Black Caucus Leaders Tell FCC to Pause Set-Top Initiative

Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), its first vice chair, Thursday in calling on the FCC to pause its set-top box proposal until the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office complete studies of the impact of the proposal on diverse and minority media.

Both are also members of the Energy & Commerce Committee overseeing the FCC. Their message to the commission: What's the rush?

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and his fellow Democrats approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would require MVPDs to make their set-top programming and data streams available to third party navigation devices or apps.

Some diverse programmers, including BET founder Bob Johnson, say that will give them more visibility, while others, like current BET top exec Debra Lee, are concerned it threatens the business model of established diverse programmers.

At a press conference announcing the creation of a congressional Multicultural Media Caucus, with the set-top pushback clearly its first order of business, Butterfield said he was concerned about pitting diverse programmers against one another.

Among those joining the legislators at the Capitol Hill press conference Thursday were Lee and TV One chairman Alfred Liggins, who has sparred with Johnson over the issue.

Butterfield, a member of the new caucus and a co-signatory of a letter to Wheeler asking the FCC to hit pause on set-tops, said his caucus knows how important diverse programmers and ownership are.

He said everyone can agree there needs to be more minority programming and independent voices. "While we must be open to the rising cultural expectations to make programming available on demand or through streaming services," he said, "we also have to balance these interests with assurances that we are not pitting the few diverse programmers out there against each other or allowing some to pick winners and losers, and you know what I am talking about."

The FCC's set-top proposal has clearly prompted a digital divide among diverse programmers, with some new entrants, particularly over-the-top, backing it as a way to get noticed alongside more established minority programmers, while some established players argue it could threaten their business model and the beachhead they have worked hard to establish.

That Clarke press conference was to be followed later in the morning by another in D.C. featuring diverse programmers backing the FCC set-top proposal as an opportunity for minority programmers.

In addition to not rushing, the clear message from the set-top proposal critics at the Clarke event was that they thought it threatened the gains of established diverse programmers like BET and TV One in reflecting the perspectives of communities "whose stories are rarely reflected in the mainstream media," said Clarke, pointing out that BET TV One, Fuse and VME have worked hard to establish that presence.

Clarke emphasized that she was not representing any stakeholder. "Let me be clear that I am neither against competition or innovation, nor am I siding with any particular industry, be it tech or cable. However, I am taking a position to protect the interests of the most vulnerable, the small and independent multimedia stakeholders and their consumers..."

She said there was a role for government in encouraging competition, but there was a risk that if the FCC did not get it right, small and minority programmers could suffer needlessly, and, by extension, consumers. She pointed to the jobs that could be threatened.

Clarke suggested that the FCC's lens should not simply be "competition, competition, competition," but also jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs that could be lost if the FCC didn't get it right.

Both Butterfield and Clarke said the proposal risks undoing the diversity programming gains in recent years.

Butterfield said the proposed changes have "the enormous potential to have a negative impact on minority ownership of television broadcast stations as well as diversity in programming and we must insure we are taking a common sense, clear-eyed approach."

He said he "appreciated" those who said the FCC should "just take a pause on this proceeding, and figure it out and let things settle down."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.