The Box And The Bundle

One of the most striking aspects of the current debate over the FCC’s proposal to “unlock” the set-top box is how shabby the public arguments are on all sides.

Chairman Tom Wheeler, who cooked up the idea, hangs his case for requiring pay-TV providers to disaggregate essential programming, navigation and entitlement elements of their service for the convenience of third-party device makers and developers on the alleged cost to consumers of renting a set-top box from their provider every month, which the proposal pegs at $231 a year (a figure others dispute). Allowing consumers to bring their own device will save them money, according to Wheeler. The White House made a similar argument in endorsing the proposal.

settop _box_openSet-top box fees are surely excessive, like the cost of pay-TV service itself. But they’re also arbitrary, just like a lot of other line items on the average cable bill. Broadcast fee? Regional sports fee? How are those calculated? The idea that requiring operators to eliminate one line item on a monthly bill full of arbitrary fees and prices will translate into meaningful cost savings to consumers seems far-fetched.

For that matter, the idea that letting consumers buy their own set-top box would necessarily result in significant savings also seems far-fetched. A TiVO Roamio goes for $600, plus $10 a month for the guide. Read More »

FCC Goes Searching For A New Set-Top Box

At a press conference following the Federal Communications Commission’s 3-2 vote Thursday to launch a formal rulemaking proceeding aimed at unlocking the set-top box FCC chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized, as he has since announcing the proposal last month, that nothing in the proposed new rules alter existing licensing or content-protection agreements  between networks and pay-TV providers or disrupt existing advertising models.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingOn the contrary, he said, “the rules will require that the sanctity of the content is passed through” unaltered to any new device or app used by consumers to access pay-TV content. That includes, he went on to clarify, the network’s channel position, the content recording rules and the unadorned, original ad load.

“Nobody’s going to be replacing ads, or doing any kind of split screen, with ads on one side, or putting a frame around the content and putting ads around it; none of that,” he said. “The sanctity of the content will be preserved.”

In fact, it’s not clear from his comments what, exactly, Wheeler hopes or expects anyone to be doing with the newly open standards for set-top boxes, assuming the rules ever gets that far through the likely gantlet of lawsuits and foot-dragging  (the formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the commissioners voted on has not yet been published by the FCC). He took pains at Thursday’s hearing to make it sound as if nothing much would change about set-top boxes at all under the new rules apart from the manufacturer’s name plate, going so far as to put up a pair of identical slides purporting to show before and after schematic drawings of how consumers would access pay-TV content. Read More »

Cable’s Q4 Bundle of Joy

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter all reported strong video subscriber growth in the fourth quarter of 2015, adding 172,000 between them. That was a far cry from a year earlier, when they collectively lost 35,000 video subs.

The results led some to speculate that the worst days of cord-cutting are now behind the industry and that cord-nevers may be starting to change their minds about paying for TV.

Maybe, although the pay-TV industry as a whole continues to lose subscribers, at a rate of about 1 percent a year, according to an estimate by comcast_vanMoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. Most of that shrinkage in the fourth quarter came from telco and satellite providers, as those two businesses undergo restructurings.

Between them, Verizon’s FiOS TV service and the combined AT&T/DirecTV lost 6,000 video subscribers in the quarter, as Verizon shifted its video focus to its new mobile streaming service Go90 while AT&T shed U-Verse subscribers as it prepared to swallow DirecTV.

In Comcast’s Q4 earnings call, CEO Brian Roberts acknowledged that some of cable’s gain last year probably reflected a market share shift, reversing several years in which cable was losing share to satellite and telco. Read More »

Unbundling The Set-Top Box

Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smiling. Nearly six years after the late Apple CEO complained that real innovation in the TV industry could only happen if you first “tear up” the traditional pay-TV set-top box, the FCC is taking the first steps toward doing just that.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler this week announced that the commission will vote next month on whether to proceed with a formal rulemaking to “unlock the set-top box,” if not quite tear it up, by requiring cable, satellite and telco pay-TV providers to make elements of their service available to third-party device makers and software developers.

