MVPDs “Unlock” the Box (again), but the FCC Doesn’t Seem to Care

Kristian Stout —  21 September 2016

The FCC’s blind, headlong drive to “unlock” the set-top box market is disconnected from both legal and market realities. Legally speaking, and as we’ve noted on this blog many times over the past few months (see here, here and here), the set-top box proposal is nothing short of an assault on contracts, property rights, and the basic freedom of consumers to shape their own video experience.

Although much of the impulse driving the Chairman to tilt at set-top box windmills involves a distrust that MVPDs could ever do anything procompetitive, Comcast’s recent decision (actually, long in the making) to include an app from Netflix — their alleged arch-rival — on the X1 platform highlights the FCC’s poor grasp of market realities as well. And it hardly seems that Comcast was dragged kicking and screaming to this point, as many of the features it includes have been long under development and include important customer-centered enhancements:

We built this experience on the core foundational elements of the X1 platform, taking advantage of key technical advances like universal search, natural language processing, IP stream processing and a cloud-based infrastructure.  We have expanded X1’s voice control to make watching Netflix content as simple as saying, “Continue watching Daredevil.”

Yet, on the topic of consumer video choice, Chairman Wheeler lives in two separate worlds. On the one hand, he recognizes that:

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content.

But, on the other hand, he asserts that when it comes to set-top boxes, there is no such choice, and consumers have suffered accordingly.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that nearly all pay-TV content is already available from a large number of outlets, and that competition between devices and services that deliver this content is plentiful.

In fact, ten years ago — before Apple TV, Roku, Xfinity X1 and Hulu (among too many others to list) — Gigi Sohn, Chairman Wheeler’s chief legal counsel, argued before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries.  Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. (emphasis added)

And, even on the FCC’s own terms, the multichannel video market is presumptively competitive nationwide with

direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers’ market share of multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) subscribers [rising] to 33.8%. “Telco” MVPDs increased their market share to 13% and their nationwide footprint grew by 5%. Broadband service providers such as Google Fiber also expanded their footprints. Meanwhile, cable operators’ market share fell to 52.8% of MVPD subscribers.

Online video distributor (OVD) services continue to grow in popularity with consumers. Netflix now has 47 million or more subscribers in the U.S., Amazon Prime has close to 60 million, and Hulu has close to 12 million. By contrast, cable MVPD subscriptions dropped to 53.7 million households in 2014.

The extent of competition has expanded dramatically over the years, and Comcast’s inclusion of Netflix in its ecosystem is only the latest indication of this market evolution.

And to further underscore the outdated notion of focusing on “boxes,” AT&T just announced that it would be offering a fully apps-based version of its Direct TV service. And what was one of the main drivers of AT&T being able to go in this direction? It was because the company realized the good economic sense of ditching boxes altogether:

The company will be able to give consumers a break [on price] because of the low cost of delivering the service. AT&T won’t have to send trucks to install cables or set-top boxes; customers just need to download an app. 

And lest you think that Comcast’s move was merely a cynical response meant to undermine the Commissioner (although, it is quite enjoyable on that score), the truth is that Comcast has no choice but to offer services like this on its platform — and it’s been making moves like this for quite some time (see here and here). Everyone knows, MVPDs included, that apps distributed on a range of video platforms are the future. If Comcast didn’t get on board the apps train, it would have been left behind at the station.

And there is other precedent for expecting just this convergence of video offerings on a platform. For instance, Amazon’s Fire TV gives consumers the Amazon video suite — available through the Prime Video subscription — but they also give you access to apps like Netflix, Hulu. (Of course Amazon is a so-called edge provider, so when it makes the exact same sort of moves that Comcast is now making, its easy for those who insist on old market definitions to miss the parallels.)

The point is, where Amazon and Comcast are going to make their money is in driving overall usage of their platform because, inevitably, no single service is going to have every piece of content a given user wants. Long term viability in the video market is necessarily going to be about offering consumers more choice, not less. And, in this world, the box that happens to be delivering the content is basically irrelevant; it’s the competition between platform providers that matters.

Kristian Stout

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Kristian Stout is the Associate Director for Innovation Policy at the International Center for Law and Economics (ICLE). As a technology professional and entrepreneur for over ten years, Kristian’s scholarship is influenced by a practical understanding of the challenges facing innovators in the modern economy. Kristian has previously been a lecturer in the computer science department of Rutgers University, is frequently invited to speak on law and technology topics, and has been published in law journals and legal treatises. Kristian is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is a partner at A&S Technologies, a software services firm, and sits on the board of CodedByKids, a nonprofit organization that provides STEM education to underprivileged children.