Will Emerging Media Make it “Over the Top”?

EK blog photoOne of the most endearing characteristics of emerging media is its Wild West ethos.  If you have an idea, just put it out there and you too may be the next Google, Facebook, Twitter or whatever is being hatched that will grow into next year’s “gotta-have-it” service..

But the wide open nature of the Internet might be withering as we watch—or don’t watch.  The canary in the mineshaft might be Over The Top (OTT) TV.  OTT television does not refer to reality shows on steroids or movies like Jackass, although that kind of programming can definitely be over the top.  Instead, it refers to companies that want to stream video content over the Internet layers of cable going into people’s homes.  That layer conceptually lies on top of the traditional cable layer.  Probably the most prominent OTT player is Netflix, with Hulu playing in the same arena.

The problem is that cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner have very little incentive to play nicely with OTTcontent providers.  To a very real degree, OTT players compete with cable, whose primary business is to provide content, not connectivity.  Nevertheless, the cable providers are the primary conduits into the household, and OTT providers cannot deliver their services without them.

And the cable companies have a lot of ways to hinder OTT providers.  If the rules about Net Neutrality fall, as they soon might, cable companies could charge OTT providers so much to use the infrastructure  that the services will not be profitable.  Even before that, however, they may just intimidate other content providers enough so that they will not work with OTT suppliers.

Over the past few weeks, Sony, Intel and Google have apparently shelved or delayed their plans to provide OTT services.  Intel’s OnCue proposal looked particularly cool, as it could stream video to a variety of devices in a relatively seamless fashion.  And, of course, the traditional cable companies are consistently ranked low in customer satisfaction surveys.  It would seem like this would be an area ripe for innovation.

Intel and Sony are hardly garage-based entrepreneurs.  But it is definitely not a good sign if even they don’t have the muscle to provide choice and competition in the contemporary Internet universe.

Elliot King, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Communication
Loyola University Maryland
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