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On February 18, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a new rule requiring cable and satellite providers to disaggregate their content from the set top boxes they provide customers.  Nicknamed, “Unlock the Box,” the rule mirrors many key provisions from the FCC’s failed “AllVid” effort.  In effect, it would allow Silicon Valley companies to develop new set top boxes, and obtain content from pay tv providers without having to negotiate licensing and royalty fees with the content creators and programmers whose content is being used. Some see this move as a boon for consumers who would have greater choice in determining what kind of box they use to access their television programming.  For others, this rule signals a money grab by large tech companies interested in monetizing content without having to pay for it.

Roland Martin, anchor of NewsOne Now, hosted a segment on the #UnlockTheBox debate in an effort to unpack the potential affect of this rule on minority content creators and programmers.  Alfred Liggins, CEO of RadioOne/TVOne Inc. and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke were his guests.

When asked to explain the debate, Liggins said, “The market is already very competitive; you can get a Roku Box, you can get a TiVO box. This particular proposal is actually, for the most part, championed by Google — At the heart of what they want to do is compel cable and satellite providers to take our content – NewsOne Now, NAACP Image Awards, and anything else that the cable companies have contracted for, and give the stream to these Silicon Valley providers so they can actually create an interface on which they can create search algorithms to collect data and sell advertising around it.  And that, ultimately, in our view is copyright theft.”

Martin asked Liggins if the new set top box still requires a pay tv subscription of some sort. Liggins confirmed that even if people purchase the third-party set top boxes they still have to pay for their cable service if they want that bundled content offering.

In promoting its rule, the FCC has made much of the fact that on average, people pay $231 annually in set top box rental fees.  But for Liggins and opponents of the new FCC proposal, the future of television is apps, not set top boxes. “No one wants the cable guy coming to their house anymore,” he said.  Instead, he supports apps-based content models that allow people to access the content of their choice from the device of their choosing, whether that’s their tv, laptop, tablet, or smartphone device. It’s an approach Liggins and others already say is in the works as exemplified by stand alone streaming services offered by Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, ESPN, ABC, CBS, KweliTV and thousands of others.

“Everything that’s good for Silicon Valley is actually not good for the rest of us,” Liggins declared, noting the dismal state of affairs for the music industry following Big Tech’s disruption. In music, just as with newspapers, Silicon Valley innovation absent appropriate government oversight has upended these industries, which as a result have lost billions and billions of dollars.

While Liggins sees this as an economic and copyright issue, Congresswoman Clarke (D-NY), who sits on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, sees it as something even deeper. “For me, clearly, this is an issue of justice, fairness, and equity….I want to see an inclusive next step that includes content providers, programmers, those who have been marginalized historically in this space….my concern is that our content providers and programmers will get lost in a sea of new offerings with no support system in place to help them move forward in this new landscape.”

 

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