Why Apple Shouldn’t Let Comcast Buy Time Warner

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TV sucks.

The reason TV sucks is that the companies who control it make it suck on purpose because they believe that’s more profitable.

It’s technically possible for viewers to watch any TV show, movie or online video ever made at any time at either low or no cost.

This possibility is only theoretical. In reality, certain companies artificially prevent viewers from getting what they want. They create artificial scarcity in order to make more money.

A movie comes out in the theaters. But it’s not available for download. This non-availability has nothing to do with technical reasons. The studios are withholding it from you to make you go to the theater and pay for a ticket.

After it’s gone from theaters, there’s often some amount of time before its available online. And when it is available, you often can’t “rent” it. You can only “buy” it. It’s another form of artificial scarcity designed to trick people who are impatient, designed to exploit fandom, designed to manipulate the public into paying more for something.

And then there’s TV. Ugh! What a cesspool of customer-hating manipulation and exploitation.

There are two kinds of companies in existence. There are companies trying to make money enabling you to watch what you want when you want to watch it. And there are companies trying to make money by preventing you from watching what you want when you want to watch it.

It’s About to Get Worse

Bloomberg reported this week that Apple is planning a new Apple TV set-top box. The product will be announced in April and might ship by the Christmas buying season, according to the article.

What could prevent it from shipping on time? The Bloomberg report said: “the release date could change because [Apple] is still in the process of securing new agreements with programming and distribution partners.”

Yeah, good luck with that. The piece said that, although Comcast and Direct TV were being difficult, and insisting that Apple logins not be used for access to their content, Time Warner Cable was playing ball and being cooperative.

A few hours after the Apple TV news came another breaking story: Comcast was buying Time Warner Cable.

If the deal goes through, it would likely scuttle the foundation of the Apple TV release, if Bloomberg’s sources are to be believed.

Before trying to negotiate deals with the Time Warner Cables of the world, Apple was almost certainly planning to negotiate deals with content providers that would enable Apple TV users to simply choose what they wanted to watch, and have both Apple and the companies get paid. Apple was talking to CBS, Disney and others. But these deals would have pissed off Comcast and DirecTV who are in the artificial scarcity business, so they got scared and backed off.

The Comcasts of the world keep blocking Apple’s efforts to give viewers what they want, when they want it.

The merger of the #1 and #2 cable companies would slightly increase the monopolistic situation in TVs. I say slightly because in any given market, monopolies or near monopolies already exist. Still, the situation is dire.

The two companies together will control about half of what is called triple-play services — video, voice and internet. That means half the households in the United States who get their Internet and TV from the same company will get it from Comcast.

This power threatens to extend today’s artificial scarcity model into the Internet TV era.

Apple, as well as many other technology companies, are trying to move toward a world where you can watch anything you want anytime you want, and also watch live TV over the Internet. But between Apple, who wants this, and their customers, who also want this, stands companies like Comcast, which doesn’t want it.

As things now stand, the Comcast deal could go through, and Comcast would become an immovable object preventing Apple from ever launching the TV box everyone wants. Instead, it’s going to be more of the same — confusing user interfaces, low-quality video and artificial scarcity where you can have some of what you want some of the time, and that’s it.

Apple’s current strategy of changing its plans to be less ambitious every time the Comcasts of the world use their power to prevent TV from being what it should isn’t working.

And that’s why Apple should simply buy Time Warner Cable — outbid Comcast for it with cash on hand.

The reason for this is not to simply compete its plans to launch the Apple TV with the new services provided by Time Warner Cable, but also to give Apple leverage in negotiations with other content providers. More importantly, it would prevent Comcast from gaining a permanent choke-hold on both home Internet and TV in the United States.

Come on, Apple: Buy Time Warner Cable. Make Apple TV a must-have product. Use the power and leverage you’d get with the acquisition to make deals directly with content creators. And let’s push for that anything-you-want future.

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About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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