Walking Dead Producer Claims Real Cable Set Top Box Competition Will Result In Piracy Armageddon

from the bbbrraaaains dept

As we’ve been discussing, the FCC has started working more seriously on opening the cable set top box to real competition. As it stands, 99% of consumers currently pay about $231 annually in rental fees for aging hardware that’s often worth about half that much. The FCC’s goal is ultimately to let consumers access cable content using the hardware of their choice, creating a healthy new competitive market, and by proxy better hardware at lower prices. But monthly set top box rental fees represent $20 billion in annual revenue to cable providers, which is why they’ve been having a hissy fit about the FCC’s plan.

This manufactured outrage has involved claiming that more set top box competition will somehow hurt diversity (despite the plan providing access to a more diverse array of content than ever before). Or claiming that consumers having a choice of hardware will harm children’s safety and user security. The latest attack on the FCC’s plan? Having The Walking Dead producer and Producers Guild of America secretary Gale Anne Hurd pen a missive over at USAToday claiming that more set top box competition somehow automatically means a huge spike in piracy:

“If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves Chairman Tom Wheeler?s regulatory proposal to ?open? set-top boxes, it will make piracy as easy and dangerous in the living room as it is on laptop and mobile devices. Wait, you didn?t know piracy was rampant on the Internet? Well, the figures shocked even me, and as a producer of horror and science fiction, I?m not easily scared. The season five premiere of my show, The Walking Dead, was illegally downloaded by roughly 1.27 million unique IP addresses worldwide within 24 hours of its debut.”

Right, people pirate content. No debate there. That’s in part because despite some notable progress, finding legitimate content online remains a bit of an expensive mole hunt (made worse by exclusive streaming arrangements), making piracy just cheaper and easier. But it’s also because while copy protection on cable hardware (including the latest HDCP 2.2 standard for 4K) does a great job in annoying paying customers, it repeatedly fails to actually secure content. That’s not going to change under a system where users have access to cheaper, better hardware. What will change is that users will no longer be trapped in the cable industry’s set top box walled garden, and will have access to more ways to buy and watch legitimate content than ever before, including AMC’s own website and streaming service. Outrageous!

Hurd doesn’t appear to understand this, or how the FCC’s plan actually works, since the outline the FCC has provided (pdf) notes that the FCC’s plan leaves it up to cable providers to still “determine the content protection systems it deems sufficient to prevent theft and misuse” and “will not impede the introduction of new content protection systems.” In other words, from a copy protection perspective, nothing will really change (unfortunately). But Hurd somehow tries to claim that the FCC’s plan means that Google would somehow be driving users to pirated content:

“It would also allow Google ? and for that matter set-top box manufacturers from all over the world, including China (where rogue boxes are being built by the millions) ? to create and market applications or boxes with software that will treat legitimate and stolen material exactly the same, and may in many cases help to steer consumers to piracy.”

Note again how Hurd just ignores the fact that set top box competition would also drive users to more legitimate options than ever before. No, apparently Hurd is worried that because these new set top boxes might actually connect people to the Internet (which is already happening in streaming boxes and game consoles), they’ll be more likely to pirate:

“This is a real threat. Google’s search engine does this today. Here?s what happens when I search ?watch Fear the Walking Dead.” After the paid results, the first option is AMC and the second is a pirate site ? literally, side by side. Chairman Wheeler?s set-top box proposal places no restrictions on search results. If approved, it would allow device-makers to prominently display pirated content from the Internet alongside legitimate options ? just like in my “watch Fear the Walking Dead” Google search.

So wait, because The Walking Dead shows up in a Google search result we shouldn’t support the push for more set top box competition? Kind of throwing the baby away with the bathwater, aren’t we? The FCC is proposing a system whereby users will have access to more content and cheaper, better content than ever, but because these set tops might have a browser we should run in terror? Hurd basically just takes some vague fear about piracy and uses it to villainize a reform effort that could potentially drive more legitimate viewers her direction than ever before.

Of course the idea that set top box reform is some kind of villainous Google plot to ruin the cable industry’s day has been a cable industry industry narrative since the FCC’s plan was unveiled. The fact that you’ll see a huge number of editorials just like Hurd’s popping up in newspapers and various websites nationwide isn’t mystical coincidence, it’s a concerted cable industry PR stunt. Given Comcast is playing a starring role in this PR offensive, Comcast’s top spokesperson was quick to applaud Hurd’s editorial on Twitter:

Make no mistake though. Opposition to the FCC’s plan isn’t about piracy, or a love of diversity, or Google, or privacy and security. It’s about protecting $20 billion in captive rental fee revenue from competition. And because the cable industry can’t just come out and say this fight is all about money (because we’d all just laugh at them), they’re pushing an army of editorials that try to claim real set top box competition will be notably worse than a zombie apocalypse.

