As Americans begin watching more of their TV online, federal regulators want to even the playing field to make new Internet startups — such as the recently announced CBS streaming app or Aereo — more competitive next to their bigger rivals in the cable and satellite business.

A new proposal being circulated around the Federal Communications Commission would do just that. In a blog post Tuesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledged that consumers are being forced to "buy channels they never watch." He added that the agency was attempting to "open access to cable programs as well as local television," which should "give consumers more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want."

When the FCC gets around to voting on the proposal, the result could mean being able to mix and match video sources more easily. There's a sense that the industry is already moving to embrace consumer interest in standalone video services. This month, HBO and CBS both announced that they would be launching Internet apps that allow non-cable subscribers to watch programming for a separate fee.

These and other Web-based video streamers have so far operated in a kind of limbo. Federal rules just weren't clear on exactly how these services ought to be regulated. The FCC rules, if they are adopted, would treat them just like cable companies such as Time Warner Cable, which pays programmers to offer their shows to consumers.

But the FCC proposal leaves out several of the most well-known video streamers -- Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. This may be a confusing distinction -- after all, what's really the difference between CBS's streaming app and Hulu? The agency has said it distinguishes apps like CBS All Access because it provides programming on a schedule, while the Netflixes of the world offer shows on demand. But analysts have said what's really going on here is that the agency does not want to pull Web-based services such as Hulu into its orbit because of the political minefield surrounding the regulation of Web companies.

But there's another big benefit to the FCC proposal. Wheeler argued that the move would also help companies trying to break into the broadband market. These firms, such as Google Fiber, could focus on just building super high-speed connections without having to worry about being treated like a cable company. Currently they are being forced to pay a fee for video programming that travels over their pipes. According to Google, those costs are the single biggest thing holding Google Fiber back.

The FCC's announcement also offers encouragement to Aereo, which has agreed to start paying content licensing fees (in hopes of a better eventual deal from Congress).

"The way people consume television is rapidly changing," said Aereo chief executive Chet Kanojia, "and our laws and regulations have not kept pace. By clarifying these rules, the FCC is taking a real and meaningful step forward for competition in the video market."