Heated Set-Top Battle Gets Recharged

Related: Heading for a Rematch

The TV navigation device battle has been a long road strewn with cautions. Press conferences have slowed things down like rush-hour traffic; studies and petitions, like so many yield signs, have also required a very savvy governmental GPS. But if possible, that journey got even tougher last week, thanks to a flood of new input and output.

Taking a page—make that thousands of pages—from public activists that often tax the FCC with filings, the Future of TV Coalition, which includes big internet service providers and their trade associations, delivered 72,621 signed petitions to the FCC last week. They came from consumers arguing against the agency’s new set-top box proposal, which will require cable operators to share set-top box data and content with third parties in an effort to promote competition in navigation devices.

The petition warns that the FCC’s proposal will:

• “Hamper innovation, erode viewer privacy, set back program diversity and drive up consumer bills.”

• “[Give] us fewer choices, less privacy and more advertisements on TV.”

• “Undermine diverse voices on television.”

• “Invade the privacy of our personal viewing data and deprive consumers of important protections in the Communications Act that safeguard our viewing choices.”

There’s been a flurry of set-top pushback activity in D.C. the past couple of weeks as the deadline for comment on the proposal loomed. That included a legal shot across the bow from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association last week following President Obama’s push for “unlocking” the boxes to spur competition.

NCTA two weeks ago demonstrated to the press the various competitive navigation devices that it argues removed the need for the FCC to mandate disaggre-gating set-top content and sharing it with third parties. Comcast put an exclamation point on the matter when it announced that it was expanding access to Xfinity.

Last, week, Comcast’s legal team of Ted Olson and Helgi Walker briefed the media on the legal vulnerabilities of the proposal, which NCTA argues violates the Constitution, copyright laws and the Administrative Procedures Act. NCTA president Michael Powell pledged to sue if the proposal is accepted.

A divided FCC—a phrase now bordering on the redundant—in February voted to require multichannel video programming distributors to provide third-party box makers and app developers with information about channel listings and available video-on-demand programming, info about what a device is allowed to do with content (such as record it) and the video programming itself.

Cable ISPs, studios and others have called this an unnecessary move that threatens copyright protections and could allow those third parties to rearrange and repackage that content with impunity and re-monetize it without sharing any of that with content providers.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, with the backing of Google and Obama, among others, says the issue is about creating set-top competition and consumer-friendlier access to content from all quarters.

But Wheeler has also claimed to be open to modifying the proposal to assuage those concerned about protecting copyrights, and advertising, and privacy, and business models.

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.