“Today, 99 percent of pay-TV customers lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telco providers,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed published Push_button_cable_boxWednesday. “Pay-TV subscribers spend an average of $231 a year to rent these boxes, because there are few meaningful alternatives. If you’ve ever signed up for a $99-a-month bundle for cable, phone and Internet and then wondered why your bill is significantly higher, this is a big reason…This week, I am sharing a proposal with my colleagues to tear down the barriers that currently prevent innovators from developing new ways for consumers to access and enjoy their favorite shows and movies on their terms. The new rules would create a framework for providing device manufacturers, software developers and others the information they need to introduce innovative new technologies, while at the same time maintaining strong security, copyright and consumer protections.” Read More »

Zero Tolerance

As the FCC awaits the fate of its open internet order (a.k.a. net neutrality) in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, language that could have mooted much of the legal case by limiting the commission’s authority to regulate internet access was stripped at the last minute from the 2000-page omnibus spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders Tuesday night to keep the government running into 2016.

The removal of the rider was a blow to ISPs, which had lobbied to keep the language in the spending bill, but net neutrality advocates have found plenty of other things to complain about lately regarding the behavior of ISPs. Top of the charts: the growing number of streaming services ISPs are selectively exempting from data caps.

FCC_buildingIn just the past three months:

  • T-Mobile introduced its Binge On plan, which allows mobile users to stream video from roughly two-dozen “partner” services, including Netflix, HBO Now, Sling TV, MLB.tv, Showtime and Starz, without those bits counting against a subscriber’s data cap;
  • Comcast launched Stream TV in a handful of markets, a live and on-demand streaming service that, unlike Netflix, for instance will not count against Comcast subscribers’ data caps where those are in place (as no doubt they soon will be everywhere);
  • Verizon launched Go90, its in-house streaming service for which data usage is “sponsored” by advertisers and therefore isn’t counted toward the user’s data cap;
  • AT&T hinted broadly that it, too, will launch a mobile streaming service that, like Verizon’s Go90, would be “sponsored” by someone other than the user.

Read More »

Aereo’s Fuzzy Legal Legacy

While the FCC seems to have backed off for now from a proposal to update the regulatory definition of multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to include certain types of over-the-top services, the battle over how the law should treat online video rages on along other fronts.

aereo_antennaOn Wednesday, a redacted copy of an opinion issued under seal last month by U.S. district court judge Rosemary Collyer, concluding that OTT broadcast service FilmOn X was not entitled to the compulsory license that cable and satellite services rely on when they retransmit copyrighted content contained in broadcast signals, was released to the public. And even with the redactions, it’s now clear that Judge Collyer took a 180-degree different view of the question than U.S. district judge George Wu took last year in ruling that FilmOn was, in fact, entitled to the compulsory license.

The two questions — who qualifies as a MVPD under FCC regulations? and who qualifies for the compulsory copyright license MVPDs rely on? — are legally distinct, but closely related. Read More »

Amazon’s On-Demand MVPD

At a congressional oversight hearing last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler indicated that his earlier proposal to classify certain over-the-top video services as “multichannel video programming distributors” (MVPDs), a regulatory term of art that applies to cable and satellite providers, was on more or less indefinite hold.

“The purpose of rulemaking is to learn,” Wheeler told the committee. “We learned that [a] vast number of things are developing very rapidly, and we have not moved forward on that notice of proposed rulemaking and don’t see, until situations change, we would.”

Among those “vast number of things,” no doubt, were Amazon’s confidential plans to bundle third-party OTT services in with Amazon Prime, monitor_globeallowing Prime Instant Video users to put together a package of OTT channels through a single subscription. As first reported by BloombergBusiness, Amazon Prime customers “will have the option of adding other online subscriptions to their accounts, including major, well-known movie and TV channels, and Amazon will also sell prepackaged bundles of its own creation…[T]he new feature may go live as soon as next month.”

The offering would “resemble something between a cable-TV subscription, though without live programming, and the online array of video offered through devices from Roku Inc., Apple TV or Amazon’s own Fire TV,” according to Bloomberg. Read More »

FCC Hitting Pause On Pay-TV Overhaul?

For much of the past year, the Federal Communications Commission has been conducting a pair of proceedings that together, depending on their outcomes, could go a long way toward remaking the pay-TV business as we’ve known it. But at an oversight hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler seemed to turn down the heat under both of them.

