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.

 

Nothing Neutral About Disney’s Bid For Fox

It was fitting, albeit likely coincidental, that the Walt Disney Co. announced its $52 billion acquisition of most of the movie and TV assets of 21st Century Fox on the day the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules, because the deal is very much about the future of content delivery over the internet.

Disney CEO Robert Iger

Under the deal, Disney would absorb the 20th Century-Fox film and TV studio and its library, including the first three “Star Wars” films; most of Fox’s cable networks group, including National Geographic, FX, and 300-plus international channels but excluding Fox News or Fox Sports; and 22 regional sports networks (RSNs). The deal also includes Fox’s one-third interest in Hulu, giving Disney majority control over the streaming service.

Assuming the deal passes antitrust muster — highly likely given Rupert Murdoch’s closeness to Donald Trump — it will give Disney control over vast new libraries of content as it prepares to significantly expand its direct-to-consumer streaming business. Strategic control over Hulu will also give Disney a solid foundation from which to challenge Netflix and Amazon directly as an over-the-top content aggregator.

Yet, while the coming showdown with Netflix has grabbed most of the headlines about the deal, there is another important streaming dynamic likely to play out that has gotten less attention but which could be directly impacted by the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

Whether, or not, the bulked up Disney succeeds in challenging Netflix and Amazon, its growing direct-to-consumer ambitions give the Mouse a major stake in the coming contest between programming services and broadband providers over the terms and conditions of engagement on last-mile networks.

The over-the-top streaming business has so far developed very differently from traditional movie and television delivery businesses. In the traditional TV business, the owners of the last-mile pipes — cable and satellite operators, local broadcast affiliates — pay program providers for access to their content.

Disney, in particular, has been successful in leveraging that dynamic, earning ESPN the highest per-subscriber carriage fees of any cable network.

Unlike a cable TV system, however, internet access networks have utility and value independent of any particular content, allowing access service providers to build their networks — and subscriber bases — without having to pay for the content moving across those networks.

If anything, the monopoly or duopoly status most internet access providers enjoy within their footprints has raised concerns that ISPs could use the leverage of their control over their networks to compel content providers to pay for access to their subscribers.

The FCC’s original Open Internet Order was designed in part specifically to deny ISPs that leverage, by prohibiting the blocking or throttling of data based on its source, or accepting compensation for favorable treatment of data from a particular source. Those rules left the status quo in place, at least for the time being. But they left open the possibility that the streaming business could eventually develop more like the traditional TV business, in which access providers are compelled to

The FCC has now voted to lift those rules — their ultimate fate awaits the outcome of inevitable litigation — potentially upsetting the current balance of power.

Determining who will ultimately holds the leverage in that balance remains a work in progress, however. One way to read Disney’s bid for Fox is as an attempt to position itself not only against Netflix but against last-mile network operators for the inevitable battles ahead.

From that perspective, the real trigger event for Disney was AT&T’s (still pending) acquisition of Time Warner. Assuming that deal goes through, it will mean that two of Disney’s (and Fox’s) major competitors — NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast, and Time Warner — will be owned by major broadband providers. That could leave Disney at a disadvantage in the struggle for leverage over the terms of OTT distribution.

One option would have been for Disney to sell itself to a network operator. But the only one out there with the scale to do it and not already betrothed is Verizon, and Verizon execs have made it clear they’re not in the market for a major studio.

By buying Fox, Disney is hoping to gain enough scale as a content provider to treat with network operators on equal or better terms.

 

M&E Forecast: Slowing Growth, Tighter Choke Points

Two five-year forecasts issued this week together paint a picture of a much tougher business environment facing media and entertainment companies over the next half decade.

According to PwC’s annual Outlook report, the media and entertainment industries are nearing a revenue “plateau,” particularly video-centric industries, as many historical growth drivers are running out of steam. Worldwide, PwC expects M&E revenue to rise from $1.8 trillion in 2016 to $2.2 trillion in 2021, representing a compound annual growth rate of 4.2 percent– a ratcheting down from the 4.4 percent CAGR it forecast last year.

For the U.S., revenue is projected to grow even more slowly, increasing from $635 billion in 2016 to $759 billion by 2021, for a CAGR of 3.6 percent. Read More »

Get Ready to Rumble; FCC Launches Net Neutrality Rollback

Here’s how high tension is already running over the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to undo it’s own net neutrality order: At Thursday’s open meeting where the commission voted 2-1 to proceed with the first phase of the rollback, with security on high alert over online threats aimed at commissioners, security personnel “manhandled” long-time Capitol Hill reporter John Donnelly and removed him from the building for approaching commissioner Michael O’Reilly in a hallway and attempting to ask him a question outside of an official press conference.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Tensions are only likely to get higher as the proposal moves forward. This week’s vote kicks off at least a three-month period of pubic comments, during which the commission can expect to be deluged with input, ranging from the substantive to he hysterical. Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are vowing “all out war” to prevent any rollback. Read More »

The Net Neutrality Paradox

One of the more unfortunate wrinkles in the long debate leading up to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, better known as net neutrality, was its increasingly commercial focus. There were important civil liberties issues at stake, to say nothing of the interplay of engineering and regulation of critical infrastructure and the private ownership of public goods. But much of the public debate boiled down to an argument over streaming — Netflix streaming in particular.

