Wheeler: Comcast just proved the point for 'Unlock the Box'

Pivoting course on the terse response he issued last week when Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) announced it was integrating its set-top functionality into Samsung smart TVs and Roku streaming devices, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler offered backhanded praise for the MSO's new "Program Partners" initiative. He said the plan is exactly the kind of strategy he hopes will become ubiquitous once his "Unlock the Box" proposal becomes law.

"What Comcast just did by doing that is proving our point that you can take a third-party device, put set-top box functionality into it and protect copyright, protect the economic ecosystem, not have to rebuild the network, and all these other horrible things that the industry has tracked up," Wheeler said in a press conference following the agency's April meeting."

Of course, Comcast had the opposite idea in mind when it announced last week that it was making deals with third-party video consumer electronics brands to natively integrate its interface into their devices, sans set-top. Why would the FCC need to adopt regulations to include third-party devices makers into the pay-TV ecosystem if the biggest company in the business is already doing it on its own?

Wheeler initially dismissed the plan: "While we do not know all of the details of this announcement, it appears to offer only a proprietary, Comcast-controlled user interface and seems to allow only Comcast content on different devices, rather than allowing those devices to integrate or search across Comcast content as well as other content consumers subscribe to," the FCC said in a statement. 

Speaking to reporters from Morning Consult, Broadcasting & Cable and other outlets Thursday, Wheeler struck a more complimentary tone regarding Comcast, but said his set-top proposal is necessary for the rest of the industry to toe the line. 

"The challenge here is that this is for one company's device and one cable company," Wheeler said. "So if you have proven the concept that you can put set-top box functionality safely into third-party devices, then let's make sure that that applies to all cable operators. Let's make sure that it applies to all TVs. Let's make sure there's an opportunity for anybody who wants to change their set-top box."

Wheeler also indicated that Comcast might not be so willing to adopt such strategies without the threat of new regulation hanging over the industry's head.

"What Comcast giveth, Comcast can taketh away," he added.

Responding to Wheeler, Comcast issued this statement to Broadcasting & Cable: "We are pleased that the Chairman has recognized Comcast's announcement of the open-standard Xfinity TV Partner Program last week as a 'good win' and 'important thing,' This open source apps-based program is available to any interested third-party device manufacturer, including the dozens of companies that have already reached out to us since the announcement, further demonstrating the success of the marketplace apps-based approach that is occurring without heavy-handed government regulation."

For more:
- read this Morning Consult story
- read this Broadcasting & Cable story

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