Many television critics say that America is experiencing a new “Golden Age of Television,” citing an abundance of high-quality programming available today. That judgment is of course a matter of opinion. What is certain, however, is that today’s TV marketplace offers consumers more choices, more competition, and more innovation that ever before. From a service providing perhaps three to seven channels of programming a generation ago, and roughly 200 channels a decade ago, TV is now able to offer practically limitless choices to American viewers via the Internet.
The new realities of the television marketplace have rendered much of the regulatory infrastructure that has long governed television obsolete. Rules written for an industry consisting of a handful of broadcasters licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) do not fit today’s world of innovative Internet TV services. Yet, while the FCC—fortunately—no longer wields the comprehensive control over television it once did—witness the death of the Fairness Doctrine—it finds itself unable to keep its hands off the television marketplace.
Case in point: The FCC this fall is expected to re-define certain Internet-TV systems as multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs). This step would trigger a hodge-podge of regulatory burdens on—and regulatory advantages for—these dynamic new services. This would be a step in the wrong direction, limiting the benefits to viewers of the new TV marketplace.
The Revolutions in Television
The television marketplace of today is almost unrecognizable from that of a generation, or even a decade, ago. As late as the early 1970s, the word “television” was synonymous with broadcast television, with almost all content transmitted over the air from a handful of FCC-licensed TV stations in each viewing market. Most of these stations were affiliated with one of only three national networks. No market had more than seven very-high-frequency (VHF) stations, plus a few ultra-high-frequency (UHF) stations, which were notoriously hard to tune into.
This oligopoly went hand in hand with a stifling degree of federal control over both the content and distribution of programming. This unhappy situation was demonstrated in a 1961 speech by then–FCC chairman Newt Minow, in which he dismissed the TV world of the time as a “vast wasteland,” critiquing what he saw as the unsatisfactory television shows of the time. He bluntly reminded broadcasters that their performance would be evaluated by the government at license-renewal time, and that broadcasters who failed to provide programming more to the government’s liking (more symphonies, fewer westerns, Minow suggested) would find their licenses revoked.
This kind of content control was matched by controls limiting competition between stations, regulating relationships between affiliates and networks, limiting ties between producers and the networks, and limiting ownership of other types of media outlets.
The first shock to this tightly controlled system came from cable television. Originally designed to supplement the reach of broadcasters in areas where reception was poor, cable TV was long stunted by FCC rules. After these restrictions were eased in the early 1970s, cable grew rapidly, becoming a real challenger to over-the-air broadcasting. From only 650,000 subscribers in the 1960s, cable reached 4.5 million in 1970, and over 50 million in 1990. During the same period, new cable-only channels, such as HBO, ESPN, and CNN, were launched, offering programming that competed with that aired by the broadcasters. Cable eventually displaced broadcasting as the most common distribution system for TV (although broadcast programming remained the largest source of content).
By the 1990s, more new competitors entered the television fray, providing additional choices for viewers. Cable TV’s moment in the sun lasted only about two decades, as other distribution platforms entered the fray. By 2013, cable TV represented barely half of the MVPD market. Satellite TV accounted for a third, with telecommunication service providers, such as Verizon and AT&T, accounting for another 10 percent of subscribers.
Today, a new wave of change is rocking television: Internet-based TV. Often called over-the-top (OTT) video, such service is provided via the consumer’s existing broadband connection rather than through separate cables, spectrum, or other infrastructure.
The OTT marketplace is competitive, dynamic, and even a bit chaotic. Perhaps the best-known video provider is Netflix, which started out as a mail-order DVD rental service. Now, its online service is so popular that Netflix streaming constitutes over a third of all Internet usage during prime time. But the service faces a virtual horde of competitors, including Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, Hulu, Sling TV, Flixster, Crackle, TV.com, and YipTV among others.
And more OTT services are on the way. Perhaps most notably, Apple is planning to debut a new online TV service this fall, providing about 25 channels of OTT programming, including content from CBS, ABC, and Fox. Google is also rolling out a new subscription service, called YouTube Red.
