Tales of the Sausage Factory

SkyAngel Files Program Access Complaint — Has Media Bureau Really Changed, Or Will They Again Sit On Sidelines?

Some people wonder why I remain so down on the Media Bureau. “Harold,” they say. “Why do you keep saying the Media Bureau are in the pocket of the cable industry? Aren’t they just all fired up and rarin’ to go on the upcoming cable set top box proceedings?”

Perhaps I am allowing the experiences of the past to cloud my vision of a hopeful tomorrow. Perhaps, despite an utterly abysmal track record on cable matters, the cable folks in the Media Bureau have now turned over a new leaf. Perhaps now they will at least process complaints in less than three years, so that companies other than cable operators might feel they get some due process — if not actual justice — at the FCC. Who knows?

Which is why I shall watch the developments around the Sky Angel program access complaint with considerable interest. Sky Angel used to distribute programming by satellite, making it eligible for the “program access” rules that require cable operators with affiliated programming to make that programming available to rivals. (I’ve written about these rules at length before here.)

From what I can tell from the limited data available, Sky Angel is now a “Christian IPTV distributor.” It resembles a cable/satellite-like service (or “MVPD” for “multichannel video programming distributor”) in every way except for the fact that it does not own its own facilities. It distributes its programming online. We generally call these things “over the top” video distributors. According to the Broadcasting and Cable story (since I haven’t been able to find a copy of the complaint), the Discovery Channel has decided to terminate its distribution contract with Sky Angel four years early — apparently because Sky Angel has switched its distribution model to become a pure over-the-top distributor.

My problem is, that this looks very similar to a complaint a company called VDC (“Virtual Digital Cable”) filed three years ago. The Media Bureau has yet to process that complaint, but there’s no rush — since the company went bankrupt and shut down while waiting for Media Bureau action.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Circuit Affirms Inside Wiring In Fairly Broad Opinion. Terrestrial Loophole Next? And What About Time Warner's TV Anywhere?

While folks in the suburbs sometimes forget this, a lot of people live in what we call “multiple dwelling units” (MDUs) — which is a fancy way to say things like apartment buildings and condos. One of the problems for people trying to switch from one provider to another for cable (for example, from Comcast to RCN) is that a cable operator may already have an exclusive deal with the landlord to provide cable services to everyone in the building. Competitors asked the FCC to ban such practices. In 2003, under Michael Powell, the FCC refused to ban such exclusive deals because “regulation is always bad, mmmmkayyy.” In 2007, as part of Kevin Martin’s attack on cable market power evil vendetta against the helpless cable industry, the FCC reversed this determination and found that under Section 628(b) of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 548) it needed to prohibit cable operators from entering into or enforcing such exclusive deals because Verizon can’t sell FIOS w/out being able to offer triple play. Predictably, this was widely denounced by the cable companies and their cheerleaders as not merely unwarranted, but a violation of law and certain to be overturned on appeal.

Turns out, not so much. In fact, in a rather broadly worded opinion, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the 2007 Order. Indeed, the language affirming the decision opens the door to the FCC tackling other cable issues, such as the terrestrial loophole (which Verizon wasted no time in pointing out to the FCC). Mind you, it remains unclear at this point whether the new FCC will have any interest in cable market power or not.

Still, there are a number of important aspects about this case, especially its implications for the FCC to regulate Time Warner’s TV Anywhere strategy, aka “how cable operators plan to preserve their existing business model and fight off Netflix.” I discuss this in more detail below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Fragmentation Games Continue: Cable Has a Plan So Cunning Even THEY Can't Figure It Out.

So back in September ’08, when ESPN.com cut a deal with Verizon and AT&T to lock out subscribers to rival ISPs, I predicted the cable guys would try to lock up content of their own. and, indeed, the cable guys have proven uniquely ambitious. As reported at DSL Reports and elsewhere, the cable guys want to lock in all cable network programming. But subsequent reports, and a lack of object from competitors like DIRECTV, make it look more like a cable programming network play and less like an incumbent cable ISP play.

One way or another, I expect this to keep getting interesting over time.

More below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Industry Flips Off FCC, Fines To Follow? Expect Other Industries to Tell FCC To [Fleeting Expletive] Off Too.

I clearly missed a class in law school. Not once in my Administrative Law class did my professor ever tell me that you could respond to a federal investigation by telling the agency “We know you have authority, but we’d rather not answer these questions because you are a great big meany.” But then, I’m not working for the cable industry, which has repeatedly shown it has trouble with the concept that federal law really applies to them and that the FCC is supposed to be a regulator not a lap dog.

