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Mr. Cable Guy: Tear Down this Wall

The Wall Street Journal is running an article this morning about the new cable company idea for creating walled online gardens of content available only to their subscribers.

"The programming available on the proposed Web services would likely be in a streaming format with ads, accessible in and out of the home, and without any additional charge to cable-TV subscribers, the people familiar with the situation said."

While its is encouraging to see quotes like "Online video is our friend, not our enemy" from the CEO of Comcast, I really hope this isn't the model for the future.  It runs counter to the culture of the web and distracts us all from the real potential of video as an integral part of the web.

One big problem with walled gardens is that they break the sharing and linking model of the web.  What happens when I share a link to a great show with a friend who isn't on my cable network? They'll probably get an error message or a completely futile invitation to switch cable providers to watch the video at the link. Why sacrifice the wonderfully strong pass along rates that web video offers?

Similarly, content within walled gardens is often not discoverable by search engines nor is it linkable from blogs and other resources on the web.  And even if it is discoverable by search engines, anyone who clicks on the link will be accelerating into the "you must be a subscriber to view this show" brick wall surrounding the content garden.  Breaking the inherent fabric of the web in this way is highly counterproductive, because it means your content is less likely to be found by it's natural audience, and that is a massive lost opportunity. 

There can also be issues with delivering on the vision of making content available to subscribers wherever they are.  I've experienced this myself with ESPN360, the walled garden I am supposed to have access to through my Verizon FIOS account.  It works OK when I am at home accessing the site over my Verizon connection, though the video quality, even over fiber to my house, is not as nearly as good as our friends at Move Networks would have you believe.  But it's a total FAIL in the office, where it is supposed to work after authenticating as a Verizon subscriber.  All I get is a nice blank screen and a few nasty browser error messages.

Rather than channeling engineering talent into trying to solve these serious problems with walled gardens, I would rather see the broadcast cable companies embrace the web on its own terms.  To borrow a phrase from Reagan during the Cold War, "Mr. Cable Guy - Tear down this wall!"

As Jeremy often says, the future of video content is as an element of integrated web content experiences, not an isolated silo.  It will take leadership and vision from the cable guys to get there, and schemes like this walled garden goose chase are going to continue to hold us all back.