The "Unlock the Box" campaign has always been about more than just getting rid of traditional pay-TV set-top boxes. While public attention has focused on the box debate, the bigger issue in the fight between pay-TV companies and regulators is whether Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs, like Comcast or Dish) should be required to separate out their video streams from the navigational interfaces they use to deliver service.
In the past week, pay-TV providers and programmers have submitted an alternative proposal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's Unlock the Box plan that, as far as I can tell, offers some concession to regulators, while digging in on the issue of preserving the MVPD-provided user interface. Called "Ditch the Box," the proposal could be an interesting compromise, but it's likely that few people are well informed enough to understand the nuances entailed.
The original proposal by the pay-TV industry suggested that MVPDs should be allowed to develop apps that run on third-party devices as a way of meeting consumer demand for new set-top options. The new Ditch the Box proposal still recommends that apps-based approach, but it also appears to offer up the ability for third-party device makers to access metadata that would make it possible for them to include pay-TV content results in their own unified search applications. (Related, see DSTAC Still Seeking Common Ground and DSTAC: 2 Opposing Views on the Future of TV.)
Here's the exact language from the related FCC filing:
"Consumers would use the third-party manufacturer’s distinctive user interface for controlling the retail device and its features, and have the capability to search MVPD content (and the content available from other content providers such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, etc.) through the third-party manufacturer's user interface."
The proposal makes it sound like a third-party company would be able to create a new interface around a pay-TV provider's content. That's not exactly true. In order to get access to the subscription content, a consumer would still have to open up the MVPD app. However, a user might be able to compare content options from the subscription service side by side with other over-the-top video options in the opening menu screens available on a retail device.
In other words, a viewer could look for content available from MVPDs as well as Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), Hulu LLC , Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) , etc. in a single unified search application. Then if that user wanted to watch something from the MVPD service, he or she would open up the MVPD app and navigate through the interface provided there.
If my reading of the Ditch the Box proposal is correct, then the pay-TV industry is conceding that third parties should be able to use pay-TV content in their search applications. However, I should note that there doesn't seem to be a guarantee that service providers would make the necessary metadata available in every case. Perhaps the proposal's authors are only saying that MVPDs would try to work out business agreements to make unified search possible; not that they would be required to open up their metadata to everyone.
If, however, the offer is a genuine one and meant to enable unified search, then it really is a compromise. Consumers would still be forced to use the MVPD-provided interface, which includes any associated advertising in the TV guide and a channel line-up that has been carefully constructed as part of the content licensing negotiation process. (This is what the industry is desperate to control.) But consumers would also be guaranteed a more open look at their viewing options. They'd know, for example, if a paid video-on-demand show offered by their pay-TV provider was available for free as part of another existing subscription to Netflix or Hulu.
The pay-TV industry has made the argument that their services consist of more than just video delivery. They include features like personalized content recommendations and voice-activated controls. It's something of a corollary to the "dumb pipe" argument. Pay-TV providers don't want to be just a vehicle for delivering content. They want to add value to that content in a way that creates and protects new revenue channels. (See Desperately Seeking a CableCARD Replacement and Content Security Battle Threatens TV Upheaval.)
Ideally for consumers, it would be possible to separate out pay-TV video streams from the additional features MVPDs providers offer. Then consumers could choose a competitive interface, or simply access their paid-for content with a simplified guide for less money.
However, the compromise of enabling unified search is a step in the right direction. An important step.
And maybe that's enough.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading