Cord cutters, the democratic process has abandoned you in favor of the ISPs and their antiquated technology.
Comcast-owned cable network CNBC will host tonight's GOP debate. However—unlike the two previous debates on CNN—viewers will need to prove their allegiance to an ISP in order to watch the live digital stream. How very 2013.
To reiterate: CNBC will offer a live video stream of tonight's event (so the technology and infrastructure is indeed in place). But viewers will need to "authenticate via TV Everywhere on CNBC.com, mobile apps, and Apple TV." That means that the small, but rapidly expanding demographic who choose to forgo quaint media paradigms—will be excluded from an event that will help determine the next president of the United States.
(Well, there is one additional digital-streaming option available—the livestream will be available to users who subscribe to CNBC PRO, the network's "premium digital experience" that sets users back $30 per month or $300 per year. I should note that the annual membership comes with a 30-day free trial—I'm not saying cord cutters who want to watch the debate should take advantage of this non-commitment feature, but they certainly could.)
Additionally, a live audio stream of the event will be available on SiriusXM channel 112 and via terrestrial radio on Westwood One.
Things Are Changing… At Some Networks
In August, Fox News placed the live stream of the first GOP debate behind a similar paywall, which was a huge misstep as the network (and its advertisers) missed out on the debate's historic Trump-fueled ratings. Initially, CNN was planning to do the same for the second Republican debate, but subsequently (and wisely) reversed course and opened the livestreams of its GOP and Democratic debates to everyone without the need for authentication.
I would love to believe that CNN's decision was purely an altruistic one intended to foster an informed citizenry regardless of contractual entanglement to whichever handful of ISPs happened to rule one's particular ZIP code. But that's probably not the case.
Following FNC's stratospheric ratings, CNN wisely used the open stream opportunity to expand its audience as a means to wring additional revenue from advertisers. (We should note that CNN's live stream, which the network claims topped a million viewers, was fraught with technical difficulties. This is an issue that will need to be addressed, but not one that should be used as an excuse to exclude: Large scale live events can and have been streamed successfully.)
CNBC's decision to place the debate behind a great wall of nonsense harkens back to a rapidly aging media model (hell, even the ISPs see the writing on the wall). Just about everyone is a loser here: This wall hurts the nominees, who will miss an opportunity to get an unfiltered message out to the public; it hurts voters, who will not get to see how the nominees handle themselves; and in the end, it hurts CNBC, which will not be able to sell this valuable video real estate to its advertisers.
It's ironic that tonight's debate will center on economic issues (indeed, the title is "Your Money, Your Vote"). While I understand that networks still make a good portion of their income from the cable providers, the video content paradigm is shifting away from hardwired TVs. The networks need to embrace the future by providing unfettered streams of important live events—particularly ones that are vital to the public discourse.
If the networks don't want to do this in in service of democracy, that's fine, then they should at least consider their advertisers' thirst of eyeballs.
The tearing down of paywalls to important political events is something on which both Ayn Rand and Ralph Nader could agree. This is a cause that should unite all parts of the political spectrum. God bless, America.
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