A long time advocate of greater diversity and inclusion for people of color and members of underrepresented communities, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY) today launched a congressional Multicultural Media Caucus to evaluate and address the issues facing small, diverse, and independent multicultural media.
According to Clarke, the Caucus will “explore potential policy solutions, and stem the marginalization of small and independent media in the public discourse; seek fairness and recognition in the role of [multicultural media] in representing our nation and its diversity in the 21st century, and the right to exist, to grow, and to thrive in an evolving media landscape that is unfolding before us.” She was joined in today’s launch by Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Alfred Liggins (Chairman & CEO, TV One), Debra Lee (Chairwoman & CEO, BET), Victor Cerda (Senior VP, Vme TV), Judy Lopez (Senior VP,FUSE Media), and Londell McMillan (Entertainment Attorney & Owner, The NorthStar Group).
The coalition of voices assembled today not only celebrated the new Caucus, but also took aim at a pressing issue facing minority content creators and distributors – the Federal Communications Commissions’ proposed new set top box rule. Supporters of the FCC’s #UnlocktheBox effort say it will save consumers from annual set top box rental fees, although the costs of alternative boxes have yet to be revealed. Nonetheless, the focus of many diverse stakeholders – programmers, content creators, distributors – has been on the impact of the FCC’s rule on minority voices.
“Let me be clear that I am neither against competition or innovation, nor am I siding with any particular industry, be it tech or cable,” said Clarke in kicking off the event. “However, I am taking a position to protect the interests of the most vulnerable, the small and independent multimedia stakeholders and their consumers.”
Clarke continued, “many have stated that the FCC’s new proposal will, in fact, open up the marketplace so that these diverse and independent programmers can gain more visibility, especially through OTT platforms. While I understand the optimism, I’m not convinced. At least, not for right now.”
“As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus’ CBC Tech 2020 initiative,” she said, “we’re finding just how long the road to diversity, inclusion, and equity actually is. There is no current guarantee that Silicon Valley will do a better job at prioritizing diverse and inclusive programming based on what they have demonstrated so far.”
Congressman Butterfield, who agreed that content diversity is a must, emphasized the importance of creating and protecting opportunities “to bring more independent voices into station ownership.” Citing concerns that the FCC’s proposed rule “will erase the progress that we’ve seen in recent years in offering more diverse programming,” he said that a balance needs to be struck between technological change and consumer expectations. He also noted the importance of “not pitting the few diverse programmers out there against each other, or allowing some to pick winners and losers.”
Liggins, who heads one of the most successful African-American owned media houses in the nation established a firm business case for how the Commission’s rule detrimentally impacts multicultural and independent voices. “We’re in a position where we’re on the second rung of the advertising mediums that advertisers choose to go to – they go to general market content providers first – so minority providers get the second bite of the apple.”
“To the extent that a proposal like the one the FCC has put forth allows a technology company to access our content and sell additional ads around it – and they’ll sell those ads at a much lower cost than we will, they’ll have paid no money to create that content, and they’ll sell it to the same advertisers that we use to fuel our businesses – that’s going to degrade the value of that content over time,” Liggins said. He further remarked that, “we’re happy to offer up our content to any technology company that would like it if they want to purchase it. Google actually has a fiber service – they don’t carry TV One today. We believe that they should negotiate in good faith for those third party rights.”
The chorus of voices assembled at today’s event were focused primarily on staking a claim for diversity in programming, ownership, and opportunity in a rapidly changing media landscape. Unanimously they asked the FCC to press pause on its current set top box rulemaking to conduct, and listen to forthcoming, impact studies about how this rule will either benefit or harm small, diverse, and independent voices.
Along those lines, Lee, who recently celebrated her 30th anniversary with BET, echoed Liggins’ remarks. “BET now spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to create high quality, award-winning TV programming,” she said, “and we can only continue to do that because of the revenue we derive from advertising, licensing fees, and the ability to control how and where our channels are distributed.”
“If the FCC rule permits companies to replace, alter, undercut, or otherwise devalue BET advertising, we can’t do our jobs,” she continued. “We can’t provide the content that our audiences want and deserve. If the FCC rule takes away our ability to control the distribution of our content, competitors to cable will get BET programming for free…It’s really that simple, and yet, the FCC has not conducted its own study of the potential impact of this proposed rule on diverse programmers.”
Cerda’s view was that the FCC rule unfairly manipulates an already tough market. “Vme is not opposed to a debate or dialogue about the set top box. We all deal with them as consumers…but what we do take exception with at Vme is the utilization of an FCC mechanism to benefit other companies – non-minority, not independent companies – that have a larger footprint than I could ever wish for. To take advantage of that issue, to reach into our businesses, and affect the very delicate business model that we have.”
Cerda even issued a bit of a rhetorical challenge to the FCC and its latest mantra around the set top proceeding, “Why don’t they just take the time to evaluate? Instead of sound bites, let’s focus on what’s actually going to happen once this regulation is unleashed on us. Instead of the sound bite ‘unlock the box,’ I say ‘unleash the advertising’ on me and all these other independent programmers.”
Lopez agreed with Cerda’s view and met the passion of her colleagues in today’s event, “of course we’re up for diversity – we’re a diverse network and we want to see more diverse faces on the channel….We respect the fact that there’s an ability to bring different technologies, but we want it done in a way that’s not going to hinder us or provide us with a weakened position.” Beyond citing concerns with piracy and how this rule would address that issue, Lopez echoed the sentiment, common among today’s group, that “we have problems with a third party extracting value from our programming without entering into a direct relationship with us.
The comment period for this proceeding closes on May 23, 2016. The Government Accountability Office has already begun the process of studying this issue, but the FCC has not indicated any intention of pumping its breaks. To that, Congresswoman Clarke asks, “what’s the rush?”