Consumers love streaming TV — except when cable companies do, experts say

Three prominent media experts agreed that reporters need to stay vigilant in the new TV streaming era and urged regulators and lawmakers to tread carefully when regulating the platforms and devices themselves.

Consumers are flocking to online platforms — such as Apple, Amazon, Roku, YouTube and the like — to watch movies, TV shows and music without paying for cable or satellite. For instance, Netflix’s shares rose 50 percent in two days after the company reported subscriber growth ahead of expectations.

Matthew Schwartz, a principal at consulting firm US Media, said the surge has already made a difference. “You don’t need an upfront investment in TV anymore. People just stream TV with their Apple TVs,” he said. Schwartz said he fears there could be a backlash against over-the-top platforms if the big studios and broadcasters decide to go after them.

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One problem Schwartz sees is the networks’ desire to enter into exclusive relationships with some of the companies operating services such as Netflix and Hulu. He’s concerned that this could make some viewers and programmers feel excluded. “There’s going to be a backlash against them if they start to whittle down a lot of what we consider mass media,” he said.

Several FCC commissioners, including commissioner Brendan Carr, testified in March before a congressional committee and said that streaming sites have been operating under less regulatory oversight than traditional television broadcasters or newspapers.

One goal is to ensure streaming firms comply with federal broadcasting rules, for instance, so that consumers can get faster and easier access to emergency information. Another goal is to ensure that streaming services encourage diversity in programming and hiring. But Carr said such issues are different for streamers than traditional broadcasters.

“There is no truth, as some have suggested, that streaming providers are breaking any law by providing consumers with the same or better product than what they could obtain from a traditional television broadcaster,” Carr told lawmakers in March. “These companies are complying with all applicable laws, including the Communications Act, and the FCC’s media bureau is, in fact, reviewing the broadcast law to ensure we can better enforce it.”

Daniel Castro, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan policy group, agrees that the FCC is currently reviewing the rules. But he said the issue needs further study. “We need to be thoughtful about it and not rush to judgment,” he said.

He said the FCC doesn’t have the resources or authority to police every video stream that a streaming service may carry. Carr said that, to give them the power to police, the FCC would have to classify the streaming companies as traditional television broadcasters. But that would require the White House to persuade the Senate to quickly pass an unrelated bill that would go along with the FCC’s rules and raise the FCC’s reach.

Castro said that kind of undertaking is a high-risk gambit. He suggested Congress could take the FCC’s approach — providing oversight but leaving it up to the government to enforce — and expand on it.

“There’s a lot of good ground to be gained there,” he said. “The government isn’t built to deal with these companies right now. This is a business-to-business issue.”

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