Viacom's Insane Move to Yank Shows From the Web

Categories: Tech
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Viacom's decision to yank its programming from the web last week as a tactic in its dispute with DirecTV was absolutely insane. The last people to realize this fact were Viacom's executives. As of Tuesday, the company had restored The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Since it's the middle of summer, and many other shows are in reruns anyway, that amounts to a retreat.

The company's shows -- from networks such as Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, BET, and more than a dozen others -- still aren't available on DirecTV as the two companies continue to bicker over carriage rates. On its website, DirectTV initially told its subscribers that they could watch many Viacom shows online -- which was when Viacom pulled the plug on its web streams, punishing not only DirecTV's customers, but everyone everywhere. The move reeked of vindictiveness, desperation, and cluelessness. The latter because many of Viacom's shows are available online via platforms such as Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes -- and Viacom couldn't yank those.

All of which might make it seem like the pay-TV business model is getting ready to implode, with so many new ways to watch TV and movies. For now, customers must buy hundreds of channels they don't want just to watch the dozen or show they usually tune in to. (For many cable systems, about 40 percent of subscription fees pay for sports programming -- so if you don't watch sports, you're subsidizing the people who do.) Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, predicted that pay-TV would unbundle itself within two or three years.

And it does seem likely that we're at the beginning of the Great Unbundling. Eventually, we'll likely be paying only for the programs and channels we want. Predicting when this will happen, or how, is way premature. (Robert Gessner, vice chairman of the American Cable Association, seems confident that Congress will make it happen.) So-called "cord-cutting" is happening, but not at the furious rate you might expect given the availability of all of the above-named services and many others, like Netflix. People simply aren't abandoning pay-TV in droves, mainly because they prefer the convenience and relative ease of use. People like to watch stuff from their couch, on their television sets. Internet viewing is still just a sideshow to the main event.

Jon Stewart, who works for Viacom, had lots to say about his employer's tactic on his show Monday night. "You're pulling shows from the Internet? Viacom -- what are you, China?"

And from a larger perspective, he noted that by doing so, Viacom was "just giving people the chance to discover that there's other entertaining shit in the world: shows, movies, board games, the Bible, masturbation."

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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