Two Types of Station Owners: How Broadcasters’ Inability to Navigate OTT Services Could Be Their Undoing – And Broadcasting’s Salvation

Ever since the Aereo controversy caused broadcast networks to threaten to pull their signals from the free airwaves, I’ve long accused broadcasters as a whole of being led by retransmission consent to disdain their own nominal medium. But it’s not a coincidence that ground zero of the Aereo controversy was New York, the single largest market in the nation where most of the biggest stations are owned and operated by their networks. The networks are on the front lines of fighting with cable networks for sports and other content, and are deeply aware of the advantages of the cable business model. Many of them have substantial investments in cable networks themselves or would like to have them.

Their affiliates are a lot harder to read. On the one hand, many affiliate owners were pursuing cash in retransmission consent negotiations even before the networks got in on it. The National Association of Broadcasters, which is supposed to represent broadcasters as a whole, has fought hard to preserve the retransmission consent system as it is and to weaken ownership restrictions so station owners can get more leverage at the expense of the overall viability of broadcasting. And certainly affiliated stations aren’t falling over themselves to improve their coverage areas any more than their networks are. So it’s pretty clear that affiliate groups, like their networks, staunchly try to preserve their retransmission consent revenue against forces trying to disrupt it. But are they willing to go so far as to give up their identity the way the networks are?

On the surface, there is reason to think they wouldn’t, simply because if the networks went cable-only they would effectively shut the affiliates out entirely, but during the Aereo affair Fox only threatened to take away the most valuable programming that seemed to most need retransmission consent to support it, and pretty much seemed set to simply insert their programming into affiliates’ feeds they sent to cable companies, allowing them to keep the affiliates in the process, and they seemed fine with that. More tellingly, I don’t think any broadcasters, no matter how small, vouched for Aereo’s argument that they were simply broadening broadcast stations’ reach, nor did affiliates indicate that they were in any way resisting the moves their networks seemed to be making to undermine broadcasting except insofar as it undermined their own access to top-tier programming, and even then in utterly ineffectual ways; certainly keeping the CW and MyNetworkTV alive in their current forms suggested they had no ambitions to improve the relevance of broadcasting as a whole. So my assumption was that the affiliates understood the perceived importance of retransmission consent to their business and to their networks’ ability to compete with cable networks, and so wouldn’t do anything to make broadcast more viable and would present a united front to preserve retrans and keep people tied to the cable bundle, with some potentially bailing in the incentive auction out of a belief that broadcasting isn’t viable on its own (and certainly the fact the FCC’s initial clearing target is the maximum possible suggests broadcasting is being as undervalued as I’ve long feared).

But there was always reason to think the networks were overselling the importance of retrans and their signal-pulling threat had more to do with their cable-network offerings than any actual importance of retrans; after all, contrary to popular belief advertising is sufficient to pay broadcast networks’ NFL rights fees and even Fox’s deal with the BCS, the one it ended up losing to ESPN because they couldn’t pay enough to make up ESPN’s subscription fee advantage and kicking off the retrans mania to begin with, actually made money for them without needing to be a loss leader. At the same time, someone was leading the charge to develop ATSC M/H and ATSC 3.0, technologies that hold (or held) the promise to increase the usefulness and viability of broadcasting as a technology without, by themselves, changing the economic incentives favoring cable, and while the networks seemed reticent to lend their full support behind ATSC 3.0, the largest non-network station groups were pretty much staunchly behind it, and while they’ve never quite fought the forces undermining their industry as strenuously as I might like (and in some cases have doubled down on them), the NAB and several other groups representing broadcasters have made many of the same pro-broadcasting arguments that I’ve made on this blog, even if they’ve come across as more self-serving lip service than actually being reflected in their actual policy recommendations, which suggest they’re more interested in protecting incumbents than in the actual overall relevance of broadcasting. And while they never quite addressed the question, reading between the lines of their FCC filings, by and large station owners seemed fine with over-the-top providers omitting broadcast stations from their offerings.

Which brings me to what really has me scratching my head: TV Everywhere. In the wake of the Aereo affair, the Big Four networks have all rolled out apps allowing you to access their programming and a live feed of your local station, so long as you “authenticate” with a cable or satellite provider. In theory, these apps are a centralized clearinghouse to watch any station associated with the network, regardless of who owns them, and have been explicitly pitched to affiliates this way, with CBS All Access offering most of its affiliates through the service. The ABC and NBC apps, however, still only include their respective owned-and-operated stations, with CBS reaching an agreement with Cablevision for authenticated access to their O&Os a few months ago and Fox offering no stream of any of its stations through the app. The only markets where all the Big Four stations are owned-and-operated are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area, so as a result of this, among other things, those markets plus Dallas and Miami were the only ones PlayStation Vue was operating in. This despite Hearst being announced as a partner with Watch ABC pretty much as soon as the app itself was announced, yet their stations remain absent nearly three years later – supposedly because of the need to reach agreements with the cable companies, but if Hearst was in charge of that there’s little reason for that to be a problem if they were as into it as ABC itself was, and if ABC was in charge of that you’d think they’d have already struck those agreements to begin with, and in any case there’s not much reason to announce Hearst jumping on board if it wasn’t going to actually smooth out the negotiations with cable companies. It does suggest that, on the surface, it’s understandable that three-way negotiations between network, affiliate, and cable company would be difficult to make work, and ABC just announced a “clearinghouse” intended to make it easier for stations to latch on to their existing agreements with DirecTV and PlayStation Vue for streaming, with Hearst stated to be taking part with the former. But other recent developments suggest it may be too late.

