Disney: One Tentative Step Towards the Present

I have never understand and still do not understand why putting otherwise free content on the internet is even an issue. If I were in charge of a TV network, I’d have started streaming my content back in the nineties. All of it.

If someone can receive my shows over the air for crying out loud and for free for crying out loud, what, exactly, is it that I am trying to preserve by treating this content like it’s some sort of national treasure? People have been recording and time-shifting network television since the VCR went mainstream in the early eighties.

TV networks have been hiding in the past for a couple of reasons.

One, there are a lot more content producers chasing the same number of viewers, so business expectations required that the networks proceed with caution to avoid giving away a potential revenue source. The record labels have already begun a de facto movement aimed at forcing consumers to pay for the same content multiple times.

The networks can’t really do that, since the content is primarily ad-based and has always been available for free. A corollary to the Billy Preston Rule makes it hard for the networks to take the record labels’ approach ($0 multiplied by anything is still $0).

Second, the networks were incredibly slow to appreciate the power of the internet. I’m still not sure they fully understand that the internet is a distribution method, not some mystical new business model.

Disney seems to have figured some of this out, and has announced that it will begin to stream some of its most popular shows, including Lost and Desperate Housewives at no cost to viewers. Note that the content will be streamed and that there will be non-skippable ads. Streaming gives Disney comfort (false perhaps) that it is not allowing the content to roam freely on the world “wild” web, and ads pay at least some of the costs of providing the content online.

It is important to note that this is being described as a two month trial period. Think of Disney as the Groundhog in late January. It’s about to peek out from its hole, but anything dark and scary might send it running back to a safe offline place.

Which means that I hope someone has prepared the Disney executives for the inevitable recording and redistribution of the streams. There is a way to record anything you can see or hear over a computer- and you can be sure someone will do it. I hope Disney doesn’t get spooked by that or we could be in for many more weeks of network internet-avoidance.

Just remember Disney- people can also record and redistribute content they receive over the air. The internet is no different. Say it with me. It is no different.

I think if Disney stays the course, we’ll see all of its network content online before too long. Being the first network to bow to the inevitable should and hopefully will pay off in the end.

Of course the real losers in this game are the vendors like iTunes who have been grasping for a way to make some money by reselling network content to the 10 people who actually watch TV shows on their iPods. I suppose those 10 people can still buy the right to do so, but this gives the rest of us a way to watch a show if our TIVOs crash (which, as we all know, they often do).

I’m excited about this and I applaud Disney for being at least a little progressive.

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Dwight Silverman
Mathew Ingram