There’s a battle raging over your TV — and it’s just getting started. All the average consumer usually knows about their television subscription is that once they pay the bill and figure out the remote, they’re all set to kick back and enjoy their favorite shows, sports, and movies. But a recent proposal to open up competition in the cable industry is turning this relaxing activity into a warzone.
Government Proposes New Technology for TV Delivery
In January, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee rolled out a proposal to break open the set-top box market. The goal behind the proposal, according to the FCC, is to release the stranglehold that cable and satellite providers currently have on the production and rental of set-top boxes.
If you’ve ever had cable or satellite television, you know what a set-top box is. It’s the receiver that your pay TV company provides to deliver television programming and allow you to record and store shows that you want to watch at a later date. If you want to watch TV in more than one room, you probably have a set-top box in each room with a television.
According to the FCC, it costs an average of nearly $7.50 a month for customers to rent a single set-top box. For those with more than one box, that number is multiplied as necessary. That’s a 185 percent increase since 1994. The proposal claims that its primary goal is to remove that monthly rental requirement and offer consumers the option of buying their own box instead.
In addition, the FCC’s proposed rules would “unlock” cable boxes, requiring pay TV providers to make their programming information available to competitors who want to deliver a combination of online and traditional video content.
By all accounts, the proposal feels similar to the current market for wireless routers and modems for Internet service. Even though consumers can rent those devices from their Internet Service Provider (ISP), they also have the option of purchasing their own and forgoing monthly fees. The more open router market hasn’t had any negative effect on ISPs or consumer Internet use.
TV Providers Push Back
However, framing the proposal as a way to provide consumers options and save them money wasn’t enough to keep cable and satellite television supporters from calling foul.
In response to the proposal, a group of major players in the broadcast world, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, American Cable Association, Motion Picture Association of America, and top cable and satellite TV providers, banded together to form the Future of TV Coalition. The group’s purpose, according to a recent press release, is to promote market-based innovation and “oppose unnecessary technology mandates that would threaten innovation and diversity.
The Coalition strongly opposes the FCC’s bid, stating, “[This proposal] would force programmers and TV providers to dismantle their shows and services for these companies to repackage, reuse, and exploit without negotiating for the rights like everybody else in the market does today.”
Alfred Liggins, CEO of TV One and Co-Chair of the Coalition, suggested that the powers behind the movement had ulterior motives. “The proposal is a brazen money grab by Big Tech companies that would do severe damage to the programming ecosystem, and in particular, niche and minority-focused networks,” he stated. “Everyone who cares about quality, diverse television should let the FCC know that [this] is a harmful non-starter.”
The Google Factor
Long before the scheduled vote, rumors started swirling that Google had already developed technology that would be used if the proposal passes. The entrance of such a heavy-hitter makes this a tougher battle to win than the cable and satellite companies first anticipated.
Noting Google’s involvement, industry giants have started referring to the motion as “Google’s set-top box proposal.” These suggestions of FCC manipulation emphasize fears about this ruling and its impact on advertising, minority programmers, and the viewing public. They also echo industry-wide criticism decrying the move as a step back in regard to innovation.
Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman, denied the characterization of the proposal as a government mandate, claiming that it will not damage relationships between content creators, content providers, and consumers. The FCC has also emphasized that customers would not be required to purchase the new technology, but would simply have another option if they were not pleased with the video device provided by their television provider.
Arguments Over Real Consumer Interests
Wheeler has buoyed his proposal with references to emails he’s received from cable customers that feel stuck with the options offered by their television provider. “The bottom line here is the American people get it,” Wheeler said. “When it comes to set-top boxes, they have no meaningful options. They are literally paying the price for this lack of alternatives.”
But in a world of constant change and technological innovation, cable companies maintain that the move is out of step with the current market. One cable company has been unapologetic in its opposition to the proposal, stating that, if adopted, “Consumer costs would rise, content security would weaken, and consumer protections such as privacy would erode.” Rather than investing time and money into different set-top boxes, the industry sees apps as the future of TV viewing.
What Happens Next
The proposal was passed during a vote at the FCC on February 18. Next, there will be a 60-day open comment period for public review and feedback before being finalized at a later vote. And even if the proposal does go into effect a few months from now, consumers likely won’t see any immediate changes — things will only move as fast as third-party developments allow. In the meantime, both sides are still swinging.
Despite the powerful coalition backing the cable industry and Google’s implied influence on the initial acceptance of the proposal, it’s still anyone’s game. Only time will tell whether the seemingly covert actions between the FCC and Google will serve viewers or support the Future of TV Coalition’s assertion that this proposal is nothing more than a “brazen money grab.” When the dust settles, one can only hope that the biggest loser will not be the television consumer.