Last month, PlayStation Vue, evidently fed up with the slow progress of reaching agreements with non-owned-and-operated stations, rolled out its service nationwide (and to devices other than the PlayStation itself), omitting broadcast networks entirely in the new markets with “Slim” options $10 cheaper than the equivalent full-service options, but not giving customers in its existing markets the ability to sign up for the “slim” packages. This raises the prospect the networks feared with Aereo: people paying for cable channels including ESPN but watching broadcast networks without paying for them if they can get them with an antenna, outside of markets where PS Vue was already offering them. Then, a couple weeks ago, rival Sling TV made that prospect explicit by reportedly introducing a new “AirTV” box that enables broadcast content received over-the-air to be integrated with Sling’s own offerings in Sling’s programming guide, regardless of whether Sling has an agreement with the station or even the network in question. I’m not sure I agree with the implied notion of continuing to treat linear television as something special and separate regardless of its nature, putting all linear television into a single, separate app as though linear television itself is the product, and as such Sling isn’t really doing anything it wasn’t already doing by its own nature, but integration of OTA content on streaming boxes can be hit-or-miss enough that AirTV can still encourage people to pick up broadcast stations over-the-air without paying for them, if they can. More to the point, it sounds like Sling can then deliver the broadcast content to any device, like a legitimate use of what Aereo was doing, actually providing some usefulness to the product.

To put this in perspective, last week Dish and Viacom avoided a potentially nasty and damaging carriage dispute with an agreement that will put Viacom’s channels on SlingTV, to the confusion and disappointment of analysts who felt Dish “caved” in not standing up to a Viacom that Suddenlink and Cable One have already seemed to do well enough without. Coupled with the inclusion of Fox in the new multi-screen bundle and the mutual interest on both sides to add ESPN and the other Disney networks to it as well, explicitly hiking the price and obviating everything I said about its potential impact, it seems like Sling TV is coming awfully close to recreating the entire bloated cable bundle just like PS Vue, putting the lie to all the public statements Dish made at its launch about wanting to keep it slimmed down to provide maximum value, and making me wonder, if they really did mean those things, if the Dish-Viacom deal pointed to ESPN acting as the Godfather of the cable bundle in keeping it together at all costs, certainly in keeping Viacom dependent on it. Putting aside anything else, if Sling TV and PS Vue weren’t going to actually provide anything different from the existing cable bundles, it would seem that the cable companies could pretty easily put them out of business, even without shady tactics, by lowering their prices to make a cable/internet bundle competitive with internet plus Sling or Vue and/or making it easier to watch their linear television content on a streaming device… that is, if they weren’t hamstrung by the need to charge retransmission consent to all their customers. Sling TV and PS Vue’s ability to offer broadcast stations separately or not at all, allowing people to rely on an antenna to receive them, could well be their one major, vital advantage over traditional cable television, what allows them to continue providing value even with a traditional bloated cable bundle. I didn’t agree with Rich Greenfield that retransmission consent was the major factor causing the cable bundle to lose its perceived value, but if Sling TV and PS Vue can continue making it optional, it may well prove to be traditional cable’s fatal flaw.

The funny thing about this is that other companies have felt that finding a way to untangle the thicket of broadcast stations was so vital that Apple outright gave up on creating its own Apple TV service when it couldn’t negotiate with broadcast stations. Indeed, PS Vue itself not only offered broadcast stations in its launch markets but included them in its base packages, forcing everyone to pay for them, and showed every indication of applying the same to any market it expanded to. PS Vue wanted to play by broadcasters’ rules, yet when the affiliates couldn’t get their act together, leaving the service still stuck with just the O&Os, PS Vue decided “screw it” and took its service nationwide without broadcast stations, effectively costing the affiliates their opportunity to make OTT work for them and not against them. If Sling TV and PS Vue prove successful enough without broadcast stations, Apple and other companies that felt they had to offer them may decide that, at the very least, they’re not worth the hassle, and broadcasters will have completely missed the boat, left to see the gap between them and cable networks widen again, and seeing cable operators redouble their efforts to undo or shake up retrans.

