A Massive Cable Industry Disinformation Effort Just Crushed The FCC's Plan For Cable Box Competition

from the thanks-for-'helping' dept

Back in February the FCC proposed a new plan to bring competition to the cable box. Under the plan, cable providers would need to provide their programming to third party hardware vendors without the need for a CableCARD. The goal? Bring some competition to bear on a stagnant, captive market, resulting in cheaper, more open, and higher quality cable boxes. But because the plan would demolish $21 billion in rental fees while eroding sector control, the cable industry launched one of the most unprecedented lobbying and disinformation efforts I’ve ever seen in 16 years of covering the sector.

Politicians loyal to the cable industry wrote letters lambasting the FCC for “jeopardizing the incredible evolution of video distribution services,” falsely comparing the idea to Popcorn Time. A flood of editorials magically began appearing in newspapers country wide claiming the FCC’s plan would boost piracy, hurt consumer privacy, and even “steal the future.” The cable sector even trotted out Jesse Jackson, who claimed in a horribly misleading op-ed that increased cable box competition was akin to the “snarling dogs, water hoses and church bombings” of America’s racist history. Seriously.

Of course given our news outlets don’t think it’s particularly important to highlight financial conflicts of interest, most of these editorials were presented as purely objective insight into the FCC’s proposal. Even the US Copyright Office joined the festivities, falsely claiming the FCC’s plan would “interfere with copyright owners’ rights to license their works as provided by copyright law” despite IP experts stating it would do nothing of the sort.

And this cavalcade of lobbying, disinformation, and hand-wringing worked absolute wonders.

Apparently informed by all the wrong people, FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn began waffling after voting yes on the original proposal. That forced FCC boss Tom Wheeler to scrap his original plan, releasing a revamped, weaker app-based alternative proposal based largely on the cable industry’s recommendations. Despite this new plan effectively being their idea, cable companies like Comcast still complained, falsely claiming the FCC’s plan would “stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

Yes, because when I think about “fast moving” innovation, the dusty old cable box with its circa-1998 GUI is usually the first thing to come to mind.

As a result of this collective feigned hysteria, when the FCC’s latest plan for cable box competition went up for a vote yesterday morning, the agency found it no longer had the votes to move forward. Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel issued a joint statement that goes out of its way to avoid noting that Wheeler lost his fellow commissioners’ support:

“We have made tremendous progress?and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices,” Chairman Tom Wheeler and fellow Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel said today in a joint statement. “We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.”

By “technical and legal issues” the FCC means it no longer had the votes to move forward after Commissioners buckled under the pressure of a tidal wave of bullshit. And while the FCC says the plan will “remain under consideration,” it’s entirely possible that the entire effort just died a quiet death in committee. That’s not the end of the world given the cable industry (and the cable box) will likely implode on its own in the face of streaming competitors, and it might make more sense for the FCC to use its regulatory calories on things like broadband competition and usage caps anyway.

That said, the cable industry’s ability to manipulate the public, press, and regulators in this fashion isn’t our nation’s finest hour. And while it’s possible the FCC could revisit the vote, the end product may be so watered down as to be useless for consumers. Believing they’ve done yeoman’s work in defending the cable industry’s walled garden empires, some politicians took to applauding Rosenworcel’s expected decision to “stand up for content creators” in voting down the FCC plan:

Comcast also was quick to applaud the FCC for heeding the call of the sound wall of “respected third parties” opposed to the FCC’s plan:

“The FCC made the right decision this morning to delay its vote on the set-top box item. It is now critical that the Commission heed the bipartisan calls of dozens of Members of Congress and respected third parties and release its new proposal and associated rules to allow the public to provide comment…Based on the limited information available from the Chairman?s Fact Sheet and op-ed, a broad range of content creators, civil rights organizations, labor unions, and others have concluded that the Chairman?s new approach does not solve the copyright, privacy, innovation and other significant concerns that were implicated in his discredited original proposal ? and suffers from the same legal infirmities.”

Right, but again, that’s bullshit. Most of the opponents listed by Comcast were paid by the cable, broadcast and entertainment industries in one form or another to falsely malign the plan. The plan doesn’t hurt copyright, it doesn’t hurt privacy, and it certainly doesn’t harm racial diversity. What it would harm is the cable and entertainment industry’s monopoly over cable hardware, and the $21 billion in captive revenues it enjoys annually. It would also most certainly harm the walled garden that consistently protects the cable sector from pesky things like consumer choice.

