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September 08, 2006

MLB Is Almost the Future

Major League Baseball has taken a big step towards the future of what we now call TV.  That future doesn’t include channels.  More importantly, it turns cablecos (and telcos trying to be cablecos) into dumb pipes.  They’re not going to like that but we will.

I was pontificating at the dinner table about how we will just download or stream any entertainment we want whenever we want it and that “traditional” TV would just be for things like live sports events.  “Don’t you know what MLB is doing?” asked daughter Kelly’s friend.

He told me that the league offers subscriptions to live videos of all its games over the Internet (but subject to local blackout). “Hey,” I said, “The Mets are playing this afternoon and its raining. Let’s check it out.”

I signed up. $29.95 for an automatically renewing one-year subscription not including post-season. I’m a Mets fan living in Vermont so local blackout is no problem for me. I’d also been too cheap to add MLB to satellite service – partly because we split our time in the summer between two places and I didn’t want to pay for it in one place and use it only half time or pay for it twice so I could see it wherever I am. Once my computer is the receiver, I get the games wherever I am. That makes sense!

The service is good but not great.  You can’t use it like a DVR to record games you aren’t there to watch. Because the games aren’t recorded, you can’t fast forward over the commercial spots (which, ironically, don’t have commercials in them (yet)). You can buy archived games for $3.95 each and watch them however you like but these aren’t included in the subscription.

You can’t pause to go the bathroom or get another beer although there is a beta of an application available for download that looks like it has pause capability but not fast forward.  It also lets you watch six games at once; would be useful in a tight pennant race. I had trouble getting the application to work right so can’t recommend that yet.

The description of local blackout doesn’t say whether it’s based on the IP address you’re listening from or the billing address on the credit card you use to sign up. Some experiment makes me think it’s the latter so presumably I can watch the Mets on a computer in NYC even though a real New Yorker can’t. One problem MLB will face is that hackers will quickly find a way around the local blackout restriction no matter how it is implemented. “Local” is so twentieth century.

OK, the implication of all this:  no “intelligent” middle man between the consumer of content and an association of content owners – in this case the baseball league.  Content owners sets a price for their service, promote its availability. Consumers buy what they want and pretty much when they want. The distinction between live and archived games is annoying but at least you CAN buy the archived games.

The only “network” needed is an ISP (actually a series of ISPs) to get the content from there to you. This INCREASES the value of good ISP service.  In fact I wouldn’t have been able to get the game at all using my old satellite ISP but (subject of an upcoming post) now have much, much better service which even works in the rain from a wireless ISP. In my mind, I’m willing to shift dollars from what I might have paid for a content subscription over traditional cable to what I’ll pay for a good Internet connection but my IPS doesn’t get a cut every time I decide to watch the Mets play.

I’m sure Ed Whitacre of at&t feels that MLB is using his pipes unfairly and will add them to the list of people he’d like to bill again for a service that we’re already paying for. But that’s a fight for another day.

You can see why the telco and cablecos are worried, though. They don’t want to make a tough living selling good, dumb pipes. Probably can’t service their debt from that. Certainly can’t maintain the corporate jets.  They want to be able to collect content-specific tolls even when they’re no longer needed to aggregate or promote the content.

Incidentally, this is bad news for the Mets: until last night, they hadn’t won a game this season when I was watching or listening (fortunately they won most of the others).  My watching could cause a terrible end-of-season slump.

Jeff Jarvis, Jeff Pulver, and Fred Wilson have all been writing about the future of TV in much more detail and with much more expertise than me. Pulver’s Voice on the Net show is adding coverage of Video on the Net. Trust Jeff to know what the next disruptive technology is.

I posted “Daddy, What’s a Channel” but that’s before I actually saw the future on MLB TV.

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