Twenty years ago, the internet was still called the Information Super Highway, satellite dishes were humongous backyard-eyesores, and cable television only had 36 channels. My, how times have changed.
This week, the FCC will hold a meeting to discuss a recent report that could lead to expanded regulation of cable television. A federal law passed in 1984 determined that if the cable industry ever grew "too dominant" and passed the 70/70 rule - that is, if cable services reached 70% of people and 70% of those people became subscribers - then the FCC would be given new powers to regulate the industry.
The FCC's recent figure of 71.4% cable-subscription rate has been contested by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Their estimates place that number at just below 60%. Also, cable providers have been losing subscribers over the years to satellite and phone companies that provide video services, and the industry as a whole has seen stock prices flat-line or decline in recent months.
The aim of the FCC's expanded regulatory powers, should the 71.4% figure be deemed accurate, would be to promote a competitive environment and "diverse information sources." This is roughly translates to ensuring that enough women and minorities get to own or lease cable channels, and requiring cable providers to carry those channels. Let's entertain this idea for a moment: if currently successful cable channels are dropped by broadcasters in order to carry channels that, diversity-friendly or not, previously had no market for them, what exactly is the benefit to the cable TV customers? Additionally, how will this increase competition for the "too-dominant" cable TV industry?
Competition for cable television providers already exists. Direct TV, Dish Network, and Verizon FIOS are the first three competitors that come to mind. The internet is quickly becoming a fierce competitor, too, with peer-to-peer video sites like Joost, and music and video marketplaces like iTunes providing everything that cable companies do, either for free in the case of Joost, or for a small per-download fee. The internet represents an unregulated gold mine for diverse information sources – Google news provides news from over 4,500 sources daily, and Youtube has become a cauldron for user-generated video entertainment.
It's unclear just exactly what cable regulation would accomplish – aside from more red tape. Television media is currently in a transitional stage, as video-on-demand and digital video recorders are giving consumers greater choices about what, when, and how they watch television. The freedom to choose what we watch and how we watch it will not be stopped by bureaucrats who purport to know what we ought to have access to. As consumers, we can be certain of one thing: as technology continues to evolve, our choices will continue to expand.