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The FCC Proposes Redefining ‘Television’ to Include the Internet: What It Means for Closed Captioning

  • FCC Proposes Redefining 'Television' to Include the Internet
    Twenty-first century consumers shouldn’t be shackled to rules that only recognize 20th century technology.

    Tom Wheeler
    FCC Chairman

    The FCC has proposed that “television” be redefined to include the Internet. In a statement on October 28, 2014, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote, “The mantra ‘Competition, Competition, Competition’ fits perfectly with consumers’ desires for video choices. That’s why I’m asking my fellow Commissioners to update video competition rules so our rules won’t act as a barrier to this kind of innovation. Specifically, I am asking the Commission to start a rulemaking proceeding in which we would modernize our interpretation of the term ‘multichannel video programming distributor’ (MVPD) so that it is technology-neutral. The result of this technical adjustment will be to give MVPDs that use the Internet (or any other method of transmission) the same access to programming owned by cable operators and the same ability to negotiate to carry broadcast TV stations that Congress gave to satellite systems in order to ensure competitive video markets.”

    This statement references Congress’ decision in the early 1990s to allow satellite TV – then an emerging technology – the same access to television programming as cable providers. The FCC’s current proposition recognizes the leaps forward in online video technology, and would open up the market to some much-needed competition.

    If the proposition passes, online video services would no longer be barred from streaming prescheduled “television” programming. Consumers could likely subscribe to a service and have access to the channels they have selected. They would then be able to “watch TV” as it airs – only, they would be watching it online. So far, three start-up companies have requested that the FCC include them in the definition of a multi-channel provider: SkyAngel, a faith broadcaster; FilmOn Networks, a Bevery Hills-based streaming service; and Aereo, Inc., a tech start-up that began streaming broadcast signals online before being implicated for copyright violation by the Supreme Court.

    A ruling in favor of redefining television could open up the market not only for start-ups like those listed above, but also for tech giants like Google and Apple to begin developing online broadcast streaming services.

    What Does the FCC’s Proposition Mean for Closed Captioning?

    If the FCC decides to allow certain online video services to stream prescheduled “cable” programming, it would mean that those online services would also be subject to certain regulatory requirements, such as closed captioning. At least, cable providers are arguing that the “burdens” that exist for cable companies – such as airing emergency alerts, providing closed captioning, carrying certain channels, and complying with equal hiring rules – should apply to online services if the proposition is accepted.

    Given the FCC’s trend in 2014 of expanding closed captioning requirements for online video, it is unlikely that the FCC would allow online services to stream cable programming without also requiring that they comply with broadcast captioning laws. The only scenario in which captioning would not be required is if the online service falls into one of the FCC’s exemptions.

    This means that if the FCC allows online services to essentially function as cable companies, all non-exempt programming and services would require captioning. If the programming being aired were mainly post-produced, captioning would be a fairly manageable task, although the turnaround time might pose problems. If the programming being aired were live, this would be a much more cumbersome task. Regardless, it is likely that closed captions would be required, although the FCC’s standards for caption quality do provide some leniency for live captioning accuracy.

    What Does the FCC’s Proposition Mean for You?

    While this proposition would certainly open the door for new online services to break into the cable market – and possibly break up the monopoly that a few cable companies have developed – you probably wouldn’t be rid of cable completely. Online streaming services would depend on their customers subscribing to high-speed Internet, which is usually provided by a cable company. It’s possible, and even likely, that cable companies would spike Internet subscription prices for customers who solely use their Internet services and not their cable services. Cable companies would also likely impose higher fees on customers who use large amounts of data.

    However, making the switch to online TV would most likely provide the benefit of buying the channels you want, rather than having to subscribe to a set bundle of channels (which is how most cable companies provide services at this time). In his statement, Wheeler stated bluntly, “Consumers have long complained about how their cable service forces them to buy channels they never watch. The move of video onto the Internet can do something about that frustration – but first Internet video services need access to the programs. Today the FCC takes the first step to open access to cable programs as well as local television. The result should be to give consumers more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want.”

    We will keep you posted on any developments to this proposition – although it will most likely be a while before a decision is made.

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