Cable providers aren't sending the right message

Jim BartholdA couple weeks ago I was a guest on NPR's On Point program. The topic was "Web TV" and my job was to provide a cable perspective for what turned out to be a lot of cable detractors. The appearance gave me a close-up glimpse of how the general public, unaffected by the industry spin that surrounds those of us who are too close to the subject, feel about cable TV.

Here's a bit of advice to the cable industry. You are not getting your message across to the general public--no way, no shape, no how. People believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and it's called Internet TV. They believe that you are being obstructive when you bundle your channel packages and don't let them cherrypick what they want to watch. They believe your prices are too high and that you hold too much power. And some believe that you should be regulated as a utility.

There are those who think that Web TV, as they were calling it, is intrinsically tied to net neutrality and that if something is not done to regulate the Internet you and other service providers will squeeze closed the information pipeline. And none of them--at least none that I heard--blame anyone other than the service providers.

This is an important point as CES approaches and connected TVs become 2011's first darling devices. Connected TVs, the consuming public will be taught, are the ultimate device to blend television and Internet and unlock the wealth of programming that is just sitting out there beyond the reach of greedy service providers. All the better, connected TVs will serve it up for free.

It's an attractive message for a populace tired of a recessed economy and eager to buy products that give them something for nothing. The lesson to be learned now rather than later is that these people have had a taste of Web TV and circumventing the cable service provider, and they're not going to like it if that taste becomes anything less than a feast.

Consumer electronics often fans this type of subscriber discontent. I was working at General Instrument in the early 1990s (or late 1980s, these things blur together when you get old) when the premium programmers, led by HBO and tired of giving away their product for free to satellite users who installed a dish and received the signal for free, scrambled their programming. Captain America (and there's a name from the past) wasn't the only one who was unhappy with HBO. Believe me. I heard firsthand the public's displeasure with suddenly being asked to pay for what they had been receiving for free. And besides being annoyed with HBO, they were especially peeved at General Instrument because its descrambling equipment stood between the programming and the television sets.

If people truly believe they are getting something for free, they're hard pressed to understand why they should suddenly pay for it. As for CES, those with the few extra bucks to pay for connected TVs will believe that they are getting programming for nothing just by linking those TVs to the Internet. It may be too late for the service providers to explain that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that could make for a very interesting 2011.--Jim