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Companies: google, producers guild of america

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Comments on “Walking Dead Producer Claims Real Cable Set Top Box Competition Will Result In Piracy Armageddon”

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64 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

"If you make this change you'll enable people to do what they already can!"

Anyone that actually wants to can already watch pirated copies of pretty much any show they care to look for, the limiting factor isn’t how easy it is, because from everything I’d gathered it’s already dead easy, but simply whether or not they care to go the legal route or not(or in many cases whether or not the legal route even exists in their area).

Change the set-top boxes to be more open and those that were watching the show ‘properly’ will still do so, those that were pirating will still do so, and the number jumping between the two groups would be minimal at worst.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google is the go to Piracy excuse like ‘For the Children’ and ‘Because Terrorism’ are excuses for pushing bad legislation.

Basically nobody believes it and it automatically makes you sound disingenuous. As soon as I hear someone whining about a problem on the internet and invokes Google, I automatically dismiss them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

When it works, it works.

You may be smart enough to figure this shit out, but the vast majority of citizens are not. Politicians know how stupid we are, they use this shit on purpose and they likely groan every time its used on legislation they hate because it helps to force their hand as well. They all use it illegitimately and know they cannot get themselves out of this usage rut because it the attempt would damage all of their past work and they cannot have that!

TheResidentSkeptic says:

Maybe we need an education campaign...

Real simple one…

Google is to businesses with websites as the Yellow pages was to businesses with phones. Nothing more, nothing less.

Businesses used to try to “game” the phone book listing by putting “AAAAAAA” in front of their name to get to the top of the page; SEO does the equivalent for websites.

The Yellow Pages did NOT own every business; Google does not OWN every website.

Why is this so damn hard for folks to understand?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Maybe we need an education campaign...

“Why is this so damn hard for folks to understand?”

Because it’s a lot easier to rant and rave and rail about the evils of the phone book and how it lets people find shady businesses, than it is to actually deal with 2,000 competitors, not including the shady ones.

Ninja (profile) says:

It’s amusing how these people talk about Google as it is some sort of threat. The MAFIAA history is littered with these examples. Every single new entrant to the market has been met with the same apocalyptic speech and many ended up bringing much more money to these idiots. If anything, they will be the ones to kill themselves in spite of anything innovative services and equipment do to drive money their way.

Anonymous Coward says:

They own the pipes and the rights to distribute the content. I could understand the outrage if over the air broadcasts were encrypted, but they remain open and free for anyone to record.

If you’re upset at this you also be upset at Netflix, YouTube Red and all the other IP companies that DRM their transmissions or require proprietary software to view.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes, but Netflix, YouTube Red, and Hulu don’t require me to buy/rent their specific Tandy computer running Windows 3.1 and only use that. They let me use much better equipment, like a MacBook, or homemade Linux machine, or a Windows XP/7/8/10 computer, or even my phone. Hell, I can get my RaspberryPi to run the video services.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Don’t the major cable companies offer online TV streaming?”

So your argument is that we shouldn’t have set top box competition because cable companies offer online streaming if you already pay for the higher channels and already pay for a set top box?

“There are also cable cards.”

That require a set top box to work because the higher channels are encrypted to force you to pay for a set top box.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“we shouldn’t have set top box competition”

I don’t see the benefit of government regulation of one kind of computer you connect to your TV when there are other kinds of computers/software you connect to your TV like Roku, Kodi, or any general purpose computer all of which are innovating the set top box into obsolescence.

There’s really no need to have a set top box at all these days since there are superior less expensive options. By the time the set top box is thoroughly regulated the tech will belong in a museum.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

And thus the reason why cable TV is hemorrhaging subscribers. We’re forced to pay for cable boxes if we want the higher channels, but as you say we’re not starved for alternatives. As much as you might want to keep to the delusion, cable is dying. If anything, opening up the set top box market would help cable as more people might be willing to have one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“We’re forced to pay for cable boxes if we want the higher channels”

No, that is a condition of the sale. Like saying you’re forced to buy gas if you want to use your car.

“As much as you might want to keep to the delusion, cable is dying”

I don’t know why you would think I disagree with that statement.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

“We’re forced to pay for cable boxes if we want the higher channels”

No, that is a condition of the sale. Like saying you’re forced to buy gas if you want to use your car.

When I bought my car, there were no conditions on the sales contract stating that I would have to buy gas in order to use it.

