IF WE THOUGHT the regulatory situation with TV broadcasting was messy in New Zealand, trust me, it’s peanuts compared to what’s happening in the US right now.
The big US TV networks NBC, CBS and Fox are suing Dish Networks over its new set top box feature which allows users to automatically skip adverts. Remembering that this is happening in the land of the fee, and the home of the law firm, Dish network’s legal rottweilers are counter-suing them right back and have added broadcaster ABC… just because they can. As usual, there’s a whole lot at stake.
Superficially, for the average Joe and Joanne, not to mention everyone else involved, a set top box that can automatically skip advertisements sounds awesome: Broadcasters still get to sell advertising aimed at viewers watching without a box that can skip adverts, while those with Dish network set top boxes get an easier way to avoid ads (and who wouldn’t want to, given how truly ghastly US TV adverts are) and Dish gets new subscribers eager to take advantage of the new technology. So why has this gone thermonuclear with multiple TV networks pressing the big red button marked “Nuke Dish Networks”?
The answer here is advertising generated income, and lots of it.
CBS has explained its lawsuit in a statement to the media by saying that it believes that Dish is a service that “takes existing network content and modifies it in a manner than is unauthorised and illegal. We believe this is a clear violation of copyright law and we intend to stop it.” Fox’s explanation wasn’t terribly different, except to say that it was “given no choice but to file suit against one of our largest distributors, Dish Network, because of their surprising move to market a product with the clear goal of violating copyrights and destroying the fundamental underpinnings of the broadcast television ecosystem. Their wrongheaded decision requires us to take swift action in order to aggressively defend the future of free, over-the-air television.”
What is clearly at stake here is the very TV viewing experience of couch spud kind both in the US and anywhere that imports US designed set top boxes (such as New Zealand and Australia and the rest of the western world). In the US, adverts typically outnumber actual TV content across most networks, and most of those adverts are not only dire, but are also typically incredibly intrusive and annoying so it isn’t a huge surprise that there is a big demand by viewers to automatically skip them. Trouble is, adverts also pay for the content we all want and there is little in the way of an incentive for corporates to cough up large amounts of money for adverts that only a fraction of the national population will watch (that those left watching adverts are not likely to be the intended target market – as they’ll be either too poor or stupid to get a set top box able to skip adverts probably doesn’t bode well either).
NBC’s statement pretty much sums this up: “Advertising generates the revenue that makes it possible for local broadcast stations and national broadcast networks to pay for the creation of the news, sports and entertainment programming that are the hallmark of American broadcasting. Dish simply does not have the authority to tamper with the ads from broadcast replays on a wholesale basis for its own economic and commercial advantage”.
Dish hasn’t taken this lying down, and its senior vice president of programming David Shull responded by saying that “consumers should be able to fairly choose for themselves what they do and do not want to watch,” going on to say that “viewers have been skipping commercials since the advent of the remote control; we are giving them a feature they want and that gives them more control.”
Dish’s counter argument against the networks argues that what’s at stake is “freedom of consumer choice [and] individual families’ choice to elect, if they want, to time shift their television viewing and watch recorded television without commercials”. Dish clearly needs to demonstrate that the claim it is bootlegging signals from the broadcasters is bogus (which shouldn’t be hard to do given Dish must have licence agreements with each of the three networks suing them).
Regardless of this, Dish also probably has a fairly compelling argument that its set top box is merely doing what existing and similar widgets (ranging from channel switching remotes to the hard drive recorder and even the ancient Beta or VHS VCR) have been able to do for the last 40 years – namely giving viewers the option of fast forwarding or skipping ads.
Still, regardless of the outcome of this legal flea circus, it is theoretically possible that it could be mandated that future set top box designs be altered so they can’t skip adverts. Having said this, might it not be an idea to create more pleasant adverts and perhaps less of them? Perhaps the networks could even look at creating adverts people actually want to watch, as shocking as the concept might be. Sadly, about the only clear winner likely to emerge from this fiasco is likely to be the lawyers. PAT PILCHER