There’s no free lunch with online TV content

11 Mar

TheDailyShowOf all the great things the internet has given humanity, I didn’t know that an inalienable right to all television content for free was among them. But that seems to be the crux of a recent op-ed piece by Open Media director Steve Anderson.

In articles on both the Huffington Post and Open Media websites, Anderson relates a tale of how he recently tried to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart online, only to be thwarted by Bell Canada’s requirement that he subscribe to the company’s television service. That’s not how it should be, he says:

I’d much rather use online services than deal with a prescribed menu of channels on TV. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason why I should subscribe to multiple telecom services when at this point everything (voice, video, text) should be available through one open platform: the Internet.

It looks like the word “open” is being conflated with “free,” in that everyone should be able to watch The Daily Show without having to pay for it. You could apparently do that before, so why the clamp down now?

I hate to sound like the heavy, but TV shows cost money to produce and license. Putting them online for free simply doesn’t recoup those costs. Rights holders can try to make revenue by attaching ads to those shows, but that may not even let them break even. This is why a great proportion of content – notably HBO programs – has never been available online for free.

These aren’t exactly new arguments – they have in fact been taking place since the days of Napster. The difference is that other media have found new revenue models through the likes of Netflix, Spotify or even Next Issue that both producers and consumers seem to be happy with. It’s worth noting that all of those services have subscription costs.

Television producers have been trying something similar with their joint venture Hulu, with mixed results. Hulu Plus – also a paid service – has had some success in the United States, but the effort is a non-starter internationally. Canadians can’t get it without performing IP gymnastics and the company recently announced it was selling off its operation in Japan. Clearly, the model for TV online still hasn’t been properly figured out yet. As in the case of Netflix, it may take an outsider to come along and do it for the industry.

Fortunately, there are several good, market-driven counters to the problem in the meantime. First, there are a plethora of virtual private network and geo-unblocking services that can be subscribed to – usually for a small fee – that provide workarounds to restrictions like Bell’s. And then, of course, there is file-sharing through the likes of BitTorrent.

Should Canadians have to resort to such tricks to get access to the content they want without having to pay for exorbitant cable subscriptions? Obviously not, but if the rights holders aren’t going to deliver the goods then such methods will only become increasingly popular and they’ll be left without revenue or viewers.

Piracy and workarounds led directly to the rise of consumer-friendly services such as Netflix and Spotify, and they will also inevitably result in something similar arriving for television content in Canada and abroad. It will inevitably be cheaper and better than an expensive cable subscription, but it certainly won’t be free.

UPDATE: I missed this in his Open Media post, but Anderson did modify his article in response to readers who also took it as a call for free content online (others on Twitter also had the same reaction). He says he supports Bell charging a fair fee to watch online or supporting such content through ads as it has in the past. The Huffington Post version is still unmodified as this writing.


Posted by on March 11, 2014 in bittorrent, netflix, piracy, television


17 responses to “There’s no free lunch with online TV content

  1. Steve Anderson

    March 11, 2014 at 8:21 am

    This is more than a little bit of a straw-man you’re putting up here. I of course did not in any way imply content should be available for free. What I did argue is that we should not be forced to subscribe to TV to in order to access and pay (through fees or ads) for content. You seem to have missed this addition to my blog in response to comments from yesterday before you made this post: “To be clear this content is ad-supported content. So everyone who watches Bell Media content online is paying for it by watching the ads. I think that’s fair, and I’d even support Bell charging a basic fee for viewing content online along the lines of the monthly fee approach used by Netflix and others. What Bell should not be permitted to do is penalize those who prefer to watch content online rather than through a TV service. There should be a fair rate for everyone who watches content online (the same rate for TV subscribers and cord cutters) or the content should be ad supported as it has been up until now.”

    Glad we agree on really every of substance here, but try to not to put words in my mouth Peter. I never once used the word “free” and if you look at what I did say, it’s clear I’m against being forced to pay for cable TV through these content blocking tactics, not paying for content in general.

    Getting content for free is not the “crux” of what I was saying at all, nor is your rather wild conjecture that I conflated open with free correct. I hope you’ll consider noting in your blog that I was not in fact suggesting content should be available without compensation. Your call but that’s the responsible thing to do I think.

    • Peter Nowak

      March 11, 2014 at 8:49 am

      You’re right, I did miss your addition. I read your piece on Huffington Post, where it is still unmodified as I write this. With respect, the fact that you modified it suggests other readers also interpreted it that way. That was certainly the case on Twitter:

      • Steve Anderson

        March 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm

        Right so a minority of people who scanned my piece incorrectly came to the conclusion that I was suggesting content should be free online. You then, presumably read my piece which does not say that, you couldn’t even find a quote that says that, and then announce that I believe there is an “inalienable right to all television content for free”.

        Glad to see the correction at the end but it would be good for you to note that I in fact never did say I believed content should be available for free. I did reply to a small minority who misunderstood that fact.

