New Video Market MayNeed Lighter FCC Touch

Last week, Bill Lake was one of seven FCC bureau and office chiefs to participate in a session titled “Commissioning Tomorrow: Insight from FCC Bureau and Office Chiefs” at the annual Cable Show in Washington, D.C. Among other informative, spirited opinions that came out of the panel, media bureau chief Lake made it clear that those FCC officials commissioning tomorrow—and over the next several years—should pay “close attention” to the issue of whether the FCC will need to apply a lighter regulatory hand to a dynamic and changing video marketplace.

The FCC has not weighed in on whether online video distributors should be subject to traditional regulations applied to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), but Lake pointed out that in the Sky Angel decision, the media bureau tentatively concluded that the IP-delivered Sky Angel was not likely to succeed in making the case that it is an MVPD.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s decision to hold its Cable Show in D.C. this year meant the panel was going to be a packed one, giving moderator Rick Chessen from NCTA—himself a former FCC official—lots of options for opinions about issues, not to mention the successful lobbying-argument record of the bureau chief position.

When asked whether such arguments ever changed his mind on a position, Lake thought back to one not currently being litigated—the FCC’s selectable output waiver, which allowed for earlier cable VOD windows for movies.

Lake Wavers on Waiver

Lake said he initially believed the waiver was an unjustifiable incursion on the use of devices any way a consumer wanted. But he added that he had ultimately been persuaded that such limited authority for operators to control what comes out of a set-top box actually gave consumers something they would not otherwise have—that same early window.

Lake said his mind was changed by a “very good explanation” of the consumer benefit. He pointed out that the waiver had not had a big impact in terms of opening that window, but that it did not prove to be a consumer harm either.

Julius Knapp, FCC office of engineering & technology chief, suggested that the interplay between stakeholders and the FCC was integral to the decision-making process in general. “So much of what we do relies on interaction with all the stakeholders,” Knapp said, adding that interaction has a real impact on decisions more often than not.

The 500-Pound Gorilla

Chessen asked the panelists to weigh in on some big issues and sleeper issues. The spectrum auctions got lots of votes in the “big” department—or the 500-pound gorilla, as Lake tabbed it.

Asked about the FCC’s open retransmission consent rulemaking, Lake said it is still open, with the FCC still watching the industry and both the continued and threatened blackouts. He also talked about the price of content as one of the factors in those impasses, adding that the FCC continues to have an open mind about the possible need for a regulatory response.

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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.