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Hollywood Pans Set-Top Proposal

Washington — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler has said his set-top box “unlocking” proposal will help, not hurt, content providers, but it would be hard to glean that from many of the comments filed with the FCC last week ahead of the April 22 deadline for the first round of input on the controversial plan.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Michael Powell signaled programmers, some of whom are also members of NCTA, were “apoplectic” over the prospect of having their content disaggregated and repackaged for use on third-party navigation devices — and potentially remonetized with no guarantee of copyright protections. He wasn’t overstating the case.

“We reject the FCC’s effort to relegate our work to the back of the digital bus,” a group of diverse content creators calling itself Creators of Color said in a letter to the FCC.


Another group, comprising the Motion Picture Association of America and the major studios, joined by the Independent Film & TV Alliance, recording industry associations, SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild and others, said they would be filing comments after press time last Friday, but signaled in advance they were not happy. Their concerns include the lack of guarantees of copyright protections and its potential harmful impact on creators.

The Writers Guild of America, West, by contrast, supports the proposal. “For independent content creators, this translates into a great opportunity to reach our potential audiences because it will allow viewers to access the content of their choice — digital or traditional — from a single device that they own,” the union said.

The set-top issue has been heating up, and got red-hot last week with threats of lawsuits by cable operators should the FCC majority — the Republican commissioners are opposed to the proposal — approve the item

Wheeler’s promises that copyright laws will protect content providers is cold comfort, given that those providers view the proposal as a potential new and broader license to make money off their content without paying, with the content providers required to pursue court remedies for copyright violations, which can be a long and expensive process.

In its joint letter to the FCC last week, Creators of Color — which the MPAA coalition cited in its filing as well — said in no uncertain terms that the proposal threatened gains the group’s members had made to diversify the screen. Their letter, headlined “Don’t Whitewash Our TV,” was signed by minority actors and executives such as Elrick Williams, CEO of The Africa Channel, and Holly Carter, CEO of Releve Entertainment.

The group said “the forces of reaction and backsliding are fierce,” and the FCC’s “flawed” proposal was among those: “It would be a license for Silicon Valley tech giants to exploit our work for their own profit, without paying us for rights and diverting revenue away from the production of quality shows. And it would unleash a torrent of new video piracy, making it even harder for creators to earn a living off their work,” they argued.

Some diverse programmers — BET founder Robert L. Johnson, most notably — have argued that the set-top proposal benefits diverse, independent voices by giving them more prominence alongside traditional content in the new gateway navigation devices or apps the FCC envisions.

Creators of Color disagrees. The group said the public already knows how to find Web videos, but those platforms still lack the “economic and cultural” power of the traditional networks the group argues the set-top plan would “destroy.”

Actress and producer Eva Longoria, who Creators of Color cited in its letter, also weighed in at the FCC independently, saying the proposal was “stacking the deck against creators.”


In response to the incoming comments, FCC press secretary Kim Hart countered that the proposal (1) would not interfere with MVPDs’ business relationships with content providers; (2) does not favor one company, but instead favors consumer choice; (3) “enables those programmers who have been locked out of the cable and satellite systems to reach consumers in the same place they already watch traditional TV programming”; (4) maintains consumer protections; and (5) “has no effect on the existing carriage agreements between programmers and MVPDs or existing advertising agreements that programmers, advertisers and MVPDs have.”