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Last year, Intel said it was going to deliver pay TV over the Web by the end of 2013. That didn’t work out.

Now Sony says it will deliver pay TV over the Web sometime in 2014. Can it deliver?

Maybe!

Right now, Sony doesn’t seem to be any closer to its goal of “over the top” TV than Intel. That is: While the company has been talking to various networks and programmers about deals to carry their shows — it has made some headway with Viacom, for instance, but hasn’t signed a deal — I can’t find anyone who says they’ve finalized a pact. That includes Sony’s own movie and TV studio.

So unless Sony gets all of those deals done — or at least a big chunk of them — it can’t sell Web TV.

Depending on what Sony asks for, it certainly could get those deals done. If it simply wants to replicate the basic offering that pay-TV customers already get from the likes of Comcast, Verizon and Dish — you pay a big chunk of money each month for a big bundle of TV channels, regardless of what channels you watch — it can get them.

Sony would almost certainly have to pay more than existing pay-TV distributors. If it’s willing to pony up, the programmers would be happy to have another customer.

But if Sony wanted to change things up — say, by offering “a la carte” channels, or features like a cloud DVR that automatically recorded everything on TV over the last three days, which Intel wanted to do — then the deals will be hard to pull off.

Programmers are loath to give any new competitor — Sony, Intel, Apple or anyone else contemplating getting into Web TV — a feature that won’t be available to all of their customers. And I haven’t heard that Sony is asking for anything along those lines.

Sony could also try to differentiate itself by creating entirely new programming, a la Netflix, or by buying the rights to exclusive stuff like the NFL’s “Sunday Ticket” package. But so far it hasn’t shown any interest in pursuing that route, either.

So let’s say Sony does get programming deals that look like everyone else’s programming deals. Why would you buy your TV from Sony instead of Comcast — particularly when you’re still going to have to buy broadband from Comcast or somebody else?

I’m assuming that if and when Sony does come to market, it will play up the idea that it has a nice interface. Or at least one better than the kinds the cable guys offer, which are awful.

And if you’re the kind of person who is reading this site, you might believe that there’s a significant market of people who are willing to pay, or at least deal with switching providers, in order to get a nice TV guide and DVR.

Maybe!

But there are more than 100 million pay-TV customers in the U.S., and they’ve put up with lousy tech for a long time. They’re even willing to wade through that terrible tech to watch video on demand, in increasing numbers — because they like (some) of the stuff that’s on TV, regardless of how difficult it is to get it.

So just selling the same stuff, on a different pipe, with a nicer menu, seems like a tough task.

UPDATE: Here’s the counter-argument, from Bob Bowman, the CEO of MLB Advanced Media, the company that powers pro baseball’s MLB.com and also provides back end tech for a bunch of Web video companies, including Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. Bowman’s company is also supposed to power Sony’s TV project, so he’s anything but neutral on the subject. But certainly worth listening to.

His pitch has three main points:

*Sony will likely try to offer a smaller package of channels than traditional pay TV providers, though Bowman says he doesn’t know which programmers Sony intends to work with.
*By promoting the service to the millions of people who already have Sony Blu-ray players and PlayStation game consoles, Sony can get lots of customers to try the service out with a couple button clicks, and without having to buy extra equipment. (Intel’s plan called for customers to buy a new, Intel-built settop box.)
*And Bowman is optimistic about the way the service will look and feel. “It’s going to be interactive,” he says. “The ability to go around and find what you want, whether it’s live TV, VOD or binge-viewing — all of that should be more timely, more interactive and more intuitive. It should be a better interface.”

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1 comments
Stewart Schley
Stewart Schley

Fewer channels, oddly, is a key. Programmers inside the tent still make requisite license fees, get treated very well. Plus originals (via Crackle) and a sweet interface. Turn the big bundle unto its own worst enemy. Might be crazy enough to work.

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