Long time readers of this column (and hey, if that’s you—thanks!), will recall I have written occasionally, (well, at least once), of my annual treks out to Austin where I wear my “book author” hat and pal around with other storytellers of genre fiction. I have a good friend there who, with his wife, is kind enough to put me up, and put up with me.
He’s also much more of an astute gearhead than I am, is much better at retrofitting computers, and is always being sent, (and writing reviews of), new consumer tech equipment—like Roku players, which essentially put the Internet on your TV screen (including what you stream through Netflix—if you’re not doing that through your teen’s XBox 360, like we’re doing in the Williams household)—as well as the brand new Popcorn Hour player, which you “future delivery platform” folk might want to make note of.
The promise is “All Media, One Box” and the device delivers. It allows you to “stream or playback digital media content from a variety of sources, such as your PC, network-attached storage, digital camera or USB storage.” It also becomes “easy to download and stream content directly from popular Internet sites like SHOUTcast, Blip.tv and dozens of other online content sources. Popcorn Hour even has a built-in download utility, eliminating the need to rely on your PC to download files from the Internet.”
All of which, of course, brings us to the main topic of this edition’s column, the Comcast/NBC Universal buyout.
A lot of smart folk—and even your reasonably coherent correspondent—have figured out what the Cable giant’s multi-billion dollar interest is in the former division of a liquor fortune, a French utility company, and a major defense contractor and outsourcer of jobs—all of whom have counted either the studio, or the studio/network amalgam, among their divisions or holdings in years past. And what it’s all about, of course, is content. Writing in the Washington Post, Cecilia Kang talks about an initiative from Time Warner and Comcast called “TV Everywhere,” which she describes as the cable TV industry’s strategy of “shoring up its franchises in the Internet age.”
“The basic idea behind the initiative is this: Customers who pay for basic cable subscriptions will get to watch select shows such as Entourage and Mad Men for free on desktop computers, mobile phones and any other device approved by their cable provider. The online shows will not be available to non-subscribers.”
In other words, this is direct pushback against things like Popcorn Hour, at least in theory. Depending, perhaps, on how many times that video stream you’re now watching in your living room has been “monetized.”
As has been noted, the upcoming buyout/merger/gene splice between Comcast and NBC Uni will leave Comcast in control of websites like Hulu.com, which currently have lots of free programs that originate on cable. I wound up watching more of the recent Battlestar Galactica series there than on the Syfy Channel—albeit a few days after originally broadcast.
Kang says this particular corporate fusion “would create an entertainment powerhouse.
Together, the companies currently deliver one out of every five television viewing hours.
Analysts say the merger could be a test case for determining the extent to which government can regulate this new arena of online video.”
Later she quotes Marvin Ammori, a media law prof from the University of Nebraska, who advises the public interest group Free Press in their noble (and we hope not Quixotic) attempts to stave off monopoly and consolidation in the info biz. He says “TV Everywhere is an effort by the old guard, the incumbent cable industry, to make sure change doesn’t come to the television. And their way of doing that is to make sure you can’t cancel your cable TV service and enjoy the dream of watching your favorite shows through new competitors like Hulu, Roku and Vuze.”
Which is where all the pieces for this column start coming together. We’ve covered Hollywood labor battles past—and will be doing the same for the ones just down the road—but we all know the proverbial 800-pound gorilla here, is the permanent change in delivery models we’re in the midst of, which is obliterating the old contract-framing notions of “reruns,” “residuals,” etc.
Where this gets interesting is in considering Comcast’s past regarding unions and workers. In Oregon, a publication called Northwest Labor Press has an interesting article from 2004, headlined “Comcast Systematically Squeezing Out Unions,” which says, in its opening paragraphs, that “All that Communications Workers of America (CWA) wanted at first was to win for cable television and broadband Internet workers the same union protections that many unionized telephone company workers enjoy.”
“But after several years of losing union battles with cable giant Comcast, CWA is realizing that until the United States changes its labor laws, it will be difficult for American workers to exercise their right to unionize.”
And while it’s been a few years since that article was posted, there hasn’t been a card check law passed by our increasingly hapless Federal government, and corporate management cultures don’t spontaneously become “proemployee” if they aren’t already. (There are reasons why real wages have been flat for nearly two generations).
So more recently, we find posts to a site called Comcast Workers United, backed by both the aforementioned CWA, and the IBEW—the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. An item there, reprinted from the Philadelphia Inquirer just this past spring, mentions that the cable giant’s lobbying budget has soared: “Gigi Sohn, president of the nonprofit Public Knowledge (says): ‘Comcast is the big elephant in the room.’ With its Washington operation, she said, the Philadelphia company ‘is acting more like a telephone company than a traditional cable company.’ Cable companies traditionally have been regulated by state and local governments, but they are increasingly drawn into Washington’s orbit because of phone and high-speed Internet businesses.”
High-speed Internet businesses again. That’s where we came in. And where Comcast is coming in, with its big Hollywood spending spree.
At the next round of strikes, Hollywood’s labor leaders will find themselves dealing with new faces across the table—the not-too-labor friendly ones of Comcast.