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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’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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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.

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Requiring access to cable-owned content creates a barrier to entry for smaller content providers

Yesterday Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intent to ask his fellow commissioners to sign off on a rule that would require cable companies to provide over-the-top video distributors with access to cable company-owned content.  According to Mr. Wheeler, the intent of the rule modification is to provide consumers of content “more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want.”

What this change to the rules will actually do is create a barrier to entry by smaller content providers.  Mr. Wheeler’s rule amendment, much like the statute passed in 1992 and its subsequent rule, will simply give incumbent content an additional platform from which to be seen.  “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” will now be seen on cable, satellite, and over-the-top video distribution.  Over-the-top providers can now take a short cut to content and forgo negotiating contracts for new content from new entrants.

For start-up, minority-owned, or woman-owned content production companies there will be a lost opportunity to showcase more of their content to over-the-top distributors.  Smaller content providers may have to reduce the price offerings for their programming just to get one of fewer remaining slots on a over-the-top’s network.

If the FCC is so concerned with competition throughout the internet ecosystem, it should let all stakeholders in the ecosystem enter into contracts on their own without government interference.  Also it should provide smaller content providers the opportunity to enter into strategic partnerships that get their product in front of the public.

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If Netflix was attempting rent seeking, any success may be short-lived.

Gerald Faulhaber and David Farber today published a post questioning the need for open internet rules.  The authors expressed a sense of irony that after decades of successfully running a communications platform built on open network architecture that technologists and engineers today would need the help of the Federal Communications Commission in keeping said network of networks open.

Online video distributor Netflix has been documented as thinking that the Commission should be riding to the rescue of content providers by advocating that the Commission implement strong net neutrality rules.  By strong net neutrality rules Netflix means that the Commission should prohibit the payment of tolls by content providers to broadband operators such as AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon. According to Netflix:

“Without strong net neutrality, big ISPs can demand potentially escalating fees for the interconnection required to deliver high quality service. The big ISPs can make these demands — driving up costs and prices for everyone else — because of their market position.”

Netflix tried to invoke a little altruism asking the Commission to imagine the plight of smaller content providers facing the threat of escalating toll charges assessed year of year at an increasing rate by broadband providers.

It appears the real plight that Netflix is concerned with is the uptick in competition resulting from an HBO or ESPN streaming their content.  For example, an analysis last week by Morningstar questioned the long term profitability of Netflix in the face of competition from content owners.  According to Morningstar:

“Video distribution firms (cable, satellite, phone) have suffered from inertia in building out TV Everywhere, which would allow customers to stream current channels on the device of their choice. Aside from HBO GO and Watch ESPN, the ability to stream channels is much weaker than we would have expected in the present day. Still, we view this service as inevitable within the next two to three years and believe the market is underestimating the potential negative impact on Netflix when most cable channels with fresh content can be streamed.”

This competitive threat, in my opinion, has Netflix seeking rents with net neutrality and Title II as the vehicle.  According to Investopedia, rent seeking is defined as when a company, organization or individual uses their resources to obtain an economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits back to society through wealth creation.  An example of rent-seeking is when a company lobbies the government for loan subsidies, grants or tariff protection. These activities don’t create any benefit for society; they just redistribute resources from the taxpayers to the special-interest group.

Time Warner’s HBO, Disney’s ESPN, and Viacom’s CBS apparently recognize the need to respond to Netflix’s disruptive model with a little innovation of their own, thus their proposed streaming services.

Would consumers of video content via the internet benefit if competing online streaming providers were ensnared by additional regulations flowing from Title II or net neutrality rules?  No, they would not because fewer online content providers would step up to challenge Netflix and consumer welfare would shrink because of reduced access to video content.

The Commission should recognize that net neutrality and calls for Title II regulation are nothing but attempts at rent seeking.  If Netflix and other content providers believe their content or services are of value to the consumer, they will not need the Commission to intervene in this market.