Do only idiots pay for cable?

The cable company nightmare: In the watch whatever you want online future, televisions are the new 8-track players

Published December 4, 2009 7:15PM (EST)

A tweet from Mark Horowitz links to a New York Times story about the implications of the Comcast NBC deal for the future of online TV with a dismissive comment: "Anyone who still owns a TV or pays for cable is either an idiot... or is over 30."

Readers who recall my rant about Heidi Klum, Victoria's Secret, and the Black-Eyed Peas yesterday will understand that I am somewhat sympathetic to this view. But Mr. Horowitz seems to have only digested the beginning of the Times story, with its amusing anecdote about the daughter of a Disney exec questioning the necessity of having a TV in her college dorm room.

As she prepared her daughter for college, Anne Sweeney insisted that a television be among the dorm room accessories.

"Mom, you don't understand. I don't need it," her 19-year-old responded, saying she could watch whatever she wanted on her computer, at no charge.

That flustered Ms. Sweeney, who happens to be the president of the Disney-ABC Television Group.

"You're going to have a television if I have to nail it to your wall," she told her daughter, according to comments she made at a Reuters event this week. "You have to have one."

As evidence of a generational clash between old media mores and new, the anecdote is perfect. But the bulk of Brian Stelter's excellent Times article concerns how Comcast is determined to prevent the watch-whatever-you-want-free future. And unlike newspapers that are powerless to stop the proliferation of news on the Internet, massive cable companies that control broadband access to the Net for millions of Americans actually can affect the variety of options available to entertainment consumers.

Comcast and other operators are busy creating so-called authentication systems that will allow subscribers to stream a buffet of shows -- but will lock out people who do not pay for cable.

"Hollywood needs a toll collector," said Todd Dagres of the venture capital firm Spark Capital, and "Comcast can play the part because online video will erode traditional cable."

Sure, NBC's Hulu is awesome -- but now Comcast is set to own Hulu. And free television online is not part of Comcast's business model. And Comcast is how 16 million American households connect to the Internet.

As always, I am skeptical of efforts by entertainment companies and other owners of intellectual property to effectively control their content now that the Internet's Pandora's box has been opened. But if there is anyone who can make a go of it, it's the cable and telecom companies who own the communications infrastructure. There are only a handful of them, and they have real power.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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