New American Hustle: Cable Opposes a Free, Innovative Service for Viewers

In one week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to approve the voluntary use of a new broadcast television transmission standard, Next Generation TV. This standard has the potential to revolutionize the viewing experience, offering consumers a better product and enhancing competition in the delivery of video programming. This is an exciting moment for the broadcast industry, television viewers and fans of innovation and competition in the video programming marketplace.

You might think it would be hard to line up against innovation and a superior free service. Unfortunately, when anything benefiting consumers involves free, over-the-air TV, some special interest groups are ready to put on a show to demonstrate their opposition.

Later today, the New America Foundation will be hosting a panel discussion on the upcoming FCC vote to authorize Next Gen TV. New America assembled a panel of five guests representing the American Cable Association, the American Television Alliance, NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, Consumers Union and the Alliance for Taxpayer Protection. If you’re scoring at home, that’s three cable panelists, two “public interest” groups and a #techinterestgroup host. (Actually, one of the cable panelists is the outside counsel for another, so maybe it’s just two and a half cable panelists? Or is it one and two halves? I digress.)

Every one of these groups has expressed concerns about Next Gen TV before the FCC. They have all largely focused on the cable talking point that broadcasters will somehow use retransmission consent negotiations to compel carriage of Next Gen signals at pay-TV consumers’ expense. In fact, two of the panelists and the moderator himself got together for a press call on October 26 to bash the Next Gen TV proposal on just those grounds. This panel is not a discussion, in other words, it’s a stage play in service of the pay-TV industry. Perhaps New America is looking for a new funder beyond Google?

Now, again, three (kind of three?) of these folks are cable representatives. You can understand their self-interest in stymying competition so they can continue their uninterrupted and ongoing quest to bilk their customers with fees and extraneous charges as long as possible.

But for the consumer groups, this is puzzling. First, just as a matter of optics, it takes serious chutzpah to call yourself a consumer advocate and show up as the chorus line for cable companies. After all, these are some of the most hated companies in America precisely because they are so effective at demonstrating their ongoing commitment to not caring at all about their customers. Second, as a substantive matter, wringing your hands over technological innovation in support of a free competitive option – the only free option – in the video market is…well, let’s charitably describe it as counterintuitive.

New America’s staging of this cable opera is particularly galling. New America has devoted substantial time and energy to flogging its clients’ patrons’ donors’ pet projects around getting spectrum for free at the direct expense of existing broadcast services viewers rely on. Broadcasters also have substantial and unparalleled public interest obligations attached to their spectrum; obligations that New America has fervently attempted to help half-trillion dollar companies avoid while they pursue access to free spectrum.

Here’s the bottom line. Broadcasters are seeking permission to invest their own capital to offer a better service to viewers without government mandates or subsidies while maintaining their current obligations. It’s obvious why this might concern pay-TV competitors. But if “consumer advocates” can’t see the public benefit in next week’s FCC decision, it might be time to audition for a different role.

In the meantime, I hope rehearsals for today’s show are going well. I expect they are; after all, everyone has the same lines.