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Sony's Web TV Pitch: Old TV, New Wrapper

It's like cable TV, but you get it on the Web.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Sony has finally announced details of its upcoming Web TV launch — beta soon, a real launch next year, with a bunch of major programmers signed on.

But if you’re trying to figure out what this means for the TV business — or for you, the TV watcher — ignore everything except for this quote from Sony executive Andrew House talking about the price he’s going to charge for his pay-TV service: “I’m not looking at it in terms of a substantial discount,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m looking to offer a better sense of value for money.”

That is: You know how cable TV networks are bundled together, and if you want to watch any of them you have to pay for all of them, even if you don’t watch the other ones? That’s what we’re doing, too.

This isn’t surprising to people who follow the would-be Web TV business. But my hunch is that it’s going to be awfully disappointing for Sony’s would-be customers — youngish dudes who spend a lot of time with their PlayStations and either don’t pay for TV or are dissatisfied with the pay-TV service they have.

Again, we don’t know the price Sony is going to end up with, but guesstimates put it in the $60-$70 a month range for a bundle of shows from networks like Viacom, Discovery and CBS — Disney’s ESPN is a critical omission, at least for the time being.

But remember that anyone who watches TV on the Web is going to have to pay for Web access, too — so add on another $35 or so (that’s what Time Warner Cable is offering me for a broadband-only service at 50 mbps today).

So, to recap: Sony plans on selling its customers the same TV they can already get from a traditional pay-TV service — at effectively the same price — though perhaps without some crucial channels. And it will stream it over the Web, via their game devices. This is a different tactic than the one Dish plans to take: Chairman Charlie Ergen wants to sell a “skinny” bundle of Web TV — including ESPN — priced at $30 a month.

Sony thinks its service will be compelling because of the user interface it’s going to wrap that programming in. Talking to the New York Times, House plays up the notion that Sony is going to offer an awesome discovery and recommendations service, so it can end TV-watchers’ “frustration of not being able to really access and surface the content that they really want to see.”

And he does have half a point — the traditional TV guides the cable guys provide are awful, and have been awful for a long time. It’s telling that it’s 2014 and Comcast* is just beginning to do a wide rollout for a non-awful guide, via its new X1 box. This is also why many tech-oriented folks fantasize about what Apple could do if and when it gets into the TV business.

But the market also tells us that in the real world, real people don’t have a problem “discovering” video. They watch an enormous amount of it, both on TV and on the Web, with the crummy systems they have now. And while lots of video discovery startups have insisted they could provide value by solving this problem, almost all of them have failed or are failing. See: Fan TV.

So if Sony is going to sell old TV, at an old price, with a new interface, that interface is going to have be very, very dazzling to find lots of customers. I’m doubtful.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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