While Wheeler today proclaimed that the delayed vote was “simply a matter of running out of time,” it was notably more than that. It was another disgusting example of how the US Copyright Office frequently fights against the best interest of the public, regulators aren’t getting sound advice, media outlets are thrilled to regurgitate pay-to-play industry garbage as objective insight, and Congress remains happy and willing to prioritize campaign contributions over consumer welfare. Wonderful job, everybody. Kudos all around.

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Comments on “A Massive Cable Industry Disinformation Effort Just Crushed The FCC's Plan For Cable Box Competition”

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43 Comments
DigDuggery says:

Re: correction

No one is “pirating”, which has one of two (second is a longshot) meanings:

Blackbeard style, pirate ships on the open seas attacking other ships to steal physical objects.

Media recording style, creating “bootleg” copies of physical media to sell. – really should be only referred to as bootlegging, not pirating.

Copying or downloading data does nothing to the original data, and does not deprive the owner of the original data of any sales or revenue.

The people that copy or download typically purchase more content than those who don’t copy or download – as they use that method to “sample” the product to see if it is worth paying for.

There are no missing sales, no products missing from warehouses or stores, nothing which could be related to the terms of pirating or boot-legging.

In fact, the only “pirates” in the media content industries are the MPAA/RIAA members themselves that steal the revenue from the content creators.

Anonymous Coward says:

falsely comparing the idea to Popcorn Time

A service that was more user friendly, easy to use, looked better, offered a better and more diverse selection and overall just completely better than traditional cableboxes in every single respect.

The cable industry could only HOPE to be like Popcorn Time. The fact that they’re arguing against it shows how completely and utterly out of touch with reality they are.

Of course companies with large pockets should release a cablebox alternative regardless of this decision since it would be anticompetitive to block it. Let’s get the VCR decision 2.0.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: RE: Popcorn Time...

This was exactly my thought. By refusing to budge on adoptions of new technologies, they will simply encourage the use of “illegal” technology that will far surpass any innovation they claim to support. The MPAA and cable companies are basically the ax-man chopping off it’s own head. Nothing new on that, but ironic that while they claim to denounce piracy; they seem to encourage it at every step of the way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I haven’t had a TV subscription since the 90s. I don’t miss it at all. I’m not sure if you’re deliberately misinterpreting me for comic effect or if you genuinely equate ditching cable as some kind of bizarre abandonment of all technology.

You realize that recorded entertainment and news is available in ways other than a cable subscription, yes?

Anonymous Coward says:

Take a hard look

Again, a law or regulation is enacted that does nothing for a citizen of this nation, only special interests and industry get any benefits.

The government is no longer of the people and for the people…. they are however keen on the buy the people part…. Legislators are willing to sell out to whoever has the cash….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Take a hard look

Like I said, contact Comcast and the news organizations responsible for this disinformation effort. Let them know what you think.

The problem is that there are still people that get their information from these ‘news’ sources and they don’t see the other side of the debate at all. So when they read only one side of the issue often that side will twist things and misrepresent the issue. It’s also important that we do more to get to those people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Take a hard look

The problem is that there are still people that get their information from these ‘news’ sources and they don’t see the other side of the debate at all. So when they read only one side of the issue often that side will twist things and misrepresent the issue. It’s also important that we do more to get to those people.

Have you found a cure for stupid? I am still looking for it.

Those people are misinformed because they want to be. There is a quote in the Bible where God said

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge,”

It has been my personal discovery that people just fucking do not care as long as they “believe” they are getting something out of it. Notice I said believe.

ThatDevilTech (profile) says:

Cowards....

ALL of them, Wheeler included. i would’ve called out the two wafflers for what they are. Twatwaffles. This country is in trouble. The media runs the place. Nobody thinks for themselves or cares about the consumer anymore. I’ll stick with Kodi. Shame the cable ISP we have implemented caps recently though. I’m so ready for the FCC, or SOMEONE to do something about the cap bs. I won’t hold my breath though. I’d be dead before something positive actually got done probably.

