By Josh Peterson, Urban News Service
It’s a spirited debate: Would minorities benefit if online video could stream through their set-top TV boxes?
Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, says yes. A range of minority advocacy groups say no. Both Mr. Johnson and people on the other side of the debate have commercial interests that align with their views.
At issue is a proposal by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to allow cable television subscribers to access their preferred online content alongside their cable content through the set-top box, which they now typically rent monthly from their cable providers.
If the proposal passes, you could go online or into a store like Best Buy and pay a single price for a single device that would offer access to your favorite cable programs — as well as a host of streaming channels (although you’d still have to pay for programming in many cases).
For cable providers like Comcast, the move could mean a possible loss of nearly $20 billion per year in rental fees to an industry already reeling from the trend of customers abandoning cable in favor of streaming devices such as Apple TV and Chromecast.
For cable customers, however, it could mean a big annual savings on set-top box rental fees, as well the ability to search and compare programming choices across more than 500 cable and streaming channels.
The proposal is strikingly similar to the debate over telephones more than 40 years ago, when consumers could rent phones only from Ma Bell – the old American Telephone and Telegraph monopoly. Proponents see freeing the set-top box as opening the door to the same kind of innovation that created cellphones.
Wheeler’s office states that a typical consumer’s set-top box rental fees amount to $231 annually, having risen 185 percent since 1994, while the cost of mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent.
Johnson, who recently launched the Urban Movie Channel, an online streaming company for diverse and African-American audiences, sees the proposal as a win — not just for minority consumers but for minority programming not carried by cable.
“I want an open forum for every minority or independent producer who wants to produce content,” he said in an interview with Urban News Service. “And I’m willing to compete with my content channels” — Urban Movie Channel or Acorn TV (which streams British programming) — “with whoever comes along and programs to get to the consumer.”
President Barack Obama and several Congressional Black Caucus members also support the proposal.
But opponents say that if cable TV providers lose the money people are paying to lease their boxes, they would have less money to pay minority channels such as BET and TV One for subscribers.
Alfred Liggins, chairman of TV One and president and CEO of Radio One, told Urban News Service in a statement that the proposal, known as “Allvid” regulations, is “nothing more than a sweetheart deal for Big Tech, letting companies like Google strip-mine the value of our work for their profit.”
“Niche and minority-focused networks like TV One could be relegated to the remote reaches of the channel guides, or buried at the bottom rung of search results — depriving audiences of diverse viewpoints and threatening the very survival of networks like ours,” said Mr. Liggins, who launched the Future of TV Coalition in opposition to the proposal.
Wheeler’s statement said the new structure would encourage minority programmers to innovate.
“When it’s easier for content creators to reach consumers, we would expect this to lead to more and better programming accessed more easily, especially minority, independent and international programming,” said the chairman’s proposal.
But major African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic-American organizations — such as the NAACP, National Action Network, National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition — doubt FCC assertions that copyright and privacy protections will remain the same under the new arrangement.
Evan Swarztrauber, communications director of the think tank TechFreedom, said minority organizations are in part worried that the tech companies poised to win in an open system are the same companies that have yet to show a commitment to diversity in hiring or content. And so minority groups have joined in common cause with cable companies.
“They’re very concerned, and that’s why they’re teaming up with the companies to oppose it,” he said.
Johnson said he understands the opposition from cable programmers.
“It’s a natural instinct,” he said. “If you’ve got a channel that targets a certain group, do you want 10 channels targeting that same group? You’d want to keep your monopoly hold over that audience.”