Again, it’s possible the affiliates just didn’t grasp the importance of getting some deal, any deal done before Sony decided to go without them… but this has me wondering whether the affiliates deliberately dragged their feet as part of a larger effort to make broadcast the center of the broadcast industry again. Perhaps the affiliates really don’t want to be as dependent on cable-style bundles as their networks want them to be, and recognize that it is killing broadcasting as a medium and that nurturing the creation of a large base of people aware of and exploiting broadcasters’ free over-the-air signals is vital to broadcasting’s long-term survival (even if it might hit their pocketbooks in the short-term), by creating a group of people interested in the fate of the medium and ultimately providing motivation for broadcasters to actually invest in their signals and in technology to make them easier to access on a wider variety of devices. Perhaps they felt all along that they preferred to rely on ATSC 3.0 as their ticket to reach mobile devices and that there was no reason for cord-cutting to work to its detriment rather than its benefit. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both and they haven’t yet grasped that Sling TV and PS Vue haven’t been the threats to the cable bundle they thought they would be (not helped by uncritical media coverage that has treated them as “a boon to cord-cutters” without questioning whether someone signing up to either service is truly living up to the spirit of cord-cutting), or just didn’t anticipate “cable minus broadcast” being the niche “skinny bundles” would occupy so early, before “cable minus sports” or something else that would actually deconstruct the cable bundle… or maybe they don’t even care about that and care more about getting broadcast out of its cable-imposed ghetto.

By goading PS Vue into encouraging customers to pick up broadcast stations with an antenna while still delivering them cable channels, broadcasters may have dealt themselves a fatal blow. But if Sling TV and PS Vue have the effect of encouraging widespread antenna adoption, it may well prove the best thing to happen to broadcasting as a whole.

Sling TV May Have Just Triggered the Beginning of the End of the Reign of ESPN

“Skinny bundles” have long been an overhyped disappointment. Cable companies offering sports-free packages have been hamstrung by contractural provisions and legal threats from offering them all that widely, when they’ve bothered to promote them at all. And efforts to create over-the-top offerings, like Sling TV, have kept most of the most expsnsive channels, including ESPN, thus preserving, not undermining, the worst parts of the cable bundle.

Last week Sling TV unveiled a new “beta” multi-screen offering, allowing customers to stream Sling TV content on up to three screens, rather than the single screen their existing offering was limited to. But that’s not the only difference between the multi-screen and single-screen offerings. For the first time, the multi-screen offering provides access to the Fox networks, including FX, FS1, and Fox’s RSNs. And perhaps more to the point, the multi-screen offering does not include ESPN or the other Disney networks. For the first time, there is a widely-available linear TV service that can actually free you from paying the ESPN tax.

The new multi-screen offering is not perfect; for one thing, Fox is nearly as much of a contributor to the high price of the cable bundle as ESPN, through FS1 and especially its regional sports networks, though Sling does not appear to be offering Fox News. So subscribers to the new package may not be subsidizing ESPN, but if they have no interest in sports they’re still subsidizing expensive regional sports networks, and unlike with the single-stream product broadcast networks are included so you’re paying retransmission consent (or at least making up Fox’s share of it) even if you can get Fox with an antenna. Sports fans are still hitched to the entire cable bundle, and FS1 offers few sports whose fans can go without ESPN or other sports networks (basically the UFC, NHRA, and that’s it). As a result of Fox’s own high price, the new service’s $20 price tag offers no savings over the single-screen product, so it might seem like someone would only switch to it if they’ve read my book and are dropping ESPN out of principle, especially since the Discovery networks are also missing so anyone who wants any of them will be stuck with the single-stream offering and paying the ESPN tax.

But if you’re someone who’s interested in Sling TV for reasons other than ESPN, if your interest revolves around the AMC, A&E, and Scripps networks (and Turner as well), you’re going to gravitate to the service that actually allows you to stream the content on multiple screens. And for sports fans, local sports is arguably more of a motivator to remain signed up for cable than ESPN is, and while fans of local teams can’t necessarily go without ESPN entirely, since ESPN has a significant number of exclusive baseball and basketball games including Sunday Night Baseball, one baseball wild-card game, and one of the NBA’s Conference Finals, fans of teams on Fox networks can still watch most of their games without paying the ESPN tax, especially if the teams aren’t that good.

A part of me thinks that Disney and Discovery are just the only two companies that haven’t given Dish the right to offer their content on multiple screens and this is just Dish’s way of pushing them to re-do their deal, meaning ESPN will be there to inflate the price of the offering and keep people paying the ESPN tax soon enough (as Disney seemed to imply in a statement), making this not that different from when PlayStation Vue didn’t include ESPN until earlier this year. But Sling is a lot more visible, and provides more cost savings over a more traditional bundle, than PS Vue ever did, and it’s not exactly obvious that ESPN will eventually join the multi-screen offering. Unless and until it does or Dish ends up nerfing it in other ways, people looking to save money on their cable subscriptions now have a viable option that deprives ESPN of their revenue stream and broad reach that allows them to keep high-profile sports hostage to the cable bundle. And if AMC and Scripps find the multi-screen offering attractive enough, they may just decide they don’t need to be propped up by sports networks at all – and that’s when the real threat to ESPN’s business model begins.

From a revolution breaking down borders between mediums to a specific work that singlehandedly broke down others.

"Homestuck has now become an anime" in more ways than one: this ending is certainly reminiscent of certain animes TV Tropes has informed me about, but that's not necessarily a good thing.(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized THE END.)

