Yesterday, the good ol’ FCC unveiled a new plan to finally kill off the dadgum set-top cable box that’s been cluttering up your entertainment center and haunting your dreams since time immemorial. And that’s not just rhetoric: the proposal would require pay TV providers to offer an alternative option that performs the same function, only in app form. It’s about danged time, I say. I also say, kill it* with fire!
Goodbye Unnecessary Monthly “Rental” Fees
Remember when your cable used to just come through a, um, cable that popped out of the wall? Plugged right into the back of your TV, easy as you pleasey? Remember that? About 20 years ago or so, right about the time satellite TV started to become a big thing, when subscribers to those services had to start using an interface box between the satellite itself and the TV to decode the signals and whatnot, regular, non-satellite cable providers decided that their subscribers needed little boxes for their cable, too. Not necessarily because they were needed for signal decryption, but because the cable providers could charge customers to use them. Cable companies also, of course, made said boxes mandatory, but cleverly disguised it behind the rise of HD TV and more advanced flatscreen sets.
As of last year, the average ‘Merican family was paying $231 a year to “rent” their cable boxes. I put rent in quotation marks because no one is actually renting one of those things, in the sense that most people only rent things they want to use, not things they have to use.
As an aside, check your next bill to see if you’re being charged rental fees for your modem or router as part of your internet service. You almost certainly are, but it’s a very quick return on investment to buy your own internet equipment. The “rental” fees for my old, cable-provider provided modem were about $12 a month; I bought my own for less than $40. (As an aside to my aside, if you have purchased your own equipment, and informed your pay TV provider of such, it’s a good idea to check your bill to make sure they have removed the charges. And, even after you’ve called in and told them and they assure you that the “charges will no longer added to your bill,” keep checking your bill just to be sure.)
Platforms & Universal Search
There is, of course, a lot more legalese and corporate mumbo jumbo involved in the actual wording of the new FCC proposal, but it basically says that all cable providers would have to make their cable apps—whatever form the ultimately take—available via any “widely deployed platform.” Widely deployed platforms are defined as any operating system (not device) that has sold more than five million units in the US in the past 12 months.
An additional, absolutely fantastic, requirement of the new plan: cable providers would also have to make their content catalogs available via a universal search function. So, if your smart-TV has Netflix or Hulu apps on it, along with your new cable TV app, and you’re looking to watch, say, Weekend at Bernie’s II, and the 1993 corpse-desecrating comedy classic was available to watch on both Netflix and TBS (or any other channel that’s part of your cable package), your search results would show that it’s available through both, and you can pick where you watch it.
Cable providers are, unsurprisingly, in a tizzy over all this, because they stand to lose millions of dollars a year. Good. They’ve been intentionally cheating their customers out of money for years, with mandatory subscriptions to (and attendant charges for) dozens of channels no one wants but that are part of a bundle deal that includes the channels people do want and can’t get otherwise. And don’t even get me started on their legendarily bad customer service. F cable companies. F the lot of ‘em.
* “it” being the cable box