On Friday, news broke that CNET was forced to pull its consideration of DISH’s awesome new Hopper set-top box from consideration for its “Best of CES” award because of a legal fight between DISH and CNET’s parent company, CBS. At least, that was the pretext. More likely CBS nixed the Hopper from receiving its rightful acclaim because — as another network, FOX, jointly suing DISH with CBS said — the networks fear that DISH’s Autohop “will ultimately destroy the advertising-supported ecosystem that provides consumers with the choice to enjoy free, over-the-air, varied, high-quality primetime broadcast programming.”
CNN later reported (and CNET confirmed with a disclaimer) that CBS had hastily laid down a policy that prevented CNET from reviewing the DISH Hopper because it was involved in litigation with the company surrounding the product. Unfortunately for CBS this ex-post legal rationalization did not completely ring true because CNET had already reviewed the DISH Hopper at CES and given it glowing praise.
As a quick summation of the legal controversy, the major networks filed suit against DISH’s Autohop technology earlier in the year for letting customers automatically cut commercials out of their primetime network television recordings. Networks argued that this was a violation of copyright law and an affront to their hallowed business model. DISH countered that TV viewers have been skipping commercials since the dawn of the commercial, and the Hopper just gives viewers more control.
Here at DisCo, our copyright law guru Matt Schruers discussed the Autohop technology in the context of prior technology aimed at giving users the ability to “tune out” commercials and noted, “your business model won’t last if it demands that the rest of the world order their affairs around you.” The arguments of the networks are also un-refreshingly similar to the arguments used by the major movie studios in their attempts to make the VCR’s predecessor — the Betamax — illegal.
By today the situation was spiraling further out of control. First, Greg Sandoval, longtime tech reporter and one of CNET’s most prominent bylines, resigned citing the dishonest way in which the situation was handled.
Then Lindsey Turrentine, an editor at CNET, revealed not only that (1) DISH had won the original vote for the “Best of CES” award, but also that (2) CBS prevented CNET from revealing that fact in its disclosure, forcing the tech news outlet to stick to the official, misleading script which was, “The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp.” And not only had the order come down from CBS to meddle with the CNET’s editorial integrity, but it had come from CBS CEO Les Moonves himself.
In a final twist, the implications of which will be covered more extensively by Matt Schruers in a later DisCo post [EDIT: Matt's post is now up], CBS had actually used its “editorial hands off” policy to defend itself from being implicated in a (questionable) lawsuit brought against CNET for facilitating copyright infringement. Given that CBS now has admittedly exerted direct editorial control in this instance, it is quite possible that future lawsuits will target CBS for the content put out by its affiliates, as lawyers will argue that in not editing future content CBS is exercising editorial control as it has now bulldozed the Chinese wall it used to defend itself in the past.
All in all, this was a myopically short-sighted attempt by CBS to censor editorial comments about a product that its own affiliate said was awesome. (CBS must agree, seeing as they let CNET post the original review, right?)
In fact, one prescient company perhaps summed up the need for editorial independence best when it argued that forcing parent companies to take editorial control of its news outlets “would create grave uncertainties for writers and publishers — including search engines, web encyclopedias, blogs and most technology journalists — that seek to communicate truthful information about emerging technologies.” Who was that company you might ask? It was actually CBS defending itself against the above-mentioned charges accusing it of facilitating copyright infringement through articles published on its tech news affiliate, CNET.
And to would-be censors out there, take note that in attempting to censor something you actually increase its PR exposure, as this controversy has generated far more news than CNET’s “Best of CES” list ever would have. Another clear instance of the Streisand effect.