Cable Nets Lose by Winning Time Warner Cable iPad Fight

Congrats Discovery, (s DISCA) Fox (s NWS) and Viacom (s VIA): You’ve officially succeeded in making your content less relevant.

Pay TV providers such as Time Warner Cable, (s TWC) Verizon (s VZ) and Comcast (s CMCSA) want to give their subscribers new ways to access cable shows, on any screen they want to watch it within their homes. It seems like a reasonable request; after all, to most consumers nowadays, there’s little difference between watching a show on a TV, a laptop or a tablet device. But the cable networks aren’t happy with the terms with which the cable providers chose to do so — and now, rather than watching MTV or Animal Planet shows on their iPads (s aapl), viewers will be watching content from one of their competitors instead.

The whole spat began shortly after Time Warner Cable made 32 channels of cable content available to be streamed live to an iPad app. But even with pretty harsh restrictions for how those live streams can be viewed — the app only works in a user’s home, connected to his or her home network — programmers sent cease-and-desist letters to the cable provider, asking that their networks be removed from the app. Bowing to pressure, Time Warner Cable has pulled a third of the channels available from its iPad app, including Animal Planet, BET, CMT, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, FX, MTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon, Spike and VH1.

While Time Warner Cable maintains it has broad rights to broadcast any of these networks to any screen within a subscriber’s home, the cable programmers argue that their deals don’t include distribution to new platforms like the iPad. In short, Discovery, Fox and Viacom want to be paid more to have their content viewed on a new type of device, regardless of where that viewing happens or what kind of restrictions are placed on that viewing.

Those programmers may have won the latest battle over how users are able to access their content, but by doing so, they’re losing the war for the hearts, minds and attention spans of their viewers. Time Warner Cable said in a statement Thursday that it will replace those channels with others, “focus[ing] our iPad efforts on those enlightened programmers who understand the benefit and importance of allowing our subscribers — and their viewers — to watch their programming on any screen in their homes.”

In short, Discovery, Fox and Viacom would rather have Time Warner Cable subscribers watching anything else at all than to watch their shows and not be paid more for it. In a cable model built on content scarcity, that kind of thinking might have made sense. But it’s a dangerous strategy in a world in which viewers now have a near-infinite selection of content to view on nearly any device that they choose.

The hard lesson those programmers have to learn is that those hundreds of thousands of Time Warner Cable iPad users aren’t going to just put the app down because they’re not able to stream reruns of the Jersey Shore while someone else has control of the remote for the big-screen TV in their home. Users will still use the app — they’ll just find something else to watch.