The Age of Free Television on the Web Has Come to an End

Fox has taken the lead by keeping its new programming off the Internet for at least eight days after airing, and other networks are following

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I don't have a TV. I sold the last set that I owned before moving from Chicago to Washington, D.C., about a year ago. But I still watch plenty of television. Or, well, I listen to plenty of it. Whenever I'm at home by myself and working, I open a new browser window and put on a podcast or a TV show and let it play in the background, minimized, just for the noise.

On Tuesday night, I tried to put on an earlier episode of Masterchef, one of several programs on Fox hosted by Gordon Ramsey, the foul-mouthed Scottish chef and restaurateur with several Michelin stars to his name. I don't think he'd be as popular as he is were he not "so damned sexy," as some Fox viewers have labeled him, but regardless of what you think of his looks, he's definitely entertaining to listen to. When Fox allows it, anyway.

It looks like the subscriber authentication model will soon become the prevailing one for television on the Web.

This week, Fox kicked off what Peter Kafka at the Wall Street Journal's All Things D has called The Great Free TV Web Pullback of 2011. Fox warned this was coming back in July, going so far as to launch a special website warning viewers of what they would soon have to put up with. To watch Fox content on the Web within eight days of its original air date, would-be viewers have to be a Dish Network subscriber with an online subscriber ID and password and be willing to log in every month or so. Hulu Plus subscribers can also access Fox programming, but the website makes no mention of that.

I visited Hulu, my first stop for all-things Web video, and saw the message "Watch on Fox.com" when I called up the latest Masterchef episode that had aired on TV the night before. Huh, that's never happened before, I thought. As directed, I navigated my browser to Fox next. There, the episode I wanted to watch was not yet available. So I put on something else -- and I listened to commercials and advertisements supporting another network.

ABC will soon follow Fox's lead. "We'll basically push the window back or make access to the programming more difficult or later, except if customers are authenticated as a [cable] subscriber," Bob Iger, the head of Disney, ABC's parent company, told stock analysts earlier this week. "The relationship that we have with the distributors is a very valuable one, and it's one that we aim to respect by both protecting what we currently have and determining or figuring out ways that we can expand on it."

With these two giants already on board, it looks like the subscriber authentication model will soon become the prevailing one for television on the Web. It's a paywall for television. Networks are looking to stop viewers from cutting the cord, or getting rid of their expensive cable television, even though they've already built platforms and assembled teams for monetizing their video on the Web with pre-roll ads, interstitials and more.

Will this work? I don't think so. I think this is just delaying the inevitable. The paywall for the New York Times is one of the first successful efforts to squeeze some money out of customers who had quickly grown accustomed to free content, but that paywall is porous. It's more like the gentle nudge of PBS than anything we've seen with newspapers before. And that's why it works. The paywall created by Fox and ABC shows that executives assume that, without access to So You Think You Can Dance, viewers will keep their television sets and the cable bills that go with them. What they forget, though, is that Fox is not the Times; there's better programming out there. And even when viewers are committed to Fox, it's easy to find an illegal work-around; nobody is BitTorrenting newspapers. Better to find a way to work with would-be viewers.

Image: FOX Broadcasting Company.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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