That was due in no small part to the efforts of Netflix founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, who made himself and his company the poster-children of the net neutrality cause by loudly proclaiming Netflix’s oppression at the hands of ISPs looking to impose interconnection fees on the streaming service.

Although net neutrality proponents eagerly embraced Netflix’s cause and Hastings’ pubic advocacy they worked to color the issue as essentially a commercial dispute between different types of service providers, which, paradoxically, is actually an argument against what the FCC did. Disputes between buyers and sellers are not really the FCC’s bailiwick; that’s more a matter for the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Read More »

Netflix Ponders Life Without Net Neutrality

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did as much as anyone to shape the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. CEO Reed Hastings’ aggressive public lobbying for what he termed “strong” net neutrality, after Comcast and AT&T successfully forced Netflix to pay for access to their last-mile networks, was largely responsible for putting interconnection arrangements between ISPs and edge providers at the center of the debate and helped persuade former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to push through reclassification of broadband access as a Title II telecommunications service, which gave the commission jurisdiction over those deals.

Yet, as Republicans in Congress and on the commission sharpen their knives to disembowel Wheeler’s hard-won rules Netflix says it no longer needs the protection.

“Weakening of US net neutrality laws, should that occur, is unlikely to materially affect our domestic margins or service quality because we are now popular enough with consumers to keep our relationships with ISPs stable,” Hastings said in his Q4 letter to shareholders this week.

Translation: we’re too big now even for Comcast to push around, a point Comcast itself obliquely acknowledged in November by integrating Netflix into its flagship X1 set-top box. Read More »

America Exits The World

For all intents and purposes, Donald J. Trump will assume the presidency in January with no discernable policy agenda. Apart from a few signature flights of fancy, such as building a wall along 1,500 miles of southern border and rounding up 11 million immigrants for summary deportation, his policy pronouncements consisted largely of an ever-shifting farrago of ignorance, indifference, truculence, and personal animus boiled down into 140-character outbursts. As a general matter, we simply do not know what the Trump administration might do.

trumpGiven the enormity his election represents, speculating on the fallout for any particular industry could seem petty, if not beside the point entirely. But for what it’s worth, the media and technology industries may be among the first to feel the impact.

As a near-term matter, Trump said on the campaign trail that he would block AT&T’s pending merger with Time Warner and would look to undo already done media mergers, including Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal. Setting aside the question of whether the Justice Department would have legal grounds to do either (and the perhaps more interesting question of whether a Trump Justice Department would feel constrained by established law and precedent), Trump’s rhetoric could cast a pall over M&A activity, just as the media industry seems poised for another round of it in the wake of AT&T-Time Warner. Read More »

While FCC Dithers, Google Ditches The Box

To hear the pay-TV industry tell it, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s original proposal to “unlock” the set-top box was essentially a sop to Google, a company many in the industry see as having effectively captured the agency, if not the entire Obama administration, and as coveting the incumbent operators’ position in the TV business.

Those suspicions were only strengthened when Google began offering members of Congress demos of a set-top box that fit remarkably with the sort of navigation device envisioned by Wheeler’s proposal, just days after the proposal was unveiled.

fccwheelergettyoffledeAlarmed, cable operators rushed out its own proposal to “ditch” the set-top box altogether and make their services available, essentially as is, via apps that could run on third-party devices — an idea Google opposed because it would leave the cable operators in control of the user interface and the bundling of channels.

The industry’s move was effective, inasmuch as it forced Wheeler to retreat from his original proposal, and come up with a new plan loosely modeled on the industry’s app-based approach. While Google said it could live with the new proposal, the industry still found much not to like, and an all-out lobby blitz again forced Wheeler to postpone a planned vote on the measure. Read More »

The Coming Wireless Video Wars

Having dropped $48 billion and change last year to acquire DirecTV, AT&T is now earmarking tens of billions more over the next 3 to 5 years to acquire media companies, according to a report this week by Bloomberg. Citing “people familiar with the plans,” the report said AT&T is targeting acquisitions ranging from $2 billion to $50 billion, with an eye toward “owning some of the content it distributes.”

It likely won’t be distributing it through DirecTV, however, at least not via satellite. According to an earlier Bloomberg report, AT&T will begin phasing out DirecTV’s randallstephensonsatellite platform within the same 3 to 5-year window, with any eye toward making internet streaming its primary TV platform by 2020. The company has lately been lining up carriage deals ahead of its planned launch of its DirecTV Now over-the-top service later this year. And it has been aggressively steering its wireless customers toward DirecTV by bundling unlimited wireless data plans with a DirecTV subscription, which so far has been taken up by some 5 million of its wireless subscribers.

