Watching TV (and Regulating TV Watching)
How we watch television changed this week. If innovation adoption typically tracks an S-curve, we seem to be swooping upwards. I wish that I could say the same for the regulation of television, but unfortunately legal progress moves much more slowly, if at all.
CBS and NBC announced new deals this week to make available on-demand popular television shows soon after they are regularly broadcast (here in the WSJ (and free this week as the Journal tests expanding its free content) and also here at c|net). ABC has already moved to do this in its deal with iTunes (see my prior post on this), but these deals are even more significant, as you will be able to watch the shows on your TV, and not just your iPod.
These are accelerating steps towards the world of video on demand, but the deals are also interesting technically. Cable has been thought to have a delivery advantage over satellite on video-on-demand. DirecTV, a leading satellite provider, hopes to mitigate that advantage by giving customers new digital video recorders (DVR’s). Okay not actually give: the box will cost $100, but there will be a $100 mail-in rebate (so make sure to send in the rebate).
What’s the catch? No catch really, but while the box will come with the capability of recording 160 hours of television, the consumer will control only 100 hours of that space. DirecTV will deliver content to the other 60 hours, and that content will be sold on an on-demand basis for $.99 apiece. CBS’s deal with Comcast expands the on-demand content that Comcast has been offering so far. (I can say as a Comcast Digital cable customer that the on-demand offerings have done little for me so far.)
How we watch television is changing dramatically. What about the content itself? The Kaiser Family Foundation released a new report Wednesday indicating that sexual content on television is jumping dramatically. More shows have sexual content (70% in this survey versus 56% in 1998) and the number of sex scenes per show is jumping as well (5.0 now versus 3.2 in 1998).
I confess that I start with the assumption that the market gives us what we want most of the time. The fastest way to get content off of TV is for no one to watch it. If sex didn’t sell, they wouldn’t sell sex. If no one watched Nip/Tuck—the Parents Television Council is mounting a campaign against it—it would go away.
The question is what to do about this content, first if you are concerned parent and second if you are the government. Parents need the tools to control TV. The V-chip is key—we are big V-chippers in my house—and the on-demand offerings should help as well by expanding alternatives. Sen. Barack Obama—a former Law School colleague—gave a keynote speech as part of the release of the Kaiser report and argued in favored of simplifying blocking shows. I suspect that few people are against that. Requiring cable ala carte—forcing cable providers to offer channels separately—would also empower parents (but at what cost, see the Government Accounting Office and FCC reports (here and here) for more).
But here is what the government shouldn’t do: bluster and threaten regulation (but not actually regulate) and push content producers to clean up their acts. There is a real temptation to call for voluntary industry action—FCC Chair Kevin Martin did this in House testimony last year—but that undercuts the democratic process and severely burdens free speech. I come to the First Amendment as an outsider, but after awhile, you do get the chill point. The content not created because of the threat of governmental action, the ideas that go missing with the hope that self-censorship will forestall government regulation.
Technology is pushing towards all content available on all platforms all of the time. The CBS and NBC deals are a big step in that direction for TV content, but that still leaves the question of what content will be created. Far better for the government to regulate content directly and for those regulations to receive tough First Amendment scrutiny in the courts. That will require us to make careful, considered and most of all transparent decisions about what content will and will not be available in our free society.