FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Puts Forward Big Proposal to Reshape Access to TV Programming

Pay TV providers would be required to give consumers free apps with extensive functionality in a proposal to be voted on Sept. 29.
Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

The revolution will not be televised, but will the television be revolutionized?

On Thursday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put forward a plan to be voted on later this month that senior officials at the media regulatory agency hope will mean the end of expensive cable set-top boxes and the ushering in of a new era where content becomes easier than ever to find and access. The plan is to require pay TV providers to offer to consumers a free app across widely deployed platforms such as Roku, Apple iOS, Windows and Android.

The proposal is the culmination of a contentious back-and-forth involving those in the entertainment and tech industries, government officials and public advocates after Wheeler earlier this year aimed to inject competition in the set-top box market. Some in the entertainment industry, particularly cable companies and content studios, were irate at the prospect of a mandate to provide video programming to tech developers, and no amount of assurances that content restrictions would be honored could soothe suspicions that the plan was giving companies like Google and Apple an unfair advantage over those like Comcast and Verizon paying for programming. Some of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry have sounded the alarm about piracy, privacy and contracts while hinting at legal challenges. The result has been one of the most contentious debates about the future of content since the controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act, and President Barack Obama's strong endorsement hardly stopped entertainment companies from a full-throated lobbying campaign aimed at taking down the plan, or at very least, mitigating its impact.

As some of those media companies proposed alternatives, and as those in the tech industry warned of half-measures that they argued would do nothing to impede consumers paying on average $231 a year in cable set-top box rental fees, Wheeler has now come forward with a modified version of his earlier plan.

Under the proposed rules, pay TV providers would still be required to give access to all their content through apps, but instead of mandating the delivery of information streams passing from MVPDs to the creators of competitive devices or apps, companies like Comcast and Verizon will retain control of their own apps. That's probably the most important "give" to studios and distributors fearful of handing too much to tech giants looking to enter the television market without the pain of licensing content. 

Well, at least, some control.

According to senior officials at the FCC, the proposal requires that pay TV providers ensure a similar experience as their set-top boxes. This means that if Comcast's set-top box allows its customers to record content or fast-forward through content or start over in the midst of a live show, the app has to do the same. Additionally, the apps will be required to have extensive search functions, capable of searching both pay and free content and barred from discrimination. The goal here is not only to ensure better and cheaper options in how consumers access programming, but also getting diverse and independent voices on entertainment platforms.

Among the other notable features of the proposed rules, and similar to an earlier version that engendered industry venom, an independent licensing body will be established to come up with rules of the road in terms of licensing the apps on a device or platform.

FCC officials say the agency will continue to have some oversight and maintain a "backstop function" to make sure these apps make it out to the market in a manner that's actually useful. Speaking to reporters Thursday, those officials voiced confidence that the agency has the requisite authority to act as it's doing. Of course, the devilish details and future enforcement actions will surely become the subject of court challenges to come.

The proposal is set for a vote at the FCC's monthly public meeting on Sept. 29. 

"This is a golden era for watching television and video. By empowering consumers to access their content on their terms," wrote Wheeler in an op/ed published by the Los Angeles Times. "it’s about to get cheaper — and even better."

So far, the reaction by the entertainment industry is cool.

"While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed," stated Comcast in a statement. "He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it 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. The Chairman’s new proposal also violates the Communications Act and exceeds the FCC’s authority. It perpetuates many of the concerns that led hundreds of Members of Congress, content creators, diversity and civil rights organizations, labor unions, and over 300,000 individuals to object to his original flawed approach, including problems with privacy, copyright protection, content security, and innovation. Heavy-handed government technology mandates have a long history of failure. The Chairman’s approach would likely meet the same fate, while causing real damage to the thriving apps marketplace and real harm to consumers.”

Naturally, those on the other side in the tech industry feel differently.

"The FCC has made the critical key choice for an open, not closed, future," said Chip Pickering, CEO of the tech industry trade group INCOMPAS. "By presenting a balanced approach, which takes input from all sides of the debate, the FCC has come down on the side of the consumer, and the innovators of the future."