A New Threat to Diversity on TV

For most Americans, television is in a new “golden age.”

We have more diverse choices — and a richer menu of sports, news, education and entertainment available than ever. There’s more direct streaming from the likes of HBO and Netflix, more services like Apple TV and Amazon Fire, and more innovative devices from Roku boxes to wall-size smart TVs with cross-platform search.

We are in the midst of a revolution — one that is allowing television and video to serve the multicultural world that is the America we celebrate. And it has birthed new and diverse voices like my network, Crossings TV, which offers hyper-local programming in six different languages in markets throughout the United States, serving communities that are too often shut out or overlooked.

Yet worrisome new federal regulations proposed by Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, with the support of large technology companies such as Google, have thrown a dark cloud over this revolution — one that could deprive many communities of the tailored, in-language program options we have worked so hard to provide.

Big Tech ‘Poachers’

Under the FCC’s proposed new rules (known commonly as “AllVid” after an earlier industry lobbying eff ort the Obama administration rejected in 2010), big technology companies such as Google would be given the right to poach the program license deals we negotiate with pay TV providers like DirecTV or Time Warner Cable without being bound to the underlying license terms that help fund our networks and ensure they get enough exposure to thrive.

The FCC chairman says the rule is intended to create competition for set-top box devices. He argues that exempting these companies from the obligation to negotiate for rights will enable them to focus on developing new boxes to repackage your existing programming and place it alongside the more underfunded Internet video in a single “cross -platform” search.

It’s an odd argument on behalf of competition — asking the federal government to subsidize the most wealthy companies so that they can bring more search and advertising services into our living rooms and require yet another in-home box.

Leaving aside that the rationale for this giveaway to Big Tech is totally undermined by the fact that smart TVs and other home gateways already provide cross-platform search, there is an even more compelling reason to oppose the AllVid mandate: It will likely bring us less diversity, not more, in television’s golden age.

Today, small and niche networks like mine can negotiate for channel placement they think will help them be seen by their target audience and can cross-promote with other networks to gain exposure from potential fans.

Crossings TV has grown because it has been able to create meaningful local programming in partnership with locally based multichannel distributors — builders of infrastructure and creators of jobs who are physically on the ground in the communities we serve.

But the Wheeler “AllVid” rule directly attacks that crucial system and allows tech firms to disregard negotiated terms such as channel placement, digital rights and much else.

At the Box’s Mercy

Further, the cross-search function leaves our channels all at the mercy of the new box’s often-mysterious algorithms — notorious for burying disfavored and smaller companies in its ash heap. The dedicated viewers who value networks like Crossings TV have no currency with Google, its fellow Silicon Valley technology inhabitants or profit-maximizing cross-platform search algorithms. Certainly many have observed that the Google workforce looks nothing like the diverse communities it purports to serve. For programmers like Crossings, these giant new boxes could mean a one way ticket to the back of the bus.

While working to create an African-American focused search browser through Blackbirdhome.com, I saw this problem up close when the Google search algorithm consistently buried African-American-generated content on the lowest rung of search results. Extrapolating that experience to a world of television that is subservient to a Google universal search master box promises a continued outlier existence for African- Americans and Asians, as well as other minorities.

AllVid will further strip-mine our value and harm viewers by serving up new banner ads (for which creators will get no compensation), ignoring privacy protections for your personal television viewing habits, and driving up bills with the massive re-engineering needed to accommodate these privileged devices.

The FCC should step back. Promoting competition is a goal we all share, but the government putting a thumb on the scale in favor of technology giants so that they can sell more ads, track our viewing habits and bury diversity programming — all in the name of competition that already exists — hardly seems to be part of the progressive legacy this FCC should leave.

Frank Washington is the CEO of Crossings TV, an award-winning, small, independent provider of Asian-language programming, information and entertainment. He conceived of the Minority Ownership Tax Certificate while a consultant in President Jimmy Carter’s administration and has served as the legal assistant to former FCC chairman Charles Ferris.