Can Online Video Save Cable?

Faced with the prospect of people cutting their cords in favor of watching programs online for free, cable operators like Comcast (s CMCSK) and Time Warner (s TWC) are reportedly in talks with cable networks to provide subscribers access to programming online.

Web-streaming sites are a bit of a double whammy for cable operators. They pay billions in subscription fees to cable networks for programming, only to watch as the networks then put that content online for free, giving people a reason to dump cable.

Sources tell The Wall Street Journal:

The operators hope the new Web services, which could launch this year, will attract new subscribers — even given the popularity of free-to-watch Web sites such as hulu.com — by offering a wealth of previously unavailable video.

The Journal writes that under the proposed plan, there would be more content available online than what can currently be found, it would be streamed with ads, and it would be available “without any additional charge to cable-TV subscribers.”

Viacom (s VIA) and NBC (s GE) are reportedly interested in this type of arrangement, but we’re wary, especially about that no extra charges part. The cable companies never met a fee they didn’t like, and we’re not fans of them extending their control beyond the TV set and into online video (they’ve already implemented bandwidth caps and metered access, isn’t that enough?).

Comcast already offers premium content for free through its Fancast site, which distributes content from partners like Hulu and CBS (s cbs).

The whole TV industry is going through growing pains right now and no one is sure what’s going to happen next. Just this week, Hulu and rival TV.com got into a spat over content, and under pressure from its content partners, Hulu asked to be removed from the Boxee platform. The once-wide open world of newteevee is quickly grinding to a halt under territorial arguments from oldteevee companies.

On a side note, if this online video proposal from the cable companies does happen, thePlatform (and parent company Comcast) could be the big winner as it provides the video publishing services for four out of the five largest cable companies in the U.S..