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Wheeler: MVPDs 'Constrict' Diverse Programming Opportunities

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says that MVPDs are using set-tops as a way to limit program carriage and "constrict" opportunities for minority programmers.

That came in a letter from Wheeler in response to calls from Capitol Hill—Democrat and Republican—that he pause his set-top proceeding until the completion of studies on the impact of the proposal on diverse and independent programming.

Wheeler and the other Democrats voted to propose requiring MVPDs to make their programming and data streams available to third-party apps and navigation devices. Established minority programmers fear that could threaten their business model if those third parties can re-monetize the content without compensating them. Over-the-top minority programmers see the proposal as new platform for them to get noticed alongside more established nets.

In a series of letters to the more than four dozen legislators who wrote to the chairman asking him to suspend any action until independent, peer-reviewed studies could be completed, Wheeler signaled he thought the issue was already getting a full vetting and it was time to take action, in part to boost minority programming opportunities given what he suggested was ISPs' failure to do so.

Wheeler told them that the notice and comment process will have been the "most complete and thorough examination of this issue ever undertaken or contemplated," including over 104,000 comments filed at the FCC at the time (the letter was dated May 23)—now over 176,000 as the FCC works through a backlog. Those, he said, already include both "theoretical" economic studies and "real-life experiences."

And while the formal comment period ended May 23, Wheeler pointed out it will continue to accept comments.

As to those real-life experiences, Wheeler said the record was "replete" with comments from minority programmers "locked out of carriage on traditional cable networks."

BET CEO Debra Lee is one of those who fear the set-top proposal would be tantamount to giving away her content. Wheeler said nothing in the proposal would do that, and if they or Lee had specific language to suggest to make that clearer, he was all ears.

As to allegations that copyright protections would be subverted, again he said that was not the case, and that if there was any additional language needed he wanted to see it.

Wheeler, to buttress his argument that MVPDs were not providing a diverse platform, said that there are only two Hispanic-owned and four African American-owned networks; pointed to the fact that while ESPN is paid over $7 per month per sub, minority channels receive pennies, and said minority channels are often on separate tiers, which limits audience reach and ad prices.

Wheeler also echoed complaints about high box rental prices, lack of competition, and lack of choice.

Saying it was for the sake of "locked out" minority programmers, Wheeler told them: "We must move forward."

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.