Cable set top boxes are a distraction. The FCC is regulating apps.

by on April 15, 2016 · 0 comments

For decades Congress has gradually deregulated communications and media. This poses a significant threat to the FCC’s jurisdiction because it is the primary regulator of communications and media. The current FCC, exhibiting alarming mission creep, has started importing its legacy regulations to the online world, like Title II common carrier regulations for Internet providers. The FCC’s recent proposal to “open up” TV set top boxes is consistent with the FCC’s reinvention as the US Internet regulator, and now the White House has supported that push.

There are a lot of issues with the set top box proposal but I’ll highlight a few. I really don’t even like referring to it as “the set top box proposal” because the proposal is really aimed at the future of TV–video viewing via apps and connected devices. STBs are a sideshow and mostly just provide the FCC a statutory hook to regulate TV apps. Even that “hook” is dubious–the FCC arbitrarily classifies apps and software as “navigation devices” but concludes that actual TV devices like Chromecast, Roku, smartphones, and tablets aren’t navigation devices. And, despite what activists say, this isn’t about “cable” either but all TV distributors (“MVPDs”) like satellite and telephone companies and Google Fiber, most of whom are small TV players.

First, the entire push for the proposal is based on the baseless notion that “charging monthly STB fees reveals that cable companies are abusing their market power.” I say baseless because cable companies have lost 14 million TV subscribers since 2002 to phone and satellite companies’ TV offerings (Verizon FiOS TV, Dish, Google Fiber, etc.), which suggests cable doesn’t have market power to charge anticompetitive prices. This is bolstered by the fact that the rates cable companies charge are consistent with what their smaller phone and satellite competitors charge for STBs. In fact, the STB monthly rates cable companies charge are pretty much identical to what municipal-owned and -operated TV stations charge. Even competing STB companies like TiVo charge monthly fees.

Second, as I’ve written, the FCC’s plans simply won’t work. The FCC tried “opening up” cable boxes for years with CableCard. That debacle resulted in ten years of regulations and FCC-directed standards and had only a marginal effect on the STB market. At conclusion, under 5% of the STB market went to “competitive” STB makers like TiVo. This latest plan has an even smaller chance of success because the FCC is not simply regulating cable boxes, but also boxes from satellite TV and IPTV distributors and their apps. The FCC is telling these hundreds of companies using dozens of technologies, codecs, and standards to develop interoperable standards so that other companies can retransmit the TV programming the MVPDs have bundled. It’s impractical and likely to fail, as Larry Downes noted in Recode, which is why the FCC provides few details about how this will work.

Third, what little progress the FCC does make in forcing MVPDs to make their TV programming accessible to competitors’ video apps and devices will tend to make broadband and TV less competitive. What the FCC is trying to do is force, say, Comcast’s TV programming to be available to certain application makers who want to retransmit that programming. So whatever streams to the Comcast Xfinity app will need to also work on competing apps if a competitor wants to re-bundle that programming.

The problem is that TV packages are how these companies compete and FCC rules will hinder that competitive process. TV distributors, including Netflix, purchase rights for sports and other programming to steal subscribers away from competitors. For instance, DirecTV attracts many customers solely because they have NFL Sunday Ticket and Amazon and Netflix original programming is a huge draw to their video services. TV programming and bundling that programming drives the competitive process. The Google Fiber folks likewise found out the importance of TV programming to compete. They planned originally to offer only broadband but came to find out there was little market for a broadband-only provider. Most people want TV packaged with broadband and Google was compelled by market forces to go out and purchase TV programming to attract customers. (On the other hand, some cable companies like Cable One are getting out of the TV game because programmers have significant leverage.)

Even non-MVPDs like mobile carriers and tech companies, including Twitter, Yahoo, and Facebook, are using TV programming to compete and they are investing big into video programming. Verizon Wireless has exclusive NFL programming, T-Mobile recently gave its subscribers a year of streaming access to most baseball games via a MLB.TV deal, and AT&T is giving mobile subscribers access to DirecTV programming. The point is, companies compete by experimenting with different service and program bundles. By forcing programming onto competing applications, devices, and platforms, the FCC short-circuits these competitive dynamics.

Fourth, speaking of purchasing rights, there is misinformation spreading about what TV access consumers are entitled to. For instance, there’s a recent Public Knowledge post that simply distorts the economics and law of TV licensing. Notably, the post says the FCC’s proposal “makes it easier for subscribers to control their own experience when accessing the programming that they…have paid for and to which they have lawful access.” This is simply false. Just because Walking Dead has been licensed for viewing on your television does not mean it’s lawful (or beneficial) for a TV competitor to take that same programming and send it to you via their own app.

Copyright holders re-sell the same programming to different distributors, sometimes several times over. Programmers have exclusive licensing deals with various distributors and device makers, so just because your cable contract allows you to watch it on your TV does not mean you have lawful access anywhere. For instance, the NFL has licensed Thursday Night NFL games to CBS and NBC for broadcast TV viewing, to the NFL Network for cable TV viewing, to Verizon Wireless for smartphone viewing, and to Twitter for computer viewing. Same programming, four different distribution technologies and five different companies. When programming can be easily repurposed, as the FCC would like, that upends entire business models of hundreds of media companies and distributors.

Further, it injects the FCC into copyright licensing issues. Put aside for the moment the debates, that the Public Knowledge post touches on, whether copyright holders are too restrictive. Whatever your views, reforming program licensing should come from Congress and the courts–not the FCC through this convoluted proposal. In fact, change via the courts is what Public Knowledge implicitly endorses. It was the courts–not the FCC–that made VCRs, DVRs, and DVR cloud storage legal in the face of copyright holder opposition. When the FCC last got involved in intervening in TV rights assignments in the 1960s and 1970s, the agency created broadcast retransmission rights, which have plagued communications and copyright law with complexity and lawsuits to this day.

Quite simply, the FCC is coercing companies to make their contracted-for TV content available to others who didn’t contract for it. This proposal will create a mess in television when implemented. It’s an unnecessary intervention into a marketplace–video programming–that is working. We are in what many media critics regard as the Golden Age of Television. That’s because there are so many TV distributors competing for programming. It’s a sellers’ market. The supposed problems here–high STB prices and copyright restrictiveness–are problems for competition agencies and the courts, respectively, not the FCC. The FCC wants to fix what’s not broken and start regulating apps and online video. It does nothing to improve the television market and simply makes more tech and media companies dependent on the FCC’s good graces for competitive survival.

Previous post:

Next post: