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.

 

Set-Top Rapprochement

Back in 2012, writing for the now-defunct GigaOm, I predicted that peace would eventually breakout between pay-TV operators and over-the-top services, a process I dubbed the set-top rapprochement (I was able to find one archived example of my musings still available online).

As OTT services evolved into ever-more viable substitutes for traditional TV, pay-TV providers, I assumed, would eventually realize they were better off embracing the enemy that fighting him, lest they be displaced altogether. OTT services, I imagined, would eventually see the benefit to getting their service onto TV-input 1 in households that held onto their pay-TV service, which is to say most of them. Read More »

Apple TV Needs To Get Off The Couch

Earlier this month Apple poached Timothy Twerdahl from Amazon, where he had headed up the Fire TV unit, to serve as VP in charge of Apple TV product marketing, raising hopes that Apple is gearing up for another try at transforming Apple TV from a hobby into a meaningful product line. But if so the transformation won’t be immediate.

Apple is reportedly testing the next iteration of the Apple TV set-top box, which could be released later this year. But early indications are that it will be another study in incrementalism, adding support for 4K streaming but no groundbreaking new functionality.

Apple is also rolling out two new original TV series, a long-form version of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments from the “Late Late Show,” and reality TV-type series called “Planet of the Apps.” But neither series is being launched under the Apple TV banner. Instead, as Apple content chief Eddy Cue explained at the Code Media conference this week, both will be made available through Apple Music in a bid to boost subscriptions to the music streaming service. 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 »