Set-Top Diversity Debate Rages On

The diversity debate over FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's set-top box 'unlocking" proposal continued to heat up with the latest volley coming from supporters of the proposal.

In a letter to the FCC commissioners Thursday, a group of diverse programmers asked the commission to reject calls to delay the proceeding to study its impact on program diversity.

Signing on to the letter were Broderick Byers, CEO, iSwop Networks; Stephen Davis, CEO, New England Broadband; Eric Easter, Chair, National Black Programming Consortium; Clifford Franklin, CEO, GFNTV, and Robert Townsend, principal of The Townsend Group.

"The organizations requesting this study and delay have had over 20 years to make a case that a competitive set top box system harms minorities," they wrote. "In these 20 years, these organizations have not made a credible case in this regard. To the contrary, diverse programmers and cable networks have repeatedly made a compelling case that the current system of little to no minority ownership and programming is abhorrent and deserving of a solution such as that proposed in the NPRM."

Rather than delay, they urged the FCC to ignore the letter and move ASAP, saying "communities of color" significantly overpay for set-top boxes.

On March 21, the National Urban League joined with the National Action Network (Al Sharpton), Rainbow/PUSH (Jesse Jackson) and others to ask the FCC to push pause until the FCC conducts an impact study. On March 22, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said she had asked the Congressional Research Service to conduct such a study and suggested the FCC might want to push pause as well. Wheeler said he would work with the commission on those issues, but has signaled he thinks opening up cable box info to third parties will provide a boost to diverse programmers looking to get noticed and did not agree to a delay.

Depending on whom you ask, the set-top box proposal could threaten the business models of diverse cable programmers by allowing third parties to position their content without permission and potentially monetize it without giving them a share, or it provides over-the-top content providers a platform to get noticed and better monetize their content, or, arguably it could do a little of both.

The FCC is collecting comment on the proposal, and likely won't be ready to vote on it until late spring at the earliest. Wheeler said last week that these issues are just the sort he expected to be raised by the proposal.

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.