Receiving the most attention at the hearing was the recently completed report by the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing(DSTAC), in particular a controversial proposal in it to require pay-TV operators to disaggregate their services into discreet components that would allow third-party set-top box makers to design their own user interfaces that could leverage elements of pay-TV services to create new user experiences (see our previous discussions of the debate here, here and here).

Republican members of the committee were sharply critical of the proposal and accused the FCC of exceeding Congress’s mandate for DSTAC in allowing the committee to consider non-security elements of pay-TV interoperability. Some members all but endorsed a competing proposal, put forth by pay-TV service providers, to adopt an app-based approach to interoperability under which service providers would, in effect, virtualize their existing STBs, complete with proprietary UIs, into apps that could be downloaded and run on third-party devices. Read More »

The Wrong Debate Over Set-Top Boxes

Today (Nov. 9th) was the last day for filing comments with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) and folks in the pay-TV industry were clearly getting nervous that the FCC might finally, really do something this time to “tear up the set-top box.”

Last week, eight of the largest pay-TV providers, along with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Motion Picture Association Push_button_cable_boxof America, and several equipment manufacturers together sent a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists to FCC headquarters, ex parte, in a desperate bid to head off any movement by the agency toward a rulemaking that would require pay-TV providers to disaggregate their services into rearrangable  parts as proposed by the technology company and public interest faction of DSTAC.

The group was particularly exercised by an ex parte filing with the commission in late October by Public Knowledge, Google, Amazon and Hauppauge purporting to fill in the technical details of the “virtual head-end” proposal made by the technology faction of DSTAC for separating out the components of pay-TV services. According to MPAA, NCTA et. al., however, the new version “is so changed that it is barely recognizable from [the technology group’s] earlier proposal in the DSTAC Report,” and required more time for study before they could adequately respond to it. Read More »

The Studios Look For An Island In The Set-Top Storm

The Motion Picture Association of America really, really doesn’t want the FCC to tear up the set-top box. So much so that its filing with the commission last week regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) contained a thinly veiled threat of litigation should the FCC mandate disaggregation of pay-TV services into parts that can be reassembled at will, and on constitutional grounds no less.

“Mandating such a regime…could violate content owners’: 1) contracts with distributors regarding how their content may be presented, monetized, and accessed; 2)

Wallpaper: Sunrise of the Sea

exclusive rights under section 106 of the Copyright Act to determine how their content is copied, distributed, and publicly performed; 3) First Amendment right against compelled speech; and 4) Fifth Amendment right against taking of property without due compensation,” the MPAA warned. “If third-parties wish to offer a subset of content, services, features, and functions rather than all the choices distributors offer customers in the way that they offer them, the appropriate course is through individualized negotiation, not regulatory fiat.”

What has the Hollywood trade group so exercised is a proposal by one faction within DSTAC, included in the final report, to require cable and satellite providers to unbundle their video feeds from other elements of their services, including the user interface, interactive features and billing, so those feeds can be incorporated into the UI of a third-party device and integrated with other video services. Only then, proponents of unbundling argue, can consumer electronics makers create devices that can compete fully with or replace set-top boxes provided by pay-TV operators. Read More »

Will The FCC Finally ‘Tear Up The Set-Top Box’?

The FCC kicked off the second phase of a process this week that could, eventually, change how pay-TV service is delivered to the home and by whom. On Monday, the commission issued a formal notice seeking comments on a set of proposals developed by the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) for how to enable third-party retail set-top boxes to better interoperate with pay-TV services. DSTAC submitted its proposals last week and the FCC posted six-page summary of its report on Friday [note: the FCC’s IT system will be inaccessible  until Sept. 8 due to an upgrade, so links temporarily may not work].

The first phase of the process began in January, when the FCC convened DSTAC at the direction of Congress. As spelled out in the Satellite Television Extension and Locset-top_box_openalism Act Reauthorization law (STELAR) passed last December, DSTAC’s mandate was to “identify, report, and recommend performance objectives, technical capabilities, and technical standards of a not unduly burdensome, uniform, and technology- and platform-neutral software-based downloadable security system designed to promote the competitive availability of [pay-TV] navigation devices in furtherance of section 629 of the Communications Act of 1934.”