On April 10th, 2009, Andrew Hussie began work on Homestuck, the fourth story on his MS Paint Adventures site, after having concluded a year working on Problem Sleuth, which built from humble and rather silly beginnings to an epic conflagration and turned MSPA into a minor Internet phenomenon, which also had the effect of making him less someone who sent his stories into random directions based on people’s input and more someone who used that input to help spur the story in the direction he wanted. With Homestuck he had a story where the directions he wanted to take it were largely set from the start, and he had much grander ambitions for this story, intending to use Flash to underlie the whole thing. That turned out to be much more than he could really chew, and three days later he started the story over using regular GIFs, but nonetheless Homestuck proved to dwarf PS in its ambition and in the ways it bent the boundaries of media, and within two years it dwarfed PS in popularity as well, becoming far more popular than Hussie could have ever imagined, indeed a phenomenon perhaps unparalleled in the history of the Internet, with “Homestucks” practically taking over cons dressed up as a class of characters Hussie hadn’t even thought of when the story started.

It was in this context that I took note of how ridiculous a phenomenon Homestuck had become and decided I owed it to myself to read and review it. While I certainly found it a good comic, I didn’t see what made it such a huge phenomenon, but I was still willing to stick it out through the end of Act 5, which was just a few months away. Of course, those few months were enough to drag me so inexorably into Homestuck‘s spell that it became impossible to escape, and I continued to plow through with the comic as it continued into Act 6 (in part because no other webcomic reviewers were doing so). Even though I never quite embraced it to the degree of its biggest fans, never getting involved with Homestuck fandom the way I have with, say, The Order of the Stick, nonetheless I still waited with baited breath to see where the story was going. In October 2011, when the conclusion to Act 5 almost literally broke the Internet, there was no doubt that Homestuck was just revving into the last push towards its ultimate climax, and with how epic Act 5 had been, everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting to see just how mind-blowing Act 6 would be, what sort of climax Hussie could give a story that had somehow transcended the meaning of story.

Last night, seven years after it started, Homestuck finally came to an end (well, sort of – more on that later), and although Gary “Fleen” Tyrell (who never even really read Act 5, the act that created the Homestuck phenomenon) has a postmortem that treats it as though it’s the ending of the phenomenon it was, for those actually invested in the comic, the feeling is decidedly more of a letdown and the experience decidedly less shared than it was four or five years ago.

It’s hard to figure out where to begin articulating what went wrong, but let’s start with this: Maybe a year or so after I started reading Homestuck, I sat down and plowed my way through Problem Sleuth, after having an earlier false start. I was able to laugh at and enjoy its particular brand of absurdist humor well enough, even sort of understand it on its own terms at first. The big problem with it was that the entire last half was devoted to a long, drawn-out fight against the final boss, Demon Mobster Kingpin, that just consisted of one “awesome” RPG attack after another, interspersed with confusing plans to weaken him that took too long to play out when they didn’t end up being complete duds along with pointless sidetracks, and it just became a tedious slog to get through as I just waited for it to end already.

In many ways, Homestuck has the opposite problem as Problem Sleuth. The set-up and eventual payoff for the final battle was clunky and rushed, and ultimately failed to answer many of the questions still hanging over the comic’s head. Indeed, the final flash has Homestuck‘s own version of DMK, Lord English, at best implied to be defeated, and it’s far from clear exactly how, and you can only come to the conclusion that the main characters of the comic were even involved in his defeat at all based on an earlier spell of exposition that had considerable room for interpretation and remains one of the bigger unexplained points.

Homestuck did have a similar problem to Problem Sleuth in this sense: Act 6, which Hussie initially claimed wouldn’t be as long as Act 5, then admitted “could be close”, ended up being twice as long as Act 5, and half the entire length of the comic, in terms of number of pages, but because Hussie started taking numerous increasingly-lengthy hiatuses starting with the long wait for Act 5’s concluding flash (in retrospect Homestuck‘s high point in many ways), including one that lasted a full year, took even longer than that to play out compared to the two and a half years of the first five acts. Throughout the first four acts of Act 6 (which still managed to fit in Act 6’s first year), I complained that the new, post-Scratch kids it introduced us to, with the possible exception of Roxy, gave us very little reason to care about them as much as the kids and trolls we had grown accustomed to in the first five acts, though possibly they faced an uphill climb to begin with getting me and the fans to be less impatient for the intermissions within Act 6 where we could catch up on the more familiar characters. I also became increasingly exasperated with how much time the comic seemed to be wasting on romantic subplots and other frivolities and that all of Act 6 was little more than a waiting game waiting for the familiar characters to show up so we could actually pick up where Act 5 left off, while Hussie wasted our time exploring the cool concept he’d been waiting all of Act 5 to show us and that, I feared, he’d unnaturally bent his story to accomodate, with any actual plot advancement (and any reason for me not to bail on the comic in the meantime) limited to what we learned about Lord English (and to a lesser extent the Condesce) in the meantime.

And yet, it was after the familiar kids and trolls showed up that the real problem with Act 6 and the conclusion to Homestuck became apparent.

