Thinking Inside The Box

Remember the Great Set-Top Box War of 2016? That was the brouhaha touched off by then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s effort to force cable TV operators to “unlock the box” and make their video service available as a standalone feed so that third-party device makers could incorporate the service into their own platforms and within their own user-interface functions.

The proposal met fierce opposition from the TV networks and cable operators, who feared losing control over the uses and presentation of their programming, as well as from the Republican members of the FCC itself.

After a bruising, months-long fight, Wheeler was forced to pull the proposal on the eve of a planned vote. It was later dropped altogether after Wheeler left and a new, Republican-appointed chairman took over.

Yet for all the sturm und drang, a pair of recent announcements suggests that cable operators and box makers are finding ways to move beyond the controversy to achieve at least some of Wheeler’s hopes regarding innovation in the pay-TV market, if not his ultimate goal of breaking up the traditional pay-TV bundle.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this week, the world’s biggest (by market cap) device maker announced a wide-ranging partnership with number 2 cable operator Charter Communications to incorporate Charter’s Spectrum TV app into Apple devices.

As part of the deal, the Spectrum TV app will be available on Apple’s next-generation set-top box, the Apple TV 4K, due later this year. Spectrum subscribers will be able to access “hundreds” of live channels, according to the announcement, and “tens of thousands” of video-on-demand titles through the Apple box.

While Charter has made the Spectrum app available on Roku devices since 2015, the Apple integration goes deeper. For one thing, the Apple 4K will incorporate Siri, allowing at least some functions of the box and its apps to be controlled with voice commands.

More notably, Apple’s latest operating system for the 4K box, tvOS 12, will enable the device to access a broader range of Spectrum subscribers’ program permissions and authorizations, including TV Everywhere authentication — one of the principal goals of Wheeler’s proposal. As described in the announcement, “Apple TV simply detects the user’s broadband network and automatically signs them in to all the supported apps they receive through their subscription—no typing required. Zero sign-on begins with Charter later this year and will expand to other providers over time.”

The feature would still require subscribers to get both broadband and video service from Charter, but it moves Apple TV a step closer to being a viable replacement for the traditional cable box.

Also this week, Amazon unveiled the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which combines features of Amazon’s current 4K-capable Fire TV box with those of its Echo smart speaker, including the Alexa voice assistant.

While Amazon has not announced any pay-TV service integrations with the Cube, the box does support HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Though still a bit dodgy, HDMI-CEC is designed to allow devices connected to a TVs HDMI ports to communicate back and forth with the TV, which means Alexa will be able to control at least some functions of compatible TVs though voice commands.

The Cube also contains IR (infra-red) blasters and comes with an IR dongle that attaches to the back of the device, giving Alexa a measure of control over a variety of cable boxes, soundbars and other TV-connected devices.

According to Amazon, the Cube is compatible with “more than 90 percent” of cable and satellite services, including boxes from Comcast, Dish, DirecTV, Charter, and Verizon.

To be sure, both the Apple and Amazon solutions leave the incumbent pay-TV operators in control of subscribers’ program permissions, as well as how that programming is packaged and presented — a grip Wheeler had hoped to loosen. And they do nothing to break up the Big Bundle.

Yet, by introducing innovations such as effective voice control they could begin to render that packaging and visual presentation moot, achieving through attrition what Wheeler tried to achieve by fiat.

 

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