Fox Paywall Coming to Online TV Shows

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If you want to watch Fox shows online sooner than eight days after they air on television, be prepared to pay up.

Effective August 15, Fox will require a pay TV subscription to watch shows like Family Guy and Glee on Hulu or Fox’s own website within a week of the shows’ original air dates. For now, only Hulu Plus and Dish Network subscribers will be able to jump the paywall, but Fox promises to add authentication for other satellite and cable providers soon.

Fox freely admits that it’s trying to cling to the cable TV business model. “We’re concerned that cord-cutting is going to be a problem,” Mike Hopkins, Fox’s president of affiliate sales, told the Wall Street Journal. “The more you enable it by putting content out there for free without any tether to a pay-TV subscription, the bigger that danger becomes.”

(MORE: Fox Joins Other Networks in Blocking Google TV)

It’s an interesting admission from an industry that has tried to downplay the idea of cord-cutting as a phenomenon. A study by ESPN last year concluded that only 0.1 percent of U.S. households dropped their pay TV subscriptions while hanging onto Internet, and cast cord-cutters as middle-aged, middle-income people who don’t stream a lot of content. Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett called the average cord-cutter “someone who’s 40 years old and poor and settling for a dog’s breakfast of Netflix and short-form video.”

If that were true, Fox wouldn’t be so worried, and apparently it’s not the only one. Unnamed sources tell the New York Times that ABC is also considering time limitations on Web TV, and the Wall Street Journal reports that CBS is exploring its own authentication plans.

What’s funny about this change in attitude is that Hulu was created as a legal alternative to piracy. By offering shows online, networks were able to collect ad revenue from people who might otherwise steal content. Now, concerns about the greater collapse of cable — made more urgent by the availability of free, legal content online — override those piracy fears, so networks are pulling back.

Not that it matters; subscriptions to Hulu Plus and Netflix, paired with over-the-air-broadcasts, provide much of the content that these networks offer — and some that they don’t — at a fraction of cable’s costs. TV networks are kidding themselves if they don’t think they’re delaying the inevitable.

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