These ventures use a variety of business models. Some, like Netflix, allow unlimited viewing for a flat monthly rate. Others charge a fee to digitally rent a particular movie or TV show, or to buy it. Most operate on an “on demand” basis, but a few, including Apple’s planned service and Dish Network’s Sling TV offer “linear,” or scheduled, programming. Many are affiliated with existing players in the TV marketplace, but backing for these ventures is coming from a dizzying variety of sources, including retailers, equipment manufacturers, and Hollywood studios.
It is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the popularity of OTT television versus cable and broadcasting. The services vary tremendously, and standard ratings systems may not make sense for on-demand services watched at a time chosen by the viewers. But it is clear that OTT serves more than a niche role. One recent survey showed that some 60 percent of households with broadband subscribed to at least one OTT video service, spending an average of $9 per month. According to the Nielson rating agency, the 10.5 hours per month spent viewing online TV is still quite low—compared to the nearly 150 hours per month spent watching traditional television.
Other reports paint a different picture. Based on the amount of video downloaded, recent analysis from investment firm FBR Capital Markets predicts that by 2016, Netflix alone will have a bigger audience than any of the top TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox).
Whatever its exact size, online video is beginning to have a significant effect on cable TV providers, as Americans cut the cord on their cable service—or at least limit it. The number of Americans without cable service stood at about 15 million at the end of 2014, about three million more than in 2012. Many more are reducing their cable services, a process known as “shaving the cord.” About 46.2 percent of cable subscribers last year simply reduced cable costs by buying smaller bundles of channels.
Television programming—the content seen by viewers as opposed to the distribution platform that delivers it—has also been changing. As late as the 1980s, broadcast stations were the source of 80 percent of all programming viewed (albeit by then, most broadcast signals were already delivered via cable rather than by antennas). By 2012, only 30 percent of viewed programming was from broadcast stations. Thus, while broadcast programming remains an important source of content, it does not dominate the market as it once did. In many cases, online video providers have produced their own programming (such as Netflix’s House of Cards). Nevertheless, broadcast content is still much in demand. The acquisition of rights from the broadcast networks, for instance, is a major part of Apple’s plan for its new OTT service.
In the wake of this explosion of new choices for consumers, federal regulations premised on the old oligopolistic TV marketplace have become unnecessary. And the FCC has rolled back some of these rules. It has, for instance, pared back “program access” mandates that required cable networks that also owned programming to make it available to competitors, ruling that cable systems are subject to “effective competition” (limiting the ability of local governments to regulate cable rates), and proposing the repeal of broadcast non-duplication rules.
Yet, the FCC is poised to move in the opposite direction when it comes to Internet TV. Specifically, in a notice adopted last December, the FCC proposed reclassifying certain Internet television providers as MVPDs. Such a step presents a danger to these still-nascent services: The term “multichannel video programming distributor” stems from the Cable Act of 1992, which defines MVPDs as:
[A] person such as, but not limited to, a cable operator, a multichannel multipoint distribution service, a direct broadcast satellite service, or a television receive-only satellite program distributor, who makes available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.
At the time the Cable Act was written, this term described a limited range of firms, basically including cable TV providers, the then-nascent satellite services and so-called wireless cable services. The FCC now proposes to expand the MVPD definition to include OTT video providers, which offer scheduled programming on discrete channels of content.
Designation as a MVPD triggers a number of regulatory burdens for providers. Among these are mandatory closed-captioning, restrictions on the loudness of commercials, FCC equal-employment obligations, and requirements that set-top boxes be available for sale at retail stores rather than being provided by cable companies. Perhaps most important, however, MVPD status subjects providers to the FCC’s system of “retransmission consent” in order to acquire broadcast programming.
The FCC described this proposed change as a simple “update” of its rules. The expanded definition, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler explained in a separate statement, is technology-neutral. “Video is no longer tied to a certain transmission technology, so our interpretation of MVPD should not be tied to transmission technologies.”
