I’m told that Sony is indeed sounding out cable programmers including Discovery, NBCUniversal, and News Corp to see whether they’re willing to cut deals to have their shows streamed to Sony devices such as PlayStations and Blu-ray players. The Japanese tech and entertainment giant is thinking about a model that would resemble Amazon’s with its new Kindle Fire tablet: It might cut the price of the devices, and count on subscription payments to make up the lost revenues. But nothing is imminent. And the feeling is that The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news about Sony’s plans this morning, pushed too hard on the possibility that the tech and entertainment giant might end up with a full-fledged rival to cable TV. Sony has raised the idea with programmers of offering channels live, just as they’d appear on cable. Insiders tell me, though, that there’s only a remote possibility that Sony will make much headway with that idea — except perhaps with minor networks that have few carriage deals. They consider it significant that Sony is telling programmers that it is open to creating a more conventional subscription VOD service like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu Plus. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung have also been sniffing around to see what programming they can offer via the Internet, and on what terms. Meanwhile, pay TV companies are working on TV Everywhere deals so they can stream shows to subscribers’ digital devices.
Since the Journal hyped the “assault on cable” angle so hard, it’s worth stepping back to see how difficult it would be to develop a true national pay TV competitor. Most networks can’t cut such a deal because they don’t own the digital rights to all of their shows; those rights belong to program producers including sports leagues. That’s been a stumbling block for cable and satellite companies’ TV Everywhere efforts. Advertisers also would squawk: There’s no simple and widely accepted way to measure who watches shows in cyberspace — there are still no ratings for the popular Apple iPad — and there’s no mechanism to insert local ads. And traditional pay TV providers would retaliate, for example by dropping weaker channels that programming companies want to cultivate. No wonder network owners have gone out of their way to protect the lucrative current pay TV ecosystem: Their digital deals mostly provide for limited VOD airings of recent shows for people who want to catch up on episodes they missed, or more wide-raging opportunities to offer older shows on demand. Still, some major programmers enjoy saying that they’d consider going along with a new pay TV rival; that makes them look more valuable to Wall Street, and strengthens their bargaining position as they negotiate pay TV carriage deals including terms to include TV Everywhere.