Continuing the “Cutting the (Video) Cord” series started by my PFF colleague Adam Thierer: The WSJ had two great pieces yesterday about the increasing competitive relevance of television distributed by Internet—a trend that was at the heart of an amicus brief PFF recently filed in support of C omcast’s challenge of the FCC’s 30% cap on cable ownership. The first WSJ piece declares that:
After more than a decade of disappointment, the goal of marrying television and the Internet seems finally to be picking up steam. A key factor in the push are new TV sets that have networking connections built directly into them, requiring no additional set-top boxes for getting online. Meanwhile, many consumers are finding more attractive entertainment and information choices on the Internet — and have already set up data networks for their PCs and laptops that can also help move that content to their TV sets.
The easier it is for consumers to receive traditional television programming (in addition to other kinds of video content) distributed over the Internet on their television, the less “gatekeeper” or “bottleneck” power cable distributors have over programming. So the Netflix-capable and Yahoo-widget-capable televisions described by the WSJ piece go a long way to increasing the substitutability of what we call Internet Video Programming Distributors (IVPDs) for Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs), such as cable, satellite television and fiber services offered by telcos such as Verizon’s FiOS.
While such televisions are only expected to reach 14% of all TV sales by 2012, one must remember that a growing number of set-top boxes (e.g., the Roku Digitial Video Player, game consoles like the Microsoft XBox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, and TiVo DVRs) allow users to users to receive IVPD programming on their existing televisions.
As we argued in our amicus brief, the immense competitive importance of IVPDs lies not in the potential for some users to “cut the cord” to cable and other MVPDs (though that will surely happen), but in the immediate impact IVPDs have as an alternative distribution channel for programmers. In the pending D.C. Circuit case, we argue that both the FCC’s 30% cap, issued in December 2007, and the underlying portions of the 1992 Cable Act authorizing such a cap should be struck down as unconstitutional because the ready availability of IVPDs as an alternative distribution channel means that cable no longer has the “special characteristic” of gatekeeper/bottleneck power that would justify imposing such a unique burden on the audience size of cable operators. (Of course, Direct Broadcast Satellite and Telco Fiber are also eating away at cable’s share of the MVPD marketplace.)
The second WSJ piece, an op/ed, illustrates beautifully how cable operators are already losing “market power” (or at least negotiating leverage) in a very tangible way: they’re having to pay more for programming. Specifically, the Journal describes how Viacom plaid chicken with Time Warner—and won. Continue reading →