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I don’t see how the FCC set top box policy adds value to content

On 27 October 2016 the Federal Communications Commission will take up the issue of competition in the navigation device or set top box space. The Commission wants to see the video content distribution industry move from requiring subscribers use of set top boxes to the use of free apps to find content. The main driver of the proposed policy, according to the Commission, is subscriber avoidance of onerous set top box fees that allegedly average $231 a year. With today’s app and internet technology, argues the Commission, subscribers should be able to find content without paying navigation device fees.

The process for getting to a decision is driving some content developers bonkers.  According to a report in Broadcasting & Cable, some content developers are concerned about the proposal’s lack of transparency and whether the Commission will play an intrusive oversight role in contracts between content distributors and content programmers.  Contracts lay out terms for compensation and channel placement, items I would think that the Commission should not really be interested in. Rather, the Commission should be interested in whether the telecommunications sector is bringing value to the overall economy. While content creation is ancillary to the sector, without information, data, or knowledge flowing over networks, the network itself loses value.

From the content programmer’s perspective, while concerned with carving out a niche in a competitive content space, the content developer, where he can seize the opportunity, wants to recover as much of a premium as he can from his product. That means cashing in on as much exclusivity as he can. He will do this in two ways. One, produce content that generates traction. Two, make sure that given the traction, he makes the content as exclusive as possible so that he can extract higher rents. Free apps do not meet either of these conditions. Free apps providing you navigation to licensed and unlicensed content eliminates exclusivity. Content competition is increased which drives down the prices content programmers can charge. This leads to lower returns on capital. If returns on capital are seen as too low, no investment is made, no infrastructure deployed, no workers hired.

All this to save $231 a year.

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FCC does not recognize the value cable creates for content

Recently the Federal Communications Commission released a plan for increasing the number of ways consumers can navigate video content. The Commission wants cable companies to provide pay television subscribers with a free app that allows the subscriber to access their video content. The Commission believes that at an annual amount of approximately $231 for set top boxes, households are getting hosed and that additional choice is needed in order to reduce this financial burden.

The Commission appears to be ignoring the capital side of set top box equation. No where in his plan does Commission chairman acknowledge the billions cable companies spend on obtaining licensing to programming or creating their own content.  To extract value from this content, cable companies charge consumers a positive premium for using platforms necessary for accessing the content including set top boxes. The Commission is blatantly circumventing the ability of cable companies to extract the value of the content by requiring that cable companies provide consumers with apps that allow the consumer to avoid monthly fees altogether.

The Commission believes it is correcting some type of market failure by providing consumers access to content at a reduced cost, but by interfering with a market transaction, the Commission is creating an environment that sends a false signal to content providers and navigation technology providers. Device makers may think twice about investing resources into developing hardware where the use of free apps freezes the hardware provider out of the market. Small, non-cable affiliated app developers may have second thoughts as well, especially going up against deeper pocketed cable companies or internet portal companies such as Google who can leverage its advertising revenue to provide video navigation apps for free.

In addition, with the requirement that cable companies provide free apps and the expectation that established internet portals will enter the video navigation application market, smaller entrepreneurs will have a harder time accessing capital as investors view their business model as a source of lower returns.

Sending skewed market signals and reducing small app developer access to capital doesn’t make for good video marketplace policy.

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FCC’s set top box policy displays no understanding of markets

On 18 February 2016, the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would allow third parties access to a consumer’s cable television set top box (STP) to gather information that could be used to provide competitive viewing services. Specifically, the third party would have access to:

1. Information about what programming is available to the consumer, i.e., channel listing, video-on-demand lineups;

2. Information about what a device is allowed to do with content; and

3. The video programming itself.

The Commission’s rationale for allowing a firm like Google access to these information streams is that with this information, third parties could create services i.e., apps and hardware, to compete with a cable company’s STP.

Will this policy increase demand for content thus driving up prices, revenues, and returns on the capital it takes to create content? No, it won’t. What the Commission’s policy will do is create a shell game for content. It’s not clear whether there will be a change in demand for content and while alternatives for accessing content will increase incrementally, unless the policy entices more consumers to go online, the policy won’t do much for increasing economic activity in the content markets.

In addition to not creating additional demand in the content markets, the Commission ignores the competition that already exists for cable and the movement from STP to apps. Steve Pociask makes this observation in a recent piece for Forbes.com where he argues that:

“Absent the plan, cable competition already exists and its growing”, and that, “the market is currently moving away from STB to apps, but the plan would forever require STBs.”

The Commission’s proposed policy is indicative of an ongoing problem of failing to focus on the primary market that its policy impacts, in this case the content market. Where information is proprietary, the Commission should protect the content owners’ rights. Otherwise, the Commision should advocate policy that promotes content flows.