PRMan (profile) says:

It doesn't matter anymore

Dish already has Sling TV, and there is Playstation Vue, Southern Fibernet and DirecTV, Verizon and Hulu are starting OTT cable services. Even heard of a new player yesterday called Cellon TV.

All of these will be available over the internet before the end of the year.

Comcast, Cox, etc. better get their act together or they will be left behind overnight.

DigDuggery says:

Alternate paths for the FCC / FTC to attack Big Data / Cable / Media

Look at price gouging (actual plundering) of regions where there is no competition.

Mandate single price nationwide for the same content.

Disallow different “packages” for different regions to get around the single price mandate.

Modify internet subscriptions from “up to XX B/s” to “minimum XX B/s”, single flat rate per tier, nationwide.

Disallow Big Media zero rating when Big Media owns or contracts with Big Data transport.

When Big Media and Big Data cry to their pet congress critters, convert all Big Media / Big Data infrastructure to common carrier, and start charging them rent to use the infrastructure, while opening the infrastucture up to any company that cares to offer the services over the shared infrastructure, with the rental fees used to expand and enhance the infrastructure.

Anonymous Coward says:

People think about it, Each channel has a code that allows the user to watch that channel. I want to make third party stbs, and sell them to the consumer, I would then be able to get Each and every channel broadcast for free, even pay per view, as I would have ALL of the codes. I will make my own third party set top box company. I would then charge per show to watch tv 5 bucks per show. So if you wanted to watch the news 5 bucks, I would even charge for the commercials, 2bucks. So yes make a law that says, the “big cable” has to allow me to use my own third party set top box, So I can have free tv forever. I will also sell other Unlocked set top boxes to my personal friends for 5 bucks each, and sell the other set top boxes to the public for 800 bucks a piece, plus channel subscription fees.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yeah because there would be no oversight? There would be no way to find out what they were watching?
http://www.expertlaw.com/library/misc/cable_descrambler.html
I’m sure there would be models with what channels are descrambled? Otherwise the link I posted would come into play. Also, you’d be required to still have a subscription with the company. The reduction in costs would be competition between 3rd party boxes and the cable company.

So, no there wouldn’t be this pay per channel and unlocked set top boxes any more then there currently are.

babwawawa (profile) says:

Re: Nothing to get excited about -- It doesn't matter

@DannyB

I completely agree. Box rentals and other fees comprised about 40% of my cable bill when I finally cut the cord and went with Sling+Roku. In addition, none of the DVRs they gave me would ever last more than a year. I’d turn it in, they’d give me another refurbed 10 year old piece of crap then have the gall to charge me $10/month rental on it. I finally snapped when they said that any TV hooked up to their service was going to need a rented box of some sort.

This FCC proposal was a gift to the industry that would have slowed the hemorrhaging of customers. Unfortunately, the cable industry’s strategy toward cord cutters is to let them go, and saddle the remaining customers with ever increasing rates, fees and rentals.

tvvcrdesk (profile) says:

Iddiots

You iddiots – including this article’s author – are all viewing this from one side. There is zero cosideration for the costs incurred by the cable companies to provide the settop boxes. Futhermore, there is zero awareness of how cheaply the customer actully gets the settop boxes for. Do you think a third party will provide their boxes at cost? Do you think that a third party will upgrade old boxes or replace damaged/defective boxes for free? Moving to a third party system will just increase costs for the customer.

This whole issue is really about third parties attempting to use the government to force their way into a market and steal from the companies that have invested billions into developing that market. This is an example of pure crony capitalism.

And what is most insane is that there is no reason for the govenment to be involved at all. Cable is an optional luxury. Even if the cable companies were price gouging…so what. No one needs cable. If you don’t want it or if it is too expensive – then don’t have it. We do not have a right cable TV.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Iddiots

If the third-party boxes work out to be more expensive, the consumer would still have the option of going with the cable provider’s set-top box. This plan wasn’t designed to take away any options from the consumer, only to add new ones.

As to the “no one needs cable” argument – you’re right, they don’t. That’s why so many people are cutting the cord, and why it would be in the cable industry’s best interest to support things which might help keep them from doing that or draw them back – things such as the improved features and/or reduced prices which might come from the increased competition which this proposal would enable.

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