Bob Johnson, Alfred Liggins Spar Over Set-Tops

BET founder Bob Johnson and TV One chairman Alfred Liggins, both highly successful African-American media entrepreneurs, are on opposite sides of the debate over the impact of the FCC's set-top proposal on diverse programming, and the gloves are off.

In a press conference Tuesday about the proposal, Liggins, who has issues with it, said Johnson's support was because he has a streaming service that would benefit, while traditional African American-targeted networks including TV One, Revolt and El Rey could see their business model hurt if the FCC allows their content to be repackaged and monetized by third party devices, like Google's proposed box.

"To the extent that [third parties like Google] are allowed to disrupt the current programmer/cable/satellite distributor relationship and get hold of that content and sell ads around it as well it will significantly devalue our ability to monetize it and therefore limit our ability to produce high-quality programming that we fought long and hard to deliver to our customers."

Noting Johnson's support of the set-top proposal, Liggins said he was aware that "a friend of mine, Bob Johnson, who has a video streaming service, is on the opposite end of this."  He pointed out that Johnson was a cable entrepreneur first and was highly successful, selling it to Viacom for $3 billion. "No, he has a new venture where he has bought a library of content and created a streaming service out of that library," which he said was primarily older content, not something he was spending tens of millions of dollars on to produce.

Liggins said it was great that Johnson was on those other OTT platforms and wanted to better monetize his content. But he said the model for the streaming business should not be "let's aggregate TV One content, put mine next to it so I draft off their audience and then the guys who help me do that—Google—get to sell ads around it."

He said Johnson should not upend TV One or Aspire or El Rey or Revolt or any of these other networks that sell license fees and have control of the data of our own viewership, it does not provide more quality programming for the consumer. It may help him, but it hurts more people, including more consumers than it helps.

Johnson, now chairman of RLJ Entertainment responded, saying it was not the FCC's job to protect a handful of established nets.

"As the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), I know how difficult it was to get distribution over cable. But with the support of the cable industry and the African American community, I and others, turned BET into the success it is today," he said in a statement. "The universal set-top box, unlike the leased cable box, opens up the unfettered opportunity for hundreds of minority programming aspirants who would like to create content success of their own, similar to what I enjoyed with BET.  With all due respect to my good friends Alfred Liggins, Founder and CEO of TV One, and Michael Powell, CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), it is not the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) role or obligation to force Black Americans who have a median net worth of $13,000 to spend an average of $231 a year to lease a cable box so TV One and the cable industry can make billions of dollars off of working class Black Americans, to only have access to four Black-oriented channels out of over 500 choices that principally show network reruns."

"Furthermore, there is nothing in the FCC's proposed rulemaking that would allow technology companies to infringe on TV One's advertising revenue and relationships. On the other hand, my company, RLJ Entertainment (NASDAQ: RLJE), is well on the way to proving that programmers do not have to be totally dependent on advertising models."

"RLJE operates two over-the-top (OTT) subscription streaming channels, both of which depend on direct subscriber revenue. Acorn TV, which produces countless hours of original British mysteries and dramas, and UMC - Urban Movie Channel, through its parent company RLJ Entertainment, acquires more minority and independent films than any minority programmer on cable. And by the way, we have licensed content to both TV One and BET."

"UMC, as a minority targeted program channel, is a perfect example of the opportunity that hundreds of other minority programmers will have when the universal set-top box is implemented and their content is given equal access to the subscriber on any viewing device, particularly the television set. Finally, the FCC should not protect minority incumbents, but should encourage new minority entrants, and that is what the universal set-top box does."

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.