at midnight. Now I don’t have a clue what even airs on My 9 (Moesha reruns?) and I don’t know what the other 10 channels offer, and I think most subscribers are in the same boat. We’re really only missing Fox 5.
So what have we missed so far? The big things are: 1) Games 2 and 3 of the Philadelphia Phillies/San Francisco Giants NLCS, 2) the NY Giants’ game against the Detroit Lions and 3) all of Fox’s Monday night programming (including House). This affects me: 1) not at all—I don’t watch baseball, 2) who cares—the Giants suck, and 3) are you kidding me—I LOVE HOUSE. It also means no WNYW 10 p.m. news, so in the fairly likely event Ernie Anastos encourages another newscaster to continue engaging in intercourse with poultry, you’ll have to wait four minutes until it’s on YouTube.
Apart from one-time airings like sports games, everything on Fox is available to watch hours later on both Hulu and Fox’s website. This made the Cablevision/ABC stalemate back in March a lot easier to digest and is making the current standoff less of an issue (except for us House lovers—the show inexplicably has an eight-day delay from airing to posting online).
But on Saturday, hours after cable access to Fox’s programming was pulled, all its online content was blocked to Optimum Online users. The block only lasted a few hours and during the window users were greeted with an “Unfortunately this content is currently unavailable to Cablevision customers” notice.
This is a natural but really significant evolution of these types of disputes. In the past, some service providers have gone as far as telling their customers, “HEY—GO ONLINE” while things were worked out. Fox effectively squashed that—but only for a few hours, as Fox and Hulu were allegedly unable to tell which Cablevision users were actually watching video.
The worry is usually over service providers like Cablevision, Verizon or Comcast controlling what can and cannot be seen. In the incident Saturday, Fox—a content provider—decided what could and could not be seen. Imagine people actually wanted to read my column and I said, “Nope!” and kept it saved in my “NBN” folder on my laptop. People would be pissed and they were pissed for those few hours.
Doing this makes sense for Fox like an all-in poker bet—don’t just make Cablevision subscribers mad, make them angry. It also speaks to the proliferation of the Internet as a place to watch TV (see also: the official launching of Google TV-enabled televisions and devices this month). But take a look at who owns Hulu and my careful use of bolding: NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Company, News Corp., Providence Equity Partners, the Hulu team.
That’s News Corp., as in the owner of Fox. Elisa Schreiber, a Hulu PR rep, told Peter Kafka at All Thing Digital that “…we were put in a position of needing to block Fox content on Hulu in order to remain neutral during contract negotiations between Fox and Cablevision.” I like to imagine that position is in a tiny room with Rupert Murdoch and some muscle.
Or maybe not. Hulu’s agreements with its creators are a two-way street for content, meaning anything on Hulu is on ABC.com and Fox.com and NBC.com, and vice versa. Is the reverse true? If you happen to be trying to strong-arm your way to more than doubling retransmission fees, it probably is.
As vertical integration continues to permeate media, this will only become a bigger question. Look at NBC and Comcast’s impending merger—a content and a service provider uniting. NBC also owns a stake in Hulu and presumably has as much leverage when it comes to stonewalling its content. Cablevision had difficulties coming to an agreement with NBC just this past summer for the Olympics. Now imagine, post-merger, the same standoff we’re in the middle of now, but with NBC. Actually, forget the standoff—Comcast won’t need a reason to block subscribers of other service providers from accessing NBC’s content. Hello, Net Neutrality? We need you, now.
“But Brad, how do we avoid this impending apocalypse?” Well, you could sign up for Hulu Plus. Hulu Plusers—like myself—weren’t affected. “For free?” Not quite—it runs $9.99 a month, a piece of which is likely going straight into Murdoch’s Scrooge McDuck money vault. And until he and Fox see more green, you’ll be seeing plenty of black.
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In times like these, Twitter is your enemy, not your friend. Believe me, NOTHING is worse than missing an episode of, say House, going on Twitter the next morning to tell everyone how perfect my eggs came out and seeing #DrHouseDied as the No. 1 trend. Rough.