What's Really Behind the FCC's Backwards Plan to "Fix" Our TVs (Guest Column)

Tom Wheeler Getty H 2016
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Former industry executive John Tarnoff argues that FCC chair Tom Wheeler's plan for set-top boxes is a losing proposition for those who make, distribute and watch content.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Initially, when FCC chair Tom Wheeler announced this past January that the FCC was considering opening up the antiquated cable provider set-top box, I thought it sounded like a good idea. What I imagined was similar to the deregulation of other services that have provided more choice for consumers due to greater competition, while maintaining the same standards of operability. This already exists with some providers when it comes to bandwidth. As a Time Warner Cable subscriber here in Los Angeles, I chose to buy my own cable modem and router, rather than rent those devices from TWC. In the long run, it’s saving me money.

But apparently that’s not what the FCC has in mind when it comes to the set-top box and the programming that’s supposed to come over it. My understanding is that these new devices (or in Wheeler’s latest revision, new “box-less” digital services) are actually a new layer of … something … that goes between the movies and TV shows we watch, and the cable companies’ pipes. These are not cable boxes that we can own to replace the ones we’ve been renting (which is what I thought this was about). No, these are apparently an entirely new category of devices or services that bypass the existing distribution agreements between content providers and cable (or satellite) distributors. Since Google is a prime backer and promoter of Wheeler’s new scheme, I’ve got to think that the purpose of this new technology is to collect more data about us, about what we watch, about what we buy, and then sell this to advertisers. 

And in the process of Google convincing the FCC to shove this new technology down our throats and onto our screens, everyone else loses: people who make great content, people who market great content and people who distribute great content. Google is asking the government to bypass everyone to enrich their core advertising business. Ultimately, we consumers lose because if we stop paying for content the content is going to go away, and we’ll be left with nothing but cat videos.

So this is actually sounding more and more like a Trojan Horse, and clearly not about replacing the set-top box. As usual, Google and Wheeler are hiding behind the excuse that they’re just bringing more choice to consumers. But don’t we already have the choice? Aren’t there already a number of great replacements for the cable box? Aren’t Roku, Amazon Fire (which I opted for), Apple TV and even Google’s Chromecast exactly the kind of consumer-owned future-focused cable boxes Wheeler was initially talking about?

Everything is evolving quite nicely without the FCC or Google trying to “improve” our service. Take me: I’m a cord cutter. Some of my industry peers might find this shocking, but this year, I ditched my cable subscription and went all-internet. I’m saving myself about $800 a year by signing on to what is known as a “skinny bundle” provided by Sony’s Playstation Vue service, a virtual cable box that serves up 60 of my favorite channels, and lets me watch them at home on my TV or on my phone or tablet. Dish Network’s Sling TV is a similar service. I get just the content that I want, and pay for it either by subscription, or by individual rental or purchase. I can turn a streaming service or pay cable channel subscription on or off with a click. It’s much more manageable, and lets me control my entertainment spending. I really don’t mind paying for content if I’m only spending the money for what I want to watch (instead of a hundred channels I could care less about). 

How is Wheeler’s set-top box scheme addressing the question of choice, or helping improve my audience experience? Answer: not at all.

Mr. Wheeler needs to stop spending so much time in the office talking to Google lobbyists and go home and binge-watch some TV on his grandkids’ Roku box. That might give him a better understanding of why the FCC should just sit back with a box of popcorn, and let the current content market continue to evolve on its own.

John Tarnoff is a Los Angeles-based university educator, career consultant and former entertainment executive, who in his prior life supervised movies including Diner, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Power of One and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.