Public Knowledge's Kimmelman: 'Data' is FCC set-top proposal's 'dirty little secret'

LAS VEGAS — Speaking during a spirited clash of high-level decision-makers positioned on opposite sides of the FCC set-top proposal debate, one of the leading "pros," Gene Kimmelman, chief executive of progressive group Public Knowledge, conceded that access and control of viewer data on advanced pay-TV set-tops is a crucial, overlooked part of the FCC agenda.

Calling control of that data "the dirty little secret" behind the business of leasing pay-TV set-tops, Kimmelman told a National Association of Broadcasters conference audience that programmers should support a regulator proposal that takes that data out of the clutches of the pay-TV industry and gives them access to it.

"It's going to be important to content owners to have more data about who's watching their shows," Kimmelman said during the afternoon panel at Las Vegas' Westgate Hotel.

Since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced his plan to "unlock" the pay-TV set-top business to third-party technology makers in January, a debate has raged. Large technology companies like Google, influential consumer electronics makers including TiVo, and consumer groups like Public Knowledge have billed it as a way to build innovation into a leased set-top business that they say is nothing more than a $20 billion annual cash grab for the pay-TV industry.

From left to right: Joe Weber, Stacy Fuller, Gene Kimmelman and Neil Fried

Opponents, which are led by pay-TV operators, programmers and their associated lobbying groups, say the pay-TV set-top is already giving way to an app-based economy, and the proposal is nothing more than a cynical attempt by Google and others to gain access to content, data and advertising dollars for which they didn't pay.

With that backdrop in mind, Monday's panel produced some impassioned exchanges you don't often see in sleepy NAB afternoon panels.

For example, when Stacy Fuller, VP of government and regulatory affairs for AT&T, tried to explain that the pay-TV migration to multiscreen apps and IP-based services is negating the need to even have set-tops, Kimmelman shot back, "But your apps are all proprietary."

"So are Netlflix's and Amazon's," Fuller responded. 

More action ensued moments later, when Fuller noted that 40 percent of AT&T's customers use TV Everywhere apps. 

"Right," Kimmelman said, "After they've already paid an arm and a leg for equipment."

And back and forth things went.

Neil Fried, senior VP of government regulatory affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America, said his group is gravely concerned about the piracy implications of opening up the pay-TV ecosystem to third-party operators.

While backers of the plan say it could enable such consumer benefits as cross-platform search for content, Fried said the platform which currently does have such search capabilities — the internet — is already rife with digital piracy. 

"Thankfully, that's just a problem that's on the internet," Fried said. "Once you do a cross-platform search, know all those pay-TV users are exposed to pirated content. You cannot make our content a means to an end to whatever your policy goals are for set-tops."

Joe Weber, CTO of TiVo's thriving service provider business, said he could remember the MPAA also fighting passionately in the 1970s to stop the VCR.

"I'm old enough to remember when the MPAA feared that the VHS tape was going to be the death of the movie business," he said. "This is not about theft of content. It's about allowing innovation in more efficient markets."

The hourlong session produced no last words on a debate that will continue to rage on. For his part, however, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly did manage to get some first words into the discussion, delivering a solidly rhetorical introduction to the event.

"What the [proposal] is doing is taking a '90s regime and redefining all the terms to let the Commission get its hooks into all the technology that's been developed since then," he said. "It's a massive over-reach."

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