Cutting the Video Cord: Pro-Regulatory NYT Realizes “Cable Freedom Is a Click Away”

by on December 15, 2009 · 25 comments

Three months ago, when the DC Circuit struck down the FCC’s “Cable Cap”—which prevented any one cable company from serving more than 30% of US households out of fear that he larger cable companies would use their “gatekeeper” power to restrict programming—the New York Times bemoaned the decision:

The problem with the cap is not that it is too onerous, but that it is not demanding enough.

Even with the cap — and satellite television — there is a disturbing lack of price competition. The cable companies have resisted letting customers choose, a la carte, the channels they actually watch….

[The FCC] needs to ensure that customers have an array of choices among cable providers, and that there is real competition on price and program offerings.

Perhaps the Times‘ editors should have consulted with the Lead Technology Writer of their excellent BITS blog.  Nick Bilton might have told him the truth: “Cable Freedom Is a Click Away.”  That’s the title of his excellent survey of devices and services (Hulu, Boxee, iTunes, Joost, YouTube, etc.) that allow users to get cable television programming without a cable subscription.

Nick explains that consumers can “cut the video cord” and still find much, if not all, their favorite cable programming—as well as the vast offerings of online video—without a hefty monthly subscription.  (Adam recently described how is essentially TV guide for the increasing cornucopia of Internet video.)  This makes the 1992 Cable Act’s requirement that the FCC impose a cable cap nothing more than the vestige of a bygone era of platform scarcity, predating not just the Internet, but also competing subscription services offered by satellite and telcos over fiber.  That’s precisely what we argued in PFF’s amicus brief to the DC Circuit a year ago, and largely why the court ultimately struck down the cap.

Bilton notes that “this isn’t as easy as just plugging a computer into a monitor, sitting back and watching a movie. There’s definitely a slight learning curve.”  But, as he describes, cutting the cord isn’t rocket science.  If getting used to using a wireless mouse is the thing that most keeps consumers “enslaved” to the cable “gatekeepers” the FCC frets so much about, what’s the big deal?  Does government really need to set aside the property and free speech rights of cable operators to run their own networks just because some people may not be as quick to dump cable as Bilton?  Is the lag time between early adopters and mainstream really such a problem that we would risk maintaining outdated systems of architectural censorship (Chris Yoo’s brilliant term) that give government control over speech in countless subtle and indirect ways?

If we were talking about just another subscription video service like satellite and telco fiber, the demise of cable as a unique “bottleneck” for programming might not be so obvious to the layperson (although MVPD competition is quite stunning, and means that “subscription service freedom is just a phone call or click away”).  But in the case of Internet video, the programming is à la carte by show and often free  (i.e., ad-supported), so consumers have a huge incentive to switch or can simply “put their toe in the water” before finally taking the plunge altogether.  As Bilton notes, he’s saving a fortune ($1,600/year):

Although the initial investment was costly, totaling $550, it took only a few months to recoup the money. Back in the olden days of cable we were forced to shell out a relatively standard $140 a month, for television service alone. This cost gave us access to a digital video recorder and hundreds of unwatched TV channels.

Contrast this with today, where our only expense is $9 a month to stream Netflix videos from the Web and the $30 a month that we always spent on an Internet connection. O.K., maybe that’s not completely accurate. When the wireless keyboard died a few weeks ago I was forced to spend another $4 for two new AA batteries. We’ve not yet recovered from that financial loss…

Tunes can get expensive. If you watch premium-cable television shows, you can pay more than $40 for the season of a single show. But even that is less than one month of cable. Since there are so many other entertainment options online, we just skip “Dexter” and “Weeds.” Trust me, there is a lot of great free or ad-supported content out there.

The experience isn’t that different, but it is richer:

We still come home from work and watch any number of shows, just like the people who continue to pay for cable. We just do it a little differently, starting the computer and then using services like Hulu, Boxee, iTunes and Joost. Another interesting twist to this experience is that we’re no longer limited to consuming traditional programming. With these applications we can spend an entire evening flicking through videos from YouTube, CollegeHumor or Web-only programs.

Mark my words: stories like this one will become increasingly representative of the mainstream, just as huge numbers of consumers have “cut the landline cord” in favor of cell phones.  By the time the FCC gets around to coming up with a new cable cap—using some inventively”fresh approach,” as the Times suggests, no doubt—stories like this one will be passé, and today’s world of cable TV subscriptions will have gone the way of the landline, rabbit ears, the fax machine, the mimeograph and the stereoscope.  The FCC, the Times’ editorialists, and all the other media reformista groups that keep screaming for regulation to slay phantoms of a bygone era will look mighty foolish, indeed.

On a final note, savvy observers will notice the similarity between Bilton’s slogan (“Cable Freedom Is a Click Away”) and Google’s mantra about its various services (“Competition is just one click away“).  Both run contrary to the prevailing assumption behind so much communications/Internet policymaking that users are too lazy, ignorant, stupid and/or helpless to find, explore, try, or even understand new tools, products, services or models.  One could raise legitimate questions about how competition plays out on the other side of these two-sided markets (advertising in the case of search and programming in the case of cable television), but to deny that consumers are capable of “clicking away” is to assume that they are mindless sheep.

Sheep in pastureThe New York Times, to their credit and despite their editorial position on cable regulation, certainly seems to have a higher opinion of our intelligence—or they wouldn’t have bothered with Bilton’s excellent do-it-yourself guide.  In the case of television programming, the “sheep”  have begun overrunning  whatever “gates” once contained them and flooding into the verdant pastures of Internet video programming abundance.  More will soon follow in droves, and cable operators will do everything they can to keep their “grass” (programming choices) as “green” (abundant and diverse) as possible, just to compete.  The FCC’s continued meddling is simply unnecessary, counterproductive and dangerous as a precedent for outdated regulatory controls.

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