Unlocking Opportunities for Video Programmers of Color

The Oscars' failure to recognize Black and Latino talent proves, once again, a troubling fact we know all too well: People of color face persistent challenges in convincing industry gatekeepers to produce, distribute and recognize their work.
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By Michael Scurato, Vice President of Policy at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Joseph Torres, Senior External Affairs Director at Free Press

The Oscars' failure to recognize Black and Latino talent proves, once again, a troubling fact we know all too well: People of color face persistent challenges in convincing industry gatekeepers to produce, distribute and recognize their work.

This is why finding new ways to make diverse content available to a greater number of people is essential to ensuring that communities of color are heard and able to tell their own stories, in their own voices, without first seeking permission of any middle man.

At its Feb. 18 meeting, the Federal Communications Commission launched a proceeding to consider new rules that would allow third-party set-top boxes to securely access and display our cable programming -- unlocking our cable boxes from the clutches of our cable providers. This could help create a more vibrant media system that would better serve communities of color -- and give diverse content creators a better shot at connecting with their audiences.

During the Net Neutrality battle, we fought for a free and open Internet because it allows users to find content that resonates with them. Now imagine a world where that kind of choice is more easily available to everyone watching or streaming pay-TV or online video programming in their living rooms.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to "unlock the box" would create greater opportunities for the talent and experiences of programmers of color to become more visible to larger audiences. It would allow consumers to vote with their feet and their wallets to select the device, software and content they prefer.

The FCC proposal would pave the way for manufacturers and software developers to innovate, creating affordable set-top boxes or other devices that seamlessly integrate our cable-TV lineup alongside online streaming-video programming -- and making it easier to navigate across all of the services we love.

Further, it would offer consumers some relief from the control our cable providers have over the boxes we use to access the programming we purchase. Cable monopolies that exist in communities across the country have created a nation of perpetual renters -- 99 percent of pay-TV customers have little choice but to pay each month for cable boxes they will never own, with programming controlled and prioritized by their cable or satellite provider. These ever-escalating fees amount to hundreds of extra dollars on top of the average household's cable bills each year.

Set-top boxes that integrate cable programming and streaming services would also make it easier for Black and Latino media makers to distribute their own work directly to households across the country. It 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 status quo hasn't worked for diverse programmers. For years, many groundbreaking and innovative content creators have tried to convince the cable industry to carry their networks. But it's been a nearly impossible task.

This was true for Stephen Davis, who founded the Black Education Network 20 years ago. The network produced TV programming for the Black community on such issues as education, health, culture and politics. But the network was unable to overcome an "insurmountable barrier": Most large cable systems refused to carry it.

"Had the proposed set-top box rules been in place in 2001, we would have had a much better chance at success," Davis stated in a recent letter to the FCC. "We would have had access to millions of viewers, an ability to charge for content, and the opportunity to compete as equals in the video programming marketplace."

Robert L. Johnson, the founder and former owner of BET, now owns video-streaming services. In a recent Op-Ed he said the FCC proposal would increase diversity in the distribution of media content.

"If you have a good program idea, some financing and access to the Internet, you can find your audience," he wrote. "But your audience can find you only if they have a modem or a set-top box or software that lets them know you are there and gives them access to your programs unconstrained by the network gatekeeper."

This is why the cable industry is doing everything it can to block the FCC from moving forward with rules that would increase competition in the set-top box and video marketplaces.

In the weeks preceding the FCC's Feb. 18 announcement, the cable companies and their allies scrambled to tell us why more competition, more innovation and more programming would be bad for communities of color.

But pay-TV subscribers deserve more for the nearly $20 billion a year that the industry pockets from cable-box rentals. They deserve choice and a vibrant marketplace.

And this means being able to watch the shows that speak to their lives and their interests.

It means being able to tell their own stories.

That's why it's time to unlock the cable box once and for all.

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