Set-top boxes

Wheeler Fights Back in Set-Top Battle

Who knew the public was so passionate about set-top boxes?

With more than 100,000 public comments on the record, and growing opposition from Congress, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler finds himself in a defensive position trying to protect the Commission's "Unlock the Box" set-top proposal. (See Before the FCC Vote: Set-Top Fight Redux.)

In his latest volley against critics, Wheeler counters arguments that the initiative would undermine content licensing agreements, reduce the opportunity for programmers of minority content to reach a mass audience and weaken content copyright protections. On the issue of protecting licensing arrangements, Wheeler gives a blanket statement noting that "nothing in the proposal would require anyone to give away their content for free," as CEO of BET Debra Lee has charged.

Regarding the issue of distribution for minority content, Wheeler points out that of the networks currently included in popular pay-TV bundles, only two are owned by Hispanics and four by African Americans. He adds that "our record is replete with comments from minority programmers who have been locked out from carriage on traditional cable networks," pointing out that the industry needs to do a better job of promoting independent and minority programming.

And on the topic of protecting copyright, Wheeler argues that "if copyright can be protected on Smart TVs, iPads and iPhones, there is little reason to expect it cannot similarly be protected on a third party set-top-box or app."

Want to know more about pay-TV market trends? Check out our dedicated video services content channel here on Light Reading.

The comments from Wheeler come in the form of a letter directed to Congressional Representatives who have expressed concern about the set-top proposal, and on the heels of a request by lawmakers to delay further action until an impact study can be conducted. Any study would stretch out the clock on Wheeler's set-top plans and would likely postpone any possible implementation until after the Chairman is expected to leave his position at the head of the FCC next year.

The pay-TV industry has repeatedly asserted its opposition to the Unlock the Box initiative, with the industry group known as the Future of TV Coalition stating that, "This mandate was a bad idea when it was first hatched and it hasnít gotten any better -- or more popular -- with age."

The American Cable Association (ACA) , which represents independent operators, has also come out strongly against the FCC's proposal citing the costs it would impose on smaller service providers.

However, despite ongoing discussion and criticism, most of the participants in the set-top fight are still tiptoeing around the biggest issue at the core of the FCC's proposal: whether pay-TV operators should be required to unbundle the video streams they license from the user interface guides they create. On that topic, the record of debate is still remarkably hazy. (See The Future of TV Is... Wait, Where Are the Apps?)

Meanwhile, Chairman Wheeler has made clear that he won't back down on Unlock the Box, even with a highly vocal contingent of critics. Wheeler may or may not win the war, but he's not giving up on the fight.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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mendyk 6/14/2016 | 9:47:20 AM
Re: Yesterday's battle He knows everything you buy, and then gets a little cut of each transaction. But cash is so ... cumbersome and unsanitary. Ick.
GregW333 6/14/2016 | 9:44:41 AM
Re: Yesterday's battle mendyk, Not sure about physical media...US postal service maybe...  cash ...if millenials aren't smart cash will go away for "convenience"...with a consequence of the loss of Anonymity...so big bro know's everything you buy :-(  

mendyk 6/14/2016 | 9:06:22 AM
Re: Yesterday's battle Yes, just like cash is going away, and physical media of all types is going away, and mail service is going away, etc.
GregW333 6/14/2016 | 8:34:21 AM
Yesterday's battle The STB hardware is going away making all this noise irrelevent. 
kq4ym 6/14/2016 | 8:19:26 AM
Re: Minority report With the pressure from Congressional members who get pressure from lobbyists, it's not going to be easy for the FCC to ignore the lock the box advocates. But, it's refreshing to see that at least there's a debate if not a fight to unlock so theoretically those without the largest lobby can get to the market.
mendyk 6/4/2016 | 11:21:07 AM
Re: Minority report Mr. Wheeler spent 20 years total running the NCTA and CTIA trade associations. He is in both the cable and the wireless halls of fame based on those lengthy tenures as each industry's top lobbyist. Now he's spent the better part of three years at the top of the FCC, after being an effective fund-raiser for President Obama's election effort. So that's nearly a quarter of a century of operating metaphorically if not physically inside the Washington Beltway. Regarding the question about potential harm to minority-owned broadcast businesses, the CEO of BET should be listened to rather than summarily dismissed.
Joe Stanganelli 6/4/2016 | 10:40:09 AM
Good thing we have those public comments. "Meanwhile, Chairman Wheeler has made clear that he won't back down on Unlock the Box, even with a highly vocal contingent of critics."

Yay, democracy!
Duh! 6/3/2016 | 6:30:54 PM
Re: Minority report A pioneer in two important industries, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and historian is not what you would fairly characterize as a "career bureaucrat".  I rest my case.

Back to the question: how would competition in hardware, content navigation and user experience harm minority interest programmers?

mendyk 6/3/2016 | 6:02:16 PM
Re: Minority report Feel free to explain how the comment is unfair.
Duh! 6/3/2016 | 5:53:10 PM
Re: Minority report That's an ad hominem.  As well as an unfair characterization of the man's career and character.  Please return to your argument about minority interest programming.

edit: You might start by refuting the comments of other minority interest and independent content providers cited in the Chairmans letter as footnote 1.
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