For months, advocates on both sides of the aisle and representatives from a variety of industries and perspectives – tech, cable, and diverse content creators, big and small – have grappled with the Federal Communications Commission’s “Unlock the Box” proposal. Despite the existence and success of platforms like TiVO, Roku, and AppleTV, the FCC sought to infuse greater competition into the pay TV set top box market by requiring cable providers to unbundle their content to allow third-party box manufacturers to use, repackage, and monetize it.
The proceeding seemed to be headed toward a stalemate as diverse voices up and down the distribution chain, along with consumer advocates and civil rights and social justice organizations, offered disparate views of this proposal’s impact on content creators and consumers. That is, until a new proposal to “Ditch the Box” was placed on the table.
Amid concerns about program diversity, privacy, and copyright, the Ditch the Box effort seeks to strike a balance that both promotes competition in the set top box market and protects valuable rights for content creators and distributors.
Instead of support content unbundling, Ditch the Box requires cable and satellite operators with more than 1 million subscribers, over the next two years, to create an open-architecture HTML5 app that consumers can access from any device of their choosing. According to the Future of TV Coalition, a consortium of cable and satellite providers, consumer advocates, and civil rights groups, “this new “Ditch the Box” approach calls for binding, enforceable obligations for major TV providers to allow customers to ditch their set-top boxes and access live and on demand programming via boxless apps compatible with a wide range of retail devices, including smart TVs, game consoles, streaming devices, laptops, tablets, phones, and more.”
By early indications, the Commission seems receptive to this new approach. While FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has apparently expressed interest in the direction of this proposal, Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the three Democratic FCC Commissioners who would have to support the set top box initiative for it to move forward told Reuters, “[i]t has become clear the original proposal has real flaws … We need to find another way forward. So I’m glad that efforts are underway to hash out alternatives that provide consumers with more choice and more competition at lower cost.”
Even FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, at least at first blush, is amendable to the direction of the Ditch the Box effort. Upon first learning about the proposal, Kim Hart, Press Secretary for the FCC said, “Chairman Wheeler is heartened that the industry has adopted the primary goal of our proposal, to promote greater competition and choice for consumers, and agree it is achievable.” This week, after delivering a speech at the National Press Club on America’s 5G future, Chairman Wheeler himself proclaimed, “I think it is absolutely terrific that the cable industry came forward with this proposal.”
Time will tell whether the FCC will actually elect to allow consumers to “Ditch the Box,” but at least for now, things seem to be moving in the right direction.