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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Says TV Business Is at ‘Make or Break’ Point

Tom Wheeler FCC
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the TV business was at a “make or break” point, characterizing the agency’s recent regulatory moves as an effort to ensure competition to the benefit of consumers while some established players seek to maintain the status quo.

“We are at a make or break point where there is a choice,” Wheeler said on Wednesday at INTX, formerly known as the Cable Show. “Are you going to say ‘No,’ and do everything possible [to prevent change], or are you going to say, ‘How are we going to make this work for consumers first?'”

Wheeler’s remarks at the annual event held by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association come as he has proposed “opening up” the cable set-top box, in which source codes would be made available on an open platform so manufactures could make and sell rival devices.

The proposal is bitterly opposed by the NCTA, as well as Hollywood studios and some guilds, like SAG AFTRA, who warn of its impact on the protection of copyright. NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell, himself a former FCC chairman, on Monday blasted the FCC’s actions, accusing the agency of a “relentless government assault” on the industry.

But in a Q&A session with C-SPAN’s Peter Slen, Wheeler said that the “job of government is to promote competition and let consumers enjoy the benefits of that, with the understanding that those who are incumbents never like change.”

Wheeler noted that he led the cable trade association in the 1970s and 80s, when the pay TV industry “was the voice of innovation and competition.”

“Those who did not want things to change used government to maintain the status quo to the detriment of consumers,” said Wheeler, citing Hollywood studios, broadcasters and the telephone company.

He credited the NCTA for rebranding the Cable Show into INTX — reflecting the shift to broadband — but he also suggested that Powell’s rhetoric was part of the lobbying process.

“I think that the way in which lobbying campaigns tend to work these days is first you set up a scenario in which there is ‘too much being done. We are being persecuted,'” Wheeler said, adding that it is followed by “imaginary” scenarios of what will happen if a change is about to be made.

“There is an important step that has to follow, which is that it is not enough to say, ‘We’re against this. This is awful,'” he said, adding that the industry and regulators had to work to find “solutions, not just slogans.”

He acknowledged that when Powell was FCC chairman and he led the wireless industry’s trade association, there was at least one incident in which he wishes he had been “presenting more solutions.”

Wheeler says that the set-top box proposal would open up competition, as most consumers are now forced to rent their boxes from their cable or satellite provider and make payments well after the time that the cost has been recovered. Opponents note that the industry already is moving away from the box, through the offering of apps and other online navigation. He said that the government’s role was to “ensure, encourage competition, so that the government can then step out.”

He said that there is the potential for the next few years to see “the best era ever for consumers,” with more ways for them to access content and with the possibility of options for smaller bundles of content.

Wheeler, a self-described amateur historian, said that he has been studying the history of networks, and has concluded that there is an “absolute truth, which is that those who tried to stop the change always fail. I don’t mean most of the time. I mean always.”