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Do the markets see an entry problem for new content providers?

On 18 February 2016, the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of inquiry asking for comments on how regulation can best address reducing barriers to entry to the video content provider market. The Commission believes that cable companies and other multi-channel video programming distributors are in a position to impede the entry of smaller video content providers into the video market. But do video content providers really need the Commission’s help to enter the content provider market? I don’t think so. Rather than going through the twists and turns of a legal argument on whether the Commission has the authority to address the question, why not let the markets determine what content gets offered and accepted by its participants?

Take for example Netflix. Netflix started out as a supplier of rented DVDs distributed via the U.S. mail. While the company still rents out movies in DVD format, it’s its online format that Netflix is best known for today. Consumers now download video content that Netflix has a license to present or can download content produced originally by the online content provider. While its stock has taken a beating over the last twelve months, traders still look at the online video provider as competing ably with the likes of a Comcast or Time Warner’s video product.

From the programming perspective, Netflix produces original content i.e. “House of Cards”, “Orange is the New Black”, and “Marco Polo”, as a hedge, according to Morningstar analyst Neil Macker, against other content programmers that may be holding back their own content from distribution. Netflix, as a result of data captured from its user base, is able to develop or purchase content that suits its viewers’ needs. In other words, Netflix has properly reinvested its capital and other resources to provide a superior content experience as well as built rapidly on an older business model after recognizing and taking advantage of new technology.

Other content providers are going down Netflix’s path. Amazon not only distributes content via the internet but also produces its own content. Hulu is reportedly purchasing original content for distribution as well.

The Commission is running the risk of promising a more open environment for all content imaginable; sending a message that all content is created equally. The Commission is ignoring the fact that there are limited number of distribution channels, whether via cable or over-the-top, and that this natural limit in distributors will create a bottleneck through which only the content deemed attracting the greatest demand will be able to wiggle through. Content that attracts the greatest demand will draw the most see capital investment creating the vicious cycle that smaller entrants will face and the Commission naively assumes it will regulate away.

 

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Independent and minority programmers will have to demonstrate value to cable companies

The Federal Communications Commission wants to promote diversity of programming provided over cable networks. Commission chairman Tom Wheeler shared in a blog post last month arguing that the Commission wants consumers to have the choice to watch independent and diverse programming via traditional video distribution networks, i.e. cable. The Commission will review and vote on a notice of inquiry at their next open meeting on 18 February 2016.

The Commission should consider the reality of new entrants into the video distribution marketplace. A considerable amount of capital is needed to start and sustain a cable programmer on air. Programming has to be either created in-house or purchased. Technical and marketing staff have to be hired. Equipment has to be purchased. Cable companies have to be convinced that a programmer should get some cable “shelf-space”; that the programmer’s content will attract the right number of eyeballs to justify the taking up of network capacity needed to carry the programmer’s channel.

These minor details have probably been the main reasons, ever since the passage of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, that smaller programmers have had a hard time finding distribution space on cable company’s network. The Commission will have statutory authority to address the question of diversity of programming distributed by cable companies. Section 522(a) of the Communications Act of 1934 requires the Commission to “promote competition in the delivery of diverse sources of video programming and to assure that the widest possible diversity of information services are made available to the public from cable systems in a manner consistent with growth and development of cable systems.”

One statutory constraint the Commission should face in developing any policy to promote diversity is the cap on capacity allocated to non-affiliated programmers. For example, under Section 532(b) of the Communications Act, a cable operator with 36 to 54 activated channels is to allocate ten percent of channel capacity to non-affiliated programmers. A cable operator with 55 to 100 channels has to allocate 15% of its network to unaffiliated programmers while an operator  with more than 100 activated channels must also allocate 15% of its network to unaffiliated programmers.

The question is when an independent or minority programmer enters the market to sell its content to distributor, what should the exchange be built on? It should be built on value. The value of the cable operator to the programmer is the operators ability via its network to get the programmer’s content before a lot of eyeballs. The value that the programmer should bring to the cable operator is content that will entice consumers to watch; to stay on the cable operator’s network. If an independent or minority programmer were able to occupy a cable operator’s channel and not bring this type of value, then the cable operator would have a gross resource allocation problem on its hands. Dropping the programmer would be the correct thing to do.

But should the Commission be in the business of persuading a cable operator as to which programmers provide value and which ones do not? No. This should be a market condition that cable operators and independent/minority programmers work out. Politically, this might be a lame duck move on the part of the Commission. Should a Republican grab the White House this fall while the rhetoric surrounding diversity may survive with a Republican chairman, an intense commitment to the diversity issue may subside.

We’ll have to wait until the Commission issues its notice of inquiry on 18 February to determine how far the Commission is willing to go tentatively.