Today’s episode of “I Can’t Believe The Chutzpah” comes from the ongoing investigation by the FCC over whether cable operators are using the confusion around the DTV conversion to push users into buying digital tier service, and rent new digital set-top boxes in violation of the rules on set-top box interoperability, or just generally violating the law by changing channel line ups without notice to either subscribers or local franchise authorities, migrating stuff off basic tier without warning, or charging for additional tiers to get channels required by law to be available on the basic tier. Mind, I’d also like them to explicitly ask whether the cable guys are unfairly migrating unaffiliated channels to digital in violation of Section 616, but that’s just me.

Anyway, after getting a bunch of consumer complaints and reading Consumers Union’s letter to Congress (or at least hearing about it on NPR), the FCC sent out a bunch of letters of inquiry to the named cable companies and Verizon asking them to provide a boatload of information which would allow the FCC to determine if the consumer complaints were, ya know, true. Given that this is lots of people being potentially ripped off big time, the agency told the everyone that got a letter they had two weeks to reply.

Mind you, this is hardly an original process or unique to the cable industry. I should know. The FCC did the same thing in response to my complaint about the wireless microphone guys back in August. The FCC (also under Martin I should add) acted with similar swiftness and intensity back in 2006, when Verizon and BellSouth tried to keep charging USF fees on DSL after they were phased out. The phone companies, apparently under the same misconception that I was that even if you are a big company you actually have to obey the law, backed off. The cable companies have other ideas. And, if they get away with it, I’m sure the Bells, broadcasters, and every one else will follow suit.

So yesterday, NCTA,the trade industry for the cable guys, sent a lengthy letter to the FCC explaining that the FCC is not allowed to investigate the cable industry. They recommend that the FCC rescind the letters of investigation and, instead of having the Enforcement Bureau actually act on consumer complaints, the FCC should hold a nice, quiet Notice of Inquiry instead. Then, if Martin gets all the other Commissioners to agree, and the FCC asks nicely and without any legal compulsion to answer honestly or completely, cable operators might consider responding.

Now I just know, KNOW that there are people out there who hate Kevin Martin so much that they will decide that it is really O.K. for cable to tell the FCC to “fleeting expletive off and die,” because it is the poor helpless widdle cable guys and the evil Kevin Martin (I cannot help but observe that Verizon does not seem to have any problems complying with this request, but of course they are an evil minion of Kevin Martin, or the other way around. Besides, Kevin Martin hates the cable industry, so there!)

As what is often called a “consumer advocate,” I’m a little alarmed that we will now have a new doctrine that says “consumers can complain, but the FCC can’t protect them if we think the FCC Chair might enjoy it.” And while I would flippin’ think that the idea that the cable companies need to obey the law like everyone else would be bloody self-evident, not to mention that the consequences of letting industry dictate to the federal watchdog agency what it will and won’t respect on enforcement go well beyond the poor picked on widdle cable guys to whatever industry you don’t like (in my case, wireless microphone manufacturers — I can hardly wait for Shure to refuse to cooperate with the FCC next), I long ago learned that even bloody obvious things need explaining when it comes to the cable industry and their rabid defenders.

So I address the actual legal issues below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

D.C. Cir. to Comcast: “Making You Obey The Law Is Not A 'Vendetta.'”

When an industry challenging agency action loses the sympathy of the D.C. Cir., it is a good sign that someone overreached just a tad. In apparent preparation for the The Big Cable Show in New Orleans this week, the D.C. Circuit issued this opinion denying Comcast’s insistence that it deserves a waiver of the FCC’s cable set-top box interoperability rules.

The case actually has an interesting precedential aspect I shall discuss below, but the primary reason I am noting it is because this is the first in a series of cases in which Comcast and the rest of the cable industry have actually pleaded that they should be excused from the law because enforcement is all part of an evil vendetta by Kevin Martin against the cable industry. Really. Because while people may accuse Hilary Clinton of having a “sense of entitlement” about the Democratic Nomination, she has the humility of a saint with zero self-esteem compared with the ravening sense of entitlement of the cable industry.

Mind you, the cable industry won won so much for so long at the FCC that a Chairman willing to enforce the law against the cable industry, with 2 other Commissioners willing to vote with him, is quite the shock to the system. And of course, when you have a paid chorus of wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress and captive industry press (combined, I’m sad to say, with a boatload of easily manipulated public interest groups that should know better but hate Kevin Martin for other reasons), it becomes easy to believe your own press releases. Which is why not merely the cable industry, but their allies as well, have started to put some genuinely stupid and insulting things in their filings that make you shake your head and go “whoa! I can’t believe they actually said that!”

