Google’s Cable TV Replacement Just Got a Lot Closer to Reality

October 20, 2016, 10:14 PM UTC
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It’s no secret that Google has been working on a cable-TV style streaming service for some time now, but concrete deals with mainstream TV networks to supply programming have been few and far between. That appears to have changed, however, with word that the web giant has signed a deal with CBS.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the two companies have signed a partnership that will see CBS content appear on the new Google service. It will reportedly be known as Unplugged when it launches sometime next year, if all goes as planned.

Not only that, but the Journal also says Google (GOOG) is close to landing similar deals with other major content companies including Disney and 21st Century Fox.

What that suggests is that the logjam preventing the company from launching its cable-TV replacement has finally broken, and that traditional media companies are prepared to hand over some of their programs in return for whatever licensing fees Google has promised to come up with.

If Google does sign deals with Disney (DIS)—which means ESPN—and also with 21st Century Fox, it could be a real threat to the traditional cable universe.

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Depending on how you define it, Google has been working on some kind of TV-style service for more than four years now. It has repeatedly had talks with mainstream media companies and content providers, but has never been able to find a deal that works for both sides.

Apple (AAPL) has been in much the same boat: It has reportedly been working on a streaming TV-style service off and on since 2009, when it was said to be in discussions with CBS, Disney, and other networks.

Just last year, multiple reports said the company was close to debuting some kind of TV content streaming bundle, but it couldn’t close the deal with a number of media companies — and CBS was said to be one of the major holdouts. CBS president Les Moonves said earlier this year that talks were off.

CBS was also one of the holdouts during a previous discussion. In 2011, Moonves said on a conference call that the network turned down an Apple deal because he didn’t like the ad revenue split and was concerned that it was going to affect the company’s revenue agreements with other carriers.

It’s fair to assume that networks like CBS had the same kind of problem with Google’s proposal. Both it and Apple are trying to offer cable-style services that cost between $25 and $35 a month, which means they can’t pay too much for the shows they want to carry.

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In most cases, the two tech giants want to license hit shows and channels, but they don’t want to take all the other also-ran programs that cable companies and satellite providers typically jam into their packages whether viewers want them or not.

But if CBS or Disney were to let Google and Apple get away with cutting that kind of deal, it would threaten the whole bundling model that TV has built up over the past 50 years or so.

It’s not just the licensing fees—it’s also about losing control over the programs they depend on for their livelihood. According to the Journal, one sticking point in the negotiations with Google was that the company wanted to superimpose other content on top of the stream (tweets, info nuggets, etc.) but some of the networks were leery of allowing that.

In many ways, the major networks have been caught between a rock and a hard place. They know that because of cord cutting and other trends, they need to adapt and work with other providers, including streaming services (which is why they have done deals with Hulu and SlingTV, etc.).

But they are also afraid that by doing so, they could jeopardize the entire structure of the cable business, and the whole house of cards might come tumbling down. Clearly Google has been able to convince at least CBS that it’s better to play ball with the web giant than slowly become irrelevant.

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