The need for gasoline in order to use my car is an inherent, unavoidable result of the mechanical design of the car, and of the physics which lets it work at all. All vehicles need energy input of some type; most get it from gasoline, some from diesel, some from more esoteric substances, some in the form of electricity, but they all need it. That’s why no one bothers to write any terms about “you must buy fuel in order to use this product” into the sale contract of a vehicle, much less terms restricting it to a specific brand of fuel from a specific supplier.

By contrast, access to higher channels is not built on an inherent, unavoidable necessity to use the specific set-top box which the provider makes available; many other models of set-top box could work equally well, if the provider would permit it. Unlike a car’s requirement for fuel, the requirement for the specific set-top box is artificial.

MikeF1974 (profile) says:

What about CableCARDs?

Don’t CableCARDs already enable this? I’ve been using CableCARDs in my Tivo for about 10 years now. I also had one in my TV for a short time. The only thing I couldn’t get at first was PPV, but who cares about that in this age of on-demand rentals from Amazon and Apple. Now there’s a solution for TiVo, but I haven’t bothered.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

There are approximately 4 billion unique IP addresses out there, due to the nature of IPV4. If the season five premiere of The Walking Dead was illegally downloaded by roughly 1.27 million unique IP addresses worldwide, then it sounds like he’s trying to turn something that approximately 0.03% of the Internet is actually doing and turn it into an epic crisis.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But those numbers sound bad so they must be bad!

Actually, I was curious so had a quick glance at some figures. That episode had 17.29 million viewers on the broadcast he references. So, he’s only panicking over approx. 7% of potential viewership – not to be sneezed at but hardly make or break for the show.

But, wait – those are worldwide piracy figures! So, what percentage of the pirates are Americans (i.e. people who could be included in the broadcast figures)? If it’s low, he could be talking about blocking customer options because he’s scared of losing less than 1% of viewers.

Funny how those scary numbers get a lot less scary when you apply logic and honesty to them.

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I was going to say that’s a pretty LOW number of people downloading a copy! It’s fantasy land if you think you can get that number down to zero or even remotely close to zero.

The more you try and lock things up and make content harder to get, the more it’ll be pirated.

It’s also really easy to get anything you want and normally in HD and commercial free. Plus be 100% automated where your pirated shows are grabbed all on it’s own ready to watch on your AppleTV, ROKU, etc box. You don’t even have to Torrent it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Make no mistake though. Opposition to the FCC’s plan isn’t about piracy, or a love of diversity, or Google, or privacy and security. It’s about protecting $20 billion in captive rental fee revenue from competition.

Nonsense. If that were true, then why are so many that make nothing from set-top box rentals against this?

Alexander (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The stupid, it burns.

Here. It is pretty simple.
The people making the $20 billion are telling them to complain for them. It’s called lobbying, or maybe just buying influence. Or maybe, tell them this, or we will cut you off.
In general it seems that the media creators are living in an echo chamber controlled by the ?IAA so they believe the lies about lost sales and the destruction of the industry due to piracy, not the annual evidence of record sales and growth in the sector.

Synonymous Howard (profile) says:

Put your shows on platforms I subscribe to. All of them. Amazon Prime. Netflix. Make your shows a dollar an episode and I will absolutely buy them. But instead, every channel has its own website, with its own login, and its own stupid broken flash player that doesn’t work. Make it easy for people to watch your shows, and they will. But if your site works less well than a pirate website, people will go elsewhere.

Jason says:

Re: Re:

That. A hundred million times that.

Just last night I was watching an episode of Agent Carter on my DVR (I’m a bit behind…) and the last few minutes got cut off because whatever show was on before it had run long. (To say nothing about the winter weather ticker and radar box on the screen during the entire show.) Can I watch it on Hulu (or even ABC’s own site) instead? Nope. It’s not one of the last five. That kind of artificial limit helps viewership because…why, exactly?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Economic benefit of making it more difficult? And what might that be? Tossing more costs to be passed onto ISPs and their consumers? Geo-blocking all possible methods for people overseas to access content, even legitimately?

The net result is that the people who are savvy enough to pirate their stuff continue to do so and the people who aren’t move onto less difficult sources of entertainment. So providers are throwing away money to get, at best… nothing.

That sounds nothing like “understanding” or “economic benefit”.

PaulT (profile) says:

“it will make piracy as easy and dangerous in the living room as it is on laptop and mobile devices”

What the hell? Does he not have the ability to use mobiles and laptops in his living room? Or is he saying that his current customers are too stupid to work out how to connect them to a TV after downloading something?

