FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing a series of measures that he says will allow greater competition to the set-top cable and satellite box, enabling rivals to develop their own devices and apps and perhaps leaving consumers with a more streamlined TV interface and fewer remote controls.
The proposal already is drawing opposition from Hollywood studios and cable and satellite companies.
Wheeler’s proposal calls for opening up standards so manufacturers or software developers can create rivals to the set-top box, which consumers typically lease from cable and satellite companies at an average cost of about $231 a year. FCC officials described the current set-top box system as akin to consumers, decades ago, being forced to lease their phone from AT&T.
To receive streaming video, most consumers have to also have a smart TV, another device like Apple TV, or watch it on their laptops and phones.
“Thanks to advances in technology, American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming,” Wheeler said in an op-ed published in Re/Code on Wednesday. “You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want. But there’s one glaring exception in the competitive video marketplace: The ‘set-top box.'”
Wheeler said that the proposal would maintain security, copyright and consumer protections, and that consumers would not be required to purchase new boxes.
The proposal would require that information on such things as channel availability and listings, the video-on-demand lineup, recording, and video programming be shared by cable and satellite companies and creators of competitive devices or apps.
Wheeler said that the proposal would lead to more competition, and “could even end the need for multiple remote controls, allowing you to use one for all of the video sources you use.”
The proposal will go before the FCC for a vote on Feb. 18. If it passes, there then will be a period for the public to file comments. The commission would then make a final vote on a final proposal.
“Just as online searches today lead consumers to a breadth of information, so, too, can improved search functions lead consumers to a variety of video content that is buried behind guides or available on video services you can’t access with your set-top box today,” he wrote.
FCC officials also said that independent and minority programming will get a boost if consumers are better able to find shows in a single place, rather than across an array of devices.
A senior FCC official also said that the proposal would maintain protections for content as well as licensing agreements, meaning that distribution deals and terms will remain unchanged. Subscribers would still have to pay a monthly fee for cable or satellite service; they would just have the option of using another device to access the content.
Device manufacturers and software developers of alternative navigation devices will have to comply with state and federal privacy laws.
A coalition of cable and satellite companies, as well as broadband providers and the MPAA, warn that the proposal would be a “non-starter” at a time when access to TV content already is rapidly changing, such as with the introduction of standalone streaming apps for HBO, CBS and Showtime. Also among the members of the coalition are the Minority Business Roundtable and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
The Future of TV Coalition said that the proposal would force programmers and TV providers to dismantle their shows and services so that potential rivals to the set-top box can “repackage, reuse and exploit without negotiating for the rights like everybody else in the market does today.”
Alfred Liggins, CEO of TVOne and co-chair of the coalition, called the proposal a “brazen money grab by Big Tech companies that would do severe damage to the programming ecosystem, and in particular, niche and minority-focused networks.”
The Writers Guild of America West praised Wheeler’s proposal, saying that he has “once again demonstrated his commitment to advancing the development of a more competitive media landscape.” Last year, the FCC approved a robust set of net neutrality rules, and blocked the proposed merger of Comcast with Time Warner Cable.