In Set Top Box Fight… Maybe Everybody Wins?
Kevin Speedy, Freecast:
As its fate is debated within the halls of power by multi-billion dollar corporations, it’s easy to forget that the cable set top box is just a device. It’s salient only because that clunky box near your TV has become emblematic of its function, which is an essential one: the management of media content. This task was once much simpler. In an era before online video, a cable TV subscription was where almost all the content was coming from. But while media has evolved, the set top box largely has not, creating frustration for consumers who now have innovative new hardware and web services to enhance their media experience. Currently, the web-based and traditionally-delivered don’t play nice together, and the cable TV providers are faulted for that. Clearly it’s in the interests of the big MVPDs to fight the coming change, with consumers driving the trends all across the TV industry, the status quo cannot stand for long.
Who’s the Boss?
The true question before the FCC right now is who will control the media experience for hundreds of millions over the next generation. The answer to that question is simple: consumers. They have a multitude of options for getting video now, and have proven that they’ll vote with their wallets if they aren’t happy, given the mass exodus from cable TV in recent years. The greatest success awaits the company that builds the product consumers want, rather than one that tries to herd them in whatever direction is most profitable.
Cable TV become ubiquitous thanks to a lack of competition. If you wanted pay-TV, you got it from your local cable company, or you did without. When there was nothing better out there to go and get, there was no reason for big cable to improve their offerings, which is why most cable set-top boxes today look much like they did in the 1990s.
As online video has grown into a viable alternative to cable, the “do nothing” strategy on hardware has worked particularly well, as it’s made accessing these services alongside traditional linear channels a chore, and thereby discouraging consumers from using both.
Only when consumers started choosing web video over cable has this plan begun to backfire. Unlocking the set top box will pave the way for third parties, particularly Silicon Valley’s tech giants, to build better media experiences that integrate a user’s pay-TV service as well as online video options. But this also creates conflicts of interest for the same reasons: the tech companies are equally incentivized to use their power to stifle competition. From Google to Apple to Microsoft to Amazon, each of these companies’ strategies depend on locking users into their ecosystem.
The result is compatibility confusion galore: you can’t buy content from iTunes if you’re on an Android device, Amazon won’t sell Chromecast because it competes with their own Fire TV, and the consumer experience suffers as a result of these big companies trying to push them towards their own products.
While many consumers would see dealing with the often popular tech companies as preferable to the perennially despised cable TV providers, at the end of the day, consumers want what’s best for them. They want to be able to enjoy any content they want to watch, conveniently and affordably, where they want, when they want, how they want, and with little patience for mega-corporate competition getting in the way. What they want is an agnostic media manager that makes it easy and puts them in control, rather than trying to milk them for money at every turn or push them towards favored products and content. They want TV on their terms.
FreeCast Offers Both Sides a Win
Contrary to how it may appear, given the quickly intensifying debate over set-top box access, it’s possible for everyone to get what they want. Despite the fight for control of the media experience, an agnostic third party could make it possible for all the stakeholders to succeed. That’s what FreeCast brings to the table with its aggregated online video service, known as Select TV but available as a white-label solution. It’s a universal media interface, that makes everything the web has to offer accessible from everywhere.
While this interface is ideal to power all types of set-top boxes, it also exists on the web, requiring no specific hardware, and making it always available to consumers.
Let’s start with the cable TV providers. Missing out on set top box revenues would be just the latest hit to an already shrinking business. As content providers constantly up their asking price for popular channels, and consumers grow ever more sensitive to the skyrocketing price of cable, the MVPDs are largely stuck between a rock and a hard place.
A service like FreeCast’s could not only manage authenticated content or streaming feeds, but also integrate other over-the-top content, allowing even the biggest cable providers to monetize their subscribers’ use of these services, rather than simply suffering from them.
As hesitant as the MVPDs may be, fearful of OTT services cannibalizing their own, successfully integrating traditional and web-delivered TV is going to be essential to maintaining video subscribers and their piece of the TV revenue pie. Taking advantage of a third-party guide instantly gets the FCC off their back by affording all the advantages of being a dumb pipe for data, but still allowing them to share in revenues produced by their subscribers’ viewing habits.
For the tech industry, eager to make a home in consumers’ living rooms via the set top box, being able to offer a universal media interface that matches those of other platforms as well as those provided by the cable company, will allow device makers to focus on hardware and features, knowing that their media experience will always be top of the line and all-inclusive.
This cuts out all of the compatibility confusion, and the complex task of establishing and adopting standards that would make opening up the cable box feasible at all. Much like Microsoft did with Windows, FreeCast’s service will open the door for thousands of companies to develop hardware, software, and content, thanks to a universal platform through which it can reach millions of consumers.
This is a vastly superior scenario to one in which everyone does their own thing; you can see that playing out today, with Roku, Apple TV, Android-based streaming devices and more, all of which are niche offerings at best, based on simple app managers stuck in a box.
For consumers, the benefits are the greatest. FreeCast’s service is the media holy grail: one universal and affordable service that makes it possible to watch anything you want, find any content at the best price, and that works from anywhere, on any device. It’s a TV experience for the ever-connected 21st century, rather than one rooted in the analog era, and it puts the consumer first rather than picking favorites among content or hardware providers.
What’s being talked about in the FCC, and grabbing headlines in the press, is currently all theory. How can the cable set-top box be unlocked, and what will it take to make it work going forward? Unbeknownst to most of the stakeholders in that process, what they’re discussing in theory is already being developed and largely ready to roll out.
FreeCast’s media aggregation platform is, whether they know it or not, exactly what the FCC, the cable companies, consumer groups, and the tech giants are talking about. It already exists and is ready and waiting for the TV industry to take advantage of it.
Rather than squabble over dollars today, it’s important to recognize that an evolved media experience, and a more modern TV industry, built to support current technologies, creates new opportunities for all. It’s a classic case of growing a bigger pie rather than trying to fight for a piece.