To sling or not to sling

13 Jun 2006

Piracy is practically guaranteed to be a topic at this year's CASBAA forum this Monday in Singapore, if for no other reason that fighting pay-TV piracy has been CASBAA's chief cause in recent months. Consequently, I have a request for the moderators at the CASBAA event. If you want a fresh angle on the issue of piracy, please try to work one keyword into the discussion: Slingbox.

As in the product from Sling Media that allows pay-TV customers to access their services over the Net. The Slingbox - and the subsequent backlash it has received from content owners and pay-TV operators alike - is the very modern model of disruptive technology and raises some pointed questions that the pay-TV sector is going to have to consider carefully before it answers.

Some critics have compared Slingbox to Web sites that illegally offer access to live broadcast feeds over IP, but that's misleading. The Slingbox isn't about giving you access to something you haven't paid for. It gives you access to something you DID pay for via a different platform. This raises some serious issues about the pay-TV business model that end-users may not understand fully.

Take Major League Baseball, which is the latest content owner to blast the Slingbox as a piracy tool. MLB's stance is that if you want to view baseball games on multiple devices, you should pay multiple times.

Technically, as a content owner, MLB has the right to charge whatever it wants any way it wants. And indeed, it's common practice to charge separate fees for separate content platforms.

On the other hand, what the consumer hears is this: "MLB reserves the right to bill you twice, thrice or as many times as it deems necessary for the same content, and if you don't like it, tough." The RIAA and MPAA have taken similar stances over digital downloads across multiple devices, and we've seen where that got them in terms of end-user sympathy. Put country simple, there's more to a business model than simply being right.

What MLB and other critics of Sling Media are missing is that this kind of technology is a huge opportunity in an era of converging media. Content owners are more than keen to distribute their content over as many channels as possible to end-users. The added value of a Slingbox is a no-brainer - and it's value that customers will certainly pay for. To a point. If it helps, think of it in terms of CRM and loyalty. A value-added content package across multiple platforms at tiered prices is sticky. Double billing isn't. Neither are stern lectures about user agreement violations.

To be sure, the complicated nature of content licensing alone means it's not quite that straightforward. In the case of content owners like MLB that license content on a regional basis, it's even more problematic. But this is exactly why these issues should be discussed now - not with the goal of preventing technology like the Slingbox from being deployed, which is a pointless exercise anyway, but with the aim of finding ways to leverage it. Not to overuse the music and movie industry parallel, but the RIAA and MPAA have both learned the hard way that there are more benefits in embracing technological innovation than trying to bury it.

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