Outlook: If anyone can turn the free content tide, Murdoch can


Click to follow

What Rupert Murdoch did to his UK newspapers, he is doing now to US television. No, this is not a point about collapsing ethics. It is about paywalls. Fox, News Corp-owned home to The X Factor and The Simpsons, is pulling back from an experiment that made just-aired shows available for free on the internet via the website Hulu.com.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, ITV says it will introduce a micropayments system to enable it to charge for shows on its online player from January. The launch is already behind the original schedule, and Adam Crozier, chief executive, says there will be an initial period of experimentation as the company wrestles with the question of what viewers are willing to pay for. As SeeSaw, which tried to sell episodes of South Park and Spooks to the UK public, discovered, the answer to that question seems to be, not a whole lot.

Can either of these experiments spare television from the fate of the music industry, and turn the internet from a threat to a source of new, sustainable revenues? The omens do not look good.

Mr Murdoch is a Canute, trying to hold back the tide of free content on the internet and such is the might of News Corp, if anyone can, it will.

But Fox's latest pull-back from Hulu is a defensive move, designed not to generate new revenues but to protect hard-won existing ones. Cable TV operators, who include Fox in their bundles of television channels, pay News Corp for the privilege, and they are angry the same content turns up elsewhere for free almost instantaneously. To assuage them, only authenticated cable subscribers will be able to watch Fox shows on Hulu until eight days have elapsed and they become free to all.

All of which is to say that Mr Murdoch has learned making money from his TV content is best done by dealing with the intermediaries. These content bundlers, big companies all, are the ones who really can be squeezed. Charging viewers directly would be a costly pain, even if it worked. Much more likely, most users would tune out, and dedicated fans would be driven to piracy.

As ITV works to sweat its assets and generate more money from its programmes, micropayments look the least likely route to success.

Ofgem's £2.5m fine on British Gas, over failures in its complaints procedure, is "totally disproportionate", the company says. I agree. It should have been higher.

The fine, barely a day's profits, comes after the energy regulator found British Gas failed to reopen customers' complaints when they felt they had not been resolved, and didn't tell them they could appeal to the Energy Ombudsman as well.

The fine, though, is meant as a warning to other firms. Treating consumers with disdain is still too often par for the course at British Gas, but the fact that many of the offences relate to small business customers makes it all the more important to make an example. When even bigger-spending business customers cannot get fair treatment, what hope is there for the rest of us?