Let’s Send a Message to the FCC: Consumers, Not Hollywood, Should Drive the Pay TV Market
The FCC is about to make a decision about whether third-party companies can market their own alternatives to the set-top boxes provided by cable companies. Under the proposed rules, instead of using the box from Comcast, you could buy your own from a variety of different manufacturers. It could even have features that Comcast wouldn’t dream of, like letting you sync your favorite shows onto your mobile phone or search across multiple free TV, pay TV, and amateur video sites.
We’ve been closely following the “Unlock the Box” proposal since it was first introduced in February, but its history goes back much further. Congress first authorized the FCC to enact rules bringing competition to the set-top box market 20 years ago, as a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. We’re so close to finally unlocking the box, but pay TV providers and big content companies have been throwing out every distracting argument they can to stop it.
This week, the FCC commissioners will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee. This might be our last chance. Let’s use this opportunity to send the commissioners a clear message: consumers should drive the set-top box market, not media conglomerates.
When people have talked about Unlock the Box, it’s mainly been about how the rule would stimulate competition. It’s a basic principle of economics that when companies have to compete for your money, the product improves. That’s why we have antitrust laws preventing companies from maintaining a monopoly through unfair means. If your cable company has to compete with other set-top box manufacturers, then they’ll have to create a better product.
This isn’t just about healthy competition, though. It’s about much more. It’s about how much control we give big content owners over our technology. It’s about whether media giants can use copyright to hold our tech back.
Just as they did thirty years ago in the fight over VCRs, media conglomerates are trying to dominate the discussion. Cable companies and big movie and television studios have been arguing that the FCC’s proposal takes too much power out of the hands of content companies. Implicit in their argument is the assertion that copyright should let them control how, where, and when you watch TV, and what hardware you use to do it.
That’s not how copyright works, and it’s easy to see why. Imagine if a cable network tried to require that viewers watch its programs on a 42-inch television, or if a book publisher made you sign an agreement that you can only use a certain brand of light bulb to see its books. By design, copyright grants rights holders a specific and limited set of rights to their works—it does not give them the right to attach unlimited strings to others’ use of those works.
The fight over set-top boxes isn’t just about stimulating competition to bring higher quality products to market (as important as that is)—it’s about your basic rights as a consumer. It’s crucial that we send the message to the FCC commissioners: copyright doesn’t let content companies unfairly control technology.
Update (September 20, 2016): Thanks to everyone who participated in this campaign. You sent over 1000 tweets to Commerce Committee members, making it clear that their constituents care about bringing fair competition to the set-top box market.
Chairman Tom Wheeler has circulated revised rules to his fellow commissioners, but they have not yet been made public. A fact sheet published by the FCC indicates that under the new proposal, pay TV providers will be required to provide apps that consumers can use to watch their programming on third-party set-top boxes. It appears that this approach won’t give box manufacturers the same ability to customize and enhance the TV viewing experience that the original proposal would have.
The decision now lies in the FCC commissioners’ hands. We will be watching closely to see what happens.