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Editorial: Civility, Please

The FCC’s set-top box proposal has triggered some of the most rancorous responses in recent memory and has prompted a particularly ugly divide between supporters and opponents in the diverse programming community.

We think it is time to ratchet down the rhetoric. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to require multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to disaggregate their set-top box programming and data streams and let third parties reaggregate them was clearly meant to address a set-top box marketplace that is dominated by rentals—99% of set-top boxes are leased from MVPDs.

There is also a congressional mandate to promote availability of retail set-top boxes from unaffiliated sources.

What is less clear is whether Wheeler’s proposal is the way to go—MVPDs are adamant that it is not—and whether the chairman’s plan would hurt or help diverse programmers.

It may, in fact, both hurt and help. The proposal could hurt established minority networks like TV One if it allows third parties to remonetize content without compensation—though Wheeler says that it won’t. The proposal could also help smaller, over-the-top diverse programmers by giving them more exposure to more eyeballs—Wheeler says it will.

Reasonable people, and we believe both sides qualify, can disagree. And their passion is understandable given the stakes, which are how millions of people will access content.

But it is the tenor of the disagreement that troubles us.

Last week, images of fi re hoses, church bombings and snarling dogs were invoked in arguing against the proposal, with Jesse Jackson likening the FCC to a recalcitrant southern governor.

Others arguing in favor of the proposal have suggested Congressional Black Caucus members had been bought off with favors.

We, too, have issues with the set-top proposal, including how to ensure that third parties are subject to the same privacy protections as MVPDs when it comes to information like what VOD channels they are watching. Edge providers also should not be able to make money on MVPD and programmer content without paying for it.

We also agree with those who argue it would not hurt to get the data from diversity impact studies sought by some congressional Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus before voting on any final rules.

But there is more than enough incendiary rhetoric coming out of the presidential campaign without extending it to a disagreement, albeit particularly heated, over the best way to spur navigation device competition and access our favorite TV shows and videos.

We will hold chairman Wheeler to his word that he will make changes if needed (and we think they are) to address some of the most pressing concerns about protecting content, privacy and business models.