“The season five premiere of my show, The Walking Dead, was illegally downloaded by roughly 1.27 million unique IP addresses worldwide within 24 hours of its debut.”

How many of those were in locations where the episode was available legally at that time? Of those that weren’t how long did viewers have to wait for the local broadcast? In areas where the broadcast was available at that time, was the show censored or otherwise altered from the US version? Which legal catch-up services were available in those areas? Did those other people have to pay a premium not applicable to the US service? What options were available to people who didn’t have the cable/satellite required to receive the broadcast? Etc., etc.

These figures do tend to get a lot less scarily large when you skip the knee-jerk and start thinking about why it happened. There will always be some piracy, of course (as there always has been), but it’s often due to some reason. Honestly addressing those is the way forward, not fighting against customer choice because it scares you for them to have options.

“After the paid results, the first option is AMC and the second is a pirate site — literally, side by side”

So… Google is doing its job returning the search results people are asking for, and AMC apparently have SEO people who know what they’re doing. Assuming that you can watch the episode you’re looking for on the AMC site, the real question is why a person would click on the second result instead of the first (or the paid links). If you can’t watch the episode there, well, perhaps you should be getting a service that offers what those people are searching for.

Whatever drives them to go to the pirate site will still be there even if Google magically removes the other sites. Which they won’t, because magic doesn’t exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm calling bullshit on this

“The season five premiere of my show, The Walking Dead, was illegally downloaded by roughly 1.27 million unique IP addresses worldwide within 24 hours of its debut.”

This is a complete fabrication: there DOES NOT EXIST a way to conduct a measurement that will yield this number (or any other like it).

So at this point in the conversation, we know that Hurd is a liar, and that any statements predicated on this claim are based on a lie.

Note: I’m not saying the show wasn’t downloaded, or even illegally downloaded (a distinction skimmed over here). I’m saying that no measurement technique exists by which a number like this can even be approximated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Its understandable that the producer does not want competition in the cable boxes. The more revenue the cable companies make, the more money AMC can charge to carry the channel. The more AMC makes, the more the producer of an extremely popular TV show can make.

So its really about money trickling down to him from the populous overpaying to the tune of $20 billion.

Anonmylous says:

Red Herring

Why is everyone legitimizing her arguments about google. These are SET TOP BOXES. They don’t use a browser. They don’t search the web for video sources. At best they will use (likely custom) apps to access specific streaming services.

Google is both a red herring and a target of opportunity. This is about either killing the proposal or getting wording added to it that has nothing to do with set top boxes and everything to do with throwing more shackles on Google (and possibly other search providers because why not).

That 20 billion dollars in revenue is the real problem. See, not only do you have to rent an HD cable box to get HD content, you also have to pay a separate “gateway” fee. Want to rent a DVR? You’re also gonna pay a DVR gateway fee. Are these fees lower than the device rental fee? Not usually. So, instead of 15.99 a month for an HD DVR cable box, you pay 31.98 or more for it. That’s 383.76 a year for that box.

FOR ONE BOX!

Well hell yeah we should be doing something about that! That is absolutely a result of “regulatory capture” of a market and I am damned glad the FCC is finally doing something about it.

Now if only they’d force the carrie-err, content delivery companies to open their lines to competitors, maybe we could do something about the insane, ever-rising monthly fees for cable service. Oh? They’d hate that? Well gee, if only there were some big evil bogeyman they could point to and distract us from this very idea….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Red Herring

“regulatory capture” of a market”

This argument makes sense in markets with internet data caps or slow speeds but in most markets cable TV can be replaced by over the air broadcast TV and online streaming. Regulating set top boxes is a red herring. If you want regulation to increase competition encourage faster internet speeds, ban data caps and make broadband more accessible to folks in rural areas. IP based companies like Netflix will offer much more consumer choice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not a Zombie - Still Have a Brain

A few years ago, I bought an old Lenovo desktop box with an Intel dual core 2.93 GHz processor, 2 GB RAM, and a 250 GB HD with Windoze 7 installed. Cost me about $90 + $20 shipping and handling from EBay; needed to spend another $15 on cables to hook up box to TV. I’ve needed to buy more storage, since I *occasionally* deem some stuff sufficiently uncraptastic to be worthy of rewatching, and my sweetie and I have ripped our entire joint collection of music (zero overlap!) to play on our “home entertainment center” (read “set-top box” in this context). I’m still way under 3 TB. It was a good “set-top box” at first, and with the later addition of XBMC/Kodi (and 1Channel especially), it’s now all the box I expect ever to need. No cable TV, no Netflix, no Hulu, no paid services period – just the Internet (and local over-the-air broadcast).