    • craigbamford

      March 11, 2014 at 2:10 pm

      “What I did argue is that we should not be forced to subscribe to TV to in order to access and pay (through fees or ads) for content.”

      Yep. And considering that the reason why networks and cable companies are in this position in the first place is due to a grab-bag of government-granted and natural monopolies, it’s a bit odd to argue that this has to do with the market not “figuring out the model” yet. Steve’s right: it’s about Canada’s wildly, wildly profitable telecoms defending their monopolies. The model exists. It’s just that they don’t like it.

      By the by, near as I can tell geo-unblocking is likely illegal. If it isn’t now, it likely soon will be. You could argue that old-style grey-market satellite boxes were a “market driven solution”, too. They were. Right up until the point they were legislated into oblivion.

  2. russellmcormond

    March 11, 2014 at 10:58 am


    Sorry, but claiming that people who don’t want to get their content from the narrow ways that the legacy providers are providing it want it “for free” is nonsense. While there are some people who want to get things without paying for it, there are far more of us who want to pay who are not given reasonable options. I consider content being tied to legacy BDUs or specific devices (especially infringing devices) to be unreasonable options. This type of business practise should be investigated and prosecuted under our Competition Act, not legally protected or excused by the media.

    I’m an example of someone who wants to pay for content, but where the content creators are all too often not willing to accept my money.

    As to the copyright side: I’m a firm believer in “effect on the market” being the primary criteria for fair dealings evaluations, with there being no infringement for content that is not offered under reasonable terms. We may all debate for years qualities as reasonable terms, but it is far past time we stop blaming potential customers for problems initiated by the providers.

    Thanks for the jab with mentioning HBO — my only legal option at the moment is to wait for years and purchase DVDs, as HBO hasn’t been willing to offer their content to me in other ways. This is what I have been doing so far. If HBO would just stop thinking of Netflix as a competitor and realize Netflix has already solved problems HBO appears years behind on, I would be paying and getting that content in a more reasonable timeframe. I could access easily in other ways as many other people I know, but I want to financially support these productions. Maybe if they had a tip jar I could put my $10/month into I would then just take those other technologically easier options.

    • Steve Anderson

      March 11, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      “claiming that people who don’t want to get their content from the narrow ways that the legacy providers are providing it want it “for free” is nonsense.” Thanks for telling it how it is Russell. A bit disappointed in this post from Nowak. I’m normally a big fan of the blog.

      • russellmcormond

        March 21, 2014 at 11:50 am

        I’ve been in this debate for decades now. Whenever I blog on the topic I either get accused of not wanting to pay for content, or accused of my articles being too long (as I have to repeat yet again the obvious clarifications of language). Given I find the false claims I want to infringe someone elses rights, levelled at an article where I’m trying to protect our rights, I most often end up having to write annoyingly long articles.

        There are some, often the very people I consider to be infringers (of IT property rights — the issue I’m usually discussing), who will claim I’m not wanting to pay no matter what I say, and I’ve learned to just ignore them and hope some people will see past these noise-makers to understanding the issues.

        In this specific instance I do blame Peter for the misinterpretation as he had ample opportunity to read other articles of yours where this issue was already clear. He took that single article out of context, and then lazily wrote about something that wasn’t there (but was clarified elsewhere). It is not like you are shy about expressing your views.

  3. tomundone

    March 11, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Most Canadians understand full well the need to pay (in some manner) for this type of content – we are not demanding to have it for free. You are right to remind us (and OpenMedia) of that.

    But we like competition and enjoy watching the products and services of real competitors (e.g. Apple and Google) get better and cheaper as technology advances. The issue in this case, as it is so often here, is Robellus playing anti-competitive tricks.

    Allowing Robellus to control our media and tie it to their other services is an obvious competitive issue – I really don’t understand why it is allowed. And this development with the Daily Show is a taste of what is to come and an illustration of why Rogers spent so much for total control over hockey rights.

    • Steve Anderson

      March 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm

      OpenMedia didn’t need to be reminded. Peter just misconstructed what was said unfortunately — nobody said content should be available for free.

      • Peter Nowak

        March 11, 2014 at 5:31 pm

        Small minority? I’m curious as to whether you’ve developed metrics that can tell what the majority of your readers thought. You’ll be a rich man if so because every news outlet in the world will pay handsomely for such a tool.

        Smarminess aside, you should never assume that posted comments indicate your general readership’s opinion one way or the other. Various studies tell us that fewer than 10 per cent of readers actually comment on stories.

        The fact that some readers as well as other media commenters, myself included, interpreted what you wrote in such a way doesn’t necessarily indicate fault on our part, but perhaps on yours. I encounter this same issue from time and time and while the natural instinct is to get defensive, I try to see it from the respective critic’s point of view, then correct myself or explain what I meant.

        You wrote what you wrote, so rather than criticizing critics or proclaiming your disappointment, perhaps you should own it and admit that you perhaps weren’t clear enough – which you apparently believe, since you did feel the need to add to your post.

