The Cable Industry’s Fight to Define What the Video Revolution Is Really About

An important step in the dissolution of the distinction between linear television and online video content was taken (or at least started) this week when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called for the introduction of a new standard to make cable TV content available to devices other than the cable company-provided boxes most people pay handsome monthly rental fees for, allowing people to watch both pay TV content and streaming video on a single box.

Immediately, the cable industry tore into Wheeler’s proposal, forming something called the Future of TV Coalition to be the public front to its opposition. Most of the critiques I’ve seen of their criticisms don’t seem to go much further than just dismissing it as whining about potentially losing their lucrative set-top-box rental fees, but that may be because it comes off as completely unhinged, seemingly attacking a completely different plan than what consumer groups and Wheeler are advocating and making points the proposal has already addressed or that make no sense, a strawman bearing no resemblance to what’s actually on the table. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to cut up and resell pay TV content as their own, but it makes no sense and there’s no reason to believe that people wouldn’t still pay their cable company to deliver content, only having a choice in what device would deliver that content. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to muck with channel ordering and numbering in violation of contractural agreements, when it would be trivial to require any interface to leave the channel lineup alone (or at best to leave any reordering to the consumer). They claim the proposal would mandate the installation of an additional box when the proposal specifically advocates a software-based solution, the whole idea of which is to allow the provision of pay-TV content on boxes that already exist (including cable companies’ own boxes) or on no box at all. They claim the proposal would strip out security and privacy protections when the whole point of it is to arrive at some sort of solution to deliver those protections and credentials to independent boxes for them to process just as today’s cable boxes do.

Though the cable industry has publicly supported past and present efforts to open up the set-top box market, and claims to be all for opening up access to a wide variety of devices, they spend a lot more time bashing the FCC’s proposal than suggesting their own alternative, despite claiming not to know exactly what the FCC’s proposal is. Instead, the closest they come to suggesting an alternative is to repeat the word “apps” over and over. The commission’s proposal, they claim, is unnecessary because Tim Cook says “the future of TV is apps” reflecting the “apps revolution” of consumers, programmers, and cable companies embracing the “apps-based model” making “apps” available to millions of devices and apps apps apps apps apps.

If it seems odd that consumer groups, tech companies, and the FCC would be against television delivered through apps, given the entire backdrop under which this whole thing is taking place, that’s because they aren’t; indeed, the proposal specifically names “app developers” as being among those that would have access to the necessary data to effectively and securely deliver pay-TV content. So it’s not clear what the cable industry means by the “app-based approach” that wouldn’t include the very concept they’re contrasting it to. What they seem to be trying to say is that the FCC doesn’t need to do anything at all, because the existing apps available already deliver pay-TV content to the sorts of devices that would benefit under the proposal (not that that would keep them from pushing expensive cable box rentals on people) – though it’s not clear what kind of apps they mean, because they alternately cite both TV Everywhere apps provided by programmers as well as cable companies’ own apps, all in order to support letting the market do its work rather than an actual, concrete proposal. Certainly what they say sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but what sort of “apps-based approach” do they actually advocate, and what exactly is the problem consumer groups and the FCC have with it?

Well, according to the report released by the FCC’s Downloadable Security Committee, cable companies’ proposal would involve delivering content to devices using an app and user interface provided by the cable company, leaving consumer groups concerned about precluding other entities from innovating with their own user interfaces. Of course, forcing people to use a single app to access all┬álinear cable TV content is precisely the opposite of what the “apps revolution” is actually about: decentralizing access to content and allowing content providers to offer their wares to consumers directly, with an experience they can control themselves.

The cable industry seems to believe, or wants the FCC or public to believe, that cable companies’ services themselves are the product, rather than the content offered through those services, even though that content is mostly the same from one cable company to another. This belief is betrayed in their listing of the top “video subscription services”, which lists the streaming services Netflix and Hulu alongside the top cable operators and satellite providers, as though Netflix and Hulu’s primary competition were cable companies themselves, not, as Netflix itself has identified, content providers like HBO. Perhaps cable companies’ greatest fear isn’t losing the billions of dollars in set-top box rental fees, but that in divorcing them of that the FCC might recognize that the real “future of TV” is one dominated and identified by content providers, with cable companies merely providing the backbone through which that content is delivered, and that they might accelerate that future by providing the tools for their wares to be offered through an experience completely divorced from the cable companies’ control. To be sure, content providers might feed this misconception; the contractural concerns such as channel placement cable companies worry about the FCC’s proposal undermining are rooted in a notion of a single lineup of numerical channels defined by the cable company, and perhaps a proposal that makes it irrelevant is one that should be considered and adopted. Content providers would no longer be able to get cable companies to try to force-feed their content by placing it near content that’s actually popular, but even their own TV Everywhere apps (which would seem to have little reason to exist on smart TVs and devices like Roku as it stands) would stand to benefit by being able to access the cable company’s linear feeds directly, strengthening their own brand by making it easier for those apps to become the primary gateway to their content.

The cable industry is right that the “apps revolution” is changing the way we watch TV. The reason they’re opposing the FCC’s proposal so strenuously is that they know it holds the potential to make it all the more successful at it.

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