Dish Network Corp.’s breakthrough online video service addresses a marketplace sweet spot with such earnestness and resolve that it’s a shame to see it tarred with that sour and pejorative acronym of the new video era: OTT.
Short for “over the top,” this three-letter malcontent of a descriptor has always been a sketchy way to label genuinely innovative and interesting video business models that make use of the Internet. Dish’s millennials-targeted Sling TV is the latest, and the boldest, of the bunch.
Deconstruct the thing for a moment. “Over the top” innately suggests somebody’s getting wronged by somebody else, or at least worked over in an unmannerly way – sort of like a football team that uses a trick play to score a cheap touchdown.
The idea being expressed is that there is a nasty circumvention happening: Somebody is using somebody else’s infrastructure to get away with an end-around. In the video realm, it means more specifically that the interloper is riding “on top” of someone’s network.
How dare they.
Wait a second
Except, that’s exactly how the Internet works. Everything gets transmitted “over” a network. This web page you’re reading makes use of the vast network-connected-to-network infrastructure that is the Internet. Does that make this page an “over the top” publishing play? How about the last email message you sent: It traveled through pipes and plumbing fixtures you neither installed or maintain. You thieving freeloader, you.
Why single out video providers for the semantic punishment? It’s because accidents of history and evolution created an environment, at least in the U.S., where the same companies that dominate the last-mile Internet access market have their roots in video delivery. “Cable” companies (gad, the term can’t go away fast enough) instinctively felt threatened early on by upstarts that dared to send over their networks data packets that would reconstitute themselves on the other end as video.
A forensic exploration, I suspect, would turn up some sort of link between the origin of “over the top” as a business model descriptor and the cable industry. Not out of malice or ill intent but simply as a reflection of perspective. A tendency to be possessive about the subscription video category meant any outsider who dared to sling video streams over an owned-and-operated last mile network would be seen as a sort of digital media barnacle, hitching a ride on a vessel proudly constructed by its owner.
My cable industry friends defend this position by pointing out the industry has spent billions of dollars of capital to create and sustain a last-mile network infrastructure capable of handling OPV: Other People’s Video. Thus, anybody who bothers to use it for video delivery is riding “over the top.” But the argument seems weak against history’s backdrop. If sending video over Time Warner Cable’s IP network constitutes “over the top” infringement, then so must the government-mandated injection of fluoride into water utility pipelines, right? Or the use of the electrical grid for purposes that don’t directly enrich last-mile power companies. (It’s instructive to know early-era electricity providers once formed partnerships with electrical appliance companies, the better for profiting from rising demand for juice. Switch on that store-bought desktop lamp at your own moral peril.)
The scent of competitive intrusion is what gave rise to the three-letter monster of “OTT” that’s now, unfortunately, an accepted descriptor for any video service that happens to flow over the Internet. As more video businesses move to this very model – among them businesses operated by ISPs themselves – there’s reason to hope the term begins to fade.
Better adjectives are out there, people: “Internet TV,” “online video” and “IP television” are among them. Let’s rise up and revolt. And banish “OTT” to the dustbins of media history.