The TV-watching platform from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is not off to a good start. Despite the best efforts of hardware partners Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI ) and Sony, you don't hear any news of lines around the block when Google TV devices came on the market, the way you'd expect die-hard fans to line up for the latest Halo game or whatever Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is introducing this week. It's safe to say that early sales have failed to impress. I wouldn't be surprised if the sort-of-competing Apple TV box is selling better so far. And there's a good reason for that.
While Apple took the time to get network content deals in place before relaunching Apple TV, Google told its partners to start shipping hardware with only a handful of B-list channels on board. That wouldn't be so bad in theory, because all of the major cable and network channels have plenty of video content on their own web sites, and Google TV's browser can handle them all thanks to a full complement of support for HTML 5 and Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE ) Flash video formats. Fire up the browser, go to ABC.com or NBC.com, sit back, and enjoy your favorite shows on the big screen for which they were designed.
But it's not working out that way at all. According to independent reports by Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) has officially blocked Google TV from ABC's video library, and General Electrics (NYSE: GE ) subsidiary NBC Universal has done the same for NBC's shows. This follows on earlier reports of blocking by multi-channel library Hulu; News Corp (Nasdaq: NWSA ) hasn't decided yet whether to allow Google TV to access Fox.com; and CBS is allowing access to short clips, but not full-length show episodes. It's a big mess for Google, and all of this adds up to plenty of reason for consumers not to form flash mobs at their favorite electronics stores.
Rumors of my demise ...
That said, Google TV is not dead in the water quite yet. For one, all of the networks are still talking to Google and may unblock the platform later on. For that to happen, Google needs to prove that giving consumers easy access to on-demand content won't cannibalize eyeball counts in front of the regularly scheduled channels -- and if a serious drop cannot be avoided, Google must prove that it can help the studios monetize its content well enough to make up for the lost traditional audience.
Allowing early adopters like HBO, TNT, and the NBA to scout out this new territory before opening the floodgates (or locking them even tighter) gives the media giants a safe tool for evaluating the business value involved. Never mind that the lack of compelling content deals will make Google TV's customers a rather small sample population until further notice -- the only one getting hurt by a failure would be Google. Madison Avenue is A-OK with that equation and won't get rushed into any hasty decisions.
More than one threat
But maybe the TV people are worried about the wrong issue. Outspoken media mogul Mark Cuban says that TV programming has never been about great entertainment but more of a "path of least resistance" option when you're bored. "TV is the best cure for boredom," Cuban says. "Social games are the non TV cure for boredom. So what do Apple TV iOS and Google TV Android platform offer? That's right. Social Games on your TV. Therein lies their Holy Grail to competing with TV."
Cuban's theory is that either Apple or Google or some new player we haven't heard of yet will eventually stumble on the magic combination of TV content and social gaming that suddenly makes another set-top box desirable. The next "Angry Birds" or "Farmville" that gives you a completely mindless alternative to watching TV on that big plasma or LCD screen is what will eventually make a big hit out of something like Google TV. Just building a better mousetrap for sifting through a combination of online and cable channels won't be good enough.
It's a compelling theory, but I still think Google TV needs those plain old networks as content partners in order to build the critical mass where a hit game on that platform actually could move markets and mountains. And because of the media sector's infamous inertia when faced with new business models, I don't expect any of these thorny issues to be resolved this year or next. Wake me up in 2012.