The FCC Needs a 21st Century Theory of Video Competition

by Galen Posposil

How will Americans receive video programming in the 21st Century?  Over the Air? Via traditional multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs), such as cable and satellite? Or via over-the-top internet services?  What mix of video delivery methods will ensure that every American household has access to competitive sources of video programming? Despite considering dozens of video-related measures, both regulatory and deregulatory, over the last five years, the Commission has yet to articulate a regulatory vision for how the marketplace will deliver competitive and diverse video programming options to all Americans.

Each year, the Commission reports to Congress on the status of video-programming competition.  As it prepares its 19th annual report, the video marketplace is bursting with innovation and competition.  Depending on where they live, consumers often have the choice of multiple traditional multi-channel video programming distributors, over-the-air television, and internet-delivered programming.  Meanwhile, both traditional networks and new entrants like Netflix and Amazon are spending billions on exclusive programming to attract consumers to the latest new network or online service.  However, the benefits of this “Golden Age” of television may never reach all Americans.  Those with disabilities and those in areas without broadband competition may never experience the benefits of television’s Golden Age.

The explosion of new video production has brought dozens of new shows to television, but “television” itself is also changing.  The technology used to deliver video to a screen now includes apps, streaming-video appliances, and advanced set-top boxes.  In the race to build the best video service, accessibility features like video description and closed captioning are often left behind.  For the deaf and blind, these accessibility features are the difference between participating in the national conversation about that new hit series, and being left behind.  While some online video providers like Netflix and Amazon have voluntarily adopted closed captioning and video description for their exclusive shows, devices have not necessarily kept pace.  With TV apps and streaming-video sticks providing more and more video content, consumers cannot be sure that their content will be available in an accessible format on every device.

Rural consumers may also be left behind as the video-distribution landscape shifts. Both cable television and broadband infrastructure have been deployed mostly in urban areas.   Rural consumers are left with only satellite and over-the-air broadcast video services.  As video choices proliferate online, rural consumers are without access to the new services that have broken the stranglehold of traditional media. In other areas, consumers may have access to only a single broadband provider with speeds capable of streaming video.

As part of its 19th video competition report, the Commission should consider what data it needs from cable operators and traditional video programming distributors.  As the Commission considers changes to its data gathering tools, it should examine cable video in the larger context of the video programming market.  As video is increasingly delivered online, that task will require assessing broadband deployment as infrastructure for delivering video programming. Video competition and broadband deployment can no longer be assessed independently.

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