TV Everywhere to Spark Antitrust Concerns?

[qi:032] NBC Universal (s ge) General Counsel Rick Cotton, speaking at the Digital Media Conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, brushed off concerns that the deal between Comcast (s cmcsa) and Time Warner (s twx) to test the feasibility of TV Everywhere was a first step toward bringing TV on the Internet under the control of Big Media.

“I know there’s been some static in the system that says this will somehow limit access to content online, but this is about increasing access,” Cotton said. “These are subscription networks now so it’s not really a big surprise that they would be subscription networks online as well.” He also shrugged off fears that the collaboration between programmers like Time Warner and ISPs like Comcast represented some sort of unholy cabal worthy of antitrust scrutiny from the government.

“They shouldn’t have called it TV Everywhere because what we’re really talking about is cable TV everywhere,” Cotton told me after his panel. “The idea is you would go to Fancast, or to Hulu, and there would be free content, just as there is now, and there would be subscription content, which you could access if you’re a subscriber.” It’s just like cable TV, he said. “There’s free, over-the-air content, but there’s also subscription content you can get by subscribing to cable.” The deals between subscription network owners and web video portals, he suggested, would be no different from the perfectly legal deals that currently exist between the networks and cable MSOs.

Maybe, but that’s only the simplest use case being discussed. What happens when we get to Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes’ nirvana where any multichannel video subscriber — whether to cable, satellite or telco TV — can access any of the content they subscribe to from anywhere on the web, whether directly through an ISP, through a web portal like Hulu or on mobile platforms? Apart from the sheer complexity of such a system, making it work will require a degree of information-sharing among nominal competitors that practically begs for antitrust scrutiny.

Let’s say I want to catch up with a missed episode of “In Treatment” by watching it online. I go to a web portal — we’ll call it YooHoo — and find the episode. Since I pay for HBO through my Comcast cable subscription I ought to be able to access the episode, presumably by typing in a password or some other authentication method. For that to work, however, YooHoo has to know something about my relationship with Comcast. Maybe Comcast owns YooHoo, in which case, no problem. But what if some other media company owns it? It now has access to information about my Comcast subscription.

Now let’s say I leave the house and want to access the same episode on my handheld device using Verizon Wireless’ (s vz) V-Cast service. Now Verizon has to know something about my relationship, either with Comcast or with YooHoo — or both. Apart from whether that’s something Comcast would want to do — Verizon has recently begun soliciting me with offers for FiOS, after all — what we’re really talking about is multiple competing service providers sharing information with each other (or with the same third party) about prices, payments, customer service and behavior and all sorts of other data.

Such a system would just be ripe for abuse, even if intentions were pure going in. And it would only get worse as the number of ways to access the content increased. Of course, you could always break up the vertical monopolies among programmers, distributors and service providers and the problem would be solved, but somehow I don’t think that’s what Bewkes and Cotton are talking about.

Paul Sweeting is the author of The Media Wonk blog. He’s covered digital media and policy issues for over a decade.