Groups Aim To Make It Easier To Own A Cable TV Box Instead Of Renting

Groups Aim To Make It Easier To Own A Cable TV Box Instead Of Renting

7:54pm Oct 13, 2015
A study by two U.S. senators estimated that 99 percent of cable TV subscribers rent their set-top boxes and pay on average $231 a year to do so.
NPR

Tonight, as you plop down on the couch to watch the Democratic presidential debate or the baseball playoffs, consider for a moment what you're waving your remote at. If you're like millions of Americans, your cable box sits on a shelf under your flat screen, gathering dust, easy to overlook.

It's also easy to overlook the rent you're paying for that box month after month.

A study by two Senate Democrats, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, estimated that 99 percent of cable TV subscribers rent their set-top boxes and pay on average $231 a year to do so. According to the two senators, the cable industry reaps more than $19.5 billion a year from all those rentals.

"It's really ridiculous that people pay rental fees for these devices," says John Bergmayer, an attorney with the consumer group Public Knowledge. "It's sort of like the stories that still pop up every few years; you know, the little old person that's still paying to rent a black rotary phone from AT&T, and over the lifetime of that device they pay thousands of dollars."

The cable TV industry doesn't buy that comparison.

"People who use that analogy are really stuck in the past," says Brian Dietz of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. "That's really not the way the marketplace has evolved."

Dietz says cable is a lot more complicated than plugging a phone into a jack. He says people can buy boxes like TiVo and get a card from their cable providers to enable them to subscribe, although that's still pretty pricey. Anyway, Dietz says the market is heading in a different direction.

"Apple CEO Tim Cook a couple of weeks ago said the future of TV is apps and we completely agree. Just like changing a channel, you can fire up your iPad or your mobile phone and switch back and forth between apps," Dietz says.

Dietz says there are dozens of different apps from cable and broadcast channels — everyone from A&E to WE tv has one.

And there are devices — including Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast — that allow you to watch big-screen TV delivered over the Internet.

But what if you could get cable channels, Netflix, Amazon and broadcast TV in just one box that you paid for once?

It would be TV utopia.

Chip Pickering leads Comptel, an association of tech companies including Amazon and Netflix. Such a magic box, he says, would give consumers what they deserve: freedom. They would have "the ability to create their own video watching experience that they control, and the navigational device is key to that freedom," he says.

Pickering and consumer groups including Public Knowledge want the Federal Communications Commission to step in and issue a uniform standard that all cable providers would have to meet. It would enable TV consumers to buy a box that could hook up to any system and carry just about every video source.

But the cable industry, already facing revenue losses from people cutting their cords altogether, is skeptical. NCTA's Dietz questions the notion that "the government can step in and fix something that is clearly working; there's tons of money being invested into it. And America has the greatest TV programming in the world," he says. "What is the government trying to solve here?"

The FCC is in the process of gathering recommendations on setting a new standard, but there's no timetable yet for further action.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When you sit down on the couch tonight to watch the baseball playoffs or some other program, think about what you're waving your remote at. If you're like millions of Americans, your cable box is still there somewhere on a shelf, gathering dust, easy to ignore, just like it's easy to ignore the rent you're paying for that box every month, rent that is earning the cable companies a lot. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: A study by two Democratic senators, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, estimated that 99 percent of cable TV subscribers rent their set-top boxes. They pay, on average, $231 a year for the privilege. According to the two senators, the cable industry reaps $19 billion a year from all those rentals. Ka-ching.

JOHN BERGMAYER: It's really ridiculous the way that people pay rental fees for these devices.

NAYLOR: John Bergmayer is an attorney with the consumer group Public Knowledge.

BERGMAYER: It's sort of like, you know, the stories that still pop up every few years about, you know, the little old person who was still paying to rent a black rotary phone from AT&T and, you know, over the course of the lifetime of that device they pay thousands of dollars.

NAYLOR: Now, let's say right up front that the cable TV industry doesn't like the phone analogy.

BRIAN DIETZ: Well, I think people who use that analogy are really stuck in the past. That's really not the way that the marketplace has evolved.

NAYLOR: That's Brian Dietz. He's with the NCTA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. He argues cable is a lot more complicated than plugging a phone into a jack. He says people can buy boxes like TiVo and get a card from their cable providers to enable them to subscribe - although, that's still pretty pricey. Anyways, Dietz says the market is heading in a different direction.

DIETZ: Apple CEO Tim Cook, a couple of weeks ago, said the future of TV is apps, and we completely agree. Just like changing a channel, you can fire up your iPad or your mobile phone and switch back and forth between apps.

NAYLOR: Dietz says there are dozens of different apps from cable and broadcast channels. ESPN has one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPORTSCENTER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is SportsCenter - live.

NAYLOR: So does USA so you can catch up on episodes of "Modern Family."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

TY BURRELL: (As Phil Dunphy) I am brave. Roller coasters? Love 'em. Scary movies? I've seen "Ghostbusters," like, seven times. I regularly drive through neighborhoods that have only recently been gentrified.

NAYLOR: Even PBS has an app.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NAYLOR: And there are devices like Roku, and Apple TV and Google Chromecast, which allow you to watch big-screen TV delivered over the Internet. But what if you could get cable channels and Netflix and Amazon and broadcast TV in just one box that you paid for once? Why, it would be TV utopia. Chip Pickering leads Comptel, an association of tech companies including Amazon and Netflix. Such a magic box, he says, would give consumers what they deserve - freedom.

CHIP PICKERING: They have the ability to create their own video-watching experience that they control, and a navigational device is key to that freedom.

NAYLOR: Pickering and consumer groups like Public Knowledge want the Federal Communications Commission to step in and issue a uniform standard that all cable providers would have to meet and that would enable TV consumers to buy a box that could hook up to any system and carry just about every video source. But the cable industry, already facing revenue losses from people cutting their cords all together, is skeptical. Brian Dietz.

DIETZ: The notion that the government can step in and fix something that is clearly working - there's tons of money being invested into it and America has the greatest TV programming in the world - and what is the government trying to solve here?

NAYLOR: The FFC is in the process of gathering comments on setting a new standard, but there's no timetable yet for further action. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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