And neither could the D.C. Cir. Not only did the panel hearing the case dryly reprimand the cable industry a few times, but they gave Comcast ‘n friends a very thorough bitchslap in the opinion.

More fun details, and the actual useful legal point, below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Consistency of Kevin Martin and the Faith Based FCC

So many people are mad at Kevin Martin these days, but for so many different things. He is either a “tool of industry” or “interfering with the market,” depending on whom you ask. And no one seems more confused about this than the ranking member of the House Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R-Tx).
Mr. Barton understands all bout de-regulating. That’s what good Republicans do, after all. But he cannot understand why Mr. Martin is making such trouble for the “highly competitive” cable industry. As reported in this article:

“It’s been said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee’s senior Republican. “If that’s the case, we could use a few hobgoblins at the FCC.”

Barton complained that Martin plans to ease the cross-ownership ban while doing little on other media ownership restrictions and is attempting to limit the number of subscribers one cable system can reach.

“It baffles me how the same FCC can appropriately eliminate regulations for some segments of industry because of increased competition, and at the very same time refuse to deregulate or even impose more regulation on segments of industry that are creating that very competition,” he said.

Democrats, of course, accept that Mr. Martin as a Republican should be a tool of industry. To the extent they wonder about any apparent inconsistencies, they attribute it to Martin being a shill for the telcos. This, of course, does not explain why Martin denied Verizon’s request for deregulation in six major cities or why Martin told Verizon to bugger off on modifying C Block. But if he isn’t an industry tool, why did he ram through the sale of Tribune and waive FCC regs so that Tribune could appeal in the DC Circuit and try to get the entire newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban repealed?

While armchair psychology and analysis based on shreds of available information is always a perilous past-time, I will argue below that Kevin Martin is actually extremely consistent in his decisions and his management style. I say this neither as a criticism or as praise. But pivotal to understanding the actions of the FCC and therefore to exercising my stock in trade of effective advocacy is trying to make some guess on what actually drives the current FCC Chairman in making decisions. Feld’s Second Law of Public Policy states: “Public policy is made by human beings.” (OK, I know Clausewitz said it first about war, but the principle still holds.) So understanding the human beings making policy is a critical step in influencing policy — even if we understand them poorly.

Besides, it’s fun.

Guesses below . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Nothing Like Biting Industry On The Ass To Get Republicans Hot For Process

OK, color me cynical, but I find this recent bipartisan interest in the fairness of FCC processes a source of some considerable eye rolling on my part. Not because the issue isn’t timely, important, etc., etc. But because it wasn’t until the cable industry started bleating their little heads off that this amazing bipartisan consensus suddenly emerged.

For some background here, I wrote my first major paper on how badly the FCC processes suck rocks back in 2003. I and my employer, Media Access Project, have complained about the crappy way the FCC behaves going back to when the Democrats ran the show and the Media Bureau routinely issued “letter opinions” and developed “street law” that eventually became binding agency precedent. The whole business of how stations could circumvent the ownership limits by engaging in local marketing agreements (LMAs) and joint sales agreements (JSAs) which sold everything but the actual license was bitterly fought by MAP and goes back to the Bush I administration. And yes, I fully agree with the recent GAO Report about how FCC processes favor industry over the public because the long-standing relationships between FCC staff (including career staff well below the Commissioner level) and industry become back channels for critical information and influence.

But it sticks in my craw no end to see Republicans come alive to this issue for the first time because it bit the cable industry on the rear end instead of sticking it to the public interest community.

Nor am I overly thrilled with my friends and colleagues in the movement who seem to believe that Martin invented this mess. Certainly Martin has used every procedural device and negotiating tactic available to him. He is, as I have observed on more than one occasion, a hard-ball player. And his hrdball negotiating tactics — a huge list of agenda items, last minute negotiations, everything Adelstein complained about in his concurrence at te last meeting — have clearly generated ill-will and suspicion among his fellow Commissioners.

But when I think about all the crap that Powell pulled as Chairman with nary an eyebrow raised and compare it to the conduct of this FCC, I could just weep. Martin met with us in the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) on multiple occasions when Senate Democrats wouldn’t even invite us to testify. And I still remember back in 2003 during the Comcast acquisition of AT&T Broadband that it was Martin who insisted that Powell issue a written denial of our motion to get access to certain agreements so that we would have a basis for appeal.

