Thoughts on the Future of Online Video Regulation

by on January 26, 2011 · 3 comments

Last week, it was my great honor to speak at the 2011 State of the Net 2011 event, where I participated in a panel discussion about the future of the online video marketplace.  In an earlier essay, I mentioned how some of the discussion that day revolved around the Comcast-NBCU merger, which had just been approved by the FCC, but with unprecedented strings being attached.  The heart of the panel discussion, however, was a debate about the future of online video and regulation of the video marketplace more generally. Also joining me on the panel were Susan Crawford of Cardozo Law School, William Lehr of MIT, Marvin Ammori of Nebraska Law School, and Richard Bennett of ITIF.

During my response time on the panel, which begins around 28:45 of the video, I made a couple of key points:

  • We’re living in the golden age of video. In considering the state of the video marketplace, we need to put things in some historical context. We should appreciate just how far we’ve come from the “age of scarcity,” in which we only had access to a handful of VHF and UHF broadcast channels in most communities, compared to present day. Indeed, we are today blessed today to live in a world of information abundance. By the FCC’s last count, 565 cable or satellite channels exist today and those channels and programs are available over more platforms (cable, satellite, telco, online, mail, etc) than ever before.
  • Deregulation (or light-touch) rules helped. Video distribution and program diversity thrived as the FCC gradually loosened the regulatory chains or forebore from regulating emerging video platforms or programs.  By contrast, in the highly-regulated past, innovation, competition, and diversity were stagnant.
  • “Gatekeeper” control fears are bunk. Content continues to flow over multiple platforms in an unprecedented manner. That only makes sense since content creators and distributors have every incentive to get as much content pushed out on as many platforms as possible in order to make money! No one ever got rich in this space by locking up all their content. Moreover,  vertical integration of programming by MVPDs is at its lowest point in the past 20 years. The percentage of channels owned by video distributors has fallen from 50% in 1990 to around 15% today.
  • Youngsters today don’t “watch TV” anymore. They watch YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Google TV, Amazon, XBox Live, PlayStation, Roku, etc.  The video market is highly dynamic and subject to seemingly constant disruptive technological change.
  • Level the playing field in favor of more freedom. To the extent there is a regulatory asymmetry at work between the old media marketplace and the online or Internet video world, and to the extent policymakers are looking to “level the regulatory playing field” between them, I argued we should level the playing field in favor of freedom.
  • Clean up the old mess now. Therefore, the old rules need to go. Those rules would include must carry mandates and other carriage requirements / compulsory licensing rules, retransmission consent rules, “localism” and other program content mandates, set-tob box regs, advertising limitations, etc.
  • Or, at least don’t extend old mess to new world. If lawmakers refuse to get rid of the old rules, however, we should erect a high and tight firewall between the old and new worlds and not muck up the new online video ecosystem with rules and regulations that would stifle the wonderful developments and diversity we are witnessing today.

See the entire State of the Net 2011 panel on YouTube here.

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