Still Not How It Was Supposed to Work

For the second time this year, Google is caught up in a TV carriage dispute.

Correction: For the second time this year as far as we know, …

This time, though, they’re on the other side of the table.

As you may recall, back in April, Roku dropped YouTube TV. And, of course, everyone found alternate ways to get their TV fix, thanks in part to Google merging YouTube TV into the regular YouTube app. Since it would have been corporate suicide for Roku to drop the entirety of YouTube, both parties retired to their respective Caves of Solitude and indulged themselves with multiple rounds of furious fur-smoothing.

Now Google is fighting with NBC. The latter, naturally, is hyped to the max over their part in putting Locast out of business, and looking to further solidify their monopoly on their channels–even the ones that are supposed to be free to the public, i.e. local NBC affiliates.

You may think you detect a bit of bias in my language here. You’re probably right. I don’t care about most of the channels involved. The only exceptions are the two Bay Area regional sports networks (one carries the Giants’ broadcasts and the other has the As. But with the baseball regular season ending Sunday, at most I’d miss out on three games I care about. Four if the Giants wind up playing a tie-breaker game with the Dodgers to determine which would win the division and which would be the wild card. Frustrating, but hardly the end of the world, given that there are plenty of ways to purchase a few days’ access to those last few Giants games. And many, many things could happen before Spring Training rolls around.)

But even though I don’t care about the channels, I do care about the precedent.

The core of the dispute isn’t really how much Google has to pay NBC to carry those channels. Those negotiations are common and are usually handled quietly; viewers only notice when the result is a big hike in their monthly TV bill.

What’s different this time is that NBC is trying to force YouTube TV to also “carry” their Peacock streaming service.

Note the quotes. According to reports, Peacock channels would not be shown through YouTube TV, forcing subscribers to install a separate app to watch those shows and, where the lineup overlaps between Peacock and YouTube TV, pay twice for the same shows. That’s not a bundle, that’s extortion.

Of course, that assumes anyone wants to watch Peacock channels in the first place. Many commentators are pointing to the service’s low subscriber numbers as being the trigger for NBC’s demand. “Hey, if we can’t sell this crap* on its own merits, let’s force someone else to sell it for us.”

* Lest you think I’m being unduly harsh here, allow me to share a few channels: “Olympics Great Moments”, “Olympics Must-See Moments” (yes, two whole channels devoted to Olympics of the past), dedicated channels for “Saved By the Bell”, “The Office”, and “Real Housewives” (fortunately, they don’t run 24/7, but do the shows really need dedicated channels?). And the less said about “Fail Army” the better. I think NBC is well aware of how thin their lineup is; I’m sure it’s not an accidental oversight that the Peacock website does not have a simple channel list.

Parenthetically, why does the Peacock’s account creation form require you to tell them your gender? It’s nice that they included “Non-binary” as an option, but I really, really want to know why they made “Gender” a required field, especially when they also included “Prefer not to say” as a choice.

NBC charges $10 a month for Peacock if you want it ad-free. It’s probably not coincidental that Google is promising to reduce the bill for YouTube TV by $10 a month if they have to drop the disputed channels.

You can be sure that if Google had caved and ponied up for Peacock, NBC would have made the same demand of every other streaming service. (I use past tense and conditionals here because as I write this on Tuesday, reports are coming out that NBC has given up on forcing Peacock down YouTube TV viewers’ throats.) And if that had happened, we’d really be right back in the old cable model–actually, even worse: at least with traditional cable, you didn’t have to have multiple TVs to watch channels that were part of different bundles.

Hopefully Google stands firm and the future looks more a la carte and less prix fix. The latter is fine for stuffing your face, but not so great when all you want is a quiet evening of killing your imagination dead.

Not How It Was Supposed to Work

Cord cutting via online streaming services was supposed to free us from the stupidities of cable and satellite.

You know the ones I mean. Paying for dozens of channels you don’t want in order to get the two or three you actually watch. Losing channels because the channel and the carrier are feuding.

And yet, here we are.

Want to watch Food Network? You either need to have a subscription bundle from a streaming provider such as Sling, YouTube TV, or Philo, or you need to be signed up with a Dish, Comcast, or some local cable system.

Because if you don’t have a streaming bundle that includes the channel, Food Network’s standalone streaming app requires a sign-in via “your TV provider”. And may still be subject to blackouts for some shows.

Ditto for other popular channels.

There are some channels that have their own services. You can get ESPN+ for a mere six bucks a month. Not bad–but wait! That’s not the ESPN TV channels. It’s extra content and on demand access to the talk shows and other not-actually-sports content. Want the familiar channels and the sports from your local listings? You can stream ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPNEWS and the other channels in the ESPN family if you sign in via your “content provider”. What’s that? Yup, your streaming aggregator, such as Sling, YouTube TV, Fubu, or your satellite or cable provider.

Then there’s that lovely reminder of days not-so-gone-by, the carriage dispute.

Remember those? Your cable provider would threaten to drop a channel because of the cost; the channel would claim the cost was necessary to pay for the content; the cable system would remind everyone that if the popular channels didn’t subsidize the niche content, it wouldn’t be able to carry those small channels; and then they’d raise the cost of the cable subscription or drop the channel. Or both.

Now our streaming world has raised the ante. Instead of threating to drop channels, they threaten to drop whole streaming aggregators.

Seriously. Roku is currently feuding with YouTube TV and threatening to force them off of all Roku streaming boxes. Google is responding by complaining about Roku taking negotiations public.

And the viewers simply roll their eyes, well aware that there are plenty of other ways to get YouTube TV’s content on their televisions. Roku may be the big name in streaming boxen, but there are smaller companies playing in that pool. You might have heard of some of them: Google. Apple. Amazon.

There are only two ways this can go. If Roku gets too aggressive and throws too many services off their hardware–or starts charging a monthly fee on top of the cost of the box–customers are going to migrate to cheaper and/or more flexible systems. Or they can stay the course, keep themselves an open and independent portal, concentrate on convenience and ease of use, and they’ll still be around, still making money, years down the road.

Right now, though, the posturing and threats are a pain in the rear–or, more accurately, a poke in the ear.

Annoying that the brave new world looks and sounds so much like the old one.