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If The FCC Gets It Way, This App Could Change The Way You Watch TV And Save Dollars


When you get together with friends and the inevitable kvetching about life's annoyances begins, what do you complain about? The election - probably. Traffic - for sure. What about that cable bill? Well, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to do something about that last one. The FCC is scheduled to vote this week on a plan that could - emphasis on could - lead to lower cable TV bills. The idea is to allow cable subscribers to replace their cable box with an app. Here to talk about the proposal is NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So how would this work, and how would this potentially save money?

NAYLOR: So that set-top box, which probably sits below the TV in most cases, consumers are paying to rent it from their cable providers month after month. In many cases, cable subscribers have a couple of boxes in their homes - maybe one in the living room, another in the bedroom - and it adds up. According to a congressional study, the average cable consumer pays $231 a year just to rent that box. That's an estimated $20 billion a year, a lot of money.

MARTIN: So how would the FCC plan change that?

NAYLOR: Well, so FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he wants to end the tyranny of the set-top box. As he envisions it, cable companies would have to offer you a free app. And once you open it, it would provide access to all of the channels that you now get through the cable box. And this app you could watch on your smartphone or tablet. Or, you know, if you have a streaming device already like Roku or Apple TV, you could install the cable app on it. And then you could say, hey, thanks, cable company. Here's your box back. And they'd have to stop charging you every month. Or you could keep that box if that's what works best for you.

MARTIN: I can't imagine that the cable companies are thrilled at the idea of losing that revenue stream. So what's their argument against it?

NAYLOR: Well, right, it's $20 billion a year. People are already cutting the cord and getting channels like ESPN or HBO on their apps. But they didn't like the original plan that Wheeler had proposed either, which would've forced the cable companies to provide their programming to third parties like Google, say, that could sell their own boxes. And so that was kind of a non-starter for the cable industry. They're a little bit less against this, but they've got some issues with it as well.

MARTIN: When could this potentially happen?

NAYLOR: Well, you know, who knows? Under a best-case scenario, Wheeler says cable companies would have two years to come up with these apps. But I wouldn't bet on that timeline just yet. As we say, there's a couple of issues. It's not clear - first of all, Wheeler has the support of a majority of the commission behind him, so I think there's a lot of arm twisting and tweaking going on behind the scenes at the FCC. And the other issue is that, you know, it's not just the cable companies, but the Hollywood movie and TV studios and others aren't on board because of copyright issues.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.