Like Act 6 itself, Act 6 Act 6 is divided into six sub-acts, and this time all the plot advancement is shunted into the intermissions while Caliborn, Lord English’s younger self, hijacks the narrative for the first five of those sub-acts, and badly damages the cartridge containing the actual plot of A6A6 resulting in numerous glitches in the intermissions. The middle three of those intermissions are where the problem lies. In Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 2, Aranea, the pre-Scratch version of Vriska’s ancestor, uses Gamzee to steal a ring John accidentally took with him out of the dream bubbles and that can bring one person back to life, that being Aranea herself, and begins to carry out a plan to wreck the session beyond repair and then use her powers to heal the resulting doomed timeline and make it the alpha, effectively preventing Lord English from ever being born to begin with by preventing the creation of his universe. The rest of the intermission lays out the chain of events resulting from that and setting up the flash that ends A6A6A3 and makes up most of A6A6I3, where almost all the characters we’ve grown accustomed to die, but Aranea is no more successful at her plan, as the Condesce rips the ring off her finger and kills her for good. That leaves it to John, in A6A6I4, to put the timeline back on track.

In A6I5, after Vriska and her ghost army find the treasure she’d been looking for, a glowing Sburb logo, John stuck his hand into it, which popped into numerous events over the course of the comic, before he became fuzzy and popped in and out of more events throughout the comic’s history before finally arriving in the new session. He continues to glitch in and out from place to place throughout A6A6I1, demonstrating an ability to become “unstuck in canon” and accidentally cause a doomed timeline or avert one (as well as immunity to the glitches), but unable to control when or where he zaps in or out. Even as things go to shit in A6A6I2, however, he doesn’t show up again until he challenges Caliborn in A6A6A3, and only at the end of A6A6I3 does he show up and see the carnage that’s been wreaked. After talking with the only two characters left alive, Roxy and a dying Terezi, John is motivated to go visit his denizen in hopes of controlling his newfound power once and for all, which results in more Easter eggs being sprinkled throughout the comic in the form of the oil that had been covering John’s planet to this point and that Typheus attempts to drown him with, and in John fulfilling his personal quest by playing the organ at the heart of Typheus’ lair, clearing out the clouds enveloping the planet and fixing the damage to the cartridge. The fixes he proceeds to carry out aren’t limited to grabbing the ring before Gamzee or Aranea can; with Terezi setting his agenda, he makes his presence felt in various places in Terezi’s past, some of them seemingly immaterial, others tipping her off to Gamzee’s role in the late-act-5 murder spree, but ultimately leading up to knocking out Vriska before she could take on Noir or Terezi could kill her in that confrontation towards the end of Act 5, allowing her to survive and travel with the meteor crew to the new session.

There are all sorts of problems with this development. For one thing, a pretty good case could be made that there was no other way for Vriska’s story arc in Act 5 to end than with her death, even with her ghost’s attempts to get back involved in the story in Act 6, so undoing that arguably cheapens her entire story arc. If there were any evidence that she’d learned from her near-death experience and found a way to contribute more productively to her comrade’s efforts, that might have been an acceptable substitute, but from what we see of her afterwards she’s as much of an asshole as ever, even going so far as to shame her own ghost to tears. Yet we’re led to believe that her mere presence on the meteor magically solves all the problems everyone on the meteor had and made everyone hunky-dory and well-adjusted by the time they showed up in the new session. Vriska was already one of the most polarizing characters in all of webcomics and the subject of numerous jokes both in and out of comic about Hussie marrying her; this seemed to have the effect of turning her into a complete Mary Sue. Combined with the post-retcon version of Jade having to spend most of her journey to the new session alone after John and Davesprite perished to make room for our John, it effectively means that everything in anything labeled as an intermission to this point in Act 6 – in other words, everything we actually liked about it – that didn’t involve John, Caliborn, or ghosts didn’t happen, at least not in the way originally chronicled, making all of Act 6 to this point even more of a waste of time. But in theory, it shouldn’t have affected the post-Scratch kids until the point the pre-Scratch ones entered the session and shouldn’t have affected the cherubs at all, yet both of them had numerous intersection points with the pre-retcon kids and trolls and were tightly synced with each other, raising numerous unnecessary and unexplained contradictions.

In a somewhat more minor way but perhaps most relevantly for our purposes, by wasting three whole Act 6 Act 6 intermissions on setting this up and carrying this out, Hussie left himself a grand total of one intermission to get us better acquainted with the post-retcon versions of the characters and set up and carry out the actual final battle, leaving himself a tall order to get us as invested in these characters and this timeline as we did with the one we followed for most of Act 6, and he attempted to do so with incredibly clunky, unnatural, exposition-laden dialogue that’s the complete antithesis of what people liked about the first five acts of Homestuck, which is why we know so little about what post-retcon Vriska is actually like. The result is that Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 5 reads more like a fanfic than the actual conclusion to the story, right down to wasting time teasing ships but not having enough time to actually do anything with them. Hussie has a penchant for mind-bending time shenanigans, being infuriatingly coy with details of the story and other important information, writing by the seat of his pants, and just plain trolling the readership, but in this case it had the effect of coming at the expense of good, sound storytelling. Hussie had to carry out the final battle with what effectively amounted to a brand new cast of characters and had to spend more time getting us acquainted with these characters and less time actually tying up loose ends, paying off foreshadowing (not that he’d been all that diligent about paying off foreshadowing earlier in Act 6), or creating a compelling climax. All by (arguably) derailing a character to serve as his agent to write himself into enough of a corner to justify bringing back another character whose role in the final battle, as it turns out, is exactly the same as what her ghost had been planning anyway!

