Home Is Web TV’s Free Ride Over? How Old Media Are Striking Back

Is Web TV’s Free Ride Over? How Old Media Are Striking Back

The Internet was supposed to change everything. Television would be turned on its head, and big cable would be screwed – finally. 

TV is different now, to be sure, and those changes will continue for some time. But the Web-destroys-cable narrative many hoped to see isn’t quite playing out that way. Recent moves by content providers, cable companies and ISPs aim to ensure that that storyline never comes to fruition.

The tension between traditional content providers and the Web’s new model of distribution is nothing new. Networks have begun to rethink the practice of making new episodes available online for free, while some of the most coveted premium content (see HBO Go) remains locked behind the gate of a cable subscription.

Last week, word surfaced that Hulu may require a cable or satellite subscription in the future, a prospect that would effectively bring an end to one of the most promising – and popular – sources of TV content on the Web, or at least transform it into something very different.

The news, which was reported by the New York Post, hasn’t been substantiated. But if it’s true, it marks the strongest sign yet that big content isn’t ready to abandon its traditional distribution and revenue models for something that, while more innovative, is still largely unproven. 

Fine, one might argue, take away Hulu; we’ll just go back to pirating TV shows. Not so fast. This summer, the major ISPs in the United States will begin cracking down on users of BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks. The new policy, which was unsurprisingly championed by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, will track users who share files via P2P networks and begin asking them to stop. Six warnings later, users will face punitive measures.  

The Web’s Secret Weapon: Original Programming

While huge, traditional media companies plan to clamp down both on legally available content and less legal means of acquiring it, other trends in digital content are beginning to shape the future. For one, online video providers are growing up and realizing that they can’t rely exclusively on cheap, user-generated video, nor can they bank solely on traditional providers for premium content.

Hulu, Netflix and YouTube have all poured substantial quanities of money into producing original, Web-only content that could just as easily be seen on AMC or HBO. For now, it’s still the shows that originate on network television and cable that garner the most attention and praise, but this phase of the battle for eyeballs is only beginning. Hulu is producing several more exclusive shows, and Netflix is getting exclusive rights to the long-anticipated fourth season of the cult comedy show “Arrested Development,” which originally aired on Fox. Meanwhile, Web-only networks like Machima are finding their way onto YouTube as Google tries to position the world’s second-largest search engine as a legitimate source of premium video. 

Will original programming be enough to salvage the future everybody hoped online TV would have? Perhaps. It’s still too early in the game to tell, but it should be interesting to watch.

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