What should we call TV shows when they’re not on TV? What if they were never on TV, like Netflix’s “House of Cards” or Hulu’s “Deadbeat”? They’re not TV shows, even though they look and feel like them. This is a conundrum the Emmy Awards had to deal with: the presenter of the awards is known as the “Television Academy,” and yet in 2013, the web-only “House of Cards” won the award for “Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.”
The FCC Steps In
The confusion over what is and isn’t TV is relevant again. According to the FCC, TV channels that broadcast via satellite and cable are known as “multichannel video programming distributors” (MVPD). MVPDs have to play by FCC rules: rights include the ability to negotiate retransmission rights for popular channels. Responsibilities require making certain less-popular channels available and following rules regarding commercial volume.
Currently, MVPD rules don’t apply to any online streaming services, but if the FCC approves a new rule change, they could. Bear in mind the new rule wouldn’t apply to on-demand services like Netflix or Hulu, at least not using their current content model. Instead, it would apply to services that offer subscribers the ability to watch one of multiple live content streams. One example is Ustream, which may not be a household name yet, but with a new FCC ruling, its model might prove more popular.
Because the rule is still open for comments, one question the FCC asks is whether individual streaming services should be able to decide whether they want to be classified as MVPDs and subject to all rights and responsibilities or not. In such a case, each service could decide whether the rights outweighed the responsibilities, but services would have to play by both or neither.
Want TV channels on your phone?
Assume for a moment that the rule passes, and that the MVPD definition expands to include Internet as well as satellite and cable providers. You wouldn’t log on and binge watch a whole season of your favorite show: you’d be watching the same content available on TV at the same time. Potential benefits for viewers could include the ability to eliminate your TV altogether if you prefer to watch on something like an Apple HD Cinema Display. It would also mean the ability to watch live TV anywhere on your mobile device. That ability could make it easier to sports fans to catch games without paying for other streaming services like MLB.TV—which could itself be classified as an MVPD.
Warts and All
It does sound cool, but literally putting TV channels on your computer or phone means taking the bad with the good: commercials, blackout rules for sporting events, and depending on your mobile or home Internet plan, extra data charges. It’s also impossible to know what these online content providers would charge. As with some current cord-cutting services, the price structure might not live up to expectations.
In the Opposing Corners
It’s not surprising to learn that the cable TV industry opposes the proposed change. However, some cable networks, including Disney, Discovery, and AMC, are also against it, as is the aforementioned MLB.TV. Those in favor of the proposal include the broadcast TV industry and some broadcast TV channels, including even those belonging to cable networks opposing the change, such as the Disney-owned ABC.
We don’t know which way the FCC will rule, but recent events show the commission isn’t afraid of change. It reclassified Internet networks as public utilities and implemented net neutrality, both controversial measures, so we wouldn’t be surprised at all if the new MVPD definition changes from proposal to policy.
All Your Bandwidth is Belong to Us
The term “epic” is considerably overused in modern parlance, but if a significant portion of cable and satellite subscribers switched to Internet programming, the bandwidth requirements would indeed be epic. Considering that Netflix and YouTube make up half of all Internet bandwidth, and that people watch 14 times more TV than online video, the implication is obvious: America would need a huge increase in bandwidth, both in terms of individual users and networks as a whole.