Markey on Set-Tops: We Shall Prevail

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says he is confident that cable operators will vigorously fight the FCC's set-top proposal, but that, as with the net network neutrality rules, they will fail.

Markey joined with Public Knowledge President Gene Kimmelman and over-the-top content creators on a press conference in support of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to open up set-top content and data to third-party navigation devices.

Markey said the time had come for the FCC to enable millions of Americans to use innovative and less costly ways to access content. For too long, he said, cable companies have worked to ensure that consumers continue to pay high monthly fees to lease boxes "in perpetuity."

He said that is why they will fight the FCC proposal "with everything they've got," including the same arguments they made against network neutrality rules. "But they are not going to win,: he said. "We won on network neutrality and we're going to win again on set-top boxes."

Back in July, Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) released data collected from cable operators that they said showed a lack of device choice and an excess of rental charges. Markey has been a strong backer of opening set-top data to third parties. He was also co-author fo the Telecommunications Act of 1996 provision mandating commercial access to competitive navigation devices.

The press conference talk was certainly tough, with Kimmelman branding set-top rentals a cash cow whose billions in overcharges--$6 billion to $14 billion he claimed--cable "gatekeepers" were trying to protect, but "running scared."

He said they wanted to "blow" those gatekeeper obstacles out of the way so consumers could have increased access to content at decreased cost.

Cable operators, countering arguments about big savings to consumers, have said that a TiVo model can cost even more than set-top rentals, but Public Knowledge's John Bergmayer, also on the conference call with reporters, said the TiVo model of a premium device and subscription cost was essentially part of status quo they were looking to get rid of and said that open platform devices could be a fraction of that cost.

Kimmelman suggested the FCC proposal could help remove the last vestages of cable's monopoly power over set-tops, adding that in addition to the alleged billions in overcharges (Progressive Policy Institute economist Hal Singer disputes the set-top cost figures), minority content producers were being held back and device competition was being stymied.

Kimmelman branded cable industry pushback on the set-top proposal "myths and misinformation" to protect monopoly profits, and a consumer "rip off."

Also on the call were Allison Abner (West Wing, Netflix's Narcos), Eric Easter, chairman of the National Black Programming Consortium, and Ellen Stutzman of the Writers Guild of America, West.

They argued that opening up set-tops and allowing third parties to combine traditional and over-the-top content would be good for program diversity and boost access to quality content that for reasons of length or subject matter, might not make it onto traditional video platforms, or get noticed on OTT platforms.

Easter said that opening the boxes would be like the advent of browsers, allowing viewers to see what choices there actually were and compare them side-by-side. Stutzman said the set-top proposal would mean more competition and lead to better, more diverse, stories. Quoting former WGAW president Patric Verrone, she said that homogenization is good for milk, but not for storytelling.

Abner said opening set-tops was about supporting diverse voices and high-quality programming and would level the playing field and allow content to reach more markets, which was good for writers and the economy.  She said Narcos, which was told in two languages, was an example of what is possible with more competition and choice and fewer gatekeepers.

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.