FCC Launches Program Distribution Inquiry

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has launched an inquiry into the current state of programming diversity and the principal obstacles that independent and diverse programmers face in obtaining carriage on video distribution platforms, including, potentially, contractual issues, program bundling and access to over-the-top platforms.

That launch of a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) came at the FCC's public meeting Thursday (Feb. 18). The vote was unanimous, but with some reservations.

In outlining the inquiry, Media Bureau chief Bill Lake called it a fact-finding enterprise on program diversity and possible ways to address complaints that cable operators and other multichannel video-programming distributors (MVPDs) might be stifling competition.

The FCC is inviting comment on the state of the marketplace and the challenges to entry. It’s also seeking comment on most favored nation and alternative distribution method provisions in contracts, which independent networks have said can hinder their access. It is also seeking comments on OTT distribution, program bundling, and issues affecting public, education and government (PEG) channels.

The FCC is also seeking comment on its legal authority to address any hindrances to distribution.

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn had sought the inquiry, and signaled last month that it was being teed up for a vote.

Clyburn, a Democrat, has concerns about independent programmers getting projects their projects green-lighted, and about access to distribution channels. She said she did not know whether it was an issue the FCC could solve, but it would be a platform for discussion and put attention on the issue.

An NOI is an investigation and might or might not result in any regulation.

Clyburn said she was not sure the FCC was the best place to solve the issues raised by independent and diverse programmers, but said it was appropriate to launch and inquiry and start a conversation about the best solution.

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it was an important inquiry.

"[W]hat we see on the screen says so much about who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a Nation," she said. "In this season of #OscarsSoWhite and female directors so few, starting a conversation about programming diversity and independent voices might be hard — but it is the right thing to do.  Kudos to my colleague Commissioner Clyburn for encouraging us to get this discussion started."

Republican commissioner Ajit Pai said when he grew up there were few people who looked like him (a United States-born son of immigrants from India), most notably Haji from the cartoon series Jonny Quest. He said today, things are different, which shaped his view on the item.  He cited Netflix's Master of None, a series starring and created by comedian Aziz Ansari, about the American-born son of Indian immigrants.

He said there is already a wealth of content available at the push of a button, but did say there "still may be some challenges in the brave new world of video."

He said that included the fact that, as the NOI said, "[s]ome independent programmers have expressed concern that certain carriage practices of cable operators and other [multichannel video programming distributors] may limit their ability to reach viewers."

Pai said he had heard those concerns in his own meetings with programmers, and was glad stakeholders would have a chance to weigh in.

Republican FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he feared the NOI was the beginning of a regulatory push, but said he could concur with the item after edits that tempered some of the language that made it seem so.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said it was a simple item that went hand to hand with the set-top box proposal also being considered at the meeting.

"The FCC has shown tremendous leadership with today's vote for the Notice Of Inquiry (NOI),” said Patrick Gottsch, founder and president of RFD-TV.  “Independent programmers are under attack, and are now experiencing a tremendous disadvantage to gain and even maintain carriage in this deteriorating marketplace. The NOI will give all independent programmers and consumers the opportunity to share their frustration and experiences in a public forum. RFD-TV looks forward to participating in every way possible".

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.