Cable Industry: Our Shitty TV Apps Are Just As Good As Real Cable Box Competition, Right?

from the half-baked dept

The cable industry is aggressively fighting the FCC’s attempt to bring competition to the cable box market. So far that’s been via a two-pronged approach of buying a torrent of incredibly misleading editorials by people pretending to be objective observers (including Jesse Jackson), and throwing money at politicians who oppose the plan, but pretty clearly have no goddamned idea what they’re actually talking about.

Under the FCC’s plan (pdf), cable providers would be required to provide their existing programming to third-party hardware vendors, creating competition and hopefully a flood of better, cheaper hardware without the need for expensive, and annoying CableCARDs. But with the average user paying $231 annually in set top box rental fees, the cable industry is pulling out all the stops to protect $21 billion in annual, captive revenues.

The cable sector’s latest attempt to scuttle the FCC’s plan? A voluntary counter-proposal that pretends to deliver what the FCC is asking for, but falls well short. Under the proposal unveiled during recent meetings at the FCC (pdf), the cable industry would instead provide much of its existing programming via apps. This, the cable industry claims, would somehow create competition in the third-party hardware market without FCC involvement:

This alternative could be built on enforcing an industry-wide commitment to develop and deploy video ?apps? that all large MVPDs would build to open HTML5 web standards….They expressed their belief that such an approach could further advance competition for independent device manufacturers within the context of a market transformation already underway and in a manner that fully protects and respects the rights of content owners.

But while this has been portrayed as some kind of revolutionary concession by hired telecom sector policy cheerleaders and several different press outlets, it isn’t much different than what cable operators offer today. Currently, most cable providers offer some of their content via apps usable on tablets, smartphones, and many streaming devices. Historically, they offer fewer features and less content than is available via full, traditional cable; little more than a token gesture toward innovation in the hopes of keeping paying customers from jumping ship to Netflix, Amazon, or a collection of other cheaper options.

Under this latest proposal, you’d be able to watch some cable content via apps, but if you wanted to, say, record via DVR — you’d still have to sign up for old, vanilla QAM-based cable and pay for the same, old, clunky set top box. Ultimately, my guess is that these cable executives would eventually get rid of the cable box if you use their apps, but force you to pay a monthly fee for their cloud-based streaming or other services. Potentially using zero rating (exempting their services from usage caps) to ensure fealty. Slight variation on the same, existing song.

INCOMPAS, a trade association that has Google, Amazon, Netflix, and some ISPs as members (mostly telcos with no interest in selling cable TV), issued a statement pointing out that this “compromise” wasn’t much of one, while reminding everyone that cable sector promises historically don’t mean much:

…The cable industry is proposing competitive choice for streaming devices, but still seeks to retain a controlling grip on DVRs and recordable devices. ?The cable industry has made promises before about ditching the set-top box, that have not materialized. So it is important for the FCC?s unlock the box proposal to include enforceable standards that will create a thriving market for competition, congruent with the law.

Consumer groups too were quick to point out that the cable industry’s proposal is murky and falls short:

“The proposal does not allow for many features that consumers want, such as home recording, and it does not allow for true user interface competition,” Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer said in a statement sent to Ars. “Additionally, core aspects of the proposal are unclear, in particular, the precise mechanism by which MVPDs propose to provide apps for various hardware and software platforms, and whether consumers would need a broadband connection to access video programming instead of leveraging their existing pay TV connections.”

While it’s good this proposal at least brings the cable industry to the table, skepticism is more than warranted. This is, after all, an industry with a long, proud history of engaging in anti-competitive behavior under the auspices of phantom technical justification, with net neutrality and usage caps being only a small part of the equation. Comcast, for example, is so eager to limit streaming competition it refuses to let its broadband customers access HBO Go across a wide variety of devices, providing only fleeting, half-baked justifications for the behavior.

Make no mistake, the cable industry is absolutely terrified of not only losing tens of billions in rental fees, but of truly open hardware platforms willing to direct customers to cheaper streaming alternatives. Under this app-based approach, you can be dead certain that cable would include all manner of caveats to ensure customers still need to sign up for traditional cable or their DVR services if they want the “full TV experience.” Anyone who thinks the sector’s going to honestly volunteer any plan that puts its existing monopoly power at any serious risk — simply doesn’t know the cable industry.

If the FCC is truly intent on real competition to the set top box market, the cable industry may need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line.

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Comments on “Cable Industry: Our Shitty TV Apps Are Just As Good As Real Cable Box Competition, Right?”

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DannyB (profile) says:

Why not?

Why wouldn’t the cable app be just as “good” as the crummy user interfaces that people want to flee from now? (For certain values of “good”.)

Isn’t their inability to provide what customers want the very reason people want to flee to other set top boxes that actually give them what they want?

Isn’t their inability to provide what customers want (gasp!) tied to them being in bed with Hollywood, which historically is never in favor of giving customers what they want?

DannyB (profile) says:

What cable set top boxes REALLY are

Back in the day, cable wanted to charge you PER OUTLET in your house.

That didn’t go over well.

But the set top box was the answer!

Endless rental fees for nothing! For nothing at all! For no good reason!

