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How Unlocking the Box Will Benefit Minority Programming

July 19, 2016 ,

What is “Unlocking the Box?”

Imagine receiving a text from a friend on a landline phone, or take a selfie on an old disposable camera. It can be done, but you somehow feel like there should be a better technology for this. Luckily for consumers, technological innovation naturally enables solutions to consumer frustrations.

Except in the case of Cable’s ancient set-top box. Recognizing this, in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission – the expert agency tasked with promoting the public interest in the communications arena – to ensure that a competitive market exists for hardware to access pay-TV content specifically to provide more consumer choice through technological innovation and competition.

So, 20 years later, why are we still forced to rent the same antiquated set-top box from our cable companies? You should ask your current cable provider, which is likely opposed to the FCC’s Unlock the Box proposal to open up the device marketplace. Cable companies are raking in a whopping $20B a year by leveraging their gatekeeper status to charge consumers a monthly rental fee. It costs an average household $231 per year to rent dated, limited-use boxes for their home – boxes that limit consumers’ access and choice to the programming for which they are paying.

The idea is simple: consumers should be allowed to choose which device they want to use to access their content. Because of the current business model of most cable companies, consumers and content creators alike are not able to access programming distribution the way they wish to. And because cable companies currently enjoy the control of the experience while profiting from the deficiencies in the system, they want to keep it that way.

What Does this Mean for Minority Programming?

Unfortunately, Big Cable is making this simple idea unnecessarily complicated. You may have heard about the long list of benefits to unlocking the box. One of the most significant is the effect this will have on minority programming.

For years, Big Cable has been in a position to filter which content reaches which audiences, particularly in the case of minority programming. Studies show that in current cable and satellite markets, minority and diverse voices are underrepresented more than 2 to 1 among lead roles in cable, nearly 5 to 1 among creators of cable shows, and greater than 4 to 1 among writers credited for cable scripted shows. Robert L. Johnson, founder of BET, wrote that “the universal set-top box[…]opens up the unfettered opportunity for hundreds of minority programming aspirants,” something that just isn’t available to minority programmers in today’s marketplace. The FCC’s proposal removes the power from multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to decide who gets access and exposure to online distribution, allowing people of color to create and enjoy relevant content on the device of their choice.

Big Cable, in its usual fashion, wants diverse and independent programmers to think that this proposal is harmful to them. That couldn’t be further from the truth: opening up the video marketplace to third parties removes Big Cable from their power-position and grants more access to distribution for minority and independent programmers. With an open technology standard, third-party device makers can integrate all services onto one platform, allowing for minority programming (both contracted and provided by cable companies and not) to exist in one space. Unlocking set-top boxes could create consumer-friendly mechanisms, such as integrated search, which gives consumers the ability to search content across all providers. Integrated search allows disadvantaged content creators to land on the same playing field as those who have access to lucrative contracts with providers. Cable’s argument just doesn’t add up. How would more access to consumers be harmful for minority and independent programmers?

Communities of color are thirsty for content in the mainstream media that resonates with them. Just as in the net neutrality debate, communities of color and their advocates are fighting for more consumer choice and access. Two of those advocates, Joe Torres and Michael Scurato, put it this way in a Huffington Post Op-Ed: “[The proposal] would give communities of color — who stream video for a significant portion of their TV-viewing time — the ability to find culturally relevant programming without having to depend on gatekeepers to determine what they should watch.”

The Commission’s proposal will loosen MVPDs’ grip on innovation and encourages minority content makers, small and independent companies, new entrants, and existing developers to market their apps and devices nationwide instead of cutting exclusive, limited deals. A new technology standard could allow consumers to access their cable network, pay-TV, and over-the-top content all in one place. More importantly, the proposal will allow minority programmers to tell their own stories to whomever chooses to access it, regardless of whether Big Cable wants to carry it. It’s time to let the FCC free the chained consumer choice. The future of TV depends on it. 

Image: Bob Johnson speaking at an Unlock the Box press conference hosted by Public Knowledge