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Set-Top Proposal Backers Slam Cable 'Monopolists'

Minority programmers backing the FCC's set-top proposal were passionate about the need to "unlock the box," which they suggested was being held shut by cable monopolists who had enlisted the handful of minority programmers with shelf space, and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), to fight the FCC initiative.

That was the message from programmers assembled on a press call Thursday by set-top box proposal fan Public Knowledge. On the call were Peggy Dodson, president of Urban Broadcasting Company, Eric Easter, chairman of the National Black Programming Consortium, and Clifford Franklin, CEO of GFNTV.

The FCC has proposed requiring MVPDs to make their set-top content and data available to third party navigation devices and apps so it could be aggregated and searchable along with online content. Minority programmers BET and TV One say that threatens their business model, while programmers on the press call said it would give them one to expand original diverse content by thousands of hours by giving it a platform.

Passions ran high and no punches were pulled as the programmers talked of the need to get their diverse, particularly online, content into the marketplace.

Franklin said he was disappointed in the CBC's stance, saying it was representing large companies who could get them "tables and tickets" and that it was "shameful" that they were representing only one side of the story.

Dodson agreed, saying she was not happy that the CBC was being brought into the fight. She called it "really unconscionable," saying she was "appalled."

But both said it was a case of larger interests setting minority programmers against minority programmers. They recognized that TV One, for example, was understandably fighting for the small piece of pie it had been conceded, but that the pie needed to be a lot bigger and that the set-top proposal could achieve that.

It was something of a morning rush hour in D.C. on the FCC set-top issue Thursday, with at least three events, the Public Knowledge press conference, which followed a press conference by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) criticizing the proposal and asking the FCC to hit pause, and a third event, a panel session and box lunch sponsored by the Creative Rights Caucus, again raising concerns about the impact (and featuring a couple of the same folks that attended the Clarke event).

Then there was the letter from pro-set-top box proposal minority programmers to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the CBC, who joined Clarke in seeking the set-top pause, asking him instead to support the proposal.

Franklin said complaints that third party edge providers were hardly models of diversity missed the point that nobody, tech or cable, had a good track record.

He said the cable monopoly needed disrupting, suggesting that the current mainstream minority channels with distribution—TV One, BET—were mostly reruns and with images of buffoonery and thuggery, while thousands of original hours of diverse programming were not getting a platform. He said they were not out to run TV One out of business. He did not go as far with BET, pointing out it was owned by Viacom and thus not African American-owned.

Asked why not wait until the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service have completed impact studies of the set-top proposal, as the Democratic leadership of the CBC called for Thursday, Franklin quoted Dr. Martin Luther King about the "fierce urgency of now," saying it was important that the FCC act.

Easter said it was "slightly hypocritical" to ask for a delay, calling it an odd argument to say "everything is fine. We'll see how the app stuff works out, some people will shake out and we'll see what happens, but, on opening up more competition: 'Let's study it and find out what the GAO thinks might happen. Why not just make the free market completely free,” he said.  

Another suggestion was that some of the concerns raised about the proposal could be dealt with in the FCC notice of proposed rulemaking, through comments and reply comments, rather than delaying it, given the congressional mandate to create competitive navigation devices.