Future of TV: FCC Set-Top Item is Google Gift

The FCC's new set-top proposal is not about helping consumers but intead helping the biggest company (by market cap) on the planet: Google.

That was the stark assessment from Paul Glist, privacy expert and counsel to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in a conference call following a divided FCC vote to "unlock" set top data and share it with third parties as a way to spur competition for content navigation devices. Google was a big backer of the proposal.

The call was convened by the Future of Television Coalition, which includes NCTA and other MVPDs and Hollywood studios.

Glist alleged the FCC proposal was Google trying to get free access to content and information and monetize it.

Glist said that the set-top proposal was essentially a battle between Google and apps. "Google would like to have all information assimilated and searchable through their browser so they can find data and sell ads against their content,” he said, “and they are unhappy with the choice of consumers to consume more and more content, including MVPD and over-the-top video content, through apps, in which they have very little visibility."

Glist called Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal "a gift to Google [that]  gives them access to information that is moving away from them in the marketplace. This is not responding to consumer demand, it is responding to a particular business ask by a particular constituency. “

VMe TV Senior Vice President Victor Cerda, a minority programmer who was also on the call and got a shout out from Republican Commissioner and set-top proposal foe Ajit Pai at the FCC's Feb. 18 public meeting voting the proposal, said:  “I think this is a very aggressive and very smart play for them [Google] to try and expand and open up their markets to get into the TV media world, and to do it without having to pay for the content. “ He said that if [Google’s] YouTube wanted to use his content, they would have to sign an agreement and generally pay for it. In the FCC proposal, they will get my content for free. So it is a smart thing and they get the government endorsement .

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says cable content will be protected and ads will not be able to be deleted, substituted or added, saying the item is only about providing competitive choice in devices--as Congress directed--and downward pressure on prices, which is in the FCC's consumer-friendly competition wheelhouse.

But Glist was having none of it, saying Wheeler's assurances about ad policies, privacy concerns, and other issues were not comforting and that such promises were effectively empty since they could not be monitored or enforced. "There is no security system that can currently protect that [promise]. [The chairman] has punted any of these questions to the nonexistent standards organization [creating such a standards body is aprt of the FCC proposal], and he's doing it in an environment where we know that Google uses all of its access to information to monetize their advertising, and in this case would be doing so without any compensation to the programmers."

Glist said that for all the chairman's mentions of what would not be permitted, there were no restrictions on monetizing the search function." The proposal includes making the cable and online content being wedded by a box or app searchable. He said that will devalue that content. 

Asked for comment, Google deferred to INCOMPAS, which cited a blog post by INCOMPAS CEO and former congressman Chip Pickering. Pickering suggested it was cable operators that wanted to control content. "The closed box allows cable to control what you see, blocking content from their competitors, mainly new Internet-based streaming companies who want to go directly to the consumer without paying for permission from the cable company," he said. INCOMPAS is the former COMPTEL, which represents competitive telecom carriers.

"Every time we end monopoly policy in the tech sector we see rapid expansion of innovation and the creation of brand new companies," Pickering told B&C/Multichannel News. "It's future visionaries and entrepreneurs that will benefit most from the FCC's action to unlock the box."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.