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Diversity Advocates Continue Attack on FCC’s ‘Unlock the Box’ Plan

Accelerating their objections to the FCC's "unlock the box" set-top proposal, minority programming and ownership advocates took their message to Capitol Hill last Thursday (April 14), backing up Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-New York), who said she envisions that a "protracted struggle" over the plan "will set us back in the drive for diversity."

The Brooklyn, N.Y., legislator, a member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, warned that the revenue restrictions triggered by the FCC plan "could lead to the ultimate extinction" of small and medium-sized programmers, including minority and special-interest programmers.

Thursday's assault on the FCC proposal was the latest in the escalating battle against the set-top Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  Last month Clarke, other members of Congress and diversity organizations asked the Government Accountability Office to run an impact study of the plan’s implications.

"Major disruptions that fail to consider bargaining power will impact placement, affecting advertising dollars and, in turn, the ability to remain competitive and to sustain livelihoods," Clarke told an audience of about 50 people, mostly Congressional staffers and supportive lobbyists, in a House Office Building meeting room.

"Many have stated that the FCC’s new set-top proposal will, in fact, open up the marketplace so that these diverse and independent programmers gain more visibility, especially through OTT platforms," she said, but then warned, "There is no current guarantee that Silicon Valley will do a better job at prioritizing diverse and inclusive programming based on what they have demonstrated so far."

Frank Washington, CEO of Crossings TV, a Sacramento, Calif.-based firm that packages Asian (mostly Chinese) programs on cable systems, pointed out that the FCC's NPRM never uses the term "localism," which he considers a vital ingredient in programming. 

Washington also insisted that the biggest problems in the FCC proposal are not only the "unanswered questions" but, more significantly, "the unasked questions" about the plan’s impact.

"They are talking about creating an alternative universe," said Washington, a one-time legal counsel to an FCC chairman and later deputy chief of the FCC's Broadcast Bureau. "There is no accountability in this alternative universe." 

He urged the Commission to "let the marketplace drive the progress," not impose an untested system that will affect revenue and distribution.

Although the recently-created Future of TV Coalition (topped by the NCTA, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and many other MSOs and industry vendors) was not officially part of the program, the organization’s message permeated the Capitol Hill program. 

For example, Carlos Gutierrez, general counsel for the LGBT Technology Partnership, outlined views on data privacy implications that echoed the Coalition’s.

Gutierrez cited the "troubling lack of specifics in the NPRM" and emphasized that the FCC plan would not require new STB suppliers to comply with "the same privacy provisions as cable operators."

"The NPRM doesn't have a mechanism to account for data breaches by OTT providers," Gutierrez said, underscoring the importance of that protection.

Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president of policy and chief research officer of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), voiced concerns that the FCC plan would morph into a federal mandate. 

"The government should not pick winners and losers," Turner-Lee said. "Government should not mandate the ways consumers get to the content they want."

She added that the FCC has not looked at diversity in a serious way, especially as part of the STB plan.

Washington, calling on his long background in media since he left the FCC, said that based on recent conversations he has had at the agency, the "FCC people are feeling the heat."