No wonder people want to get their own set top boxes without rental fees. It’s just the modern version of charging per cable outlet.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Let this one go; focus on more strategic battles

I tend to vacillate on this point. I do tend to agree that it may make more sense to focus on broadband competition policies, and as such I think thinks like the FCC’s fight against state level municipal bans are hugely more important.

But then, if the FCC can pass policies that turns your 20 year window into a 5 year window, wouldn’t everybody benefit?

Then again, the FCC may be fighting the cable industry on this for years before real rules even get passed, when they could be spending those calories, again, on broadband competition.

Like I said, I vacillate here. 🙂

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Let this one go; focus on more strategic battles

The problem here is that it is difficult for most people these days to get pure internet service that is not also from a “television” provider.

It’s not just if you get internet from a cable company. What were once telecommunication companies (eg AT&T) now offer and push packages with TV subscriptions.

All of the internet providers that are in bed with content will try to screw the internet subscribers in order to create an advantage for hollywood. Zero Rating. Throttling. Bandwidth Caps. Injecting their own ads into your web page results. And any other dirty tricks they can conceive of.

So please don’t think you are not affected by ‘cable’ or ‘pay tv’ companies. You are. And you need to be in this fight.

techflaws (profile) says:

Re: Let this one go; focus on more strategic battles

Let this one go; focus on more strategic battles. Personally I don’t care what the cable companies do around boxes.

Ah, the old my-problem-is-more-important-than-yours fallacy.

“You have specialized expertise in X, but I think X is trivial. Why don’t you specialize in Y, because I think Y is important?” Nobody ever says this to Shakespeare scholars or doctors or plumbers. (“Dear ‘fire fighters,’ fight fires less and solve more murders”?)

Dave Cortright says:

Re: Re: Let this one go; focus on more strategic battles

Oh rly? I did not know there were trained specialists out there in the cable box platform space. Then by all means, they should continue boxing those cables.

Look, I get it if some feel this area is an important beachhead in a larger campaign. I just don’t see it. ISP “fuckery” (as John Oliver says) around broadband, and the FCC and local municipalities trying to actually act in the interest of the citizenry is at least an order of magnitude more important, and growing.

ECA (profile) says:

LETS see....

TV before Cable/sat..
Transcriber stations around the USA, all paying small amounts to broadcast Certain channels, in different areas..
Limited channels..ITS WHO wants to PAY to broadcast this..Here and there, and here..
There are Many Small TV stations..TBS, and others, NOT seen around the country.

TV After Cable/SAT
MOST of the above STATIONS are still there…
Cable had a debate with the Major companies, as they wanted to give MOST of their service FREE..with limited commercials..TV corps Explained that ALL the Antenna sites were PAYING to broadcast..and they wanted MONEY..
Cable relented, and WE HAVE PAY TV..
CABLE/SAT..has to have a way to KNOW who and how many people are getting the channels..So they NEED A the TV corps CHARGE per customer..

In the OLD days, the Big antennas, Broadcast to anyone/everyone and you could not Count the numbers.. Cable/Sat..they can COUNT.
As TECh changes, they have to someone COULD receive and descramble the signal and Get it FREE..

Heres the fun part..
There are only 7-8 MAJOR corps that control 90% of the channels..(world wide)
The TV corps control EVERYTHING, from actors, commercials, Sound stages, How much a TIME SLOT IS.. This is as bad as a DRUG dealer..

You can MAKE your own show.. BUY a time slot, BUY commercials..and if you can SHOW, that it is popular..Make money..

Out of all this.
There are nations..that Send up 1-2 Sats..And Cover the WHOLE Hemisphere..and require a CHEAP box to watch ANY TV channel.. That gets rid of 10,000 Antenna locations, Cable Limits inside towns and cities, NOT SAT companies that SCREAM they are loosing money..

They will segment into Parts.
Any part NOT making money, the ONES MAKING money send the extra To the Lower agency, and get to WRITE IT OFF TAXES..
Then RAISE prices to FIX it..

Anonymous Coward says:

I long ago abandoned tv because of poor programming and advertisements. Why in the world do I care about their apps when I am not going to use them… ever.

Before the broadcasters start doing apps maybe they should address the reasons people are leaving them in the first place.

The steady increasing costs is another major hitter. Just having an app for the sake of saying they have one doesn’t address the fact that people are cutting the cord with costs being a major issue.

Skeeter says:

Interesting, Emotional, Highly-Inaccurate Article

First off, my Cable-Box is a DVR box rented from my cable company. Rent is $10 a month. Granted, I would have preferred to just get a CableCARD for my Hauppage, it just didn’t work…we tried (even at their office) with their chief technician, for hours, for free – except for the frustration. This said, I do agree with the concept of ‘hey, if Roku, Amazon and Google can build HDMI secure-video chips for my TV, what’s Cable’s problem? Why can’t they buy into a 3rd party selling a set-chip you just plug in? (for you old-set owners out there, there’s a neat device, HDMI to RCA about the size of a cigarette pack for $20 you might have to invest in)
Wouldn’t this work? Why won’t this work, instead of a damn APP? (I’m one for hardware over APP-ware, anyday!)
You’d think that with an average ‘box-renter’ only keeping a box around 12 months, that they’d LOVE to get that ‘buy it up front’ money better, anyhow, instead of taking it $10 a month!

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