There’s so much left unanswered by this conclusion, even about this conclusion, and it ultimately serves as a serious black mark on Homestuck as a whole. As the end neared I took the position that Hussie was likely to leave more unanswered or dismissed as unimportant than some of the more over-analytical fans thought, but I was still left stunned by how much remains unaddressed. It’s hard to tell exactly how Lord English gets defeated, other than that the most important character to it is someone who barely interacted with the other characters beforehand and even less in a way with any relevance to the conclusion. What’s the full solution to the Ultimate Riddle? Where did those kids who took on Caliborn, inadvertently put the finishing touches on Lord English, and ended up populating the house juju in A6A6A5 come from? What’s life like for our heroes in the new universe? What happens with the trolls, since Roxy recreated the Matriorb and Kanaya told Karkat he was needed to be the new trolls’ leader? What about Vriska and all the ghosts, what happens to them going forward? Why did we even see Caliborn break his clock at this point considering he’s not a proper protagonist and is in fact the main antagonist?

I don’t know for sure quite where Hussie went wrong, where he lost the magic touch that made Homestuck such a phenomenon in the first five acts. But something tells me it’s related to how long Act 6 took both in terms of number of pages and in terms of time. By wasting so much time on brand-new characters that could never have been made as compelling as the ones we were familiar with, especially when they were used more to shine light on the character of our antagonists than themselves, Hussie lost the connection to the characters we were familiar with, and by not only destroying the old session but forcing the pre-Scratch kids and trolls to wander through the void for three years before arriving in the new one, when everything that took place in the first five acts happened in just over twenty-four hours for the kids, he made the connection between the final battle and the rest of the story that much more tenuous even for the characters themselves. Those are the storytelling errors. But for the last two sub-acts of Act 6, a little over a quarter of the story’s total pages, to take half the total amount of time to play out, indeed for the last quarter to take three whole years to come out, we need to take a closer look at Hussie’s real-world decision making. Although the end of Act 5 was billed as the pinnacle of effort and production value Hussie was likely to put into the story, Hussie’s general trend of continually raising the stakes and topping himself meant that continuous pauses may have been in retrospect inevitable. But to explain just how prominent they became in the back end of Homestuck‘s run, we need to take a closer look at the factors sapping Hussie’s attention.

In retrospect, the beginning of the end of Hussie’s ability to even maintain the quality Homestuck had in early Act 6 was the Kickstarter for a Homestuck adventure game held in the summer of 2012. Hussie now had to divide his time between working on the game and working on the comic, and as time went on and the challenges associated with the game mounted, the comic suffered and took a backseat. Not all of those challenges were necessarily avoidable: though nothing was made clear publicly for legal reasons, meaning the full story may never be known, as far as the fandom has been able to piece together the studio Hussie originally hired to work on the game took the Kickstarter money and used it to work on an unrelated game, forcing Hussie to try to recover whatever he could of the money early in the year-long pause and start his own studio to work on the game. But at that point, it would have been clear both that Hiveswap would not be able to be finished before the end of the comic no matter what, regardless of what had been promised in the Kickstarter, and that it would demand a lot more of Hussie’s attention than he had in mind. I can understand the mindset that Hiveswap would actually be making money for Hussie’s business and Homestuck would not do so to the same extent, but the fanbase was waiting on pins and needled to see how Homestuck ended, while Hiveswap would be little more than a hypothetical until it came out. The best thing Hussie could do to maintain goodwill with the fans would be to focus on finishing Homestuck before turning his attention to the game.

But throughout Act 6, it became increasingly apparent that Hussie just was no longer that interested in Homestuck, which he originally intended to last no longer than the single year Problem Sleuth did, was perhaps even more impatient with its fans (increasingly devoting even the intermissions to self-aggrandizement and sticking it to his own fanbase), and just wanted to get it over with. For the first five acts, maybe even some distance into Act 6, Homestuck may well have been the incredibly dense yet satisfying work that, as Tyrell says, could be the subject of a fruitful graduate thesis, but as Act 6 went along it became much more shallow and inferior, much less rewarding or even consistent. It’s especially painful for me to read because I’ve actually gotten increasingly involved in a corner of the fandom that involves reliving the comic over and over, especially the early, good acts, and it’s such a letdown to go from that to how Hussie wound it up. The Hussie who wrote A6A6I5 onwards, if not before that, comes off as a Hussie that is finishing the story more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, just to get the fans off his back about finishing Homestuck (and get the monkey of leaving Homestuck unfinished off his own back) so he can concentrate on the game. I’m not all that confident Hussie even remembered all the loose ends he didn’t tie up or how he planned to do so, he was working on such a remove from the parts of the story he was actually invested in. The “edit” to the concluding newspost seems to confirm that, even with yet another lengthy pause leading up to it and virtually the entire ending consisting of guest art, Hussie had to rush to get everything put together in time, both making us wonder what got left out because of the time crunch and suggesting just how little Hussie wanted to do with Homestuck at this point.

