• Tech

Stealing the Shows

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

Broadcast Networks of America, i can hide my shame no longer. My name is James Poniewozik, and I am a thief.

Well, not legally. But I have a thief’s heart. My crime: I watch TV without ads.

In mid-May, at the upfronts galas where you announced your fall schedules for advertisers, you had something to talk about besides dramas, sitcoms and talent shows. The satellite company Dish Network announced Auto Hop, a service on its DVRs that lets viewers skip prime-time commercials automatically, a step beyond fast-forwarding manually.

Ooh, you did not care for that! “They just can’t do it,” said CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. “It’s illegal.” The service is “an insult to our joint investment in programming,” said NBC chairman Ted Harbert. There was talk of lawsuits. Time Warner Cable, until 2009 part of Time’s parent company, agreed to keep the option off its DVRs to keep you happy.

I am not a lawyer. I merely watch The Good Wife. I cannot rule on the legality of Dish’s service. But I do know this: I like skipping ads. Millions of your fans–about 40% of whom have DVRs–like skipping ads. If there’s a service that lets me do that better, I like it better.

I know your shows cost millions of dollars an episode. I know most of that cash still comes from commercials. And I know the heartburn of working in an industry with an endangered business model. (I will remind you that this article was published in a magazine.) But–call me naive–in the long run, a business that fights for a payment model its customers hate has no payments and no customers.

I know what you’re thinking: What payment model? People watch broadcast TV for free. Now we want to watch it for free without having to watch cartoon bears use toilet paper. We’re just cheap bastards! We want something for nothing!

Except we don’t. We already pay for TV. Those 55-in. LCDs don’t come in cereal boxes. I could scarcely pay more for my cable-DVR package if I were sending it to college. I pay for wi-fi and Hulu and Netflix, iTunes and Amazon and DVDs.

The problem: most of that money does not go to you. You need to protect your ad dollars, in the short term, or you’re dead, canceled, on permanent hiatus.

But as a consumer, I wish your response to Auto Hop was, “Here’s something our audience clearly wants. Let’s work to find a way to give it to them, someday, without committing suicide.” Not, “Let’s kill this much-desired technology forever.” How did that work out for the music business? (This goes double for the reported plans to limit online video streaming unless viewers can prove they have a cable subscription–even if they’re not using it.)

Your business used to be about giving everybody the same thing the same way: same Bat-channel, same Bat-paradigm. That’s over. Some people still watch TV the old way, ads and all. (Hi, Mom!) Others want to record, or stream, or download–and should willingly pay for these options, to keep their shows on the air. You need to change with us.

How? I have no damn idea! The Good Wife hasn’t done an episode on it yet! But, for instance, you might charge cable-satellite providers fees if they offered ad zappers–which could be passed on to those who choose to ad-zap.

You might argue that TV watching is a social contract: we all share the burden of viewing the ads that pay for a broad variety of programming. But come on–the U.S. can’t unite behind a mandate so people can have health insurance. We’re supposed to justify one so they can have Mike & Molly?

TV folks, I understand that people pursue their self-interests. Your fine, fine reality shows have taught me that. But customers who want to use technology to better enjoy your shows shouldn’t be your adversaries; they’re opportunities. (Don’t forget, 2 in 5 of us already have DVRs and you’re still collecting ad checks.)

I hope you work it out. In the meantime, I will do my TV watching on the dark side. Because when skipping ads is outlawed, only outlaws will skip ads.

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