Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:17 am.

What the cable industry could learn from Twitter

Apple TVSomething awesome happened last weekend: I downloaded an iPhone app — BTN2Go from the Big Ten Network — logged in with my Time Warner Cable credentials, and a few seconds later, was streaming a live football game on my phone.

It’s not the first cable TV app I’ve downloaded and activated, but the way it “just worked” was impressive. In hindsight, it actually reminds me of downloading and trying out different Twitter apps a couple of years ago — the idea that you can log in to any of them and quickly access a familiar world of content on your phone.

It’s a good example of how your cable subscription is becoming an Internet platform, and not just a service. And while there’s plenty of talk of cord-cutting these days, this actually seems like a strengthening opportunity for cable — sort of the way Twitter has grown and thrived as a platform, getting built into everything t0 the point of ubiquity.

So, if there are two things that the cable industry can learn from Twitter, they are:

1) Embrace your position as a platform that people actually want to build on top of.

This is already starting to happen, as demonstrated by the BTN2Go app, WatchESPN, HBO GO, etc. But it needs to be everywhere. So, hey, cable companies: Stop worrying about losing control over the “experience” — you’re not doing a very good job with that anyway — and open the cable subscription up as a platform. You might even learn something.

For example:

  • Let legit hardware companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Samsung, and Roku build your content into their boxes and control the program guide interface. Imagine a world where you don’t have to invest capex in those Motorola set-top boxes! (Some experimentation is happening around this now, but it’s hardly widespread.)
  • Let apps like Dijit, IntoNow, GetGlue, Clicker, Hulu, and others act as my content guide and search engine, change the channel on my set-top box, program my DVR, etc.
  • Help every cable and/or broadcast network let me sign in with my cable credentials, verify my subscription, and let me get premium or bonus content directly from them. Without weird conflicts, like whatever is preventing Time Warner Cable and HBO (owned by Time Warner, its former parent company) from working together.
  • Let me share my cable TV viewing activity with Twitter and Facebook as easily as Spotify shares my music listening activity. And then play stuff for me that my friends are watching.
  • Let entrepreneurs imagine a zillion different, new ideas that you and I couldn’t, and give them the access to build them. Feel free to insist on a share of revenue or maybe even equity. But don’t just say no because you can.

Remember: The idea is to make it easy so that cable content and access is everywhere*. If you do it right, you’ll build loyalty and lock-in, reduce the risks of cord-cutting, and might even preserve your legacy business model despite the rise of Internet-based video competition.

*But, the other lesson…

2) Keep quality and strategic control over the platform.

Don’t let things spin out of control. Keep quality high. Promote the winners and get rid of the crap. Put yourself in a position to get some of the upside.

And make sure that you’re building alongside your ecosystem, or acquiring the assets that it makes sense to own. For example, the way Twitter went out and bought a bunch of Twitter apps when it realized that it 1) should own the most popular clients that people used to access its service, and 2) perhaps saw the risk of a potential “alternate Twitter” if many of those third-party apps broke off onto their own service. Or the way it launched a copycat photo sharing service late in the game, but still did a solid job with it.

Be careful of potential long-term competitors like Apple and Google, but don’t just block them out today because you’re scared of what they might do in a decade.

Be clear with your desires and motives with developers so they never feel unreasonably betrayed. If things change, communicate them clearly and honestly. This is one of the things Twitter had been particularly bad at. It’s hard, but needs to be done well.

And do the best job possible to explain and promote all these possible services to your customers so they think/know they are getting more value out of their cable subscription. That’s the whole point!

Again, some of this stuff is already happening — this isn’t meant to be news to anyone — but much more needs to happen to make cable TV the great Internet platform that it should be. Otherwise, the Internet may eventually be coming to get you…

Related: Here’s the trouble with “Apps as TV channels”