FCC Might Adopt New Rules for Streaming Video Services

It’s becoming a common occurrence: People ending their cable TV subscriptions in favor of online streaming services like Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, etc. Consumers like the option of being truly free to watch what they want when they want and without having to pay for dozens of channels they aren’t interested in.

So far it’s been a boon for Apple, Google, Amazon and others, but the Federal Communications Commission is considering a change in its regulations that would bring those services under the same ordinances as cable companies.

The Washington Post on Friday reported that representatives from Apple, Amazon and Microsoft met with FCC officials last week to lay out their concerns about the FCC’s intentions, which will be discussed at a meeting in October. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler explained to the Post that the proposal would “help online video providers become stronger competitors to cable and satellite firms by making it easier to obtain valuable TV programming for the web. Under the plan, streaming companies would be able to use the FCC’s program access rules to ensure TV networks offer the licensing of their programs. That would allow Apple, for instance, to bring ABC, NBC, and Comedy Central to the bargaining table for their programs.”

Sounds like that’d be a pretty good deal for those streaming providers, right? Maybe not.

In a July 23 letter to the FCC, the Digital Media Association says part of the reason online streaming services has been so successful is the ability to adapt quickly to the demands and interests of their users. Locking those services into the same kind of regulation that governs cable and satellite companies could restrict that innovation. Further, it praises the high quality of entertainment currently available online and warns that the proposal, if enacted, might be a solution in search of a problem.

The FCC filed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last December spelling out its intentions, kicking off the legal process for changing regulations that also includes at least two rounds of opportunity for public comment. The time has come to modernize the definition or interpretation of “multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD)” to include streaming services to meet the changing landscape and ensure all providers have access to the universe of programming available, according to the commission.

streaming flow chart

For what it’s worth, the networks aren’t thrilled with this either, as they want the ability to restrict which online services have access to their shows, or negotiate for better deals without being subject to FCC regulations and approvals.

The Post reports that executives from at least one cable network told the FCC that their programs aren’t always available, or aren’t available at a price streaming providers are willing to pay, on purpose. “Programmers also need to be able to protect the value of their brand by ensuring that they distribute only through bona fide distributors that offer subscribers a robust high-quality offering containing a number of programming services.”

Some streaming services are fully in support of the FCC’s proposed changes, as are some consumer advocacy organizations. Interestingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which bills itself as “Defending Your Rights in the Digital World,” has some reservations about the change.

Echoing the sentiments of the Digital Media Association, EFF says the reason there’s a robust selection of online streaming services is because there isn’t regulation on them at the moment, allowing for creativity to run the show (pardon the pun).

In their comments to the FCC, the organization suggests allowing providers the choice of opting in to the MVPD regulatory definition “in exchange for the right to access broadcast content on the same preferential terms that cable systems enjoy,” or remain unregulated and take their chances gaining access to content.

Video content is protected by the First Amendment, which essentially means the FCC should avoid any regulations that hinder online video platforms from transmitting programs. “Except for the fact that access to broadcast content for Internet streaming services could be improved—something that could be done by providing them with opt-in access to MVPD status—EFF believes that the best way to ensure a competitive, innovative Internet video marketplaces is to leave it pretty much alone; which is, after all, how it got where it is today.”
If the FCC moves forward with this proposed regulation in October, that will make it the second high-profile, controversial regulation on its calendar for that month alone. October is also when final written arguments are to be submitted in a lawsuit filed against the FCC by cable companies and industry groups for the FCC’s new net neutrality regulations.

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