So while I normally am in full agreement with my friends at Free Press, I must vehemently dissent from their apparent insistence that Martin has debased the FCC’s processes to new depths. Martin’s FCC is such an improvement over the pro-industry/anti-public interest/don’t bother us because we pre-decided it cesspit that was the Powell FCC that these allegations can arise only because Free Press did not exist when Powell was running the first dereg show. As George Will noted, Michael Powell met a total of twice with public interest groups (once with my boss, Andy Schwartzman, and once with Consumers Union’s Gene Kimmelman) and conducted exactly one public hearing outside of DC before issuing his ownership order — in far off Richmond Virginia.

And as for the recent Tribune merger — please! I certainly disagreed with the result, but Martin has nothing on Powell’s former Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree. Ferree twisted FCC law and process like a pretzel to give Tribune a waiver extension it didn’t deserve. This is the same Ken Ferree, btw, who informed the public interest community that the FCC would hold no public hearings on media ownership because the FCC didn’t need “foot stomping” to make a decision. Indeed, the list of the sins of Ken Ferree — whose arrogant disregard for process remains unsurpassed in the annals of the FCC — could fill several more pages of blog postings.

And while all this crap was going on, we had nary a peep from the Republicans in Congress. But as soon as Martin made it clear he intended to actually enforce the existing law against the cable industry, SUDDENLY Congressional Republicans woke up to due process issues and beagn to fret about “abuses of power” and Martin being “out of control.”

I can forgive my colleagues in the movement who weren’t around the first time. And I understand the Congressional Democrats, who were either out of power when Powell was running the show or simply not yet arrived on the scene. Certainly Markey and other Congressional Democrats were equally loud in their complaints about process when Powell sprang a spanking new “diversity index” on the public with no warning as they have been n recent weeks against Martin — but being in the minority their protests amounted to little. But when I hear Republicans like Barton and Upton, who positively applauded sticking it to the public time and again, rush to the defense of the poor beleaguered cable industry on process grounds, I have to say something. Even for the self-serving cynicism and hypocrisy that passes for principles in the Republican party these days, this is just too much.

I certainly hope the concerns of Mr. Boehner, Mr. Sunnunnu, and the other Republicans that have suddenly become obsessed with process persist after their master in the cable industry get what they want.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Cable Ownership Limits: This Is The Jonathan Adelstein I know

OK, first, as our Great Hero and the real Favorite Son of South Carolina, Stephen Colbert would say: Martin as a true set of huevos grande. On Tuesday, when it looked like he was going down in flames, I opined that Martin wouldn’t risk touching cable again with a ten foot pole and wondered whether he would be relegated to the status of a “lame duck” Chairman. Boy was I wrong. Not only did fight his way back from a total loss to a partial win against the massed might of the cable lobby, but he has emerged determined to go on for another round in bringing cable market power to heel, and this time with no distractions about a la carte.

This time, it’s a vote on the proposed cable ownership limit. Under Martin’s proposal, a cable company may control no more than 30% of the total number of cable, satellite, or other “multichannel video programming distributor” (MVPD) subscribers. As usual, we in the media reform/diversity community have been pushing this for years and, as usual, the cable industry insists it is totally unnecessary, ilegal, fattening, and will mean that the terrorsts win.

So I take a moment to appluad Kevin Martin for his continued courage and willingness to do the right thing on cable, even while making a huge mistake on broadcast ownership. But perhaps more importantly, Jonathan Adelstein has jumped on this puppy and run with it. After the bitter disappointment of this past week’s cable vote, it is a much needed shot in the arm to see Adelstein back in his usual form as a defender of diversity and an opponent of market power. Not to take anything away from Michael Copps, mind, who as usual has a track record of opposing consolidation in cable and has worked with Martin on a host of issues limiting cable market power. I’m just saying that seeing Adelstein act decisively on this one restores my faith that while we may have disagreed on 70/70 (and as usual when these things happen, I’m the one whose right), it was an honest disagreement and not something more nefarious. So while I remain disappointed, I am no longer dismaly disillusioned or dismayed.

More below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

GOP To America: All Well In Cable-Land! Skyrocketing Rates and Lousy Customer Service All In Your Mind! Forget What We Said Last Summer About Needing COPE!

I must applaud the Republican House Commerce Committee members for their willingness to stay bought. Why else would 23 of the 26 Republicans on the House Commerce Committee send this letter celebrating the perfection of the cable industry in the United States and opening a can of whoop-ass on Kevin Martin for daring to suggest otherwise? Because if that letter came in response from hundreds of constituents complaining that their cable service costs too little and the service is too good, I’ll eat my lap top.

