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TV Network Execs Contemplate Going To Court To Say Skipping Commercials Is Illegal


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Late last week Charlie Ergen and the folks at Dish Networks presented the TV networks with a bit of a conundrum. You see, the company decided to actually give consumers what they want: setting up a special DVR system, called Auto Hop, that would let viewers not just automatically DVR the entire primetime lineup of all the major networks with the single push of a button -- but also to automatically skip commercials when watching the playback, as long as it wasn't the same day the shows aired. This is something that consumers clearly want.

But, of course, who is a consumer in this market gets complicated pretty fast. The TV networks, of course, make a fair bit of money from advertising on these shows, and they're not happy about any idea that means people might skip commercials. Those of you who have been around for a bit may recall a few relevant stories. First, there was Jamie Kellner, the former chair of Turner Broadcast Systems, who once claimed that walking away from your TV while commercials aired was a form of theft. Then, of course, there was the famous ReplayTV case. If you don't recall, ReplayTV was an early competitor to TiVo, and in many regards a better product. Among its features, it took an already considered legal feature from VCRs called "commercial skip" and added it to DVRs. The industry sued, in large part because of this feature, which they considered to be breaking the law.

Of course, the expense of the lawsuit resulted in Replay's parent company SonicBlue declaring bankruptcy. It then sold off the remains to D&M;, who tried relaunching a version of the product without all the cool features people liked, and it went nowhere. Eventually, DirecTV bought the remnants. However, the basic lawsuit died out with the bankruptcy. A bunch of ReplayTV users, led by Craig Newmark from Craigslist, actually tried to continue the case on their own, to have those features declared legal, but after the networks promised not to sue those users for using the features, the judge tossed the case.

Left unresolved, of course, is whether or not features like commercial skip are actually legal.
As some are pointing out, the TV networks may have missed a golden opportunity by not continuing the fight against Craig and the other users, since they wouldn't be able to afford the bigtime lawyers that Ergen and Dish can easily toss out here. So the TV networks basically have to make the decision if this is really a battle worth fighting.

It does seem clear that the anti-consumer folks who run the TV networks would certainly like to slap Dish around for this move:

"I think this is an attack on our eco-system," said NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert on a conference call Monday. "I'm not for it."

Isn't it just like NBC to think that a tool that the public actually finds useful is an "attack" on their ecosystem? At some point, in the way, way distant future, perhaps we'll live in an age where companies like NBC Universal recognize that, when things are more efficient and easier for consumers, it is a good thing, rather than something to freak out about and declare evil?

Edited by Elsie
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