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.