Tonight, as you plop down on the couch to watch the Democratic presidential debate or the baseball playoffs, consider for a moment what you're waving your remote at. If you're like millions of Americans, your cable box sits on a shelf under your flat screen, gathering dust, easy to overlook.
It's also easy to overlook the rent you're paying for that box month after month.
A study by two Senate Democrats, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, estimated that 99 percent of cable TV subscribers rent their set-top boxes and pay on average $231 a year to do so. According to the two senators, the cable industry reaps more than $19.5 billion a year from all those rentals.
"It's really ridiculous that people pay rental fees for these devices," says John Bergmayer, an attorney with the consumer group Public Knowledge. "It's sort of like the stories that still pop up every few years; you know, the little old person that's still paying to rent a black rotary phone from AT&T, and over the lifetime of that device they pay thousands of dollars."
The cable TV industry doesn't buy that comparison.
"People who use that analogy are really stuck in the past," says Brian Dietz of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. "That's really not the way the marketplace has evolved."
Dietz says cable is a lot more complicated than plugging a phone into a jack. He says people can buy boxes like TiVo and get a card from their cable providers to enable them to subscribe, although that's still pretty pricey. Anyway, Dietz says the market is heading in a different direction.
"Apple CEO Tim Cook a couple of weeks ago said the future of TV is apps and we completely agree. Just like changing a channel, you can fire up your iPad or your mobile phone and switch back and forth between apps," Dietz says.
Dietz says there are dozens of different apps from cable and broadcast channels — everyone from A&E to WE tv has one.
And there are devices — including Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast — that allow you to watch big-screen TV delivered over the Internet.
But what if you could get cable channels, Netflix, Amazon and broadcast TV in just one box that you paid for once?
It would be TV utopia.
Chip Pickering leads Comptel, an association of tech companies including Amazon and Netflix. Such a magic box, he says, would give consumers what they deserve: freedom. They would have "the ability to create their own video watching experience that they control, and the navigational device is key to that freedom," he says.
Pickering and consumer groups including Public Knowledge want the Federal Communications Commission to step in and issue a uniform standard that all cable providers would have to meet. It would enable TV consumers to buy a box that could hook up to any system and carry just about every video source.
But the cable industry, already facing revenue losses from people cutting their cords altogether, is skeptical. NCTA's Dietz questions the notion that "the government can step in and fix something that is clearly working; there's tons of money being invested into it. And America has the greatest TV programming in the world," he says. "What is the government trying to solve here?"
The FCC is in the process of gathering recommendations on setting a new standard, but there's no timetable yet for further action.