Now that sites like Hulu have done a good job of offering up TV shows and series on demand, whether you're on an iPad, MacBook, PC or any other non-television device, the next step for the industry is clearly the channel stream, the sequence of shows, ads and interstitials that comprise a television channel as we currently know it.
The problem is that much more than having TV shows available via iTunes (etc), having TV channels available on the Internet cuts to the heart of the cable TV industry and the modern television business itself. Trying to figure out how much is a reasonable fee for an HD stream of American Movie Classics is a non-trivial exercise, and the revenue on a per-subscriber basis from contractual relationships with companies like Comcast are just one consideration.
Making it more complex are the Byzantine licensing and rights of TV programming, whether it be a 35 year old movie from the MGM archives (oops, bad example given the complexity of the MGM bankruptcy negotiations! Let's say 20th Century Fox instead) or the latest episode of Castle or The Big Bang Theory. Add sports rebroadcast and news and public affair programming and it's astonishingly complicated.
That's why I was startled when I bumped into the new streaming TV service IVI (pronounced "ivy", or "ivy dot tv"). Positioning themselves as David to the broadcasters' Goliath, they have launched a streaming TV service built around their own player and clearly tapping network TV channels in New York City and Seattle.
The service is crude and the video quality works well as a small window but is insufficient for viewing in full-screen mode, but it works. While sitting at Starbucks, I was able to watch some track and field events, then flip to a few minutes of a PBS show on the civil war, ending up with two minutes of Oprah before I started to feel guilty about bandwidth usage and quit the app.
Going through the signup process, however, raised all sorts of red flags in my head, the greatest of which was because of this disclaimer in the User Agreement:
Permission from You for ivi, Inc. to Use Your Computer and Bandwidth to Enable the Peer-to-Peer Viewing of Video on the Site and to Manage the Network of Computers Running ivi tv.
Think about that for a second. It's basically how bittorrent and similar services work: by using the service you are also propagating the content to other users too. If the content is violating copyright laws, you've just become an accessory, whether you read the EULA or not.
The company is clearly pushing the envelope of legal usage and rebroadcast because there's clearly no way that a local network affiliate like WABC NY even has the right to enable Ivi to rebroadcast.
Their take? In a press release issued yesterday, the company boasts that:
Since launching last week, ivi TV has captured the world's imagination and the attention of every major broadcaster in the US who have, subsequently, sent ivi TV cease and desist letters.
This morning a follow-up message highlighted that the National Association of Broadcasters have put them in its legal crosshairs too (though no specific actions have been issued as of yet), but Ivi claims everything it does is legal based on its interpretation of copyright law. The company has even filed a "Complaint for Declaratory Judgement of Copyright Noninfringement" in Seattle, though I don't think that's going to slow things down much.
As NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton says: "It is blatantly illegal to steal broadcasters' copyrighted works and signals. We strongly support broadcasters and their program suppliers in their efforts to combat copyright abuse and signal piracy."
I don't think Ivi TV is going to be around for too long, but there are two things that make this notable: 1.) It works. Really. I can easily imagine watching TV on my computer in a small window while working, particularly otherwise blacked-out sports programming and 2.) I know I'm not alone in jonesing for a commercial TV streaming solution. I've even emailed the marketing department of my favorite channel -- Turner Classic Movies -- indicating my willingness to pay for an HD stream, without a response.
The world is moving digital. It's time for the TV channels, the network broadcasters, to introduce a solution for us so that smaller players like Ivi TV don't muddy the waters.
[ corrected 24 Sept to clarify that NAB isn't suing Ivi TV, according to its press materials ]