The nightmare scenario for cable companies is that customers drop their TV subscriptions and grab their video directly from the Web, turning the cable guys into mere providers of "dumb pipes."
But here's a comprehensive set of instructions from a big cable company showing its customers how to do just that. It suggests that they head to the likes of Hulu, Fancast, or "any search engine"--weird for it not to call out Google, no?--to find their favorite shows.
Time Warner Cable's instructions on "How to Connect Your PC to Your TV" can be accessed by clicking on the image at the bottom of this post. And here's a helpful video (sorry for the clumsy screen grab; the video kicks in at about the five-second mark, and there's some unpleasant coughing around 2:30. Yikes!):
The instructions (Time Warner Cable promised to provide them last week) are part of the company's game of chicken with News Corp.'s Fox, which is supposed to come to a head Thursday night. If you believe the posturing so far, Fox and its associated cable channels (Fox News, FX, etc.) will disappear after midnight because the two sides can't agree on a new rate.
Alternate view: this thing will go down to the wire and then get resolved, like Time Warner Cable's back-and-forth with Viacom a year ago.
If you want blow-by-blow coverage, let me suggest the Los Angeles Times' tireless Joe Flint, who is updating each salvo in real time, or very close to it. Or you can just turn on your TV set after midnight Thursday and take a look for yourself.
Still, no matter how this resolves, the danger for both sides is that consumers really do take up Time Warner Cable on its offer and start watching Fox stuff on the Web. And to be clear: Fox would prefer that people keep paying for cable TV, because the media company really likes subscription fees from cable TV providers.
People are already moving to the Web to watch TV, of course, but it's not mainstream behavior yet. It may be inevitable anyway, but no matter what you hear from both sides of this contract dispute, both sides like this model very much and they'd like to keep it intact as long as possible.
Which is why discussions with would-be "over the top" providers like Apple are supposed to be about adding additional TV programming, not replacing cable.
The safety catch here for the TV business is that consumers who do go to the Web to watch TV, at least through sanctioned means, may be disappointed: They'll find that programming there doesn't show up for at least a day, and often longer, after it airs. And some stuff, notably live sports like the NFL playoffs (contrary to the image in the screenshot above) and Fox's "American Idol" don't make it on the Web at all.