Chairman Wheeler believes that this shift is needed in order to assist linear OTTs, some of which have had difficulty acquiring the programming necessary to succeed in the marketplace. According to Wheeler, “efforts by new entrants to develop new video services have faltered because they could not get access to programming content that was owned by cable networks or broadcasters.”
In fact, the FCC was initially spurred to look at the MVPD definition by a 2012 complaint against Discovery Communications by Sky Angel, an OTT provider that had been denied access to Discovery’s channels. Sky Angel asked the FCC to order Discovery to provide programming under the mandatory program access rules then in place. The FCC did not grant the request, and in 2013 Sky Angel terminated its service.
But despite the failure of some individual competitors, competition in TV service—both among OTTs as well as between them and more traditional forms of transmission—is robust. While individual failures do occur, as they do in any healthy market, choices for consumers are still growing, with new services being launched frequently. This market does not need the FCC’s help. Moreover, given the regulatory burdens that accompany MVPD status, even some linear OTTs have reservations about the FCC’s new definition. For instance, YipTV, a primarily Spanish-language online video service launched this past May, told the FCC that “classification as an MVPD will bring substantial costs that may limit its ability to obtain new programming— thus reducing the programming choices available to consumers.” YipTV is especially concerned about the cost of mandated closed-captioning, a step that it says would be cost-prohibitive.
The Retransmission Consent Mess
Other online TV providers, such as FilmOn, argue that the burden of additional regulation would be offset by OTTs gaining greater access to content, primarily from broadcasters. The key to providing such greater access, according to supporters of the expanded definition, is putting online video providers under the “retransmission consent” regime for broadcast-programming rights. These rules require MVPDs to acquire the consent of individual broadcasters before they can retransmit the signals of broadcast stations on their system.
While negotiations over such consent are largely the result of voluntary negotiations between the parties, the FCC requires each side to negotiate in “good faith.” This good faith requirement has been a lever allowing the FCC to become involved in squabbles between MVPDs and broadcasters over retransmission consent.
In recent years, these squabbles have been more frequent and more acrimonious. Broadcasters, under increasing economic pressure, have demanded higher prices for the granting of their consent. And, because of objections to rising fees received by broadcasters for their consent and the threat of programming blackouts where negotiations fail, the FCC has been taking a more interventionist role in the process, often pressuring broadcasters to temper their demands. This intervention will likely only increase under a rule change proposed in September by the FCC that would expand “good faith” obligations. Under this FCC-supervised negotiation process, OTTs would be able to claim more of the broadcasters’ programming.
There is a better way to provide compensation for programming rights: copyright laws. Under established intellectual property laws, the owners of programing rights can license use of their content, under a system adjudicated by courts, not a regulatory agency subject to political pressure.
The problem is that—for traditional MVPDs—the copyright laws have been effectively nullified by a statutory compulsory license, which mandates that broadcasters grant program rights to cable and satellite TV providers at nominal rates. But no such compulsory license currently applies to online TV providers, meaning that the copyright laws are in full force for OTTs. Rather than abandon copyright law for Internet TV, policymakers should be moving in the opposite direction—that is, applying copyright law to traditional MVPDs in lieu of the FCC retransmission consent system.
There is one last twist on this already Byzantine issue. Even if the FCC did impose retransmission consent rules on OTTs, it is not clear what would happen to the existing copyrights. Without further changes, some of which would require Congress to act, the two regulatory systems would be in conflict. This mess is avoidable: Rather than impose the outdated retransmission-consent rules on the online world, regulators should simply allow the copyright system to work for all.
The “vast wasteland” of the 1960s is gone forever—replaced by a world of choice, competition, and constant innovation—providing viewers with options never dreamed of by previous generations. Over-the-top video promises even more benefits in the near future. But these benefits would be undermined by the imposition of rules written for a different time and a different television world. Instead of expanding old rules to cover these new services, the FCC (and Congress) should ensure that outdated rules are not imposed anywhere in this new marketplace.—James L. Gattuso is Senior Research Fellow for Regulatory Policy in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.