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FCC Gets Hill Push for Set-Top Plan

In the face of some major pushback on the FCC's set-top proposal, including from some members of Congress, other members of Congress, notably Sens. Ed Markey (D. Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), all big backers of the FCC's set-top proposal, gathered for a press conference Thursday to call for "unlocking" the set-top market.

They were joined by other fans of the proposal, including BET founder Bob Johnson; INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering (set-top proposal fan Google is a member); Joe Weber, CTO, service provider business unit, TiVo; DeShuna Spencer, CEO, kweliTV; and Corri Freedman, political director, Writers Guild of America West.

Markey and Blumenthal have long pushed for a competitive set-top market, while Eshoo was the lead signatory on a letter from Dems backing the proposal.

In fact, Markey was author of the section (629) in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that called on the FCC to insure a competitive set-top marketplace. 

Eshoo said they were there to "set the record straight." But they seemed there mostly to reiterate their support and push the FCC to take action ASAP and not be swayed to wait until some congressionally mandated studies on the impact of the proposal or any other calls to hit "pause."

"I want to make sure this [set-top proposal] gets on the books," said Markey. Blumenthal suggested the FCC needed to muster the courage of their convictions and act sooner rather than later. "Time is passing, consumers are paying, the FCC must act now," he said.

The legislators lined up to hit cable on its average $231 per year per household set-top rental fees, which they said translates to almost $20 billion a year, though others have taken issue with those figures.

They took aim at suggestions that the proposal would hurt minority programmers. Bob Johnson, formerly head of BET and now looking to provide new options online, slammed the members of Congress who opposed the proposal, calling out Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), one of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus asking the FCC to hit pause.

Johnson said that would mean African Americans, with an average household income of around $13,000 per year being asked to continue to pay rental fees to access the four channels controlled by wealthy minorities, rather than giving them a chance to pay less to get more diverse content.

Eshoo, who represents Silicon Valley, made it clear she wanted the FCC to insure the Netflixes of the world could sit alongside cable offerings on a universal set-top.

Johnson suggested it was more about allowing thousands of minority programmers with ideas and content and no outlet to do so.

They all called for "unlocking the box," which is the FCC's branding on the proposal to require MVPDs to make set-top box content and data available to third parties for boxes and apps and integration into smart TVs.

"This isn’t a debate over whether consumers should have more options for video devices and services – this is a debate about the best approach to achieve this goal," said the Future of TV Coalition, comprising MVPDs and others opposed to the set-top plan. "An overwhelming majority of the voices that have weighed in during this debate point to apps, not box mandates, as the better path forward."

At the press conference, at least one participant suggested an apps approach was not sufficient because it would not necessarily provide that more open platform for new, diverse, voices.

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.