FCC death vote looms for the Golden Age of American TV

The inside story of Google's plan to pwn the TV biz

Street art in Montreal, 2015. Credit: meunierd / Shutterstock

Special report We’re living in a “Golden Age of TV”, and the United States makes the most envied popular TV drama in the world. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire raised the bar for everyone in TV drama.

More cash is invested in content: last year Netflix alone spent more on shows than either the BBC or HBO. It takes more risks and today, much of the best writing and production talent heads for TV, not movies.

At the same time, the USA also has the most dynamic TV hardware market, with OTT (over the top) services spurring demand for third party hardware like Roku’s kit, Apple TV, Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Firestick. All have exploded the cable bundle.

Today nobody, not even cranks, seriously argues that these TV markets are unhealthy, or in need of dirigiste intervention.

Against that background, we need to examine why the FCC is so keen to hand the keys to the TV kingdom to Silicon Valley. Today the FCC votes on a historic decision to wrestle control of how the TV industry distributes its material, inserting a new layer between provider and consumer.

On this vote rests the future of investment in a $200bn a year industry.

The closer you look at this, the stranger it seems. The FCC initiative is supposed to be about removing the obligation to lease equipment provided by the cable and satellite PayTV services to view the content. In response, TV and tech companies are backing a new technical framework that uses open standards and “appifies” everything, making any kind of hardware redundant. But the FCC has rejected it.

We’d love to list the minutiae of what the FCC wants instead, except we can’t: it’s top secret. Amazingly, we won’t know what the five FCC commissioners are voting on until after the vote has taken place. So much for open government.

Let’s see what’s at stake and how we got here.

In the mid 1990s the Telecommunications Act had put into law a raft of unbundling measures aimed at the Pay TV industry. One of these, Section 629, led to the creation of the CableCARD standard. This was analogous to the Carterfone decision of 1968, which mean that any phone could plug into Bell’s then-monopoly telephone network – the phone didn’t have to come from Bell. S.629 decreed that any “non harmful” TV access device should be able to plug into cable or satellite TV, so the subscriber could watch their stuff. The idea was to create a third party market of TV access equipment.

It worked, up to a point. For 15 years you’ve been able to watch TV using third-party CableCARD equipment from companies such as TiVo, and even record it on your Windows PC. But it’s expensive to get your own CableCARD gear; you still need to license the EPG. Almost everyone who watches satellite or cable pay TV in the US today leases the gear from the TV provider.

The CableCARD standard, based around PCMCIA cards from the 1990s, is now archaic and should have been updated around USB years ago, but today, hardware isn’t needed at all: everything can be moved into software and apps.

The satellite industry was thoroughly fed up with the neglect of CableCARD so it pushed Congress to have another look. This resulted in the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization Act of 2014 (“STELA”).

With the act passed, Congress ordered the FCC to devise a modern CableCARD replacement and fast – within nine months. A working group called Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) (PDF) was formed and set about its work.

DSTAC came up with something quite decent, pulling off-the-shelf global industry standards based on HTML5. Don’t take my word for it – you can read it here (PDF) – it’s impressive work. The proposals were open source, and importantly, royalty free. DSTAC noted that these standards bodies included Tim Berners-Lee’s W3C, ATSC 3.0 and DLNA VidiPath (US) Europe’s HbbTV, Korea’s MSIP Smart TV 2.0 and the IPTV Forum Japan’s Hybridcast, ensuring TV makers could build them in directly – vital to making leased equipment irrelevant.

DSTAC’s work does the job of making the hardware redundant, while preserving what TV producers and distributors wanted: control over the EPG, and control over how they distributed the valuable content. On CableCARD, the hardware checks what channels the subscriber is entitled to, and retrieves the keys. This would all now be done in software.

At CES this year the WAVE (Web Application Video Ecosystem) initiative was launched to ensure everything worked on tablets as well as TVs, with Akamai, Samsung and Sony amongst TV providers such as Sky and Comcast on the steering committee.

“The HTML5 app is intended to be a set-top box substitute – designed to provide consumers a choice to access their Title VI cable service (or MVPD service by satellite or IPTV operators) without having to lease a set-top box from their provider. MVPDs have no interest in restricting the availability of the programming they include in their video services when offered via the app”.

It also mandated search across different services.

This really marked the end of an era: from proprietary transmission to TV over IP (Internet Protocols) – from hardware to software. Naturally the cablecos and content companies swung behind it, branding it the "Ditch the Box" proposal. Even FCC chairman Wheeler had to admit it showed "promise". The group recommended a hard limit of two years: everything would need to be working by then.

But no good deed goes unpunished, and DSTAC’s technical open standards-based spec wasn’t the only thing it came up with. What happened next is fascinating.

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