It did not go well. From the beginning there was disagreement within both the committee and the FCC as to the proper scope of the mission and the committee soon devolved into two opposing and roughly equal camps, with pay-TV providers and equipment makers on one side, and CE makers and technology companies, along with consumer advocates, in the other. In broad strokes, the first camp wanted to focus the discussion narrowly on the technical aspects of downloadable security, while the latter camp sought to focus the discussion more broadly on the goal of “promot[ing] the competitive availability of navigation devices” including security and non-security elements of pay-TV service. Read More »

Trouble By The Bundle

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“We understand the temptation for the FCC to take credit for resolving this impasse, but their intervention had nothing to do with it. We were very close to a resolution well before Chairman Wheeler got involved. In fact, the FCC process actually delayed the resolution, because it added more issues to negotiate, which lengthened DISH’s service interruption, not shortened it.”

That was Sinclair Broadcasting doing its best impression of Comical Ali, a.k.a. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, the hapless former Iraqi spokesman, insisting that the FCC’s unusual and urgent intercession in the retransmission consent negotiations between Sinclair and Dish Network had nothing to do with the outcome.

comical_ali_nothing_to_seeDish and Sinclair had been negotiating for two and half months without reaching an agreement, Sinclair had triggered the nuclear option by yanking 129 local stations from Dish subscribers in 79 markets, but within hours of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler blasting the blackout and summoning the parties to an “emergency meeting” at the commission, mirabile dictu, all issues were resolved and the blackout was lifted.

Yet one thing had “nothing to do” with the other. Hmm.

The actual substance of the dispute between Dish and Sinclair was no laughing matter for the future of the pay-TV business, however, nor was Wheeler’s intercession, whatever its effect. Read More »

Retransmission Discontent

Last week’s meltdown among media company stocks seems to have subsided for now, but not before wiping out $60 billion in market value. Shares of Viacom fell 17 percent between August 4 and August 11; Discovery Communications and 21st Century Fox each fell 13 percent; Disney shares dropped by 11 percent; Time Warner by nine and Comcast (NBCUniversal), CBS and Starz all fell by mid-single digits.

Media CEOs complained, and many analysts concurred, that the sell-off was overdone, and that neither the actual earnings news that triggered it nor the underlying fundamentals of the business justified such a drastic repricing. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the market overreacted to events in the short term.

FCC_buildingIn fact, the stampede out of pay-TV stocks last week felt more like the release of pent-up anxiety among investors than a reaction to any particular bit of news. It began when Disney issued a small downward revision to its earnings forecast for its ESPN unit, which it blamed on “modest subscriber losses” from cord-cutting. The adjustment was a small one, but Disney chief Bob Iger has been among the most outspoken media CEOs in arguing that cord-cutting is a limited and manageable phenomenon, and that ESPN is well-positioned to profit from changes in the pay-TV business. If even Disney couldn’t paper over the impact of cord-cutting on ESPN, investors seemed to conclude, then maybe the problem really is as bad as we feared.

Similarly, ratings woes on linear TV channels are not new. But when Viacom reported a 9 percent drop in ad revenue from its cable networks investors seemed to take it as confirmation that even well-established media brands are losing pricing power in the advertising market. Read More »

Going Over The Top Without Cutting The Cord

Trying to figure out what the stealthy startup Layer3 TV is planning to unleash later this year has become something of a parlor game among pay-TV industry watchers. The VC-backed company, founded in Boston by two cable-industry veterans but now headquartered in Denver, has said little about its plans beyond its goal to become “a next generation cable provider spearheading a new era of home media, combining the best of television, social, and digital life.” How it plans to do that, though, remains a closely guarded secret.

The company’s name — Layer3 — refers to the 7-layer TCP/IP stack, specifically the packet routing layer, which may be a hint. And its two co-founders, Jeff Binder and Layer3 TVDave Fellows, are a couple of confirmed gear-heads. Binder was the founder of VOD systems provider Broadbus Technologies, which was sold to Motorola in 2006, while Fellows is a former CTO at Comcast and AT&T Broadband. So it’s reasonable to assume that whatever Layer3 is planning will leverage existing cable-cum-broadband plant.

The announcement of a second-round of funding in June that raised $51 million offered further hints.

“Cable television may have dominated the business press this year but consumers continue to crave a simple, yet elegant, solution for managing the newest innovations in video, social and digital,” Binder said in a statement. “Layer3 TV is the new cable — putting subscribers at the center of the universe by giving them seamless control of their entertainment relationships.” Read More »