  4. Chris. C

    March 11, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Great discussion! It always come down to the bottom line that Piracy and other seemingly ‘subversive’ ways exist and have become a ‘problem’ not because users are becoming criminal or want things for free, but because they simply refuse to be raped and robbed by ‘respectable’ criminals in three piece suits that are nothing but polished mafia dons and are pretty much in control of most western so-called democracies.

    We used to have TV and pay our dues to the Media Mafia monthly until we finally had high speed Internet available in our area through Bell, and I promptly went with an independent provider with no caps. The sad thing is that every one of my neighbours let themselves be brainwashed by the fact ‘Bell’ was giving them access to high speed Internet, for which they were grateful, and refused to believe there was a much better alternative with no caps. These neighbours are still using Bell Express View now, while we watch every one of our shows and movies online, at a time of our choosing and at no extra cost.

    We used to have to work hard to access the movies we wanted to watch because regular offerings were so outlandishly expensive and yes, that sometimes meant piracy and having to deal with pop-ups, malware and other unsavory Internet trolls. A perfect example of the absurdity of the system is after having purchased an HD DVD I had to get online ot be authorized to view the content! You can imagine how I made it a point to make sure to would find the cracked MKV of that movie and junk that disk forever.

    It all comes down to our refusal to be raped by the Media Barons and disobey rules that would have us not only pay a license for viewing our movie, but pay that license every single time we wanted to watch that movie.

    The Media Barons used to sell records and I had built an extensive collection. I paid them great money for the license to listen to the music. I will certainly not pay them again for the privilege of downloading the same music that I have already paid my dues for, as the license specifically states that I am not buying the media, but the license to use the data in it.

    Bottom line, we certainly have no problems whatsoever to ‘pay’ for content, but we object to be criminally taxed by rogue business entities that should have been outlawed long ago. But that will probably not happen until the likes of Chris Dodd and the other MAFIAA dons die away and progressives finally take over.

  5. Chris C.

    March 11, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    Just to clear things up, my post was intended to appear right after Russel’s but somehow never made it in proper sequence, so if it appears off topic… Count one up to the blog gremlins.

    As for the animosity that followed, I may be mistaken, but I don’t think anyone here would seriously consider media must be free as in “free to be plundered” and my understanding was that Steve Anderson is saying free as in “freedom of choice and freedom from the slavery to the Media Barons”, so I don’t understand why Pete would need taking on Steve as if he was some sort of outlaw. Reminds me of a schoolyard fight…

    • Steve Anderson

      March 11, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Peter in regards to your comment above there’s no excuse to doing a blog post that puts words in someone’s mouth like this. It might be good for clicks, but it’s sloppy and disappointing blogging. Defending it by citing someone’s tweet actually makes it worse. Note also that the same person you used as back from twitter is now tweeting at me about how there’s nothing “illegal” about content blocking. That’s true and also something I didn’t say in my post. You can of course now write a blog about how I said suggested it’s illegal to block content and cite that tweet. This approach to writing is obviously setting the bar pretty low.

      As a fan of your blog I hope for better in the future.

  6. Tracey

    March 11, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Just thought I’d add my voice to say that I started to read the original Open Media post when it first came out and it totally came across to me like he was saying that the content should be available for free. I actually didn’t read the whole thing because I was turned off by the opening premise. Sounds like I probably agree with what he was actually trying to say, but it back fired in the execution.

    • Chris C.

      March 11, 2014 at 11:52 pm

      Although I do believe we must debate the rights and costs of content and the fact that nothing is free, I have become very upset, after having read both of Mr Anderson’s pieces, at some of the underhanded jabs that were levelled at him here and feel that I must take his defence.

      Although some of you well behaved bluebloods may dislike his tone, nowhere in these articles does Mr Anderson demand to watch a show online for free! On the contrary, he is rightfully incensed by the fact that Bell would have to gall to blackmail internet users into subscribing to a completely unnecessary television service in order to watch something that has already been paid for by the ample advertizing that overwhelms these internet show sites!

      If that isn’t a clear enough proof to you of sheer intimidation and overreach by the telecom giants, maybe you truly believe you deserve slavery. But don’t you dare justify your meekness by stabbing in the back with your baseless accusations the only person who has the courage to stand up to that bully!

      • Steve Anderson

        March 12, 2014 at 3:12 am

        Thanks for the support Chris. Means a lot.

  7. redneckonthetrain

    March 13, 2014 at 12:16 am

    I can’t say this was the best piece you’ve done Peter. That aside there are real issues to be addressed, and I think Craig and Russle’s comments have been spot on.

    Personally, I pirate content primarily for political reasons. Lack of availability, ridiculous DRM, geographic restrictions, propriety media types… Etc all valid reasons I will leverage content in protest. Why not, after all it goes the other way just as much. Push back is needed!

    I’m results driven. Look at how well pirating caused the music industry to turn out from a consumer point of view. Subscription services like songza, radio, or tune in are for the most part really excellent.

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