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Free Lunches Still Don’t Exist

14 Jun, 2012 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Ah, that wonderful old expression, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s true as ever, as consumers of entertainment well know. Watch free TV and commercials; if you don’t want the ads, buy a disc or watch a movie on premium VOD. Either way, you pay — in the first case, with your time; in the second, with your money.

Even YouTube, that great leveler, has been bitten by the ad bug. The number of clips with opening ads has risen significantly in just the past year, and it’s not just for professional content. I just finished watching a car crash video — don’t ask — and it was preceded by an ad for the movie Savages.

I don’t mind this one bit. As a lifelong journalist, I realize — perhaps better than most — the costs involved in creating content, be it a story, a movie, a piece of music, a work of art. And, frankly, I don’t mind paying for it, one way or the other. I don’t watch much network TV, preferring to watch series like “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” ”The Shield” and, now, “Jericho” on disc, with a clearer picture, better sound and no commercial interruptions. And when I do watch TV — or listen to the radio, or watch YouTube videos, for that matter — I no longer tune out (or, in the case of YouTube, hit the “skip” button) the commercials, as I used to do. If there’s a price to pay, so be it. It’s only fair.

The “free lunch” concept is hitting a fever pitch right now, as the major television networks square off in court over Dish Network’s Hopper DVR, which has a feature that allows users to instantly skip commercials for primetime shows. CBS, Fox and NBC are each suing Dish, arguing that skipping commercials violates their copyright. Of course the real reason is financial: They fear a significant loss in advertising revenues if people start skipping commercials en masse.

After all, media advertising is all about the eyeballs.

Dish, in turn, is now suing the four major networks, asking a judge to find that its DVR technology is perfectly legal.

The latest developments: The Hollywood Reporter has reported that sources say ABC is talking to major law firms about filing a suit.

And DirecTV has announced that it has been sitting on ad-skipping technology for about five years, but hasn’t yet seen any need to implement it.

I have a hunch the networks will prevail on this one. They make a very valid point, arguing, in essence, that sitting through commercials is the price viewers pay for free, broadcast TV. And while you can’t stop someone from hitting the bathroom during a primetime commercial break, stopping an enabling technology like Dish’s AdHop is a very real possibility, much like the courts more than a decade ago in ruling against music file-swapping.

This isn’t quite the same as having to fast-forward through the ads as on a regular DVR, where viewers still see the promos as they zip by on the screen. AdHop doesn’t let the viewer see anything, which runs contrary to why the ad is there in the first place.

If it hurts the content creator and the copyright holder, it’s not going to fly. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially it means you may starve someone else.

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