Disruption does not occur in a vacuum. Recently Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer considered whether technological disruption may lead to the "collapse" of the television industry given the recent track record of the newspaper industry. The debate centers on TV viewers’ changing habits, and the Internet, new video providers (e.g., Hulu, Netflix and iTunes) and non-TV displays (e.g., smartphones and tablets) factor heavily into this debate. Technology has enhanced time-shifting, and viewers watch much less programming live (or nearly live) or via a traditional TV. Some viewers replace linear program streams with on-demand viewing. Reasonable minds can differ on the ramifications of these changes. What this debate lacks, however, is a thorough assessment of the role that the legal systems play in this heavily regulated space – systems that, for better and for worse, can limit and delay industry-wide disruptions.
Video programming markets exist within an expansive, multilayered regulatory structure that shapes the options available to viewers. The structure affects access to programming, access to distribution facilities, the terms and conditions of programming rights and other aspects of production and distribution. While Blodget sees vulnerability in the network model amid alternative means for production, acquisition and distribution, Frommer argues that changes in the TV industry will “happen a lot slower than you think” due to factors such as network bundling contracts and carryovers of cable bundling to the Internet. Program suppliers (whether network or syndicated), broadcasters, cable operators, Internet-based video service providers and others compete in this marketplace, but Federal policy also plays a significant role.
Blodget and Frommer focus on the rise and viability of new à la carte competitors to traditional broadcast, cable and satellite providers. These outlets provide a variety of programming, but such providers have differing levels of bargaining power and must compete to negotiate for programming rights. These providers lack certain regulatory benefits available to cable and satellite companies. Federal law assigns certain rights (and certain burdens) to "multichannel video programming distributors," or MVPDs. To date, the Federal Communications Commission has declined to extend this definition to a category of providers that it calls “Online Video Distributors” (OVDs) which include providers such as Netflix, Hulu and others. In a pending proceeding, the FCC has sought public comment on the definition of “MVPD” due to the wide-ranging policy implications.
An MVPD classification gives a provider certain regulatory benefits with respect to access to programming. For example:
- Under federal program access rules, among other things, cable-affiliated programmers must make their programming available to MVPDs on nondiscriminatory rates, terms and conditions. Classification issues, however, will impact the universe of parties in the marketplace. An “over-the-top” video provider, Sky Angel, filed a program access complaint against Discovery Communications and Animal Planet in a dispute over a terminated affiliation agreement. Although the complaint remains pending, in its initial ruling, the FCC's Media Bureau found that Sky Angel was not an MVPD because it did not provide subscribers with a transmission path. Extension of MVPD status to such providers would represent a dramatic change in the regulatory regime.
- Federal law provides, with limited exceptions, that no MVPD may retransmit the signal of a broadcast station without the station’s express authority. Every three years, commercial broadcasters must contact their local MVPDs and must elect whether to have their broadcast signals carried by those operators in accordance with a retransmission consent agreement or to invoke statutory rights of mandatory carriage. In addition, FCC rules require MVPDs to honor broadcasters’ exclusivity rights with respect to certain network, syndicated and/or sports programming. At present, only MVPDs are eligible to seek relief from the FCC to resolve disputes with broadcasters over these rights. Again, definitions matter.
Even non-MVPDs have benefitted from FCC actions to stimulate access to programming by OVDs. The FCC's approval of Comcast/NBCU joint venture involved several conditions designed to facilitate access by OVDs to programming owned by the joint venture. While the FCC may lack explicit statutory authority to mandate such access, if FCC approval is required for a specific transaction, the agency sometimes requires the transacting parties to adhere to behavioral, structural or other conditions to get such approval. The Commission’s actions in the context of Comcast/NBCU and the Sky Angel case are introductory steps, potentially toward addressing more significant changes down the road.
Of course, access to programming also requires consideration of the benefits and burdens of copyright laws. The Copyright Act grants copyright holders limited bundles of rights to their works, such as rights to perform their copyrighted works in public (which includes broadcast programming and retransmission of such programming on MVPD networks), rights to preclude others from making public performances of these works and rights to reproduction of those works. Qualifying MVPDs can obtain compulsory or statutory licenses to retransmit certain video programming without having to negotiate with many individual copyright holders whose programs are included in the video stream. Copyright law issues are front and center in a legal challenge brought by broadcasters against the launch of Aereo’s subscription-only Internet service. Aereo plans to offer subscribers specific bundles of broadcast network programming for a fee. The networks assert that Aereo’s service constitutes copyright infringement and argue that while other providers pay fees to license the content, Aereo does not. Once again, legal definitions and regulatory uncertainty over emerging technologies affect access to programming.
Notice that I’ve focused only on certain regulations involving access to programming. A much longer blog post would deal with other important regulatory structures: for example, media ownership, access to network facilities, local video franchising, equipment regulation and the regulator’s role in dispute resolution. More regulation translates into regulatory uncertainty (for example, over definitional issues), higher transaction costs, more litigation and more intensive lobbying. The lesson here is that the government regulates the video programming industry much more heavily than the newspaper industry, so it’s difficult to translate the problems facing the latter into predictions about the viability of the former.
So between Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer, who’s right about whether the TV business is “starting to collapse”? I see that as a false choice given the unpredictability of this rapidly changing marketplace. The pace of change on the Internet can be dramatic, but where regulation and litigation are involved, the pace can turn glacial. Thanks in part to the legal system, I don’t expect the “TV business” to “collapse” but rather to continue to evolve incrementally, with competition, new and disruptive technologies and government action serving as major drivers.