Is this the future of “Free?”

Screen shot 2010-02-13 at 7.44.10 PMI wasn’t too concerned about missing the Opening Ceremonies from the Vancouver Winter Olympics, as I figured I could catch it online afterward.  NBC was keen to showcase its cool new Silverlight plug-in by streaming a considerable amount of the Beijing games in 2008.

But when I tried to watch Part 1 of the Opening Ceremonies, up came this message, along with a sign-in screen:

“You have selected a premium video (e.g. live stream or full-event replay).”

So I played along, and selected my HOME provider as Comcast.  Unfortunately, I had audaciously canceled my cable subscription a few months back, because (a) I wasn’t watching that much TV; (b) My $10 antenna was pulling basic network channels in pristine HD; (c) I could stream Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. to my PS3 via an inexpensive add-on called PlayOn.

I still pay $100 a month for internet and phone, but that wasn’t enough for Comcast, or NBC.  “It appears you don’t have a Comcast Video Subscription” declared the passive-aggressive pop-up.  Thanks to IP blocking, I wasn’t able to watch any of the Canadian broadcast coverage online from CTV.  So I was relegated to the lame highlights reel.  As one blogger commented: “Those whom don’t pay for cable — SOL.”

I’ve been saying this for months, but now it seems to be coming true: the powers-that-be do not want the web to disrupt the lucrative world of cable fees.  Hulu is next: I predict you’re going to need a cable subscription to watch content on this still-free streaming video site.  Advertising (“digital pennies”) isn’t enough to cover the costs of big-budget broadcast’s production and distribution (“analog dollars”).  NBC owns half of Hulu, and Comcast will soon own NBC — do you see where this is going?  And what does this mean for the future of free broadcast TV, which we’ve had since the 1940’s?

Obviously, we should acknowledge that these are for-profit companies that need to monetize their content.  NBC has had a stranglehold on the Olympics for years, delaying coverage into prime time in order to maximize its massive payout to the International Olympic Committee (it’s said the network will lose $250 million on the Vancouver games).  As I write this, we’re watching NBC (on TV) as it plays up the drama of Apolo Ohno’s race for the gold in 1500m speed skating (pre-recorded), while Ohno has already declared his feelings via Twitter about how things ended:

Wow…historical night for me…I have absolutely NO REGRETS…thank you all for supporting me…I’m on cloud 9…skated a brutal hard race!

The Internet is clearly harder to control, hence a recent, increasing propensity for platform “lock-up” (’s use of Facebook Connect), and potentially the next chapter in the story of the web with the emergence of a new order in dominant players (what is Apple’s iPad but a really sophisticated, consumption-friendly content appliance?).  The Wild West of the Internet is quickly becoming suburbanized.

Originally posted to Storyteller Uprising.

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