“The Daily Show” is a bellwether for the evolution of Internet video. It is also one of those programs that signify for people why they pay so much money for cable.
Until recently, few of the main made-for-cable programs have been available to watch in full over the Internet, even as broadcast networks have started streaming full episodes of most of their shows. The reason is that cable and satellite systems pay large fees to networks for what they have seen as exclusive rights to their content. (Their deals with broadcast networks are less restrictive.)
In recent months, that has started to change as programs such as USA’s “Monk” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” on TBS become available on the Internet. But many other signature cable programs, like ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and CNN’s “Larry King Live” are not regularly Webcast in their entirety.
That’s why my eyebrows jumped when I saw the announcement last week that full episodes of three Comedy Central shows — “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “South Park” — will start being Webcast, both on MTV-owned sites and on the Fancast site from Comcast. (Comedy Central, which is owned by Viacom’s MTV Networks unit, has been Webcasting “South Park” episodes for a few months.)
Just last November, Comedy Central told me that it was not putting full episodes on the redesigned site for “The Daily Show” because of its deal with the cable operators. Instead, it created an awkward compromise in which a series of “clips” from the show would play one after another so users could see all the content from the show. But these clips couldn’t be expanded to the full computer screen, and they didn’t include the opening titles that help create the feeling of a television show.
It’s taken me several days of going back and forth with representatives of both MTV Networks and Comcast to figure out what has changed. I can’t say that I’ve entirely succeeded. The deals between cable companies and networks are dark and nuanced documents with many overlapping quid pro quos.
It turns out MTV’s main deals with cable operators these days do give it the right to distribute all of its content online, said Mark Jafar, an MTV spokesman. And indeed it has started Webcasting some of its signature programs like “The Hills” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Comedy Central, however, was under a different set of contracts until early this year because Viacom only bought the network in 2003.
The Webcasting trend is not pleasing the large cable operators. Indeed, when Glenn Britt, the chief executive of Time Warner Cable, was asked recently how he feels about the cable networks putting more content online, he said “Guess what? We do mind.”
Webcasting a program the same day it is broadcast, “will erode your other business model,” Mr. Britt said at the Cable Show in New Orleans earlier this month. If this happens, he said, “we have to intervene at some point.”
Alexander Dudley, a Time Warner Cable spokesman, elaborated when I asked him about Viacom’s move to Webcast full episodes of “The Daily Show.”
“They can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If they put content they ask cable companies to pay for online for free, they are making it less valuable and we should be expected to pay less for it.”
When I asked Comcast the same question, a spokeswoman also expressed some concern about making sure that some of the programming it pays for remains exclusive. But Comcast is not as outraged as Time Warner. One reason is that the company’s experience with offering video-on-demand versions of cable programs appears to have increased viewership of its traditional channels. As a result, it is less worried that online streaming might divert paying customers.
Comcast, unlike Time Warner, also has its own Internet streaming service, Fancast, that can profit from the move to Internet viewing. And it is using its relationships with cable networks to get programming for it. MTV said it is looking to syndicate Comedy Central programs to other online sites as well.
MTV, of course, is very much trying to have it both ways. Its core audience is increasingly moving from watching clips on YouTube to watching full episodes on Hulu and the broadcast network Web sites. Yet, as Mr. Jafir made clear in an e-mail to me, the company also needs to defer to the cable companies, known sometimes as MSOs, that provide so much of its revenue today:
We’ve always worked hard, and we continue to work hard, to strike the right balance between protecting and growing the businesses of our MSO partners and being wherever our audiences are consuming entertainment….We’re definitely not in the business of making all our content available for “free” anywhere — monetization and preservation of the value of our content is a strategic priority for all our distribution across platforms.
Can you see Jon Stewart’s eyebrows flying up at that?