Heated Set-Top Fight Intensifies

Washington — The battle over the box is getting louder.

Simply navigating the increasingly study-, petition- and press-conference infested waters surrounding the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed new rules to “unlock” the cable set-top box got even tougher last week, with a flood of new input.

Taking a page — make that thousands of pages — from the public activists who often flood the FCC with filings, the Future of TV Coalition, which comprises powerhouse Internet-service providers and their trade associations, hand-delivered more than 70,000 signed petitions (72,621 to be exact) to the agency last week.

The petitions came from consumers arguing the FCC’s new set-top box proposal will “hamper innovation, erode viewer privacy, set back program diversity and drive up consumer bills.” They warned the proposal would:

• “Drive up our TV bills while giving 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”; and

• Lead to “higher bills, fewer choices, more advertisements, and less privacy on TV.”

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

The NCTA two weeks ago demonstrated to the press the various competitive navigation devices that it argues obviated the need for the FCC to mandate disaggregating set-top content and sharing it with third parties. Comcast put an exclamation point on that, announcing an “Xfinity TV Partner Program” that will allow third-party device makers to access the MSO’s full suite of video services, with Samsung and Roku already on board as participants.

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

A divided FCC in February voted to require MVPDs to provide third-party box makers and app developers with information about channel listings and available VOD programming; information about what a device may do with content, such as record it; and the video programming itself.

Cable ISPs, studios and others have argued that is an unnecessary move that threatens copyright protections and could allow those third parties to rearrange and repackage that content with impunity and remonetize it without sharing any revenue with content providers or ISPs.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, with the backing of Google, the president and others, said the new rules are meant to create set-top competition and more consumer-friendly 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.