God knows, with the number of issues on their plate and with their party’s standing plummeting in the polls, you’d think Republicans would decline to publicly defend the cable industry. What with rates consistently rising faster than inflation (and despite increasing profits-per-subscriber until the last quarter or so), cable operators have raised rates every year – whether they need to or not. As if that were not enough, the customer service records of the major cable companies are abominable (or why would Mona “The Hammer” Shaw have attained folk-hero status?). So with us heading into an election, and the Republicans weighed down by all the baggage of the Iraq War, corruption scandals, accusations of cronyism and mismanagement, and a general anti-special interest sentiment in the electorate, you wouldn’t think the Republican party would rise up en mass to defend the cable industry from one of their own?

And yet that is precisely what 23 Republican members of the House Commerce Committee just did. Upset that Kevin Martin has proposed several items for the next FCC meeting that limit cable market power, the Commerce Committee Republicans have leaped to the defense of the cable industry. “Shame!” They have cried to Kevin Martin. “All is well in cable-land! The industry is intensely competitive, prices are low, service is wonderful, and consumers are bursting with happiness! How can you even think of regulating the cable industry?”

Mind you, these are the same Republicans who in the summer of ’06 were so gosh darn concerned about the lack of cable competition that they were all set to completely rewrite the Telecom Act to help phone companies get into video. Because God knows if we didn’t deregulate phone companies we couldn’t get any competition for cable, and Lord knows we needed competition for cable. But when you are a member of the Republican Party and you see a special interest and regular campaign contributor in need, you don’t worry about such fiddlin’ details as consistency with your past positions. Either that, or we should assume Mr. Barton, Mr. Upton, and the rest that championed the “we must deregulate the phone companies to bring competition to cable” bill in 2006 believe that the whole competition thing worked itself out, so that is now — in the words of the 23 Commerce Committee Republicans — “significant competition in the video programming marketplace.”

So now we see the delightful sight of Mr. Barton, Mr. Upton, and the rest of the Republican Cable Commerce Cheering Squad, who last summer couldn’t vote fast enough to deregulate because we needed cable competition, taking FCC Chairman Martin out to the woodshed for daring, DARING to suggest that cable has market power and that therefore the FCC should take steps to address this problem, or at least bloody recognize the reality. (Apparently, flip-flopping is not a problem if it is bought and paid for flip-flopping.)

So rest assured America, in the fight between your personal well-being and the profit margins of GOP campaign contributors, you can always count on the Republicans to stay bought and stand up for special interests.

Stay tuned . . . .

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Econoklastic

The 77% Solution, or Even with Three Different Methods You Still Get a Take Rate Greater than 70%

There has long been reason to suspect the data which the cable industry provides to various reporting services like Warren Communications News, Kagan Research, and Nielsen Media Research for U.S. cable coverage and subscribers precisely because the cable industry has considerable incentive to lie about it. Specifically they have incentive to under-report both coverage and subscribers so as to avoid a finding that the 70/70 limit – that seventy percent of American homes are passed by cable and that seventy percent of homes subscribe to cable – has been reached, thus triggering additional FCC regulation of the industry. The numbers have danced around the mid- to upper-60% range reported in these sources since 2004, only tipping over in Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook, which recently reported a 71.4% take rate to the FCC.1 When it became clear that the FCC was prepared to take action to invoke the 70/70 rule on the basis of the Warren data, the managing editor of Warren Communications News’ Television and Cable Factbook immediately called its own data into question in an interview in Communications Daily:

The figures from the Television and Cable Factbook aren’t well suited to determining whether the threshold has been met, said Managing Editor Michael Taliaferro. Taliaferro said Factbook figures understate the number of homes passed by cable systems — and the number of subscribers — because not all operators participate in its survey. “More and operators are just not giving up” those numbers, he said. “We could go with two dozen footnotes when we start to report this data.” Cable operators participating in the Factbook survey said they passed 94.2 million homes and had 67.2 million subscribers.

The FCC official who asked him for the cumulative figure didn’t say how it would be used, Taliaferro said. If he had known, he would have provided a list of caveats, he said. “It would have been a very lengthy email,” he said. Taliaferro said he did point out the shortcomings in a phone conversation with the FCC official but didn’t put it in writing because he wasn’t asked to. “I had no idea what they were doing with it.”2

More below…

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