Cutting the (Video) Cord: The Shift to Online Video Continues

by on October 6, 2008 · 8 comments

Back in the mid- and even late 1990s, I was engaged in a lot of dreadfully boring telecom policy debates in which the proponents of regulation flatly refused to accept the argument that the hegemony of wireline communications systems would ever be seriously challenged by wireless networks. Well, we all know how that story is playing out today. People are increasingly “cutting the cord” and opting to live a wireless-only existence. For example, this recent Nielsen Mobile study on wireless substitution reports that, although only 4.2% of homes were wireless-only at the end of 2003…

At the end of 2007, 16.4 percent of U.S. households had abandoned their landline phone for their wireless phone, but by the end of June 2008, just 6 months later, that number had increased to 17.1 percent. Overall, this percentage has grown by 3-4 percentage points per year, and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing. In fact, a Q4 2007 study by Nielsen Mobile showed that an additional 5 percent of households indicated that they were “likely” to disconnect their landline service in the next 12 months, potentially increasing the overall percentage of wireless-only households to nearly 1 in 5 by year’s end.

And one wonders about how many homes are like mine — we just keep the landline for emergency purposes or to redirect phone spam to that number instead of giving out our mobile numbers.  Beyond that, my wife and I are pretty much wireless-only people and I’m sure there’s a lot of others like us out there.

Anyway, I’ve been having a strange feeling of deva vu lately as I’ve been engaging in policy debates about the future of the video marketplace.  Like those old telecom debates of the last decade, we are now witnessing a similar debate — and set of denials — playing out in the video arena.  Many lawmakers and regulatory advocates (and even some industry folks) are acting as if the old ways of doing business are the only ways that still count.  In reality, things are changing rapidly as video content continues to migrate online.

I was reminded of that again this weekend when I was reading Nick Wingfield’s brilliant piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Turn On, Tune Out, Click Here.”  It is must-reading for anyone following development in this field.  As Wingfield notes:

In the past two years, nearly every major network show and many of the biggest cable programs have become available on the Internet. The virtual library of content includes everything from “Desperate Housewives” and “CSI” to “The Colbert Report” and “Mad Men.”

Some of the biggest hits online are memorable TV moments. More than half of the people who saw recent “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring comedian Tina Fey as vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin watched the skits over the Internet, according to a survey of 500 viewers on Monday by Solutions Research Group. Nearly a quarter saw them on YouTube and 21% saw them on or

Many shows can be viewed for free and are accompanied by a dollop of ads that’s small when compared with the number of commercial breaks on television. As a result, some cost-conscious consumers are ditching their cable subscriptions altogether.

And the migration of video online is really picking up speed as a result.  According to Wingfield, “Complete episodes of about 90% of prime-time network television shows and roughly 20% of cable shows are now available online, according to Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.”  However, Wingfield points out that “the number of people watching all of their programs online is still small; some estimates put the number at just 1% of the total television audience. In part, that’s because watching online isn’t as easy as channel surfing on the couch, TV remote in hand. Viewers must either watch shows on their personal computers, or use a device like Apple TV, which allows them to download shows from the Internet onto their television sets.”  That being said, he goes on to note that:

Within the next several years, however, media and technology executives say that a host of new technologies will make television access to online video a mainstream phenomenon. Vudu Inc. already sells a $299 set-top box with a remote control that allows users to download television shows for $1.99 per episode. Microsoft and Sony both sell television shows that users of their Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 videogame consoles can download over the Internet for viewing on television sets. Netflix subscribers can buy a $99 set-top box from Roku Inc. that streams videos on their television sets. The service is included at no extra charge in the monthly Netflix fee for renting DVDs.

And that’s just what’s happening today.  There will be a lot more options coming online soon.  Remember, most of these changes have all taken place in just the past couple of years.  If you look at the FCC’s last “Annual Video Competition Report” from two years ago, you won’t find much discussion of these new developments. But, if the FCC ever gets around to releasing another annual report, the regulators won’t be able to ignore these trends and developments any longer.

OK, so the point is clear: The video marketplace is changing rapidly. Meanwhile, however, back in the surreal regulatory la-la land of Washington, DC, it remains business as usual.  As Brian Anderson and I point out in our new book, A Manifesto for Media Freedom, policymakers are still trying applying a host of unique regulations to “old media” providers, including: various censorship rules, educational programming mandates, special campaign finance advertising laws, must carry regs, media ownership caps, broadcast “localism” requirements and various other “public interest” obligations, and much more.

At what point does this charade end?  When do we realize that substitution is occuring and giving people alternative places to camp their eyeballs?  Or doesn’t that make any difference?  Should we just continue to regulate the old platforms and players the same was as always?  Or, worse yet, should we “level the playing field” by regulating the Internet and online video providers the same way?  I hope most people would understand what a disaster that would be in practice.  The Internet and digital video delivery is offerning society an unprecedented abundance of media riches.  They last thing we need to do is screw it up by laying on reams of regulation.

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