The question was simple: Why do I have to prove I’m a subscriber before I can watch free TV?
Mark Thompson, the radio talk-show host in San Francisco, couldn’t understand this logic.
ABC is broadcasting the Oscars Sunday. But if you want to watch ABC’s Oscar live stream on a computer, tablet or phone, you have to first prove that you subscribe to cable or satellite.
Welcome to the downside of the cutting-the-cord era.
“That’s insane,” Thompson said. ABC “is a free, ad-supported network that would seemingly want more viewers, not less. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would they do that?”
ABC wouldn’t tell us. But we have some hunches.
ABC is licensed by the FCC to provide free, over-the-air broadcasting, ditto for NBC, CBS and Fox. And yet all put much of their programming behind online paywalls, demanding proof of a cable or satellite subscription before allowing access.
So if you’ve cut the cord to watch internet streaming content through an internet-only subscription, you’re now being blocked from watching many network TV shows.
Doesn’t make sense, right?
“It’s all about money,” says Luke Bouma, who runs the Cord Cutters News website. For decades, the networks have been reaping licensing fees from cable operators for running their programs. And when streamers like Netflix and Hulu, and the soon-to-debut HBO Max and Peacock compensate networks to run some of their shows, “why should they pay if the programming is free online?” he says.
The end result is to push viewers to cable streaming alternatives like YouTube TV, Sling, Hulu with Live TV and AT&T Now, which charge anywhere from $30 to $65 monthly. They offer cord-cutters a way to watch a selection of broadcast and cable networks, without having to rent cable equipment. Additionally, viewers can watch programming on more devices, TVs, tablets, phones even cars.
The cable streamers pay license fees to the networks and get a cut of the ad revenue. “This is just another way for the networks to keep the money flowing,” says Bouma.
Meanwhile, each network has different usage rules for allowing some free programming. How do they stack up?
CBS. Will only let you see the most recent five episodes of TV shows for free. For everything else, you need to subscribe to CBS All-Access, the CBS subscription service that offers unlimited CBS programming, starting at $5.99 monthly. (Reports surfaced this week that CBS is looking to soon beef up CBS All-Access with more programming from the library of Viacom, which owns CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and Showtime.)
NBC. The network, which is owned by cable giant Comcast, is upfront about it. You can watch some shows on your computer for free, but when it comes to apps, maybe, with a long delay. New shows (ones on the air for more than one season) can be viewed without credentials on NBC.com the day after they air on TV. On the app for smartphones, tablets and TVs, new episodes require a TV provider login at first, then unlock eight days after the initial airing. Meanwhile, the latest episodes of new shows are available on the website and app the day after they air on NBC without authentication.
ABC. Many of the popular shows on ABC.com have visual locks in their thumbnails, indicating that you need provider proof before you can unlock them. ABC says full episodes older than eight days are “often” available unlocked, both on ABC.com and in the ABC app. To keep the money train flowing, ABC, which is owned by Disney, notes that many episodes are available for “purchase,” on iTunes and Amazon Video, or via a streaming subscription to Hulu, which shows new episodes of ABC, NBC and Fox series.
Fox. The network says viewers can watch five episodes from the current season, with or without a TV provider. To see more, Fox sends viewers to rent episodes from iTunes and Amazon, or to buy a Hulu subscription.
Cable networks like CNN, MSNBC, FX and others have rules that are easier to remember. You can’t watch without providing your TV credentials. Period. But, the news networks make an exception for big events, like the recent State of the Union address, presidential debates and disaster coverage.
I’ve got a better idea: The broadcast networks have been losing viewers for years to streaming, where shows are easier to find and we can access them anytime we want. Hundreds of millions of people are watching TV on their smartphones, whether the networks like it or not.
What about this novel concept? Make it easier for the consumer, not harder. Build an audience by offering free access, with ads, in the apps, and people just might follow. Lose a little streaming money upfront, but rebuild an audience and charge a higher premium for advertising.
What do you think readers? I’d love to hear your opinions. Join the conversation on Twitter, where I’m @jeffersongraham
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