Despite vocal criticism, Wheeler is still pushing hard to 'Unlock the Box.'

Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video

June 2, 2016

3 Min Read
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 hasn’t 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

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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