Cable television is an interesting beast. Each content provider negotiates pricing with each cable provider on a regular basis. When a contract ends both groups sit down and discuss what new pricing should look like. From time to time these negotiations take longer than the expiration of the contract and you lose stations temporarily. Almost everybody has experienced stations like CBS or Fox disappearing from the cable provider for a few days.
In April a cable provider called Cable One was in negotiations with Viacom and had this situation arise. At the end of the contract no new deal had been reached and Viacom pulled its stations from Cable One. While this is not an unusual situation what happened next was: in addition the pulling their content from the cable package, subscribers to Cable One's Internet service were also prevented from watching Viacom's online streams.
This is a fairly unprecedented move, but one that is totally legal under the current "Wild West" net neutrality regulations. In the past all Internet subscribers were required to be granted access to all Internet content. After the net neutrality regulations expired, that requirement was no longer in place. As we know the FCC has been working to reinstate some, if not all, net neutrality regulations but currently its a lawless void.
Obviously a situation like this is exactly what net neutrality proponents have been afraid of: a company fully blocking its content due to licensing contracts. If Viacom is legally capable of preventing Cable One's subscribers from accessing their online content, what's to prevent them from forcing Cable One to pay more for their subscribers to have access to it in the future? Currently nothing.
With net neutrality conversations going on nationwide right now, hopefully this will elevate the level of conversation. As Avram Piltch mentioned last week, an Internet without net neutrality is an Internet devoid of real content and value. Avram isn't the only one concerned about Viacom's actions: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that this is something "we should all worry about." This is a welcome statement from an organization who cannot seem to decide exactly where it stands on net neutrality.
As for Viacom and Cable One, they will reach an agreement and Viacom's content will come back to Cable One, but not before heating up the national debate.