The Price of Free

For the past few years, media buffs have been waiting for the elusive answer to a simple question: When is

For the past few years, media buffs have been waiting for the elusive answer to a simple question: When is what’s on TV going to really start acting more like what’s on the Web? It’s a two-part question, really, and the answer isn’t nearly as clear as you might think.

The first part has to do with the technology that delivers video signals to the magic box, which is basically boring unless you’re an engineer, so let’s skip it. The second part of the question is much more interesting, and suggests a world in which TVs behave exactly like the Web—allowing people to browse and share all the videos and music and other bits of information and entertainment that dot the vast digital sea. Sounds great, right? The problem is, there have been some jarring reminders lately that we’re still a long way away from that.

Last week, fans of Beyoncé Knowles who went to the megastar’s official channel on YouTube got an unwelcome surprise. If you clicked on “All the Single Ladies” or “Video Phone” (her duet with Lady Gaga), you got an awkward text message stating: “This video contains content from Sony Music Entertainment, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.” 

Huh? Sony is, after all, Beyoncé’s label, and she is one of that company’s biggest acts (not to mention that Sony Music is part of a conglomerate that wants to sell you devices to watch her videos on). No further explanation for the blackout was given—and the videos could still be found a few desperate clicks away on other sites.

A couple of weeks earlier, Viacom pulled full episodes of its popular Daily Show from Hulu, the much-touted free video Web site backed by big media companies. The move by Comedy Central made Jon Stewart’s show the latest to either withdraw from the site or have the number of episodes available online curbed. (You can still view them on the show’s own site.)

Information may want to be free, but the people who create and own it don’t. And they are growing increasingly antsy as it becomes clear that online advertising alone can’t pay the freight for a lot of professionally made content. The news last week that Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times newspapers in the U.K. were going to start charging for online access was depicted by some as an out-of-touch, rear-guard move by an aging mogul, even though plenty of other papers, including The New York Times, are planning similar moves.

(Disclosure: I’ve worked for both Times.)

For years now, the prevailing thinking among media execs has been that if you don’t make your most popular material easily available online, people will steal it anyway. You might as well control how they get it. The grim alternative is to follow the bleak trajectory of the recorded music industry—an outcome that will become only more pronounced once the Web and TV start to become essentially the same thing.

The reality is that the world of information is not all free. For myriad legal reasons, there already is plenty of popular content that isn’t available for free online easily, or at all. For instance, on authorized outlets, you can find full streaming episodes of ABC’s Lost, but not CBS’s The Mentalist or NBC’s Friday Night Lights or even full episodes of Fox’s American Idol, still the most popular show on TV. It can all be a bit perplexing and tiresome to sort out unless you are an 18-year-old in a dorm room with a super-high-speed connection.

And that leaves the rest of us with basically two choices: We can pay to get programs from conventional TV (or DVDs or iTunes), or we can download illegal versions. People are doing both by the millions, and the only clear victors right now are Google, Apple and maybe Amazon.  

By Tuesday morning, “All the Single Ladies” was back in rotation on Beyoncé’s YouTube home. But the episode was a glimpse at a confusing new era where the motto may well be free today, gone tomorrow. The Price of Free