DirecTV Now will also be “zero-rated” for AT&T wireless customers, meaning it won’t count against their monthly data cap. Read More »

Why MVPDs, Studios Won’t Take Yes For An Answer on STBs

When Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled his initial proposal to “unlock” the pay-TV set-top box back in January, pay-TV service providers and programmers howled in protest. Operators complained that the proposal, which called for multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) to make their video feeds, channel listings, and subscriber entitlement data available to third-party device makers as discreet “information flows,” would require a major and expensive re-architecting of their systems. Programmers complained that making their content available directly to device makers with whom the programmers had no contractual arrangement amounted to a de facto compulsory copyright license, which the FCC had no authority to create or enforce.

FCC_buildingBoth threatened to sue.

The two arguments were, in fact, reinforcing. The current carriage agreements TV programmers and distributors have with pay-TV operators are premised in part on pay-TV systems operating in certain ways and not in other ways. Changing how those systems function could cause part of the premise of those licensing agreements to crumble. Read More »

The FCC Chairman’s Tactical Retreat On Set-Top Boxes (Updated)

After months of intensive lobbying by pay-TV providers and TV programmers, as well as mounting pressure from congress, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has apparently backed off quite a bit from his original proposal to “unlock the [set-top] box” and is preparing to adopt the broad outlines the industry’s app-based counter-proposal. But that doesn’t mean the struggle for control of the set-top is over.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingIn an ex parte filing with the commission this week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, along with DirecTV-parent AT&T, pushed back forcefully against elements of what appears to be Wheeler’s new plan to bring greater competition to the market for pay-TV-compatible set-top boxes, as mandated by congress more than a decade ago.

The new plan, as described in general terms in a series of ex parte filings in recent weeks, will apparently require multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to develop apps that can run on third-party devices but that replicate all of the features of MVPDs’ own services, including making all the operator’s linear and on-demand content available on similar terms.  It will also require MVPDs to make their content searchable by third-party, universal-search applications. Read More »

X1 Marks the Spot for Comcast

Comcast and Netflix this week confirmed an agreement to incorporate Netflix’s streaming service into Comcast’s X1 video platform, signalling a dramatic shift in what has long been a contentious relationship between the companies.

“Comcast and Netflix have reached an agreement to incorporate Netflix into X1, providing seamless access to the great content offered by both companies,” the two said in a joint statement given to Recode.  “We have much work to do before the service will be available to consumers later this year. We’ll provide more details at that time.”

netflix_blockThat’s a far cry from a few years ago when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was working overtime to turn Comcast into public enemy number one in the net neutrality fight and Comcast was imposing interconnection fees on Netflix for access to its last-mile network.

But the shift is more likely the result of a change in circumstances than a change of heart. Read More »

Court to ISPs: You Really Are Just Dumb Pipes

Back when the clamor began to reclassify broadband access as a Title II telecommunications service, in the wake of the DC Circuit Court’s ruling overturning the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to impose net neutrality rules under its Title I authority, there was a lot of grumbling among Verizon’s peers that the telco should have left bad enough alone instead of challenging the commission’s 2010 rules in court.

Though Verizon won the case, largely on technical legal grounds, it poked a hornet’s next that threatened the far-greater sting of reclassification. But now that the same DC Circuit Court has handed down its ruling on reclassification and the FCC’s revised net neutrality rules, many of those grumbling last time are probably wishing they’d followed their own advice.

FCC_buildingNot only did the FCC win the case this time around, but the court majority’s opinion delivers a series of roundhouse blows to most of the ISPs’ claims about the value of their services, if not yet to their market valuations.

In essence, the court concluded that as service providers, ISPs add almost no value beyond basic connectivity. And that goes for wireless as well as fixed-broadband providers.

Apart from their objections on procedural grounds to the FCC’s rulemaking, the ISPs and their trade associations argued they could not fairly be classified as utility-style telecommunications providers because the services they offer consumers include a range of complex, value-adding information-processing functions, such as email, online storage, content caching and DNS lookup. Read More »

Peak TV and the Politics of Plenty

The formal comment period for the FCC’s controversial set-top box proposal closed this week, after tallying 256,747 submissions. As in any hard-fought rulemaking proceeding these days, most of those were canned comments from “the public” rounded up by PR firms working for parties on all sides of the issue. But it also drew more than 1,000 substantive comments from rights owners, members of the pay-TV industry, technology providers and other agencies of government involved in telecommunications policy, including the White House.

FCC_headquartersI’ve written here before, perhaps excessively, on the relative merits (or lack of them) to the various sides’ positions, so I won’t belabor the debate further. But the latest round of comments revealed another, related issue that bears watching regardless of how the set-top box debate turns out: the very different perspectives on the impact of innovation coming from different corners of the TV business.

The Motion Picture Association of America, representing the 6 major Hollywood studios, has been nearly apoplectic over the FCC’s plan, and its final reply comments — all 50 pages of them — were no exception: Read More »