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.