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Art Brodsky

Art Brodsky

Posted March 18, 2009 | 06:00 PM (EST)

Seattle P-I's Demise Shows Why Zillion TV Is Worth Zip


The news from the media front was pretty dismal. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will end 146 years of printing newspapers, becoming the largest newspaper to go web only. The Hearst company couldn't find a buyer for the P-I, leaving Seattle with the Times as the only physical newspaper.

Another venerable publisher, the E.W. Scripps Co., recently shuttered the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, just days short of its 150th birthday. Gannett is closing the Tucson Citizen, almost 140 years old, on March 21. Some of Rocky's alumni are trying to start an online paper, if they can get 50,000 paying customers at $4.99 per month by April 23. Of course, it would have a much smaller news staff than the Rocky.

If there were any doubt that the Web will become not only a secondary source of news and information for millions of people, but, increasingly, a primary one, those developments should dispel the remaining questions. That's why a concept like Zillion TV is so dangerous.

Zillion was announced earlier this month to modest fanfare as a partnership among studios, tech entrepreneurs and VISA (as the exclusive credit card) to provide a new kind of online entertainment outlet. So far, so good. But, the kicker in the formula is that Zillion wants to enter into a partnership with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to offer the service exclusively on that ISP's network.

We've waited a bit before commenting on Zillion to try to get some answers from them about the technology they are using, and to see which ISP steps forward as the first partner. We haven't been successful on the first, and no one has stepped up to the second. We're disappointed about the first, but not disappointed about the second. Any ISP that volunteers will have some explaining to do.

In its presentation to reporters during its launch, Zillion officials said that ISPs would find affiliation "boosts customer loyalty and reduces customer churn." That's not a good enough reason to start destroying an open Internet.

The vehicle for Zillion's on-demand, customer-driven service is a $50 set-top box, which would sit along side the other set-top boxes like the one Netflix uses, and would be another customer choice for video-on-demand, like those that cable systems offer for movies and the Web sites like Hulu offer to allow viewers to watch TV shows they missed and didn't record.

What makes this different, and dangerous, is the precedent of the ISP partner. Cable, for better or worse, is a closed network, with a centralized gatekeeper. A site like Hulu is owned by NBC and Fox. While they control the content, anyone has access to it over the Web. That is how it should be.

Zillion's model reportedly would be different. It would sign up ISPs that could confer the advantages of network control on Zillion, offering the service only on that ISP. That model is unacceptable in an open Internet environment. It would reduce consumer choice and would set a truly unfortunate precedent by encouraging just the type of exclusionary partnerships that the Internet was designed to avoid. Should Qwest be allowed to offer the Denver Post exclusively? Or Comcast offer the Washington Post? Of course not.

Having an ISP partner would only further consolidate the choke-hold ISPs are wrapping around the Web. With more video going online, not only from TV shows and movies, but also integrated into social networking, some Internet providers are instituting bandwidth caps to crunch down customer usage.

At a time when most Internet consumers have at most two realistic options (not counting wireless or satellite), the type of favoritism a Zillion model portends shouldn't be allowed, whether it's offered on one ISP or several. That's why Zillion's model is worth Zip.