The main thrust of that edit is to suggest that, at some point, when Hussie’s not working on as much of a time crunch, he might work on an epilogue to the story that might finally tie up some of the loose ends left untied. Unlike much of the fanbase that I suspect is desperate to salvage something from this ending, I don’t read it as him definitively committing to it. So at best, even now, even though Homestuck‘s “ended” it hasn’t really ended and we’re now sitting through another pause of indeterminate length waiting to actually get the closure we’re looking for, assuming Hussie hasn’t just begun stringing us along with false hope just to prevent the fanbase completely revolting over this ending – and even if he does eventually provide an epilogue, unlike PS‘s, it’s still likely to suffer because even in the best case, many of the loose ends it’ll tie up really should have been tied up before the climax, if it weren’t for the storytelling errors, skewed priorities, and other factors that left Homestuck with an ending far inferior to what Tyrell thinks it is and what the phenomenon it was in its first five acts really deserves. Homestuck could have gone down as the Citizen Kane of webcomics, as I suggested when the Kickstarter hit, but ultimately, what Tyrell’s post serves to demonstrate is how much it may well go down as the biggest disappointment and missed opportunity in webcomics history.

Incentive Auction FAQ

The broadcast TV incentive auction officially kicked off last week with the deadline for stations to declare their participation in the auction. This triggered a number of pieces about what the auction is, how it works, and what the implications of it are. In that vein, I decided to write my own explainer for anyone wondering what this auction thing is they may have heard about.

Read moreIncentive Auction FAQ

Why is the NCAA Basketball National Championship on TBS?

Tonight, Villanova and North Carolina will face off for the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship – but you won’t see it on CBS. For the first time ever, college basketball will crown its national champion on cable, with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill calling the action on TBS (and slanted “team stream” coverage of each team on TNT and truTV). How did this happen? Why was the NCAA willing and able to take the smaller audience of cable? Well, I gave the short answer in my book, The Game to Show the Games:

By 2010 CBS wanted to get out from under a contract to air the NCAA Tournament that was set to lose it considerable amounts of money each year, to the point of engaging in talks to get ESPN to take it off its hands. Certainly the NCAA was very interested in moving most of the tournament to cable, which not only had the potential to increase the rights fees the NCAA collected but also allowed every game to be shown nationally, without the regionalization CBS had engaged in. CBS ended up retaining the tournament by forming an alliance with Turner to show games on TBS, TNT, and truTV in addition to the CBS broadcast network. Turner had never shown college basketball before and truTV, once known as Court TV, had never shown sports of any kind before, but Turner, which was paying a larger portion of the rights fee, went so far as to start alternating the Final Four with CBS starting in 2016 (later negotiations allowed TBS to show the national semifinals in 2014 and 2015 while the national championship game remained on CBS).

The long answer? You’ll have to get the book for that, and for how television money has completely upended the world of sports over the last decade, especially since the BCS blazed this trail with its 2008 agreement with ESPN, how the race for sports rights has changed the TV industry in turn, and how it might all prove to be built on a house of cards that might already be tumbling down. For this week only, until Friday, April 8th, you can get it for Kindle absolutely FREE, or you can buy the paperback at most online booksellers anytime. By the time you’re done reading, you might wish you hadn’t watched the game at all.

What Killed the Cable Bundle?

I’ve heard it suggested that “recent high school and college graduates“, or just members of the generation uncreatively and corporately termed “millennials”, absolutely cannot fathom why the cable bundle even exists, yet I’m only 27 going on 28 and I remember when cable was an absolutely huge deal, an almost mandatory step up from relying on an antenna, and remained so right straight through the 90s and into the new millennium. (During my lifetime, my family never relied on an antenna except when the cable was out.) Cable was the gateway to an explosion of new options far beyond the limited experience (and chintzy reception) of broadcast, where all the cool channels like MTV, ESPN, and Nickelodeon were. This is what the cable industry tries to evoke when it claims that the cable bundle is the best value in entertainment and expresses confidence that cord-cutting isn’t really that big a problem in the long term and those people that have cut the cord will inevitably come crawling back. What has changed to make what once was cable’s key selling point – the relative smorgasbord of channels it made available – into its biggest liability?

Last Monday BTIG’s Rich Greenfield, whose doomsaying on the state of the TV industry I’ve written about before, gave a presentation at an FCC panel on the shifting video marketplace, where among other things he presented his reasons for the decline of the TV industry, especially that of the “price/value equation” of the traditional cable bundle. You can see the entire four-and-a-half-hour workshop here; his presentation begins at the 30-minute mark, which the link should take you directly to, but what I want to focus on is that, rather than simply pointing to shifting consumer behavior or the shortfalls of the cable bundle and leaving it at that, he looked at how the perceived value of cable has actually gone down since those heady days of the 90s and what forces, specifically the inaction of both government and players in the industry, led to that point. As such, he touches on some of the themes I talk about in my book and on other posts on this site, but in my view, he doesn’t go far enough to the degree I talk about them, and ends up pointing the finger at some inappropriate culprits as a result.

