You can't fight city hall--or cable

Jim BartholdI am a skeptic when it comes to over-the-top content beating cable in any kind of fair fight.

Like fighting a parking ticket, it's impossible to fight cable. If you slide right the industry bobs left; if you throw out a roundhouse hook, cable just ducks. Unlike Rocky, I've never seen the cable industry take a beating and come up bloodied to an opponent repeating, "There ain't gonna be no rematch." That's because when cable gets in the ring, by hook, crook, cooperation or competition, there's no need for a rematch; the loser is laying on the mat with Tweety Birds flying about its cranium--and the loser isn't cable.

We've all tried at some point to beat cable, and we've all lost. When the first "cable ready TVs" came out, a friend found unscrambled HBO in the 100 level of channels. Cable shut that down by putting traps on the connections coming into his home.

Many are too young to remember the first Jerrold cable boxes that contained a security element that could, with the efficient use of a paperclip or some other thin metallic device, be scratched to reveal the wonders of pay television. Another friend showed me how to do it; the fun--and the free viewing--were short lived.

Others might remember when you could turn the pages of an electronics magazine and find pages of cable descramblers for sale. That battle with the pirates lasted a few rounds but cable finally won a TKO with addressability.

My own experience with trying to circumvent cable--legally, I might add--happened when I purchased a Panasonic digital video recorder/DVD burner. The unit used TV Guide programming information hidden in the analog cracks to deliver a reasonable--by no means TiVo-like, but reasonable and without monthly fee--DVR. My fun lasted less than a year when Comcast quietly switched over to digital and my analog programming source vanished.

Being the cable apologist I am, I accepted this and threw away the unit. Right, and the Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl. I fought viciously with Panasonic, TV Guide, Comcast and even Motorola, which was providing the transmission network. In the end, because of who I am and what I am (an unrelenting pain who knows just enough to be a nuisance), I got back the money I spent on the DVR/DVD recorder. The lesson learned is if you want cable programming, cable will give it to you. Grudgingly, I purchased a Comcast-sponsored DVR and haven't burned a DVD since.

The whole point is that there are always loopholes. There are always cracks in the armor so you can peek through and see the wonders of what cable offers for free: free channels, free content, free cable. But in the end, if you want what cable has--and that's often quite a lot--you must pay the price. Like that Panasonic DVR/DVD burner, I don't expect OTT to go away; I expect it to be subsumed by cable and become just another nugget hidden in cable's walled garden. You'll get OTT; it will just be part of your cable package.