FCC Wants To Force Cable Companies, And Their Set-Top Boxes, To Adapt | KERA News

FCC Wants To Force Cable Companies, And Their Set-Top Boxes, To Adapt

Feb 18, 2016
Originally published on February 18, 2016 2:08 pm

Updated 12:25 p.m. ET, with the FCC's vote.

The Federal Communications Commission has begun a process that could lead to TV viewers being able to own their cable TV set-top boxes.

That's probably a problem most subscribers didn't know they had, but a congressional study found that cable subscribers pay an average of $231 a year to rent their cable boxes.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler thinks it's fine if people decide they want to rent. But maybe, he told Variety, giving users a choice would make cable companies build a better box.

"Let's have the cable company say, 'You want to pay me for my interface, because it does all of these things nobody else does,' rather than, 'You must pay me,' " Wheeler said. "We're just trying to get to that basic American concept of competition."

The FCC today voted to propose formally an open standard for set-top boxes. Proponents say that could mean one box bringing you cable channels, premium TV channels and streaming TV.

John Bergmayer, an attorney with the consumer group Public Knowledge, says that "integrating online video sources, alongside cable TV sources, alongside the traditional pay TV ... would really open up the market to competition, while giving people access to the kinds of content that simply can't get carried by cable."

So you could watch live sports from ESPN, stream Amazon's Transparent or watch reruns of Parks and Recreation, all with one box that you paid for once.

If this sounds too good to be true, well, that's what the cable TV industry says. It argues that such boxes already exist, made by TiVo, and that they're not exactly cheap.

And there could be unintended consequences: Minority broadcasters are concerned that opening up the cable box might mean that they lose revenues that support their programming. Alfred Liggins, chairman of TV One, says he feels strongly "that the minority niche programming ecosystem or environment is fragile already at best."

Even with the FCC's vote in favor of Wheeler's proposal, it still will be several months before any final action is taken. Debate is expected regarding how the new devices would collect and handle viewers' data and what kind of access the new competitors would get to video content, for which cable companies and their existing competitors have to negotiate contracts. So don't throw that old remote away just yet.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The average person with cable TV is paying more than $200 per year just to rent the cable box - you know, that box that sits beside the television, black, maybe not too pretty. Today, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a process that could change that rental. You could buy your own darn box. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler thinks it's fine if people decide they want to rent their set-top boxes. But what if they had a choice in the matter? Maybe, he told Variety, it would make your cable company build a better box.

TOM WHEELER: Let's have the cable company say, you want to pay me for my interface because it does all of these things nobody else does, rather than, you must pay me. We're just trying to get to that basic American concept of competition.

NAYLOR: Wheeler is expected to formally propose today an open standard for set-top boxes that proponents say would mean one box could bring you cable channels, paid TV channels and streaming TV.

Here's John Bergmayer of the consumer group Public Knowledge.

JOHN BERGMAYER: Really, integrating online video sources alongside cable TV sources alongside the traditional pay TV that a lot of people are more accustomed to would really open up the market to competition while giving people access to the kinds of content that simply can't get carried by cable.

NAYLOR: So you can watch sports from ESPN...

(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Alabama and Clemson - you know the stakes, you know what was on the line here.

NAYLOR: ...The dramedy "Transparent" from Amazon...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "TRANSPARENT")

JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Maura Pfefferman) So I have something to tell you.

NAYLOR: ...And reruns of "Parks and Recreation" on WGN...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

AMY POEHLER: (As Leslie Knope) Government is bad, businesses is good, free market...

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Ron Swanson) Capitalism is the only way, Leslie.

NAYLOR: ...All in one box that you paid for once. If this sounds too good to be true, well, that's what the cable TV industry says. They argue such boxes already exist, made by TiVo, and they're not exactly cheap. And there could be unintended consequences. Minority broadcasters are concerned that opening up the cable box might mean that they lose revenues that support their programming. Alfred Liggins is chairman of TV One.

ALFRED LIGGINS: We feel strongly that the minority, niche programming ecosystem or environment is fragile already, at best.

NAYLOR: Even if the FCC votes to begin the process today, it will still be several months yet before any final action on the proposal, so don't throw away your old remote just yet. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.