Think Tank Express: Freeing the set-top box

Hey, the FCC is letting me unlock my cable box. Is it still 1994?

A few weeks ago, President Obama announced he was backing a FCC proposal to unlock cable set-top boxes.


The problem is, those set-top boxes you lease to cable operators are about as obsolete as an 8-track tape player. It’s not the direction the industry is moving in, and this idea would be great – if it was 1992.

Generally, you need to lease a set-top box to get cable channels -something you would place on top of your TV.

As it stands now, the FCC – led by Chairman Tom Wheeler and its two Democratic commissioners, would require cable operators to “unlock the box”: make programming and set-top box data available to third-party vendors through devices and apps, in the name of “competition”.

The reaction to this FCC proposal has been negative – cable operators, satellite providers, broadcasters, studios, telcos, content creators – even Hollywood unions such as SAG-AFTRA, DGA, and IATSE are opposed (but not the WGA, which supports the FCC plan.) But the proposal has the support of clout-heavy tech companies such as Google, Apple, and TiVo in addition to consumer groups.

Those who oppose the plan say the move could destroy the TV industry, invade users’ privacy, stifle innovation, and drive prices higher for consumers. Supporters say it would give consumers more power and more choice.

But by buying an unlocked set-top box? Sorry President Obama and Chairman Wheeler, this won’t work. Oh, I can see it now: hoardes of shoppers jumping into their cars and rushing down to Best Buy or Kmart or Sears to grab this “hot new item.”

Please. Like yours truly is going to ask a guy in a blue shirt what kind of set-top box I should buy when he knows as much about them as these politicians do. Hell, even the guy selling items on the CTA’s Red Line would probably know more.

Look, Roku and Google already have streaming sticks where you can plug in the HDMI port on your TV to eliminate the need for a box (and cable, obviously.) Slingbox can let you watch TV in any room you want. And younger viewers are going without cable altogether, preferring to stream their content on smartphones, laptops, and tablets – without a box.

Should we trust these third-party vendors? It’s a red flag. They have an opportunity to access (or steal) data and content and undermine licensing deals and violate copyrights. And there’s no doubt Google cannot wait to get their hands on this information to monetize off of.

And there is concern about the future of minority programming if the set-box is unlocked, with African-American TV executives split on the idea. And the WGA’s support of the plan is baffling. For a union who prods on and on about protecting creators’ works, their stance is disappointing and insulting.

Yours truly hates it when politicians – no matter how well-intended – waddle into something they don’t know about. Chicago is plagued with endless gun violence – and yet, the President is worried about an outdated piece of equipment most Americans are sure to junk soon? In an era where companies are refusing to pay workers a living wage (especially in the media business), how do you sell something most working people don’t need and/or can’t afford?

And of course, those who support the plan will likely turn this into a partisan fight, as is everything in this country nowadays. Remember, Republicans don’t have a monopoly on stupidity – all you have to do is look at who the mayor of Chicago is and see that.

Wheeler’s set-top box plan is dead on arrival – as it should be. Actually, it’s dumb on arrival.