AnonCow says:

I cut cable recently. As I was disconnecting, the CS rep offered me “basic” cable for only $10/month.

Since I already drop about $50 on broadband, I figured why not just pay the $10. I said I would keep basic cable.

Since I was getting rid of premium cable, I asked where I should drop off my three cable boxes. The CS rep said that I would need to keep them to get basic cable. That would be $15/month in rental fees. I just laughed. Why would I pay more in STB rental fees than the actual cable service when I can get the same “basic” channels OTA anyway? Specially with a modern cable-ready television. The CS rep said that there was nothing she could do. Even “basic” cable is encrypted here in the Bay Area.

I cut cable completely. Haven’t had a regret yet. I will save over $1,600 this year.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

At least they didn’t make the Boston Strangler comparison this time.

Technology can make them more money, give them more reach, and make everything better… but it is new and different so it must be evil.

We can’t stay in the 1980s forever, and its time to stop allowing dinosaurs to have control over the future. They fragmented the industry, created protectionist rules that harm themselves, and demand we all just accept less than the best. Consumers are supposed to be king, why do we allow them to dictate to us? Without us they have nothing, and we need to stop accepting being slapped around.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

An Open Letter to Gale Ann Hurd

Dear Gale Ann Hurd,

your résumé is most impressive and as a purveyor of genre TV and movies you have few equals. That said, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.

I don’t doubt that certain members of the IPR maximalist brigade are your dearest personal friends and I know how hard it is to stand up to your friends, particularly if your bread and butter is involved. Yes, Gale, I realise that falling out with members of the MPAA, etc., could hurt your career but I always thought you were tough, rational, and reasonable. I still want to believe that.

Gale, “piracy,” AKA the unauthorised copying and distribution of audio and audio-visual content has been around since before the printing press was invented. The best and most effective way to get on top of it has always been to serve the market by providing it with what it wants at a price it is willing to pay. There will always be freeloaders as there have always been freeloaders but you may find that if you open your mind to the possibility that other business models exist you will still be able to do what you do best: produce great genre audio-visual content.

Here on Techdirt you will find an impressive array of business models stories that provide examples of funding strategies you and your colleagues could avail yourselves of. You see, the trouble with maximalism over “intellectual property rights” is that it basically asserts an imaginary right to have the cake and eat it, i.e. there’s still a cake after all the biting, chewing, and swallowing, etc. Doesn’t that sound unreasonable to you?

Allow me to explain: they want us to go out and, let’s say, buy a DVD a year or so after the show or movie we like has finished airing on cable TV on a particular channel (which may or may not have the other items we want on it — don’t get me started!) has finished airing, only to find that the DRM on it restricts it from being played on certain players due to geo-blocking. I fell foul of this myself a few years ago and resorted to looking up streaming services to watch the show I’d bought on DVD and couldn’t watch on my player. What does that DRM situation mean? It means that after I’ve legitimately paid HMV for a copy of a DVD of The Young Ones Series 2, and despite the advertised assertions to the contrary, I don’t “own it now on DVD.” In fact, I don’t own “it” at all. And I can only watch it according to the licence granted by the licence-holders, who were selling a DVD that doesn’t work in the UK. I took it back in the end. It’s situations like this that create piracy, not recordable videos (remember them?) or DVDs, or the internet, or set top boxes.

We want to pay for content. Then we want to be able to enjoy it on the devices that we own. After we pay for the content it should be ours to do with as we please OR the advertisers ought to plainly state in large letters and vocally in every ad, “Buy the DVD! This content is subject to licensing restrictions.” But they’re not going to do that, Gale. Eventually, you find it’s less hassle to just stop playing by the rules when they’re so blatantly stacked against us.

Sorry for the essay but I really want you to understand where we “pirates” (and Pirates) are coming from. Please put Techdirt on your daily reading list and learn about the other side of the argument. Spend some time with Lexi Alexander. She can explain this to you. Heck, she could have saved me writing this, the woman is awesome.

Yours most sincerely,

Wendy Cockcroft

Anonymous Coward says:

Make no mistake though. Opposition to the FCC’s plan isn’t about piracy, or a love of diversity, or Google, or privacy and security. It’s about protecting $20 billion in captive rental fee revenue from competition.

You’re preaching to the choir here bro. In fact most of these disputes are either about money or just plain brand control where money isn’t an issue.

We’re laughing at Turkey’s president but the western world might be next. Won’t be so funny when someone gets 2 years in prison for drawing porn of Disney’s Mouse and “harming the band’s value”.

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