Greenfield claims that retransmission consent is “the chief culprit that has ruined the price value of the bundle”, evolving from the system envisioned by the 1992 Cable Act, where a single station in a market negotiates with a single cable provider, into one where a station group controlling multiple network affiliations in a market, and potentially cable networks besides, is negotiating not only with a cable provider, but with satellite and telco providers as well – a familiar story the cable industry likes to repeat and that I touch on in the book, but not the whole story. He also targets retrans as the ultimate culprit to the bundling issue, claiming that it’s the power of retrans, specifically the earliest period where companies used retrans as leverage to carry cable networks rather than demanding cash payments, that allows the major media conglomerates to demand that cable companies deliver all their channels in inflexible bundles, before admitting that companies that don’t own broadcast stations engage in the same practice and, implicitly, that ESPN is at least as much a driver of Disney’s bundle as ABC. Greenfield also blames pay-TV companies for negotiating clauses into contracts that hinder programmers’ ability to move to online distribution and that prevent programmers from collecting different amounts of money from different distributors, resulting in a situation where everyone is too invested in the traditional, bloated bundle, and takes steps to ensure that none of the others can do anything to distance themselves from it, keeping everyone tied in to the bundle and in turn keeping consumers ensnared in it – so long as a Netflix doesn’t come along to provide an alternative.

The problem with this narrative is that the problems that have developed in the retransmission consent landscape are a reaction to and symptom of the larger bundling issue, not the other way around, and cannot be looked at in isolation, separate from the larger issue of pay-TV programming fees. It’s true that the introduction of satellite and telco providers have tipped the leverage balance towards broadcasters, but what has motivated them to take advantage of that imbalance, to the point of threatening to abandon broadcast entirely if they didn’t get their way with Aereo, is the much larger imbalance between broadcasters and the subscription fees collected by cable networks, the problem that retransmission consent was intended to fix in the first place. If you look at retransmission consent as merely a subset of the larger cable programming marketplace, many of the “imbalances” tipping the scale towards broadcast stations are really just ways to give broadcasters the same tools as cable channels, or ways to keep broadcasters from losing leverage or potential revenue as a result of offering their wares over the air, and in that view retransmission consent has been working exactly as intended, preventing the broadcast industry from losing all their most valuable content to cable networks that charge high prices and muscle their way into the vast majority of homes.

In particular, Fox explicitly cited the desire to keep from losing sports to cable outlets like ESPN and Turner when it began to make a harder push on the retransmission consent issue in 2009 and 2010, shortly after ESPN took the Bowl Championship Series away from it and moved it to cable. Right now the most expensive cable networks by a mile are ESPN and regional sports networks in some order. Other than those, the next biggest contributors to your high cable bill, at least nominally, include TNT, the Disney Channel, and NFL Network, then Fox News, USA, and FS1, then TBS and ESPN2. On a per-station basis for the major networks, broadcast retransmission fees are probably on the low end of the TNT/Disney/NFLN group, so before you get to retransmission consent’s impact on prices you have to go through all the much more expensive RSNs, plus four national cable networks, three of which have substantial investments in sports that both motivate and fuel those high prices. But broadcast stations are in that same exact category, in that like ESPN, TNT, and regional sports networks, it is the need and desire for sports content that drives broadcast stations to set and keep retransmission fees high and to fight tooth and nail against anything that might break up the cable bundle.

More than anything else, it is sports that is driving the high cost of the cable bundle; between highly-distributed national sports networks, regional sports networks, and the major broadcast networks, probably at least $20 of your over-$100 cable bill is ultimately paying for sports. That’s because everyone vying for sports rights knows that nothing motivates people to sign up for and remain signed up for cable like sports, and absolutely nothing motivates people to sit through commercials like live sports. So more networks come along looking for their own piece of the sports pie, passing that cost along to cable companies, and bidding the cost of sports ever higher and passing that along to cable companies and their customers. Add all of that to the non-sports component of the bundle, and you have a recipe for a cable bundle that once brought consumers unprecedented choice and value now being too highly priced to serve anyone well.

The FCC can’t get a good idea of what undermined the value of the cable bundle from a 12-minute presentation, certainly not without appreciating the factors that led the industry’s actors to behave the way they did; for that, they’ll need to read my book, which will help them appreciate not only the plight of broadcasters but why it’s so important to get this issue right. At the end of the panel, at about the hour-53 mark, Greenfield proclaims that he believes the entire medium of linear TV is dying, that what will end up complementing on-demand services like Netflix will be services that offer “live on-demand”. I still have my doubts that the Internet will ever be able to deliver the Super Bowl to 50 million households, or even that it’ll do that well at delivering a regular-season NFL game to 15 million, especially as higher-quality technologies like 4K become the norm, and especially especially to mobile devices with higher bandwidth and spectrum constraints. Linear TV will not die, but only if it recognizes that it is transitioning into a specialized service, one that efficiently delivers content to the largest audiences, especially live content that, precisely because of its unique ability to attract eyeballs to commercials, is most able to be monetized without need to charge subscription fees. That is what the commission needs to keep an eye on going forward: not merely the transition from a video landscape rooted in linear TV to one based in online streaming, but linear television’s own ability to change its role in response to that, without people being blinded by the present-day depredations of the cable bundle to what that role is and how it’s already filling it, and whether broadcast television will survive to take its place as the area of linear TV where that role is most needed without being undermined by its own actions or those of the commission.