In Which I Criticize CBS for Doing Something Good

For this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, CBS is broadcasting all of the first three rounds on its website, for free. Except that it isn’t. Due to blackout rule – which, er, CBS made up (and, to their credit, explain forthrightly on their website) – users cannot see any of the games being broadcast by their local CBS affiliate. This is due – again, helpfully explained by CBS’ website – to the local CBS affiliates’ having “exclusive rights” to the broadcast of whatever it is they happen to be broadcasting at any given moment. And good for them.

The thinking behind this decision is straightforward enough: CBS pays a lot of money for the NCAA tournament broadcast rights; affiliates pay a lot of money to CBS for the exclusive rights to content, including the tournament; hence, the affiliates want people watching that content to be watching it through them, to maximize eyeballs and therefore maximize advertising revenue. Inherent in the assumption driving the blackout policy, then, is that there is a more-or-less finite number of possible viewers for the content. Any viewer watching the small, grainy window on their computer (a PC running Internet Explorer) is one not watching the local CBS station, so it only makes sense to give them access to content they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

This works great for someone who either doesn’t much care which game they’re watching, or someone simultaneously watching the TV and the PC. But let’s posit that there’s another kind of viewer – let’s call them ‘JKD’ – who doesn’t own a television and without access to the content online, might not watch it at all. Obviously, CBS and its affiliates are within their rights to say to this hypothetical user, “Screw you – buy a TV”, or force them to a local bar (though when CBS got in the biz of encouraging bar patronage isn’t clear to me). But why would they want to do that? Seriously – why? What’s the margin in, having constructed a method and venue for expanding access to content – for expanding total possible audience past what existed previously – then introducing an artificial and relatively arbitrary barrier preventing some or much of that possible new audience from accessing relatively arbitrary categories of that content?

I’d offer that, while CBS has introduced this great new service they don’t really understand what they’ve done. Which is odd, especially given how basic what they’ve done is. But since I’m a helpful guy, I’ll tell them what it is they’ve done: they’ve put television on their website. Really! It’s pretty cool. It also makes a lot of sense, given that CBS is primarily in the business of producing and distributing content that is television, that their website feature…content that is television.

It’s kind of dawned on TV people recently that the Internet isn’t really going away – that it’s in fact something that a lot of people do rather than watch television, and that rather than using their websites to convince people using the Internet that they should stop doing so at particular times of day on particular days of the week and instead watch television, it’d really much easier to bring their primary product to those people. It’s refreshing, the lack of obtuseness.

Except as the strange and arbitrary blackout rule demonstrates, they really don’t quite get it, yet. I’m not exactly sure why, but then I’m not and never have been in the business of running a television network and am, after all, just Some Guy With a Blog and without a television. But wouldn’t that make me a perfect customer? Evidently yes, but only to a certain point.

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One Response to In Which I Criticize CBS for Doing Something Good

  1. Mark says:

    For what it’s worth this is pretty common in sports licensing to TV networks. For example, each year I subscribe to MLB.tv so that I can watch Red Sox games without actually being in Boston. This costs $80/year and gets me access to “all” the games, except for the ones covered by local blackout restrictions. There are two outcomes from this: on Saturday afternoons FOX network has exclusive rights to “saturday baseball”, meaning that MLB.tv is blacked out and I have to watch whatever is on FOX. In many cases I luck out and the Sox are on as they are one of the bigger-market teams in the league, but in weeks where some other game is on I am stuck with no way whatsoever to see it.

    Similarly, if the Red Sox are in town playing, say, the Indians and I live in Cleveland, generally MLB.tv will be blacked out for me with the idea being that I will instead have to watch the game on Fox Sports Ohio, the local affiliate coverage. The whole thing is absurd and annoying, I mean, I just want to watch some baseball and am even willing to pay for the privilege, however the local affiliates are apparently willing to pay that little bit more which means I miss some games here and there regardless of what I try to do.

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