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 »

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 »

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 »

Disney’s Split UI Personality

Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger this week said he is “very excited” about the user interface Hulu has designed for its planned virtual-pay-TV service launching next year.

“We’ve seen the interface because we’re partners [in Hulu]” Iger said Wednesday at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit. “It’s a great interface, a tremendous user experience, and we’re in discussions with them about our channels and about prices.”

hulu_nocbs-1He also used the opportunity to take a swipe at traditional pay-TV operators for the lack of innovation in their UIs over the years.

“I’ve been frustrated over the years by the UI” of cable and satellite TV services Iger said. “Maybe because I’m getting older I don’t have the patience anymore, but we’re all getting more and more spoiled by what technology makes possible,” in terms of surfacing, discovering and accessing content.

According to Iger, consumers raised on digital platforms today simply won’t tolerate any glitches or difficulty in access the content they want when they want it, and the traditional pay-TV industry simply hasn’t kept up with the times. Read More »

What UI Voodoo Will Hulu Do In Linear Debut?

One of the more interesting subplots to Hulu’s apparently pending rollout of an over-the-top bundle of linear channels will be what it does with the user interface.

As I’ve noted here previously, the traditional programming grid that still drives navigation on most pay-TV systems today is at the core of the current tussle over Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to “unlock” the set-top box to allow third-party devices and applications to interoperate with pay-TV services. And apart from pay-TV operators themselves, the loudest objections to Wheeler’s proposal have come from programmers, who fear those third parties will not honor the agreements networks have with operators concerning their position within the traditional pay-TV UI.

“ArmHulu_homepage’s length agreements between MVPDs and programmers provide the necessary licenses to transmit the content, and in exchange the MVPDs agree to a range of license terms, including security requirements, advertising rules, [electronic programming guide] channel placement obligations, and tier placement requirements,” the Motion Picture Association of America wrote in comments submitted to the FCC. “These terms are material to the grant of the copyright license, and to copyright holders’ ability to direct the exploitation of their works in a manner that enables them to continue to invest in the high-quality programming that viewers expect. ..The only terms the proposal would explicitly recognize are copy, output, and streaming limitations. Extensively negotiated terms on matters including “service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replac[ing] or alter[ing] advertising, or improperly manipulat[ing] content,” are all left unaddressed by the FCC’s proposal.” Read More »

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 »

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 »

The Future of TV: Platform or Service?

Amazon on Tuesday unveiled its expanded Prime Instant Video service and it seems to be more or less as advertised. Prime subscribers will now be able to add subscriptions to other over-the-top streaming services, including Showtime, Starz and an array of niche channel for prices ranging from $3 a month to $8.99 a month for Showtime, on top of the $99 annual price ($8.25 per month) for Prime.

Amazon SDDChannels can be ordered a la carte, and subscribers can change their line ups each month. Prime subscribers can also user their Amazon credentials to log in to any of the standalone apps for their add-on channels on other streaming platform, which means Prime subscribers can watch Showtime on Apple TV despite the absence of Prime on the Apple set-top box.

For the participating networks, the expanded Prime means forgoing a direct relationship with subscribers, as Amazon will handle all billing and customer service functions, presumably in exchange for a cut of the add-on subscription fees, while gaining the leverage of Amazon’s reach and merchandising strength. 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 »