Outside of big live events, is TV Everywhere going nowhere?
Nobody is ready to call it a failure just yet. But network executives have not been shy in expressing frustration with the slow pace of adoption for the concept, which essentially allows subscribers to stream TV channels to any device.
The cable industry has been talking about this concept for four years or more. Cable operators viewed TV Everywhere as an enticement to keep subscribers from cutting the cord — only authenticated cable subscribers would have access to TV Everywhere streams.
By 2013, watching cable channels on iPhones was supposed to be as easy as watching them on big-screen TVs.
TV Everywhere works well with big events, like the London Olympics and NCAA tournament, both of which reported gaudy statistics.
Usage outside of those big live events, however, has remained low, though nobody’s releasing specific statistics. Fewer people than expected are streaming channels like ESPN and CNN to their broadband and mobile devices. Media executives are pointing their fingers at distributors, saying the log-in process — called “authentication” or “verification” — still is way too cumbersome. Comcast subscribers, for example, need to know their Comcast ID to log in to TV Everywhere. How many cable subscribers know their cable ID? I don’t.
“We need to do a better job across the board with authentication and really allow people to have the experience they have at home with other devices,” Fox Sports co-President Randy Freer said at last month’s World Congress of Sports.
Still, Freer and other sports media executives believe in the concept. For the past five years, networks have demanded that TV Everywhere rights be part of all media rights deals they cut with leagues and conferences.
In turn, TV Everywhere is part of networks’ carriage deals with distributors, who believe that controlling online and mobile video streams is the best way to protect their business. That’s where the problems occur. Each distributor has a different authentication process, none of which are easy to navigate. That’s the bottleneck that has to get easier.
“The idea of authenticating and getting used to it is going to take some time,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus at the same event. “The barrier to making it easy and part of your daily routine hasn’t been crossed yet.”
The notion of ubiquitous TV Everywhere adoption always being a few years away takes me back to the mid-1990s, when TV executives talked about interactive TV — the promise of being able to order a pizza from your TV set — as being two years away. That was the problem. For several years, it was always two years away.
I called one of TV Everywhere’s biggest proponents, ESPN’s John Kosner, to ask what makes TV Everywhere different. Kosner, who has run ESPN’s digital business for 10 years, acknowledged that TV Everywhere adoption is moving slowly, something he also blamed on authentication problems. But he continues to preach patience, predicting that TV Everywhere adoption will happen quickly and authentication will be a non-issue in a couple of years.
“It’s hamstrung for the moment by the difficulty of authenticating,” Kosner said. “We’re tied into whoever provides your video subscription. And the process is, at the moment, clunkier than it should be. But it’s getting better.”
Kosner described an authentication process that eventually will become so easy that it won’t be a process at all. It will just happen because the TV Everywhere provider automatically will recognize the user and the device he’s using.
“It’s going to be invisible to you,” Kosner said.
When that occurs, Kosner — and others — are convinced that the popularity of TV Everywhere will explode. As tablets and handheld devices continue to become more powerful, they will become even more of an option for consumers to watch video.
“Ten years from now, fans are just going to think about screens,” Kosner said. “And the screens will be of all different sizes and they’ll have different contexts. And you’ll be able to get personalized feeds in multimedia on the side of your fridge, on your wall, in your pocket, on your watch or on your glasses.”
It’s too early to call TV Everywhere a bust. But if the promise of simpler authentication doesn’t happen quickly, it may become the media industry’s Ford Edsel.